Comparing Class Across Narrative Plot Devices in Wuthering Heights and The Time Machine

Emily Brontë first published the novel Wuthering Heights in 1847. H. G. Wells first published the novella The Time Machine in 1895. Each of the 19th-century works of fiction expresses a significant theme associated with class struggle and change. The conventions used in each work of fiction provide an insightful view into Victorian class dilemmas at the time. The Victorian era, from 1837 to 1901, was externally peaceful and prosperous but covered with social issues that percolated through to and beyond the thin layer of conventional society. Each of the novels expresses the difficulties with the prevailing social structure at the time.

Brontë’s novel was published at the start of the Victorian era, one year before the declaration of the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848) by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Wuthering Heights captures class-bound social strata, and allows the reader to view an underlying current of class struggles as social paradigms changed. Brontë lived in a patriarchal society with defined social strata. Unlike Marx, Brontë did not have the ability to express rebellious thoughts or voice her observations of a society under strain.

Hathworth, where Brontë lived, was an industrial town in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In the nineteenth century, this parish was subject to multiple lockouts and strikes as workers sought to improve their lot (Stoneman 1998). Consequently, Brontë would have been intimately familiar with the struggles between the proletariat industrial worker and the bourgeois factory owner. With this knowledge, the divergences between class and demonstrated within the novel.

Brontë manages to represent the difference in the two houses in capturing the differences between the social classes. The distinctions between Heathcliff and Edgar Linton and Hindley demonstrate the perceived differences in class. Heathcliff as a foundling from Liverpool raised in status by old Earnshaw is without stock or pedigree. The lack of culture and civilisation counterpoises him against his inverse, Thrushcross Grange. He is shunned in the heights and is more than metaphorically cast out of the Grange.

The Earnshaw family have agricultural ties to the land as a yeoman. The Lintons communicated the position of the lower gentry. The distinction and the families with the heights representing standard or typical “domestic” environment in comparison to the scene of unprecedented richness engendered in the Grange through “a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass drops hanging in silver chains from the centre” (Brontë 36). Each property represents the underlying social current, and the individuals drastically change as they move between the houses. When Catherine is taken into the Grange, she reverts from a “half-savage” (100) to a “charming young lady of eighteen” (80). The change in the house represents a distinct change in status. Catherine’s manner and privileges in society are reflected in the property. When she is in the Grange, she does not need to work but finds others must strive for her to maintain the status quo.

Conversely, Heathcliff may be seen as a member of the lower class. In this, he is insufficient when held to the mirror of the Grange. As the pedigreed scion of a family born into the Grange, Edgar Linton represents bourgeois concepts and upper-class concepts of wealth and refinement. Catherine seeks in choosing Linton over Heathcliff, Catherine selects elevated status. In this, wealth can help her justify social class but cannot transgress the boundaries placed upon Heathcliff. “Edgar Linton will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood whereas if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars” (64).

The Heights situated on the more represents a yeomanly concept of Victorian society. As a smallholder, a yeoman would be required to provide challenging yet valuable work supporting others. However, this can be counterbalanced against the bourgeois perspective of lower-class life. The Moors are frequently trodden through Heathcliff and Catherine’s random loitering. This is not wealthy idleness but rather a rough primitive peasant pastime as seen from Victorian society. Although each form of idleness is taken apart from work, the Grange is expressed through aristocratic and sophisticated discourse, meals and banqueting.

In some ways, the historical ties to the land represented in the yeoman’s position would allow each family as freeholders a nominally equal position. However, the contrast between the houses may be seen in the Heights’ solid form and its lack of comfort. The primitive but homely atmosphere centres on the radiant hearth captured by the narrator in a homely salt of the earth manner. “I, a little removed from the hearth, busy at my knitting, and Joseph reading his Bible near the table (for the servants sat in the house then, after their work was done). Miss Cathy had been sick, and Heathcliff was lying on the floor” (Brontë 32).

Alternatively, the Grange is elegant but without heart. It was a “splendid place carpeted in crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass drops hanging in silver chains from the centre and shimmering with little soft tapers” (Brontë 35). But alternatively, is not the external beauty internalised by wells in “beautiful futility” (76) internalising the external shimmer of the hall into the golden and “beautiful race” that develops in idle isolation (65).

Whereas Heathcliff represents the villain as we see that it “scowls so plainly in his face, would it not be a kindness to the country to hang him at once” (Brontë 37), Catherine is met with conviviality despite how the Grange is “bordered by gold” when the Heights are merely homely. Catherine’s actions towards Heathcliff show the transformation as she is taken from her farmhouse and in her ascension in the Grange is transformed into a different being. Her hands that are “wonderfully whitened with doing nothing” allow her to “look like a lady now” (Brontë 38). Through this ascension, Catherine can no longer feel empathy towards Heathcliff but treats him with sympathy looking down upon his lowered position.

Brontë demonstrates how 19th-century society would not allow an individual such as Heathcliff to become “respectable”. It was a right for an individual to be born into a class. Though the lower members of the landlord class could escape the trap through wealth, the distinction between tradesmen and the capitalist of the commoner and the aristocratic remained in place. Even this slight change was acceptable only because it was the wife who took the husband’s social position and could be bought and sold as common chattel. The Earnshaw is an old family, although not gentry. As landlords, they maintain position even without wealth.

