Thomas J. Joudrey, “‘Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run’: Selfishness and Sociality in Wuthering Heights” (pp. 165–193)
This essay traces a problem that has long dogged criticism of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847): why is a novel concerned with passionate love for others populated by characters who are radically selfish? Brontë, drawing on the Byronic tradition and eschewing contemporary exhortations to self-renunciation, validates selfish desire even at the expense of communal responsibility. In so doing, she is forced to contend with the possibility that selfishness risks disabling sociality and marooning the self in shame, isolation, or solipsism. Brontë shows, however, that selfishness and sociality are symbiotically implicated, in that selfishness acts as a precondition of robust sociality. After a series of failures—represented in Lockwood’s shame-saturated retreat into childish sociality, Heathcliff and Catherine’s self-destroying soul fusion, and Linton Heathcliff’s masturbatory selfishness—Brontë ultimately locates a brokered compromise between selfishness and sociality in the relationship of Cathy and Hareton. By maintaining their respective boundaries of self and yet making them selectively permeable, the two demonstrate that susceptibility to interpersonal exchange proves vital to fostering their autonomy as discrete selves. Wuthering Heights wages battle on two fronts, excoriating the temptation to enclose the self behind impenetrable barriers, but simultaneously denouncing the other extreme that would eradicate all difference through metaphysical soul-fusion. Brontë posits instead that mature selfhood can only be yielded by a posture of openness to external influences, even as the coherence of the self must be fortified against appropriation by those influences.