Bronte'S Wuthering Heights: A Psychoanalysis
Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights makes a perfect test case for the application of Freud's psychosexual theories to literature because it was written long before Freud published.
Any exploration of the manifestation of Freud's concept of the fetish in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) is complicated by the general nature of sexuality expressed in the novel. Any instance of fetishism existing in an otherwise normal sexual life is made impossible by the omniprescence of sadomasochistic sexuality, to the extent that it can easily by said that all sexuality in Wuthering Heights is sadomasochistic and not fetishistic. The following discussion of Wuthering Heights will explore the possibility of interlinked "perversions" that create and reinforce each other.
Freud defines the sufferer of a "perversion" as a person who's sexuality lingers in a pre-genital (or pre-adult) phase. It is important to note here that Freud considered all pleasure, all desire to be derivative of sexuality, and his use of the word sexuality in connection with prepubescent children is a reflection of that belief. According to Freud, a "pervert" receives pleasure and sexual type fufilment from the same types of behavior that children receive their fufilment. Children work through four developmental psychosexual stages; when they are born they are in the primary narcisim phase, they proceed to the oral, then the anal, then finally the adult or genital stage. Freud associates each phase with certain key characteristics that define them and allow him to continue into discussions of adult psychosexual behavior.
Breifly, so as to understand the concepts of sadomasochism and fetishism according to the original theories behind them, rather than their common linguistic usage, we will go through simple definitions of the four phases. Primary narcisism is the state in which a child is born. The infant does not recognize a seperation between its identity and other people and is completely unaware of anything but itself, and dependent completely upon others. Primary narcisism quickly develops into the oral phase, in which a child is gets sexual pleasure from consumption. Much of this pleasure is directed at the child's food source (in nature, the mother's nipple, in culture either that or a substitute for it) and secondarily, anything else the child can incorporate into itself via its mouth. Young children in this phase often try to eat everything, and Freud believed that they derived sexual pleasure from making things part of themself. As the child matures, control over the anal sphincter is demanded by parents and society. All three entities become obsessed with getting the child "potty-trained," not least of all the child, who comes to receive sexual pleasure from the process of expelling and retaining matter. The child's psychosexual life reflects this in all ways, as the child will hold something tight, such as a toy or its mother, then push it away, over and over again. The final phase is adult, genital sexuality as typically conceived in language, involving the genitals as the locus of sexual pleasure and fufillment.
Every "perversion" that exists is a type of sexuality manifesting in adults that belonged originally to childhood. Two of the most common perversions to manifest themselves in Wuthering Heights are entangled in the anal phase of development. According to Freud, adult sadomasochism is a symptom of development arrested in the anal phase. Children in the anal phase do not completely understand gender difference, and are not entirely interested in it until they begin to emerge into the genital phase. A child who never overcomes the belief that girls and boys are the same, or who is completely uninterested in gender differences (physical or cultural), can never experience the genital stage. In order for a young girl or boy to understand gender difference, they must recognize that one has parts the other does not, and thus that there is a possibility of losing or gaining bodily organs (typically the penis is discussed here.) Freud claims that in order to grow up, and to experience gendered sexuality, children must recognize a difference and a possibility of castration.
Sadomasochism entails a rejection or denial of castration: a man and woman involved in sadomasochistic sex do not recognize each other as members of the opposite gender, because they cannot recognize gender difference, and they will not accept the fact of castration. The similarity between sadomasochism and fetishism lies exactly in this non-acceptance of castration. Freud explains the fetish in terms of its relationship to the castration-complex:
"Before the child comes under the domination of
the castration-complex--at a time when he still
holds women at full value-- he begins to
display an intense desire to look, as an erotic
instinctual activity... The erotic attraction
that comes from his mother soon culminates in a
longing for her genital organ, which he takes
to be a penis. ... the fixation on the object
that was once strongly desired, the woman's
penis, leaves indelible traces on the mental
life of the child... Fetishistic reverence for
a woman's foot and shoe appears to take the
foot merely as a substitutive symbol for the
woman's penis which was once revered and later
(Freud, Leonard da Vinci and a memory of his
Childhood, Standard Edition, 50)
As Freud has written it, a fetish is the object an adult male lends the characteristics and reverence he once had for his fantasy of the female penis, the nonexistence of which he has never come to understand, at least on a sexual level. Each of the perversions I have discussed "holds women at full value" in that it does not accept castration as a viable alternative, and thus cannot accept gender difference. It seems to me that because of this, sadomasochism, and any other pregenital perversion that may involve women, requires some fetish object to take the place of the woman's penis, which nobody involved can accept as missing.
