Barthesian Reading of Wuthering Heights

The following readings of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights follow Barthes' method of "starring" a text: of reading each sentence carefully for the ways it plays with what Barthes identifies as the five codes of narrative (see the two Barthes Modules). The following sentences are from Chapter Three of Brontë's novel (p. 13), when the narrator, Lockwood, learns about the love object of the enigmatic and moody, Heathcliff.

 

The ledge, where I placed my candle, had a few mildewed books piled up in one corner; and it was covered with writing scratched on the paint. This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small—Catherine Earnshaw; here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton.

*Of course, one of the purposes of this sentence is to raise the question, "who is Catherine?" or, for that matter, "Are these all the same person?" What we have, then, is the proposal of an enigma in the form of an equivocation since the answer to the second question is both 'yes' and 'no': these are all the same Catherine writing on the ledge; on the other hand, there will, indeed, be more than one Catherine in the text of Wuthering Heights (HER. Enigma 1: equivocation). **We are also presented here with a number of possible semes that will prove to be important in Wuthering Heights: indeterminacy, identity, repetition or repetition with difference. ***We are also presented with two actions: ACT. "where I placed my candle": 1: placing a candle; ACT. "This writing": 1: begin the act of reading. Note that behind all of these sentences is yet another implicit act, Lockwood's narration: ACT. "1901—I have just returned": 2: narration continues. ****This sentence also points to the fact that Wuthering Heights is concerned throughout with, on the one hand, the indeterminacy of identity but also, on the other hand, as if in compensation, the replication of bodies, as if the text were seeking a resolution to the problems concerning identity that are raised by the first Catherine (SYM. The replication of bodies). As in Barthes, "bodily replication cannot be interrupted save by leaving nature: either toward Superlative Woman (the "masterpiece") or toward the sub-human (the castrato)" (55), or, as in Wuthering Heights, either toward the transcendent (the idealized version of the first Catherine) or toward the violent abject (Heathcliff).

 

In vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton, till my eyes closed; but they had not rested five minutes when a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid as spectres—the air swarmed with Catherines; and rousing myself to dispel the obtrusive name, I discovered my candle wick reclining on one of the antique volumes, and perfuming the place with an odour of roasted calf-skin.

*ACT. "This writing": 2: reading continues; ACT. "where I placed my candle": 2: the candle burns. **A second action, reverie, now grows out of and is closely linked to the first of reading: ACT. "In vapid listlessness": 1: beginning of reverie. ***It also seems here as if Lockwood were enacting for us the very process of reading Wuthering Heights; that is, letters have a certain ghostly power, for they can raise the dead, make the fictional come alive through the imaginative activity of the reader. (REF. Gnomic code: "The spirit of the letter"). ****Indeed, as in the previous sentence, we may have another symbolic paradigm forming: that of reading itself, or rather of the process of reading, printing, and writing, including in this sentence a reversal of the normal black ink on white background (as if in a photographic negative) (SYM—inscription/ conscription). *****The window here also suggests a boundary or antithesis that will become important later in the passage. The phrase, "as vivid as spectres," also suggests a possible transgression of boundaries or some sort of reversal, which anticipates the appearance of the ghost a little later: spectres shouldn't live, be "vivid"; Lockwood here asserts his role as the enforcer of boundaries by "dispell[ing] the obtrusive name" (SYM. Antithesis: inside/ outside, death/ life: suggested transgression).

 

I snuffed it off, and, very ill at ease, under the influence of cold and lingering nausea, sat up, and spread open the injured tome on my knee. It was a Testament, in lean type, and smelling dreadfully musty: a fly-leaf bore the inscription—'Catherine Earnshaw her book,' and a date some quarter of a century back.

*REF. Chronology: 1775 approximately; and REF. Literary or Religious Code: Bible. **ACT. "where I placed my candle": 3: snuff out the candle; and ACT. "This writing": 1: a second reading act begins. ***HER. Enigma 1: theme reiterated: who is Catherine Earnshaw? ****SYM. Inscription/ Conscription.

