It is often said that ‘love conquers all’1 however Bronte in ‘Wuthering Heights’ demonstrates that this is not the case. The inability of the protagonists to understand and deal with the constraints that society places on their love, brings about their own demise. The imprisoning, oppressive and at times intoxicating love that exists between Heathcliff and Catherine leads to their downfall. And In the jealousy that Heathcliff feels towards Edgar and Catherine’s relationship we are shown the irrationality to which love can give rise, and the fatal consequences of such a possessive relationship. Bronte questions the stereotypical presentation of love being an indomitable force, as she shows how the constraints put by society on love drives the characters to commit inhumane and immoral acts, which brings into question the very existence of love. In order to answer this question it is important to understand what we mean by love. The answer to this remains elusive in most parts because arguably love is not just one thing. Ancient Greek philosophers however have traditionally distinguished three notions of love: Eros, Agape and Philia. Eros as Nygren describes it is the ‘love of desire’2 traditionally Eros is love in terms of passionate desire, more commonly known as sexual passion. Whereas Agape is a form of selfless love that one person has for another without sexual implications, it is a love that is more of a spiritual in nature for example the love one feels towards God, it is a type of love that is ‘spontaneous and unmotivated’3. Finally Philia which is a dispassionate, affectionate and virtuous love, Philia can include love for one’s family, country or community. Bronte in Wuthering Heights explores all three notions, however arguably she does focus more on the aspects of Agape.
Imprisonment is a key theme throughout the novel and Bronte uses Catherine’s character to represent this. This idea of imprisonment is first presented when Lockwood discovers ‘The Ledge…covered with writing’ where Catherine has repeatedly written her name ‘in all kinds of characters Catherine Earnshaw…Catherine Heathcliff….Catherine Linton.’ The different choices of surnames represent the confusion she is feeling and the fact that she chooses to write it on a window ‘ledge’ perhaps suggests that she wanted to escape from her choices as she feels imprisoned by her own mind. This idea of imprisonment is confirmed when Catherine’s ghost appears to Lockwood not in the form of an adult but as ‘a child’, suggesting everything emotionally important that has ever happened in her life either took place in her childhood or follows directly from commitments made then. She never essentially outgrew her solidarity against what she feels are the oppressive forces of adulthood, hence the ghost of Catherine Linton tries to return to her childhood sanctuary. This idea of imprisonment is perhaps presented by Bronte to comment on the need for women of the time to conform. Catherine’s choice in the novel is perhaps not her choice at all but what was dictated to her by society. This need to conform is explored by Fromm, he suggests that people feel the need to conform because ‘if I conform in custom, dress, ideas, to the pattern of the group, I am saved: saved from the frightening experience of aloneness’4 Therefore according to Fromm the unions that tend to last are the ‘union based on conformity with the group and its customs’. However Bronte seems to disagree with this, she uses Catherine’s choice to show that in Catherine internalising her oppression she ended up demeaning and devaluing her love. Hence Bronte argues that the reason Catherine was not at peace with her choice is because by conforming society’s expectations and choosing to deny her true feelings for Heathcliff she commits herself to a life of denial and oppression.
Bronte expresses the idea of love being a transitory force by using Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship to