Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Women's Search for Independence in Jane Eyre and Class Conflict in Wuthering Heights. A review

Our thanks to Greenhaven Press for providing us with review copies of these books.

Social Issues in Literature
Women's Search for Independence in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
Editor: Claudia Johnson
Published by Greenhaven Press
ISBN 13: 9780737754513
ISBN 10: 0737754516

Class Conflict in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights
Editor: Dedria Bryfonski
Published by Greenhaven Press
Social Issues in Literature
ISBN 13: 9780737758023
ISBN 10: 0737758023
Greenhaven Press Social Issues in Literature series aim is to support curriculum integration and following the ensuing guidelines:
The Social Issues in Literature series brings together the disciplines of sociology and literature in a unique format designed to support cross-curricular studies. Each volume explores a work of literature through the lens of the major social issue reflected in it, and features carefully-selected content representing a variety of perspectives. All volumes in the series contain biographical and critical information about the author; secondary excerpts offering both historical and contemporary views of the highlighted social issue; a timeline of the author's life; a "For Further Reading" section of other works on the issue; and a detailed subject index. .
Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are, of course, susceptible of being approached this way. Their status as classics firmly establishes their presence in literary studies and in syllabus of the British culture area of influence. And particularly in a year where new film adaptations are bringing the novels again to the front page these two novels seem more than fitting as a choice for the series.

As we quoted above, the Social Issues in Literature series is basically concerned with a cross-curricular approach to the studied novels integrating essentially the literary criticism and the sociological studies in a kind of cross-functional approach which recalls the Sociological criticism of Kenneth Burke. Nevertheless, the series goals are not to formulate a new reading of the analysed novels but to explore them around one main line which serves both as agglutinative element as well as the backbone of the approach. In the case of Jane Eyre, there is an almost obvious choice: the construction of feminism: women's search for independence. In the case of Emily Brontë's novel, the sociological approach is more doubtful (and some critics would even argue that there is no possible sociological approach as far as Wuthering Heights is concerned): class conflict through the confrontation between Heathcliff (the pariah, the yeoman, the new capitalist) and the Lintons (the traditional aristocratic land owners).

The introductions to both books, which strictly speaking are the only original texts, are quite concise and merely a presentation of the contents of the books as are the chronologies. The articles selected are profusely edited both to maintain the books under 175 pages and arguably to facilitate their reading to undergraduates. The edition is done by excising entire paragraphs or phrases with the minimal rephrasing or recontextualising. This is a dangerous and very tricky way of summarising a long text and, unsurprisingly when it works it is almost imperceptible and when it doesn't work it makes the text almost unintelligible.

Both books put their articles in three main categories: background of the author, the main topic and contemporary issues more or less related to the main topic. In the case of Claudia Johnson's selection for Women's Search for Independence in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, the first category texts are a bit disappointing as the chosen texts are the Charlotte Brontë entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Victorian Novelists Before 1885 by Herbert J. Rosengarten (which is not to say the book is good or bad, but that it is obviously chosen as being published by the same publishing house that the series) and the Cowan Bridge chapter of Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë(2). The problem with both chapters is that the savage cuts of the edition make for very difficult reading and a basic understanding of the Brontë's background.

The articles selected for the central part of the book are more interesting and much more readable. Here the work of the editor has to be praised as, as we said above, it is not an easy task. Of course, one can question why this particular paper is not quoted or why that not-so-relevant one is included. Literary criticism is no different from many other human areas of knowledge. It depends on tastes and tastes are highly variable. Nevertheless, the pre-feminist (almost pansexual) views of Inga-Stina Ewbank, the postcolonial readings of Susan L. Meyer, Joyce Zonana and her feminist-colonialist vision, Jean Wyatt and her vision of Jane fighting but in a way longing for patriarchial archetypes or the Marxist approach of Terry Eagleton among other ones are present. The last section devoted to contemporary perspectives is informative and maybe helpful to students trying to establish easy links between the novel and American society but as in any other selection of this type it is a bit arbitrary.

Dedria Byfronski's Class Conflict in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is overall more satisfactory. Probably because the topic is more focused. The background articles use again an entry from the aforementioned Dictionary by Tom Winnifrith, excerpts from Charlotte Brontë's Preface for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights(3) and a chapter from A. Mary F. Robinson's 1883 biography of Emily Brontë(4). The second section goes directly to the point and offers quite interesting visions that go from Beth Newman's social contextualisation of the background of the novel: the industrialisation and the emergence of the middle class, Daniela Garofalo's vision of Heathcliff as the paradigm of the origins of capitalism, Terry Eagleton's now classical view of the class struggle between Heathcliff and the Lintons or Barbara Munson Goff's Darwinist vision of the novel, among others. The contemporary articles are interesting to read, as the issue of class conflict seems to have being vanished from any kind of serious discussion, but are somehow biased as they included Newsweek, New York Times or World Socialist Web articles and not any of their obvious counterparts(5).

In essence, both books (more the Wuthering Heights one than the Jane Eyre one) constitute a good student support to bring together several noteworthy articles around their respective main topics. Not being a book for the Brontë scholar or expert it, nevertheless, could appeal to the Brontëite who is interested in going beyond the biographical data and is eager to explore the novels in a deeper way but is often blocked by the high brow terminology or references which are virtually absent in these two books.


Notes
(1) Curiously the latest version of Wuthering Heights even being basically a naturalistic adaptation contains an obvious conflict that goes beyond class frontiers: race. One wonders if we can define Andrea Arnold's film as a naturalistic postcolonialist view of Emily Brontë's novel.
(2) Which is an odd choice if the main topic is feminism. It would seem quite more apt to include the Brussels chapters when Charlotte tried to find her own place and achieve independence.
(3) Why it is credited by its reprint as the book Wuthering Heights: A Casebook (1992), without giving its true origins is a mystery to us.
(4) Emily Brontë who inside the book is pictured twice erroneously: first as G.H. Lewes and then as her own now untraced drawing The North Wind. 
(5) The latest one: Class Distinctions Extend to Social Networks (2009) illustrates the problem of quoting from too recent articles about too recent phenomena. The discussion about how Facebook users are more affluent than Myspace users is totally outdated.

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