The Romantic period in literature is generally defined as the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Emily Bronte’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, is considered a classic of Romantic literature.
It might sound as if Romantic literature is about romantic love, like a contemporary romance novel. However, this is not quite what is meant. Hopefully, this lesson about Wuthering Heights can help with this confusion. One of the key values of the Romantic Movement in music, art and literature was the emphasis on the experience of the individual, both the creator of the work and the characters depicted. Characters are often complex and mysterious, with dark problems in their past. The goal of Romanticism as a movement was to experience the world with emotional intensity and to transcend the ordinary in everyday life.
Characteristics of Romantic Literature
Nature and Landscape
One characteristic of a Romantic-period novel is a setting of isolation, grandeur, and perhaps fear. This view of nature and landscapes in the Romantic Movement was connected to the philosophical concept of The Sublime. Edmund Burke, and other 18th-century philosophers, wrote about an experience of nature that was so overwhelming as to be indescribable. Think of the most spectacular natural setting or event you have ever seen in person. Those emotions you feel are what the Romantic writers referred to as The Sublime. Imagining the wild and wind-swept moors of Yorkshire adds to the emotional and passionate atmosphere of the tale for the reader.
Here is how the moors of Yorkshire are described by Lockwood in Chapter One, when the reader is introduced to Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff: ”Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.”
Wild and Desolate Landscape
Characters in Romantic literature are often difficult to understand; they seem to be one thing, but then turn out to be another. Heathcliff is an example of this transforming type of character. He is rescued from the streets of Liverpool by Earnshaw and brought up as part of the family. Yet he is never thoroughly accepted until he returns later in the story, having become rich and powerful. Hareton, too, is at first portrayed as crude and uneducated, yet later loved by Cathy for his innate noble character.
Death and the Supernatural
Supernatural elements may also appear in Romantic Literature. Apparitions or ghosts often symbolize a blurring between life and death. Many times, Romantic characters have such obsessions with a love interest that they long to die to be with them in the afterlife. In Chapter 15, when Catherine is dying, Heathcliff says to her, ”So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you–oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?”
A later scene, when Heathcliff vows to open Catherine’s coffin and passionately wishes to join her in death, is an excellent example of how Romantic literature illustrates the passion of a character. Heathcliff is not satisfied and cannot rest until he starves himself and dies, joining Catherine at last. Even after his death, the villagers are reported to see his ghost walking among the moors or near the house.
A Restless Spirit
Another common feature of Romantic literature is a preoccupation with strong emotions which often affect the plot. Characters in romantic novels can be obsessed with ever-changing inner states of consciousness. These experiences of inner torment may be connected to a lost love, lost status, or a longing for some indefinable future state of happiness. Catherine regrets choosing Edgar when she really loved Heathcliff, and this regret and longing eventually make her lose her mind – and then her life. Heathcliff himself is obsessed with not only his lost love, but getting revenge on the two families he feels have wronged him. As you probably realize, both obsessive love and a wish for revenge generally lead to negative ends, both in fiction and in life.
The Byronic Hero
You may have heard this term in discussion of Romantic novels like Wuthering Heights. But what does it actually mean? Lord Byron was an English poet of the Romantic Movement who wrote narrative poetry and other tales that featured a male protagonist exhibiting many of the qualities that came to define the Byronic Hero. Heathcliff is a classic example of this character: a mysterious past, disregard for society and social class, passionate love and equally passionate anger, and a preoccupation with death. Of course, when you get to know Heathcliff in the novel, you probably recognize that the Byronic Hero is a sort of anti-hero; not a character we admire or even particularly like, but a fascinating character nonetheless.
Lord Byron, English Romantic Writer
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is a classic example of a novel from the Romantic Period in literature. The main characters are complex and mysterious, and have obsessive passions that drive the plot and the outcome of the story. The setting is isolated and wild, including the appearance of ghosts and preoccupation with death. Heathcliff has a dark and mysterious past, and loves so passionately that he longs to be with Catherine, even in the grave. He gives the reader a clear example of the Romantic Byronic Hero.