Although panties and shoes are some of the most commonly thought of fetish items, it seems that an equally obvious metonymic substitution for a body part that never existed is a body part that does. Rather than giving an inanimate object the properties of a woman's penis, it seems easy to substitute a body part she does have and has always had, such as her hand. One might argue that an actual body part should be invalidated, because the young boy is seeking a penis, not a hand, and recognizes a hand as such when he sees it. However, that same argument should invalidate any object thought of as a fetish: boys have shoes and underwear, too, and even at the young ages during which their genital researches are conducted, they know this. So, I argue that another body part makes a fine, or ever better, substitute for a unfound penis.
In Wuthering Heights sadomasochism creates a fetish of Catherine Earnshaw's violent hands. Although I intend to focus in on a passage of note, I would like to begin by mentioning a few examples of her typical violent behavior, throughout the novel. Shortly after the reader is introduced to Catherine through her diary, Lockwood has a dream about her ghost coming back to Wuthering Heights, trying to get in. Though the dream is Lockwood's, Bronte makes it part of her characterization of Catherine, as the reader must call to mind this ghostly vision every time they come upon her name after the dream has been related. In the dream, Lockwood is accosted by Catherine, who's hand enters the broken window pane and grabs his, not letting go. Lockwood is driven to violence and trickery to make her let go of him, clearly her grip is a strong one. The power in her little, ghostly hands frightens Lockwood to the point where he is willing to do anything to make her let go. (20) But that stands as a general introduction to the important of Catherine's hands. My real case for the fetish begins a few pages later, when Nelly Dean relates that Catherine was prone to physical violence, even as a child:
In play, she liked exceedingly to act the
little mistress; using her hands freely, and
commanding her companions: she did so to me,
but I would not bear shopping and ordering; and
so I let her know. (30)
(All page numbers are from the 1956 Riverside
Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, with
introduction by V.S. Pritchett)
Though pregenital sexuality involving physical violence is a normal stage of development in children, Catherine's behavior never progresses from what it is before her father's death. She likes to be in charge, as "mistress" of everyone in her life, and to prove her power over them, she tortures them with actual physical violence, and emotional violence, including rejection, blame, and at times, each other. Many years later, when normal development would have taken a child into the genital phase, Catherine still gets her pleasure from the abuse of others with her hands. Once again, all the sexual interaction takes on the form of sadomasochism, so what I point out will at times seem to be an argument for the presence of sadomasochism, however, I am seeking to show that as a part of that system, Catherine's hands specifically are the location of her penis and phallus: she rarely if ever kicks, or bites, she always uses her hands.
The following passage is the focus of my argument that Catherine's hands are a fetish for the men around her, and construed as a fetish for us by Emily Bronte.
As a young woman, Catherine has a friend in Edgar Linton, until the first time he sees her hands in action. I will handle the scene in two sections, first Catherine attacks Nelly and Hareton and Edgar witnesses. On orders from Hindley, Nelly cleans in the room where Catherine is entertaining Edgar and will not leave when asked. Catherine responds with her hands:
She, supposing Edgar could not see her,
snatched the cloth from my hand, and pinched
me, with a prolonged wrench, very spitefully
on the arm. I've said I did not love her,
and rather relished mortifying her vanity
now and then: besides, she hurt me
extremely; so I started up from my knees,
and screamed out, "Oh, miss, that's a nasty
trick! You have no right to nip me, and I'm
not going to bear it."
"I didn't touch you, you lying creature!"
cried she, her fingers tingling to repeat
the act, and her ears red with rage. She
never had power to conceal her passion, it
always set her whole complexion in a blaze.
"What's that, then?" I retorted, showing
a decided purple witness to refute her.
She stamped her foot, wavered a moment,
and then irresistibly impelled by the naughty
spirit within her, slapped me on the cheek a
stinging blow that filled both eyes with
Catherine's hands become Edgar's fetish as he participates in a sexual scene involving them as the object of power, first as a voyeur and then as a participant. Catherine may "suppose" that her actions are invisible to Edgar, but as events progress it becomes obvious that Catherine desires for Edgar to see her use raise her hands in violence against others and him, to really know her. Bronte's use of the word "suppose" here may well imply its opposite: that Edgar can and does watch the whole of the scene from beginning to end, without acting on until he chooses to come under her hand. So, perhaps rapt with fascination, Edgar watches as she pinches Nelly, and then itches to do so again. Her passion to continue abusing Nelly with her hands shows in "tingling fingers" and an unconcealable countenance. She uses her foot to show her frustration, but she never thinks to kick Nelly, she goes back at her with a slap.
