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Essay: Wuthering Heights (1847) and The Great Gatsby (1925): social class

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  • Published: 18 June 2021*
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Wuthering Heights (1847) and The Great Gatsby (1925) both examine the difficulties introduced when a member of a lower social class approaches the dominant social class. Fitzgerald introduces Daisy Fay (a girl from a rich upper class family) and Jay Gatsby (an ex soldier who was raised in an impoverished neighbourhood in North Dakota), following a brief romantic encounter, Gatsby dedicates his life to re-establishing this relationship by progressing towards the upper class. A problem he faces is that his perception of the upper class is defined largely by their wealth rather than any other factors which separate the classes: such as family connections or the distinction between old money and new money— whether your wealth was passed through inheritance or made during your lifetime. This problem is equally relevant in Wuthering Heights as Heathcliff (a poor orphan from Liverpool) is adopted into the Earnshaw family and immediately the subject of abuse from Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw (his foster siblings). This is in part due to their father’s shift in attention towards Heathcliff but equally due to his class and background; even when Catherine recognises her undying love towards him, she cannot marry him because it “would degrade her” (71), despite his attempt to re-imagine himself in a higher class by briefly leaving the area to become wealthy. The flaw which both Gatsby and Heathcliff encounter, in that they find difficulty recognising aspects of class other than wealth, is why their quest for complete acceptance is innately flawed.
A shared characteristic in both Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby is the role of money when the outsider approaches a new social division; both Gatsby and Heathcliff, after first approaching the higher classes without any money, re-approach in a new lifestyle (as Gatsby becomes very rich following his illegal activities and Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights as an educated gentleman). A flawed understanding which is held by both characters is that they find difficulty in looking past the monetary aspect of the higher classes and thus fail to understand what actually separates the class into the structures that existed in the Victorian and Jazz ages. Class is often largely determined by one’s source of income, birth and family connections; Heathcliff would therefore find difficulty in aligning himself with these attributes as they are out of his control (as he is unable to change his family connections or his birth). This is, in part, recognised by Nelly Dean (the main narrator of the story) who notes that a “half-civilised ferocity lurked [in] the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued” (84-85) which indicates that, despite the attempt to change his persona, there were still aspects of his previous character that are recognisable. Bronte’s use of “ferocity” describes an animalistic aspect of Heathcliff as he returns to Wuthering Heights and the idea that he is “half-civilised” implies that his birth and upbringing has led to an inability to completely fit into society; both of these factors are not immediately relevant in describing Gatsby’s character and he encounters different problems as he approaches the dominant social class— the upper class. Rather than seeking revenge as his main objective, Gatsby’s idealised view of the world leads him to the idea that he will eventually be able to enter the upper class and thus re-establish a romantic with Daisy. The main problem with his idealism is that he has implanted an idea of perfection within Daisy which is separate from the truth and this leads to doubt over whether his quest for acceptance was ever worthwhile. Even during their best times together, narrator Nick Carraway recognises that “there must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of the illusion” (p. 95) which shows that even if Daisy had been completely perfect then she would not have been able to fulfil his fantasy. The American Dream during the 1920s began to be seen through a similar lens as the ultimate goal, pleasure and wealth, is unfitting relative to the journey which one embarks to achieve it; this implies that one does not only embark on The American Dream in order to acquire a final goal, which they established when they began, but also to learn about oneself and thus determine what they actually need. Unlike Gatsby, Heathcliff does not value the journey towards Catherine as much as the actual attainment as he looks forward to death after seeing her ghost: “he had a strange joyful glitter in his eyes that altered the aspect of his whole face” (291). This is another contrast between the idealism of Gatsby and the realism of Heathcliff as Gatsby spends the majority of his life chasing Daisy— even though he will never actually achieve this goal— whereas Heathcliff quickly recognises that he will only be able to be with Catherine in the afterlife and so he quickens this process by refusing to eat.
