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Talk sheds light on ‘Wuthering Heights’ themes

Published: October 3, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.


At 5 p.m. on Oct. 2, former Ida May and William J Eggers, Jr., Chair in English at UC Berkeley, Catherine Gallagher held a discussion about “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë, dedicated to a friend and colleague. “Wuthering Heights” was originally regarded with great ambivalence and distaste due to its unyielding intensity. It was influenced by Gothic literature, which valued mystery and fear, holding dear the concept of revenge. However, Brontë’s work is thought to transcend this genre with her nuanced and thoughtful approach to writing but also with her unapologetically morose and ardent plot.

Gallagher was introduced by Professor John Plotz, the chair of the Brandeis English Department, who then opened the floor to Gallagher. She introduced the topic of her talk by discussing the evolution of the revenge novel. She stated that many 19th-century novels had been motivated by revenge. Revenge tragedy had actually become a distinct genre in film, but took a long time to become a subcategory of literature due to mixed perceptions of the notion of revenge throughout history. She then defined the plot of revenge in literature as a scheme in which the revenger not only sets the plot in motion and moves it along throughout the duration of the novel, but in which the protagonist is the revenger. Throughout the years, revenge has been considered a type of wild, instinctively attractive justification of wrongdoing: an ancient form of justice. Renaissance writers sought to suppress this as they only recognized the tragedy in revenge plots.

Revenge plots of the Victorian Era are rife with mysteries, secrets and relationships kept in the dark. An example that Gallagher provided the audience with was Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” and how readers are not familiar with her wedding tragedy until nearly the end of the novel. Gallagher’s main points of her discussion revolved around temporal variations throughout the novel and revenge versus repair. She illustrated the first point by explaining how the story is narrated starting almost at the end of the story, when “Wuthering Heights” is established, which swathes the entire remainder of the plotline in mystery. This feeds into the central conflicts of the protagonist’s, Heathcliff, revenge and ultimately how his plot to ruin the lives of those who made his life miserable backfired and repaired the story, giving an otherwise melancholy and tragic story a happy ending. Gallagher also briefly discussed issues of legitimacy, patriarchy and control.

This event was held in the Mandel Reading Room. Some downfalls of the presentation were the small size of the room, which normally could not accommodate all of the viewers. Additional chairs had to be brought into the room from other parts of the building, and even then a couple people had to stand in the back or sit on the floor. Additionally, Gallagher had a tendency to speak quietly and mumble slightly at the end of her sentences, making it hard to hear everything she had to say. The presentation was in more of an essay format that was read to the guests, rather than a more interactive presentation that provided flexibility—it would be understandable if some people felt as if they had been in an essay reading rather than a literature discussion. Finally, her complex vocabulary and copious utilization of advanced terminology made many parts of her discussion hard to understand for the average student—one would most likely have to be an English major, writer or English faculty member to understand some of the more nuanced points of her discussion.

Gallagher started teaching at Berkeley in 1980. Her teaching and research interests are mainly the British novel and the history of culture in the 18th and 19th centuries. She has received several prestigious awards and fellowships, proving her phenomenal success and contributions to the world of literature and education. Gallagher is a Guggenheim fellow and the co-chair of the editorial board of the journal “Representations,” and has authored many books including “The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century,” “The Royal Slave” and the MLA award-winning “Nobody’s Story.” She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.