In Wells’ The Time Machine, we see an alternative perspective on the distinctions between bourgeois and proletariat class distinctions. The Eloi-Morlock displays the distinction between Victorian workers and the idle rich. Tuerk (2005) illustrates how the Irish saw Irish workers as subhuman using an example of a diary entry by Charles Kingsley detailing a trip to Ireland. Kingsley as a typical high-class Victorian Englishman wrote that the Irish were merely “human chimpanzees”.

This portrayal of the Irish as ape-men, craggy and bleached beasts of burden is represented analogously through the Morlocks. The Morlock had become a “bleached, obscene, nocturnal thing” (Wells 1895, 60). How different is this in turn from the description of the Irish? This “evil” that must be stopped differs little in the English Victorian upper-class attitude towards the Irish in their diaspora Maria Tymoczko (2016). Similarly, Christopher Lane (2006, 16) explores the misanthropic hatred that existed between classes in society within Victorian England.

It is to Wells (1895), “no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor” (63) that the class distinctions and stratification from restrictions on intermarriage would lead to the development of separate races. Social Darwinism’s development led to the creation of a Victorian belief in distinctions and social biology and a concept that intermarriage should not occur between classes (Rogers 1972). This gap resulting from the distinction explored by Wells (63-65) is equally expressed by Brontë in Catherine’s perceived horror when considering how her class position would be lowered if she married Heathcliff.

Wells’ traveller comes to find a world where “the rich had been assured of his wealth of comfort in the toilet had been assured of his life and work” (103). In this, the traveller reflects on his proletariat position who succumbs to nothing but mechanisation and the bourgeois who degrade in luxury. The traveller sees his own “exclusive tendency of richer people – due to no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor” as it leads to the distinctions between class “that split the species along the lines of social stratification” (63).

The time traveller overlooks the distinctions between himself and the Morlock. The doom of the Empire (Cantor and Hufnagel 2006, 43) reduces the British aristocracy “to the level of the natives they regard as the natural inferiors” (43). To Wells, the Eloi degrade “like the Carolinian Kings” in that they “had decayed to a mere beautiful futility” (Wells 76). To Wells, the Victorian position of the Irish also reflected that which was attributed to many African Americans. Free African Americans were still viewed as subhuman and analogous to the Irish and British rule (Brantlinger 2013). Dooley (2013, 12) ties the distinctions between the Irish American diaspora and the position of freed slaves in his analysis of Irish-Americans fighting for abolition who equally represented white slavery in the form of indentured service they endured (11-16).

Catherine demonstrates an alignment with the Eloi that she may become in time (Brontë 61) when she notes how she has “only to do with the present”. As with Wells’ traveller, neither the bourgeois in Brontë’s novel nor the descendants that created the Eloi notice the changes being wrought through society. The Eloi inherit the earth and mastery of it, yet lose all control. Similarly, the best that Brontë’s aristocracy can do is seek to ignore their servants and “obstinately resist(ed) any progress towards addressing” (163) only to fail and be as “a baby” (163). Here, the gentle Eloi represent the idle Victorian aristocracy.

Taken together, Brontë’s muted polemic against the restrictions binding class ties and the isolation of marriage and Wells’ social Darwinism demonstrate the ill-conceived effects of differentiating workers and an elite, the belowground have-nots and the aboveground rentier. In this, the danger of allowing individuals to treat people as social inferiors merely because of demanding work is amply demonstrated. As he cries on how hungry he is and to “save me some of that mutton” (Wells 17), he shows his own desire for meat differing from that of the cattle-like vegetarian Eloi (82).

Wells and Brontë each represent the inequality between Victorian social classes. In the exaggeration of the fictional narratives, the time traveller remains more at home with the Eloi, whilst maintaining many of the Morlocks’ exaggerated traits in his eccentricities of hating servants waiting on them at dinner (Wells 82). Conversely, Brontë’s servants either chide characters as if they were babies (Brontë 163) or fulfil an underground position little seen by those in the Grange. In each case, the authors demonstrate the class differences that evolved in Victorian society, and the problems that allowing them to fester could create.

Works Cited

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of darkness: British literature and imperialism, 1830–1914. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Pearson Education Limited, 2008.

Cantor, Paul A., and Peter Hufnagel. “The Empire of the Future: Imperialism and Modernism in HG Wells.” Studies in the Novel 38, no. 1 (2006): 36-56.

Dooley, Brian. Black and green: the fight for civil rights in Northern Ireland & Black America. Pluto Press, 1998.

Lane, Christopher. Hatred and Civility: The Antisocial Life in Victorian England. Columbia University Press. 2006.

Rogers, James Allen. Darwinism And Social Darwinism. 1972.

Stoneman, Patsy (Ed.) Wuthering Heights: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Cambridge: Icon Books, 1998.

Tuerk, Richard. “Upper-Middle-Class Madness: H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller Journeys To Wonderland”. Extrapolation, vol 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 517-526. Liverpool University Press, doi:10.3828/extra.2005.46.4.9.

Tymoczko, Maria. Translation in a Postcolonial Context: Early Irish Literature in English Translation. Routledge, 2016.

Wells, H. G. The Wheels of Chance; The Time Machine. Dent, 1969.

[Image 1: Houghton Library, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

[Image 2: Percy Tarrant (1881 – 1930), Public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

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