Wuthering Heights – A New Blend of the Gothic and the Domestic

Kaya Scodelario as Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights movie, adapted from Emily Bronte's novel

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece of English literature that challenges the norms of Victorian novels. Published in 1847, the novel weaves elements of romance, family rivalry, revenge, and cruelty into its narrative, set against the backdrop of the English countryside. The story is set in the wild moors of Yorkshire, and Bronte’s powerful exploration of the human psyche blurs the lines between love and hate, life and death, leaving the characters torn apart by their own passions and desires.

Spanning two generations of the Earnshaw and Linton families, the novel explores the themes of revenge, social class, and the destructive nature of love. The first generation focuses on the arrival of Heathcliff, a dark and mysterious child in the Earnshaw family, and the complex relationships that develop among him, Catherine, and her brother Hindley. The second generation covers the lives of their children, Catherine and Linton Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw. Through the characters’ experiences, the novel explores the dark side of human nature, the consequences of human actions, and the blurred lines between love and hate.

In this essay, I will analyze the novel’s unique combination of the gothic and domestic genres, highlighting how Bronte’s use of the gothic framework interplays with domestic realism to ultimately create a structurally continuous and thematically complex novel. I will do so while referring to the literary critic Lyn Pykett’s essay titled “Gender and Genre in Wuthering Heights: Gothic Plot and Domestic Fiction,” first published in 1989, either directly or indirectly.

Definition of Romanticism and Domestic Realism, and How Are They Depicted in the Novel

Romanticism was a literary movement born in the last few years of the 1700s and lasted till the 1930s in England. It was characterized by several factors, chief among them being a love for nature and fascination with the beauty of the natural world. It also prioritized human emotion, subjectivity, and spontaneity over scientific reason, logic, and intellect. There was a renewed interest in local folk culture, the supernatural, and some interest in occult practices. Lastly, it emphasized creativity and originality – think Wordsworth’s ideas on ‘imagination’ in The Prelude – over following a set of rules, expectations, and guidelines.

To understand the thread of romanticism that runs through Wuthering Heights, we must look at its usage of folk tales, the overwhelming presence of human passions, the depiction of a sometimes free childhood for Catherine, and the search for self-agency and independence in it, as Lyn Pyckett notes.

Kaya Scodelario as Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights movie, adapted from Emily Bronte's novel
Kaya Scodelario as Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights movie, adapted from Emily Bronte’s novel

However, Wuthering Heights is primarily a Victorian novel and reflects the spirit of the age through the elements of domestic realism it incorporates in the piece. In Victorian society, conventional beliefs regarding family, values, and duty shaped social norms and expectations. The era was characterized by a patriarchal structure, where men held authority while women were assigned the roles of nurturing mothers and homemakers. Morality and virtue were highly valued, mainly focusing on sexual purity and proper behavior. Marriage was regarded as a vital institution for social and economic reasons, and the family was seen as the foundation of society, with the responsibility of raising virtuous and well-behaved children. The Victorian era also emphasized the Protestant work ethic, hard work, discipline, and success, while social class distinctions were significant. The home was considered a sanctuary, and domesticity played a central role, with women managing the household and maintaining privacy, thus separating the private sphere from the public sphere.

Domestic realism (also known as sentimental fiction) was a literary genre that portrayed the everyday lives of ordinary people, primarily women in a domestic setting, in the 19th century. It is known for exploring the nuances of human personalities and relationships, the difficulties of domesticity, and how families interact with one another. Victorian domestic realism, in particular, highlights the social, cultural and religious views of the time and juxtaposes the role of women and their morality in a domestic setting.

Nellie narrates the story of the first generation of Wuthering Heights to Lockwood, which covers the arrival of Heathcliff, a mysterious child, into the Earnshaw family and the changes in the intra-family relationships among Catherine, Hindley, and Heathcliff. While Catherine and Heathcliff share a close relationship, Hindley and Heathcliff often are at loggerheads. This section of the novel is detailed in a “family romance” style, especially being set in the countryside, and highlights the tenets of Victorian domestic realism and values. Further, the novel focuses on social obligations within the community and examines the nature of family and familial relationships, which places it within the then-developing genre of domestic realism.

The novel is unique because it successfully combines multiple genres. Wuthering Heights explores various elements of romanticism and portrays the Victorian style of using domestic realism. It also highlights the conventional Victorian beliefs regarding family, values, and duty.

How is the Gothic Highlighted in Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights undergoes a transformation from a Victorian romance in the countryside with familial settings to a darker, gothic tone in the second half. The second generation of characters includes Linton Heathcliff, Catherine Linton, and Hareton Earnshaw, and follows the story of their lives. As Pykett points out, the second-generation story moves within a Gothic framework but still maintains elements of Victorian domestic realism (ibid).

It explores Heathcliff’s efforts to win over Catherine and his competition with Edgar Linton. When Catherine chooses Edgar, Heathcliff disappears and returns as a wealthy man, though the source of his wealth is left ambiguous. From this point on, the novel incorporates gothic elements into it. The gothic elements come to the fore when Hareton collaborates in the kidnapping of Catherine and her marriage to Linton, while Heathcliff continues with his old desire for revenge and takes over the wealth of the Linton family; Catherine is confined to Wuthering Heights and continues to suffer as a result. Nellie’s narration shows how Heathcliff executes Hindley’s downfall and mistreats his wife and son. However, the novel concludes on a positive note, emphasizing the overcoming of the hurdles posed by social norms.