Edgar Linton stands by and watches, and presumably based on his later choice to become the object of her abuse (in this scene, and her husband, in general) identifies with Nelly as she is being struck. He cries out only after she hits Nelly so hard that Nelly begins to tear:
"Catherine, love! Catherine!" interposed
Linton, greatly shocked at the double fault of
falsehood and violence which his idol had
"Leave the room, Ellen!' she repeated,
trembling all over.
Little Hareton, who followed me
everywhere, and was sitting near me on the
floor, at seeing my tears commenced crying
himself, and sobbed out complaints against
"wicked aunt Cathy", which drew her fury on to
his unlucky head: she seized his shoulders,
and shook him till the poor child waxed livid,
and Edgar thoughtlessly laid hold of her hands
to deliver him. In an instant one was wrung
free, and the astonished young man felt it
applied over his own ear in a way that could
not be mistaken for jest.
He drew back in consternation. I lifted
Hareton in my arms, and walked off to the
kitchen with him, leaving the door of
communication open, for I was curious to watch
how they would settle their disagreement.
The insulted visitor moved to the spot
where he had laid his hat, pale and with a
quivering lip. (60)
Though Nelly describes Edgar as horrified at Catherine's behavior, after she has hit Nelly the hardest, Edgar calls out no curses, but rather throws their binary opposite ("love") into his exclamation: "shocked" he might be, but not clearly he is not unhappy with the proceedings. Catherine's eye falls on little Hareton and she begins hitting him, as if he were not a child, or she were one too. Again, she uses only her hands, though she must have had to bend down to the floor to grab on to little Hareton, and in a fury, it would have been much easier to kick him. Edgar comes to the child's rescue, but close inspection of the line "Edgar thoughtlessly laid hold of her hands to deliver him" causes me to wonder who exactly Edgar is delivering, since both he and Hareton would suit the pronoun "him." In truth, he delivers them both: he removes Hareton from the position he desires to occupy, thus delivering Hareton to safety and himself to the space he wishes to occupy under Catherine's hand.
Bronte writes that Catherine's strong blows to Edgar's head could not be mistaken for "jest" by him. Several things are implied by the use of "jest" in this context. First of all, it almost implies that Catherine was given to hitting Edgar in play before this incident, and had never offended him with it. In a related reading, this is the first time Catherine has seriously, as opposed to in jest, given Edgar what he wants from her, which is apparently to be hit.
Having been smacked once, Edgar pulls away, rather than staying for more, which Catherine would probably happily mete out. I believe this ties in with the fetish of the hand: Edgar puts himself in a position where he is touched by her penis, and having been touched by it once, has satisfied his curiosity about its power and appearance. He does take joy in the physical abuse, but he also takes joy in the contact with that particular part of her body.
Edgar fails to completely remove himself from Wuthering Heights, because Catherine uses her grip to keep the door shut so he can't exit himself. Based solely on normal expectations of their respective sizes as male and female of the human species, a reader can assume that had Edgar Linton really wanted to leave, he could have overpowered Catherine and gone. However, her grasping fingers on the door, in addition to her words may have captivated him, as he got pleasure out of the pain both gave him:
"No," she persisted, grasping the handle;
"not yet, Edgar Linton: sit down; you shall not
leave me in that temper. I should be miserable
all night, and I won't be miserable for you!"
"Can I stay after you have struck me?"
Catherine was mute.
Edgar attempts to leave, and makes it as far as the courtyard before he turns around and comes back to make up with Catherine. The final nail my argument rests in Nelly Dean's summation of the ending of the story:
I saw the quarrel had merely effected a
closer intimacy had broken the outworks of
youthful timidity, and enabled them to forsake
the disguise of friendship, and confess
Through hitting Nelly, Hareton and finally Edgar himself, Catherine managed to express her desire to have him as a lover. After Catherine has shown him her hands and what they can do, both his fetish and his masochism manifest jointly. Edgar and Cathy at this point show no signs of having accepted castration in their lives: Edgar acts in a manner totally ambiguous of gender, desiring a woman who takes on the aggressive role by hitting him, and Catherine is always "mistress" and works freely with her hands. The fetish and the sadomasochism are tied together and mutually help to create each other: Edgar desires Catherine's hand because to him it is her penis, and it is that to him because it can give him sexual fulfillment. This can be stated in reverse as well, because the hand gives him sexual fulfillment and he falls into the passive role, it is Catherine's penis.
Wuthering Heights is a wonderful proving ground for the validity of Freud's theory as far as literary analysis goes, because it was written in 1847, before the birth of Freud or anyone with a similar philosophy, and yet the concepts Freud works out are transparent in it. Freud may not be useful for the psychoanalysis of living people, but his idea are well applied to the study of words, in speech and literature.