“To Save the Life of the Novel” Sadomasochism and Representation in “Wuthering Heights” – Robin DeRosa

The article “To Save the Life of the Novel” Sadomasochism and Representation in “Wuthering Heights”  by Robin DeRosa, is attempting to set up Wuthering Heights as a novel that engages in discourse about Sadomasochism and the fluctuating power balance that is intrinsic to our understanding of both Catherine and Heathcliff’s cruelty toward each other and the narrative arc of their tortured relationship. The article also posits that Heathcliff’s masochism correlates with his access to the common language of the household and Catherine’s sadism with her access to text, such as books. The catalyst for the change in the power dynamic between the two is cited as being Catherine’s impending death, reversing the role of Sadomasochism in the relationship. Not only are the roles of torturer and victim reversed but they are shown to coexist within the same entity, as Heathcliff is both cruel and self-destructive upon Catherine’s demise. The article also considers Lockwood and other characters as part of the sadomasochistic spectrum leaving Nelly as the empowered figure in a text riddled with entities struggling for and against a ‘death drive’ (DeRosa, 3) and mortality. The role of this book within the Victorian cultural and literary landscape is also examined, with the subversion  and convention to realism examined as the sadomasochistic impulses of Catherine and Heathcliff have the effect of distancing them as subjects from traditional romantic texts.

Psychological criticism is the foundational form of critical analysis with the sadomasochism of the key characters being the predominant preoccupation of the article. The theories of sadism and masochism as outlined by Freudian psychology are included as part of the argument. The article uses these Freudian theories to explain what is sighted as a “death drive” (DeRosa, 3) in Heathcliff and eventually Catherine. Also underpinning the argument is deconstructionist critical analysis in the form of pointing to sadomasochism as a way a deconstructing the characters to alter the typical way that the novel engages with realism, with the Victorian literary preoccupation with writing a novel that achieves accurate realism and the unachievable nature of this goal that us being strived for. DeRosa also uses historical critical analysis in the article as she engages in the discourse regarding Wuthering Heights and it’s place within the Victorian literary canon, pointing to some of the more controversial aspects of the text in contrast to it’s contemporaries.

DeRosa successfully outlined the ways in which the text demonstrated the sadomasochism of the early relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine but failed to make a persuasive correlation between the experience of text and language as the determining factor in the power balance in regards to Catherine as her sadism is not explicitly demonstrated through her use of text, and her relationship with text is relatively unchanging as her sadism diminishes. The article successfully argues that the subversive nature of Wuthering Heights and Brontë’s approach to romance and realism was directly playing with notions of repressive Victorian social conventions by outlining attitudes towards realism and sexuality in literary circles and mainstream social values. 

When writing my upcoming critical essay I could use this article to address the fourth topic offered for this assessment;

“Compare and contrast the ways in which Victorian texts conform to or subvert the central precepts of literary realism.”

The attention given to Victorian discourse on realism would allow me to argue that Wuthering Heights subverts precepts of reality by displacing the central characters roles as subject and object. The roles of torturer and tortured create a dichotomy that reflects the power dynamics at play within Victorian literature whilst reducing the ability of the characters to exercise self determination, rendering them impotent in the face of forces greater than themselves. The line between the supernatural and the very real human experience is blurred using self destructive and self preservation impulses of which the characters are at the mercy. This abstract force plays with realism constructs allowing Brontë to both engage in realism and the gothic in one narrative, creating a text that constantly weaves in and out of real human experience and the haunting ghostly spectre of damnation. Sadomasochism is almost hauntingly supernatural in its manifestation, allowing the narrative of Catherine and her hold on Heathcliff to continue from beyond the grave, sweeping up others such as Lockwood and Nelly in its wake.  

Bibliography

  • Brontë, Emily and Richard J Dunn. Wuthering Heights. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.
  • De Rosa, Robin. “To Save the Life of the Novel” Sadomasochism and Representation in “Wuthering Heights”, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 52, No. 1 (1998), pp. 27-43. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/stable/pdf/1348290.pdf Web. 1st October 2016.

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