In many ways, Heathcliff is the chief source of the gothic in the novel, particularly the gothic villain. As Lyn Pyckett put it, “Heathcliff’s destruction of Hindley and his brutalization of Hindley’s son Hareton, the almost parodic violence of his hanging of Isabella’s dog, and his callous treatment of his wife and son represent him as a Gothic villain, a demonic, almost otherworldly figure. This fantastic, demonic version of Heathcliff is reinforced by the melodramatic scenes surrounding Catherine’s death and in the final stages of the narrative when he appears to be communing with the spirit of the dead Catherine in preparation for removal to her sphere.” (Pykett 1989: page 3).

An Interplay Between the Gothic and the Domestic

The author cleverly combines two different types of genres – gothic and domestic – to make the narrative flow smoothly. This novel is special, notes Lyn Pykett, because it successfully mixes these different styles. As she points out, it brings together two major types of stories – one about evil taking over and another about ordinary family life. It combines elements from older Gothic novels and the newer style of Victorian stories about families, which are more realistic. Emily Brontë’s novel blends these different styles and ideas in interesting ways, sometimes putting them together and sometimes contrasting them.

The Domestic approach of the novel is evident from the beginning and is similar to other novels of that era, but even that is not typical after a point. In the opening pages, Lockwood pays a social visit to Wuthering Heights and describes in detail the interior appearance of the house; the description mentions the firearms on display and also notes the lack of saucepans and cullenders in the house, which is far removed from what is expected from the Domestic. With this and other examples in the early chapters, the expectations one might have, consciously or otherwise, are slowly upended, particularly with the appearance of Catherine’s ghost and Heathcliff’s response to her. (Pykett 1989:2).

As the narrative of the novel progresses, it does, however, present a more expected ending in line with the tropes of domestic fiction “in which the hero (Hareton) and heroine (Catherine) overcome the obstacles of an obstructive society and withdraw into a private realm of domesticity, where social, co-operative values are renewed within the bosom of the family. In this case, the pattern of closure is completed by the planned removal of Hareton and Catherine from the Heights to Thrushcross Grange”. (Pykett 1989: 3)

Structural continuity is crucial when navigating the two genres because if done poorly by neglecting one and prioritizing the other, the narrative flow will be interrupted. That is why both gothic and domestic are continuous; “the novel’s narrative structure, and particularly its dislocated chronology, tends to blur the boundaries between generations and genres. Emily Brontë’s adaptation of the conventions of the Gothic frame tale is a particularly important element in this process.” (Pykett 1989: 4). Gothic stories, before the publication of the novel, were often told to the reader indirectly through letters, diaries, and the like, which then passed through the narrator’s lens before finally reaching the narrator.

In the same vein, Wuthering Heights is told through Lockwood’s point of view, who, in turn, hears many events secondhand through Nelly. This can also be connected to the Victorian value of separating the public and private, as “…to gain access to the extraordinary stories of the families of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange the reader must thus pass through, and ultimately pass beyond, the perceptual structures of a bemused genteel male narrator who mediates between the public world he shares with his readers and the inner, private, domestic world conveyed to him by Nelly’s stories.” (Pykett 1989: 4).

One result of the Gothic and the Domestic joining in light of the female gender is that they created a domestic prison through the Gothic. Lyn Pykett argues about the same in her essay. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Gothic genre was closely associated with women writers. Feminist critics have argued that within this genre, there exists a subgenre called the Female Gothic, which portrays both fears of women and their fantasies of liberation. Female Gothic stories portray women as both courageous and enterprising while depicting their experiences as a mix of confinement and sanctuary. In Wuthering Heights, many Gothic elements can be seen as examples of Female Gothic’s exploration of women’s fears regarding the private domestic space, which can be both a refuge and a prison.

Catherine Earnshaw’s story, in particular, is a prime example of this genre. Her childhood alternates between being confined in domestic settings and freely roaming the open moors. However, as she reaches puberty, she becomes confined to Thrushcross Grange. Womanhood and her marriage to Edgar further restrict her within the refined household, and the climax of her Gothic narrative involves her imprisonment in progressively smaller spaces: the house, her room, and ultimately, her own body, which she yearns to escape, much like her desire to escape womanhood itself.

Pykett further adds that “Female Gothic explores women’s power and powerlessness, their confinement within the domestic space, their role in the family, and their regulation by marriage and property laws not of their own making and, at this point in history, beyond their power to alter.”

Summing Up

Pykett argues that Emily Bronte skillfully incorporates elements of the Gothic and Domestic in Wuthering Heights, creating a constant interplay between the two. According to Lyn, this interplay is a significant result of adopting the Gothic framework, where the Domestic serves as the foundation for the Gothic aspects. Although the novel’s conclusion highlights the theme of family and domestic happiness, the Gothic element persists through the presence of Heathcliff, whose character retains an otherworldly quality even as the domestic theme of Hareton and Catherine’s relationship concludes. Pykett further observes that Wuthering Heights represents a new type of novel emerging in Victorian fiction, blending the Domestic and Gothic genres while incorporating an additional element of romance.


Bronte, Emily. 2013 (First published in 1847). Wuthering Heights. Fingerprint! Publishing.

Pykett, Lyn. 1989. Gender and Genre in Wuthering Heights: Gothic Plot and Domestic Fiction. In: Emily Brontë. Women Writers. pp – 71-85. Palgrave London.

Smith, Andrew and Diana Wallace. 2018. The female Gothic then and now. Gothic Studies, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp 1-7.

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