To understand the social prejudice of the novel’s time we have to think of the time that Emily Brontï¿½ grew up in. It was a very class-structured era and higher-class people would not associate with lower-class people. So it is astonishing that Mr Earnshaw took Heathcliff in at all. He was in a well-respected social class and he took in a beggar off the streets.
The first time we see Heathcliff is in chapter four. He is automatically an outsider from his appearance. Also because he has no family history and no one knows his origins, he therefore has no social status. Later on in the novel, Hindley uses social prejudice and his class status in Wuthering Heights to degrade Heathcliff to a servant. This gives him a motive for revenge later on in the novel.
Additionally, Catherine says in chapter nine that it would not do well for her to marry him. “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now…”
She can’t marry Heathcliff because of the social status he is at in that part of the novel. He has no money and cannot provide for Catherine. This is because it was the dominant ideology of Brontï¿½’s time for women to marry for status, not for love.
It is not just the family that have adopted Heathcliff, that pre judge him. Edgar Linton does it as well. Throughout the novel he constantly refers to Heathcliff as “Gypsy” and “Plough-boy” as oppose to his name. However he refrains from saying this in Heathcliff’s presence, instead he says it to Catherine.
Edgar does this because he is of higher social status than Heathcliff and this is how he sees their status, always.
There is a recognisable difference in Catherine, depending on the company she is in. For when she is with Heathcliff alone, she speaks freely and in my opinion, with more passion. However when Edgar turns up she watches her manners.
“Doubtless Catherine marked the difference between her friends, as one came in and the other went out.”
This is more social prejudice against Heathcliff. Also, considering that this prejudice came from someone he loves, it hurts Heathcliff.
Heathcliff’s social prejudice against him gives reasons for him to seek revenge on Hindley and Edgar, but to a lesser extent.
In my opinion, social prejudice is the main reason for most of the violence Heathcliff puts upon the other characters. This is because he has never been given unconditional love from anyone. Even Catherine betrays him by marrying Edgar. In my opinion, Heathcliff believes that it should not matter to her weather he is rich or not. The emotional and surreal attachment between them would extend beyond the dominant ideology of the early nineteenth century.
Later on in the book, Heathcliff and Hindley have a savage fight. Mainly about money issues, but also Heathcliff wants his revenge on Hindley for degrading him as a child. Also, Heathcliff was abusive to Edgar and Edgar responds by hitting Heathcliff.
Another way in which social prejudice could be explained for in this novel, is the way in which nearly every character has a contrast. Heathcliff is very tall, dark, savage and passionate. Whereas Edgar is fair, slender and sensitive. Catherine has brown hair and dark eyes like Heathcliff; Isabella is fair and blue-eyed like Edgar. They represent two opposing ways of life. Also they way they are matched by marriage is a contrast. For Edgar marries Catherine and Heathcliff marries Isabella.
I think this sets the scene for social prejudice as these contrasts are not just of appearance. When Heathcliff and Isabella marry, she goes to live with him at Wuthering Heights. It is a big shock for her to realise she will not be waited on hand and foot, she thinks less of Heathcliff for this. Not because he does not have money, for at this point in the novel he does. Isabella differentiates him because of his living conditions. In my opinion this would infuriate Heathcliff, because this is what he has strived for since his departure from the Heights. She questions weather or not he is a man.
“Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?”
She judges him because of his harsh ways of treating her and she ends up deserting him because of it.
In my opinion, I do not think Heathcliff has been made a severe victim of social prejudice in the novel. But he has been exposed to that kind of harshness.
As a matter of fact, I think that Heathcliff is more of a hellish fiend than a victim.
The social prejudice he experiences happens mainly in his childhood, he has no control over his social status then. However he does when he grows up. Except, I think he chooses not to. The torment he went through as a child has effected him in adulthood.
The main extract that makes this apparent to me, besides the fact that he has been referred to as the “devil” and “imp of Satan”, is in chapter sixteen after Catherine’s death.
Heathcliff has dashed his head against an ash tree repeatedly through the night. In a way this could be referenced to the death of Judas Iscariot. He hanged himself on an ash tree after his betrayal of Jesus. In the author’s description, Heathcliff wants to feel at home in hell. Since he and Catherine share a soul and she has been described as heavenly and angelic manner, it would be as his soul is in heaven and he does not want that. So, Heathcliff calls upon Cathy’s ghost to haunt him.
“May you not rest as long as I am living…haunt me, then!”