The path towards the dominant social class can also expose areas of one’s character which were either previously hidden or unrecognisable. This is relevant to Gatsby as Nick states that he “gathered that [Gatsby] wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy” (110) which would suggest that Gatsby is not only attempting to re-imagine Daisy in the present day, but that he is also trying to re-imagine an aspect of his character which was lost as he gained wealth. Moreover this loss represents the difficulty when approaching the dominant social class because one must vastly change elements of their character in order to fit the certain characteristics that dictate class and a problem that this can create is an inability to face any of life’s problems as there is a detachment from reality. This is evident in Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) where Blanche DuBois (a woman raised on a southern plantation named “Belle Reve”— beautiful dream) constantly hides away from reality and has constructed a view of life within her mind which she believes as the truth. In Christopher Bigsby’s essay ‘Tennessee Williams: the theatricalising self’ he observes that she has a desire to “aestheticise experience” (46) which is relevant as she approaches the dominant social class in New Orleans— the working class— because she values her image over the integrity of her lifestyle. This is also true with Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan who, following their partial fault in Gatsby’s death, “had gone away early that afternoon, and taken baggage with them” (164) which means they have removed themselves from the incident both physically and mentally— thus valuing their reputation higher than their conscience. The difference between Gatsby and Heathcliff in this context is that, rather than a continued search for self-definition, Heathcliff is able to assess his situation before he returns to his home and thus holds a concrete view over his childhood friends. This is particularly evident when he approaches Catherine and wants her “to be aware that I know you have treated me infernally—infernally!” (99) which is very different to Gatsby as he finds difficulty in recognising Daisy’s flaws. Moreover Heathcliff is able to micro-manage the children on the residency which, to an extent, acts as a pseudo-fantasy for his desires; rather than Blanche who is forced to create her perfect view of reality within her mind, Heathcliff is able to actually create this in reality using the respective children of the residents on the moor. Heathcliff’s rejection from Thrushcross Grange (the estate which welcomed his siblings rather than him) sparked a lifelong desire to reverse the positions of class— so he would instead hold dominion over the estate— which he is able to create using the forced marriage between Linton (Heathcliff’s son) and Cathy (Catherine’s son). Heathcliff wants “the triumph of seeing my descendant fairly lord of their estates” (184) and talks of Linton as “mine”; this objectification of his son is relevant because it shows the fixation on class which can be developed after spending the majority of one’s life focusing on approaching a new class, such as fixation proving more important than the wellbeing of one’s own children. Clarissa Dalloway’s perception of Ellie Henderson (her poor cousin) reinforces this idea as she approaches the lower classes with a degree of reluctancy: “[Ellie’s] invitation to Clarissa’s party had come at the last moment. She was not quite happy about it. She had a sort of feeling that Clarissa had not meant to ask her this year” (169). This distaste of family is slightly different from Heathcliff as they exist at two different levels of progression; Clarissa is an upper class woman and— as determinants of class are lifelong— she has been in the upper class since she was born and will remain there until her death. This means any dislike of the lower classes is on a more personal level with no actual contact that has provoked such a negative perception; however, Heathcliff endured the hardship of Hindley after their father died and, until he has power over Thrushcross Grange, his quest towards the upper classes is incomplete and this actively provokes the harsh treatment of Linton.
An outsider approaching the dominant social class implies that there is an active attempt to move from one class to another; this notion can in fact be flawed when someone is placed into a class different from their own due to factors which were out of their control. Heathcliff was “starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb, in the streets of Liverpool” (31) and subsequently “[Mr Earnshaw] thought it better to take it home with him at once, than run into vain expenses there: because he was determined he would not leave it as he found it”. Moreover the progression from poverty to riches (after he takes residence in Wuthering Heights) was completely out of his control, as was his descent to effective poverty after Hindley gained ownership of the estate; Gatsby’s approach was also out of his control to an extent as his meeting with Dan Cody— a rich millionaire— was established by chance. This meeting was important in his approach towards the upper class as it

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