 

I shut, and took up another, and another, till I had examined all. Catherine's library was select; and its state of dilapidation proved it to have been well used, though not altogether for a legitimate purpose; scarcely one chapter had escaped a pen an ink commentary—at least, the appearance of one—covering every morsel of blank that the printer had left.

*REF. Religious Code: Torah, Biblical exegesis. **SEM. Insubordination and SEM. superannuation. ***We are presented here with an opposition between Catherine and Biblical logos. Catherine thus could be said to become the principle of the supplement, though she also thus comes to represent the reader's position in the margins of this text, Wuthering Heights, for our role too is to fill the space of the margins with our interpretive maneuvers. Like Catherine, we too are thus in a position of marginality, transgression, impiety—the very position that Barthes calls for in S/Z. One recalls Barthes' own similar parody of Logos: "The mastery of meaning, a veritable semiurgism, is a divine attribute, once this meaning is defined as the discharge, the emanation, the spiritual effluvium overflowing from the signified toward the signifier: the author is a god (his place of origin is the signified); as for the critic, he is the priest whose task is to decipher the Writing of the god" (174). SYM. Inscription/ Conscription.

 

Sample Barthesian Reading of Wuthering Heights, continued

The following additional sentences come from a little further in the text after Lockwood falls asleep despite being annoyed by a scratching at the window (pp. 17-18 in Chapter 3). The scratching is caused by a fir branch. Lockwood is sleeping in a bed surrounded by wood panels (the "oak closet").

 

I listened doubtingly an instant; detected the disturber, then turned and dozed, and dreamt again; if possible, still more diagreeably than before.

This time, I remembered I was lying in the oak closet, and I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir-bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause; but it annoyed me so much, that i resolved to silence it, if possible; and, I thought, I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple, a circumstance observed by me when awake, but forgotten.

"I must stop it, nvevetheless!" I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch: instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!

The intense horror of nightmare came over me; I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed,

"Let me in—let me in!"

*ACT. "In vapid listlessness": 1: a new reverie. **Here, casement begins an accretion of meaning that will continue throughout Wuthering Heights turning this detail into what Michael Riffaterre in Fictional Truth terms a "subtext." The casement thus becomes a figure for the barrier that ensures the separation of the two inconciliabilia of the Antithesis (see Barthes 28). The transgression, "Let me in!" however cannot be allowed; the dead must be kept separate from the living. In this way, this scene begins a sequence of symbolic representations of liminal barriers, with Lockwood often the figure that seeks to enforce separation. ("Lock[ing] wood" is, after all, the function of casements, just as Linton read as Lintel functions as another figure for the enforced separation between nature and civilization.) Here, of course, by breaking the window, Lockwood does appear to transgress the boundary himself to some extent. The physical contact between the two sides of the Antithesis here causes a violent reaction, much like a similar reaction in "Sarrasine": "the physical contact between these two completely separate substances... produces a catastrophe: there is an explosive shock, a paradigmatic conflagration.... This is what happens when the arcana of meaning are subverted, when the sacred separation of the paradigmatic poles is abolished, when one removes the separating barrier, the basis of all 'pertinence.'" (Barthes 66). As Barthes says a few lines later, the Antithesis "cannot be transgressed with impunity: meaning... is a question of life or death" (66). SYM. Antithesis: transgression. *** Transcendence resembles beauty, as Barthes theorizes this concept, since, like beauty, transcendence cannot be explained except as a gap (a lack of representation) or by reference to the codes available to it (in literature the Gothic, for example; in religion, the Bible). Like Beauty, and here I replace the Transcendent for Barthes' Beauty, "there is only one way to stop the replication of [the transcendent]: hide it, return it to silence, to the ineffable, to aphasia, refer the referent back to the invisible" (Barthes, p. 34). Also, just as literature provides the codes for the representation of the transcendent, a few lines later in this passage it is precisely literature (figured in the pyramid of books that Lockwood uses to separate himself from the offending ghost) that ensures the separation from the actual intrusion of the transcendent or supernatural, which can result in madness, violence, apocalypse, and the breakdown of society. SYM. Transcendence.

For other applications of narratology, click the following links:

 

Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Barthesian Reading of Wuthering Heights." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/narratology/application/applTnBarthesBronte.html>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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