In the Victorian era, men were held as inherently superior to women by natural design. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, we are introduced to Edward Rochester who employs the titular character at Thornfield manor. After Jane falls in love with him, it is revealed that Edward was previously married to a woman who has now gone insane, a fact which Rochester hides from Jane for the first part of their courtship. It is in this dishonesty that Rochester sets the stage for the destruction of his relationship with Jane, the fire which claims his sight and the years of life afterward in which he must remain in the care of his wife and their servants. His superiority over Jane is a front for the weaknesses he possesses which ultimately cripple him in the end. Similarly, in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the character of Heathcliff appears to assert dominance over many of the characters in the novel as the story progresses. His quest for vengeance and his inability to deal with the death of his first love eventually reveal his true nature as a maudlin sociopath. By the end of the story, he is refusing any nourishment and has descended into madness fraught with hallucination and conversations he believes are taking place between himself and the dead. This eventually builds to his death which is a direct result of his inability to deal with his inner demons. In an era where masculinity meant power over the fairer sex, it is obvious that these two female writers had their doubts about the superiority of men to women. By developing male characters with self-destructive qualities, the Brontes were able to craft classic tales of love involving men who seal their own fate.
Jane Eyre is a love story between a strong Victorian heroine and her employer. The roles of both characters upon their meeting and first few interactions are obvious. Rochester is Jane’s superior in every way at the beginning of their relationship; however this perception of him quickly deteriorates. The major entropic issue in the story revolves around Rochester’s proposal to Jane while having already been married to Bertha, a Creole woman who has lost her mind. When Rochester originally married Bertha, she was a wealthy and beautiful woman from one of the British colonies. Their marriage was based entirely on money, as the aim was to bring Bertha’s colonial money into Rochester’s English family. This first marriage of Rochester’s is not based on love in any way and his decision to enter this institution because of economic reasons will ultimately lead to a series of events which will undo him. By then keeping this original marriage as a secret from Jane whom he truly does love, Rochester assures not only the destruction of his earnest relationship but of parts of his body as well.
When we are introduced to Rochester, he is terse and seems dark. Jane serves to illuminate him as she falls in love, and for a moment we feel as though Rochester can be the standard romantic male lead from any number of Victorian novels. We soon realize, with the introduction of the character of Blanche Ingram that Rochester is not as ethical as we had hoped him to be. Blanche is beautiful while Rochester isn’t very handsome, and it becomes apparent to the reader that she is only interested in money. The fact that Rochester entertains her drives Jane into a staggering depression which places the first true barrier between the characters. The reader empathizes with Jane in her depression as Rochester seems to be becoming the unlikable aristocrat we had hoped he wouldn’t become. When Rochester approaches Jane for the first time in chapter 17, her emotions are revealed when she describes his “eyes that revealed a heart full and eager to overflow; in whose emotions I had a part”. This reflects the true romantic sentiment of the novel which Rochester will dash to dust with his dishonesty and poor decisions. When he finally proposes to Jane and confesses his love, our hearts are lifted and we believe that he will grow to be the good husband we want for our titular heroine.
When Rochester’s first marriage is revealed and it becomes clear that the fire which Jane had rescued him from earlier in the novel was set by Bertha, the reader loses all hope in Rochester. Her presence represents the bad decisions Rochester has made in not only marrying for unromantic reasons but also in the fact the he withheld that information from Jane. When Jane leaves, after she realizes that she can’t be with a man who is already married, Rochester has lost the one character in the novel who would have brought him happiness. The hurt Jane expresses at Rochester’s dishonesty effects the reader in the same way. From Jane’s beginnings and the events of the Red Room, the reader has grown attached to Jane. When Rochester hurts Jane, the reader is also damaged by his actions. Because of Rochester’s weaknesses and secrecy he has alienated not only his love interest, but the entire audience as well. It is no one else’s fault but his own and his self-destruction is evident.
At the conclusion of the novel, Bertha has lit another fire which claims her life and seriously disfigured Rochester. While Jane retains her love for him, she has inherited a fortune, grown emotionally secure and her previous intelligence which was equal to Rochester’s at the beginning of the novel has since surpassed it. She now cares for Rochester with the house servants and while although she describes her marriage to him as “blissful”, it is evident that Rochester’s self-destructive decisions have tipped the scales of power in the relationship in favor of Jane. In chapter 37, when Jane meets with Rochester for the first time since his disfiguring fire, he admits it himself when he says “I have little left of myself – I must have you. The world may laugh – may call me absurd, selfish – but it does not signify. My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied, or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame.” Were he true of heart and respectful of the nature of his and Jane’s relationship, he would not be the infantile husk we find him at the end of the novel. He has become the sum of his actions, crippled and broken and nothing without Jane.
Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s WutheringHeights shares a similar self-destructive streak. At the beginning of his life, he is tormented by his adoptive brother Hindley while secretly falling in love with Catherine. As an orphan who falls in love with a girl who eventually leaves him in order to pursue a life in the aristocracy, the reader feels pity for the young Heathcliff. As time goes on, and he is conscripted to a life of manual labor, this feeling is reinforced. When Catherine leaves, he is destroyed and disappears for three years, only to return as a character who shares few similarities with the young orphan boy whose abuse is witnessed in the story’s exposition. In chapter 10, upon Heathcliff’s return to Wuthering Heights, Nelly recounts when she beheld “the transformation of Heathcliff” that “A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in [his] depressed brows, and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified, quite divested of roughness though too stern for grace”. He is indeed at this point too stern for grace and has become vengeful, tormented by his lost love, and reduced to a shadow of his former self. As he begins to seek what he conceives as justice, any sympathy felt before for him begins to melt away.
When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights, he is no longer the impoverished boy as before. He is wealthy now and has lost all compassion for others. The first person he seeks revenge on is Hindley, who was responsible for the time that Heathcliff spent as a laborer. Hindley is impressionable due to a drinking problem and Heathcliff draws him into a debt which allows him to inherit the manor after Hindley’s death. By seeking revenge on the brother of his former love, Heathcliff begins his acquisition of the things which he believes are rightfully his. As Hindley was abusive as a youth, the reader doesn’t necessarily feel bad for the revenge Heathcliff so deeply desires. However, these actions are what will ultimately lead to Heathcliff’s death, as he will realize that all he has wrought on those who’ve made his life miserable can’t return the love he felt with Catherine or cease his haunting by her memory.
At this point in the novel, Heathcliff has taken the deceased Hindley’s son as his own. When it becomes clear that Heathcliff has forgotten his own roots as an orphan and sees the abuse of the boy as further punishment for Hindley’s misdeeds, Heathcliff is lost to his rage. By keeping Hareton ignorant and allowing the boy to love him, Heathcliff’s actions are truly damning. It seems unlikely at this point that he will be able to redeem himself in the eyes of the reader, and has compounded his own guilt and wrathful feelings. When Catherine dies and Heathcliff begs her spirit to remain on Earth, we are truly seeing the desperate pleas of a pitiful man. He has secured his own destruction by tormenting himself with Catherine and by terrorizing Hareton.
In the final chapters of the novel, Heathcliff has gained control of both Wuthering Heights and its sister manor, Thrushcross Grange. He forces Catherine, the younger daughter of the woman whom he has been in love with his whole life, to work as a servant. By forcing this girl, who is in many ways the embodiment of her deceased mother to work in the same ways he was forced as a child, Heathcliff is no longer a feeling man but a vessel for his anger. By forcing a marriage between Catherine and Linton, Heathcliff has lost all of his humanity. The scene in chapter 27 when his anger turns to violence is probably the point of no return for Heathcliff, as he delivers a “shower of terrific slaps on both sides of the head” to Catherine and at this “diabolical violence”, the narrator rushes Heathcliff exclaiming “You villain!”. It is here where our character is gone forever from the boy we once felt sorry for and his vengeance and self-destructive decisions have done him in. When Hareton and the young Catherine ultimately fall in love, Hareton is shown to have endured a predicament similar to the one Heathcliff faced as a child without the violent anger that has dominated his surrogate father’s life. Heathcliff descends into madness and starves himself to death, ending not only his life but the action of the novel. The decisions made by him throughout the course of the story have damned him, destroyed the reader’s opinion of his humanity and ultimately caused his death. He has truly made his bed, and in it he lays.
It is through these self-destructive tendencies and the unethical decisions made by Heathcliff and Rochester that these novels are driven. By living a life maintained by withholding information, Rochester loses his chance to have a perfect marriage with a woman who loves him. While we’re told he is happy at the end of the novel, he is a shadow of his former self and barely able to see the son he has with Jane. He becomes a ward of his wife and the servants, and he has lost all of his power in the process. The tragedy of Heathcliff mirrors this self-destructive descent. Because of his inability to deal with the unfortunate events of his childhood, he becomes a monster who shows no compassion for others. Even when he sees the love of his life’s daughter, who represents his lost chance to be with his Catherine; instead of preserving her, he attempts to imprison and enslave her. In attempting to destroy the lives of those around him, he ultimately destroys himself. Charlotte and Emily Bronte have constructed tragic and beautiful love stories in Jane Eyre and WutheringHeights. Both tales pivot on the weaknesses of the male leads, which amounts to self-destructive tendencies and the inability to respect themselves or others.