Introduction: A More Clinical Approach

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hen Sterne has Tristram Shandy describe his father's project of compiling "an INSTITUTE for the government of my childhood and adolescence" (298), the eighteenth-century novelist seems to be using the word "adolescence" much as it is used these days — to refer to the period between early childhood on the one hand, and adulthood on the other. Yet the term had none of its modern resonance. As one historical psychologist explains, the concept of a "complicated period of psychic maturation" simply did not exist in the eighteenth century: "there was nothing to see then on the border between youth and maturity" (van den Burg 72). Even in the nineteenth century, when the process of physiological change was gradually being charted, the process of emotional adjustment was expected to follow it quickly and smoothly. After puberty, claims one nineteenth-century medical encyclopedia,

The girl's manners and habits ... undergo a marked change.... she is no longer wayward, romping and careless, but becomes reserved and modest in her deportment. [qtd. in Gorham 86]

Such a change never seems to have occurred in the life of Emily Brontë, who is on record as having wanted to "go out to play" with her sister Anne when she was sixteen (qtd. in Fraser 94), and who by all accounts remained tomboyish, a denizen of the wild moors rather than of polite society. In the years between twelve and nineteen, exactly the period usually described as adolescence, she is said to have "become introverted, self-divided and ill-at-ease with most other people" (Chitham 65). As for her heroine Catherine Earnshaw, when she tries to accomplish the required transition from child to woman, the effect is utterly disasterous. Not surprisingly, then, early reviewers with little conception of even the natural stresses of adolescence found Brontë's novel "wild, confused, disjointed" (qtd. in Allott 220). Yet twentieth-century research into its structure has indicated that the narrative of Wuthering Heights is open to none of these criticisms. The adjectives should be applied instead to Catherine herself, and to Heathcliff — two figures drawn with painful inwardness as the products of a particularly stressful adolescence.

The Withins on Haworth Moor, which Ellen Nussey believed to be the inspiration for the old house of Wuthering Heights.

Modern readers, alerted by generations of psychologists to the problems of maturation, would seem to be much better equipped than earlier ones to empathize both with the author and her main protagonists. After all, in the very first decade of this century G. Stanley Hall was describing adolescence as a "period of transformation so all-determining" that "it alone can often give the key" to later life (I: 589). However, like the Marxist approaches to the novel (which only transform the child protagonists into counters in an ideological struggle) the psychological approaches adopted to Wuthering Heights in the past few decades have generally been theoretical rather than empirical. They range from Thomas Moser's Freudian interpretation of both Catherine and Heathcliff as "the id ... the child that lurks within everyone ... selfish, asocial, impulsive" (4) to Sandra Gilbert's Freudian/feminist reading of Heathcliff as Catherine's "childish and desirous id" (145). Such analyses usefully expose the flow and jostle of the author's unconscious feelings beneath the surface of the text, and at the same time, take the reader far beyond the text — for, as the Freudian literary theorist Frederick J. Hoffman has pointed out, "the particularities of psychic experiences lend themselves to the act of universalizing" (329). In this respect, such analyses are not so very different from Lord David Cecil's famous "cosmic" schematizing of the novel into an opposition between the "children of storm" at the Heights and the "children of calm" at the Thrushcross Grange. Although the powerful forces proposed by the later critics are felt to operate within the psyche rather than outside it, they too seem to demonstrate that Emily Brontë's imagination "confines itself to the elemental, and presents it in a elemental way" (Cecil 164, 169).

Wuthering Heights invites such an approach precisely because its principal protagonists are fuelled by passions which more down-to-earth interpretations seem unable to account for. To see it, for example, as "a statement of a very serious kind about a girl's childhood and the adult woman's tragic yearning to return to it" (Moers 106) is both inadequate and reductive. Is there no (intelligible) statement here about male experience? Surely, the older Catherine's desperate cry, "I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free" (163), is only half the story. Besides, the energy coursing through the fraught period between Catherine and Heathcliff's childhood and adulthood is at least as important as the drive to restore an earlier, less fraught state. The problem here is that, apart from some discussions of Catherine's anorexia, adolescence has still been allowed to drop out of sight, just as it was in Victorian times. Surprisingly, even Patricia Meyer Spacks's rich compendium, The Adolescent Idea: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination, which draws so usefully on the findings of Erikson and other twentieth-century developmental psychologists, makes only the briefest of references to Wuthering Heights, simply noting that (rather than explaining why) "Catherine and Heathcliff mistreat the gentler folk who surround them" (204). Thus, very little attention is paid, even in a critical book to which the novel is so thoroughly relevant, to how true these two young characters' responses are to their particular situations as they grow up.

Yet Arnold Kettle was much impressed by the accuracy and detail of the novel's social dimension, seeing it as "a vision of what life in 1847 was like" (141); and Cecil himself noted both that "[d]uring a great part of Wuthering Heights, the characters are children: and very realistically-drawn children," and (more significantly) that their later "deeds and passions" spring from thwarted impulses (see 178, 154). The nature and source of these impulses, their thwarting during the difficult adolescent years, and their outcomes, are all thoroughly explored by Emily Brontë. As the authors of a rather more recent study of "Anger, Worry, and Hurt in Early Adolescence" have pointed out, "Here we think that novelists and writers have more accurately described adolescence than have social scientists" (Larson and Asmussen 38). Nothing, therefore, can substitute for a close reading of the novel. However, not only Freud and later specialists in the area of psychological maturation, such as Erikson, but also the controlled, statistically-supported studies of a new breed of social scientists like those just quoted above, can help the reader recognize and appreciate the author's insights, and reach a deeper understanding of both Catherine and Heathcliff's behaviour.

One may perhaps question the validity of approaching a literary work in this way — in particular, of bringing the findings of contemporary fieldworkers to bear on fictional youth of a nineteenth-century novel (set, moreover, several decades earlier). Does it not rather naïvely presume two things: first, a quality of lived experience in imaginary figures' pasts; and secondly, even if that objection is overcome, a fundamental similarity between the problems of growing up in two entirely different eras? As to the former, Emily Brontë herself went to extraordinary lengths to draw her readers into her main protagonists' lives, both by the elaborate layering of her narrative, and by providing their life-experiences with the scaffolding of a very detailed chronology. There is every reason to suppose that the task of convincing the reader is also tackled through the amount of detail about their earlier years. Here, changes in the social fabric may sometimes obscure the author's success. For example, it is probably harder now to enter into the feelings of such a very young street arab as Heathcliff is, when Mr Earnshaw first picks him up like flotsam from the streets of Liverpool. Yet the only real barrier to understanding is likely to be a deeper one — one which actually presupposes the essential identity of human nature. Freud, for example, suggests that generations of spectators got caught up in the Oedipal drama of Hamlet without having been able to understand it rationally, not because of any superficial changes in human experience over the years, but, on the contrary, because these spectators had identified all too closely with the hero. They too, claims Freud, were "in the grip of emotions instead of taking stock of what is happening." The spectators, he maintains, resisted understanding the play because of the "repressed material" in their own unconscious minds. "[T]he conflict in Hamlet is so effectively concealed that it was left to me to unearth it," concludes Freud with a flourish. And it must be conceded that the Oedipal reading is now a commonplace of Shakespearean criticism ("Psychopathic Stage Characters" 126).

A more clinical approach, then, would seem to be a useful critical tool, drawing to the surface and exploring those problems which are not discussed explicitly in a literary work. This is something different from old-fashioned character-analysis based on the notion of a stable self, yet it has the virtue of focusing on the characters, who, after all, are the agents of both the author and the action.

Created 8 December 2017