Masculinity in Brontë and Goethe

In this essay, I discuss Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë; 1847) and The Sorrows of Young Werther (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; 1774).  In particular, I discuss the theme of masculinity with respect to (i) Brontë’s protagonist Heathcliff, and (ii) Goethe’s protagonist Werther.  Victorian novels give us clear expectations for male protagonists.  We expect them to be independent, wealthy and in control of their emotions.  But Heathcliff and Werther defy these expectations in a number of ways.  Heathcliff is a wild and unruly character who is a victim of circumstance.  Werther is a romantic man with a sensitive temperament who is a victim of unrequited love.

1. Wuthering Heights

Victorian novels typically have reliable and authoritative narratives.  They also typically focus on contemporary issues.  Wuthering Heights is different in both respects.  First, Brontë uses a Chinese box narrative (Eagleton 2005), where different narrators inject the story with their subjective commentary.  Second, Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel and this is apparent from the barren landscape and the theme of seclusion.  (A typical gothic episode occurs when Lockwood dreams of Catherine’s ghost.)

Wuthering Heights defies our expectations as a novel and Heathcliff defies our expectations as a male protagonist.  Heathcliff is not a man of high society: he has no status, land or wealth.  Brontë leaves us in doubt as to Heathcliff’s true past, but we are to assume that he is an orphan.  Heathcliff’s love rival is Edgar Linton, whom Eagleton (2005) describes as a fop.  Linton is a member of the high society and he is, therefore, beholden to formality and social graces.  Catherine chooses to marry Linton and in so doing she abandons nature and passion in favour of bland social conformity.

The story of Catherine and Heathcliff is one of an absolute commitment and an absolute refusal.  There is now an implacable conflict between passion and society, rebellion and moral orthodoxy – Eagleton (2005)

Catherine feels drawn to Heathcliff, although she ultimately rejects him.  Eagleton (2005) describes their relationship as sexless.  There are two possible explanations for this.  First, Heathcliff and Catherine are perhaps aware (at an unconscious level) that they are related.  Second, the pair embark on a progressive relationship that is not defined in terms of sex or traditional gender roles.  The text lends indirect support to the second explanation.  Catherine justifies her marriage to Linton by claiming that she is Heathcliff.  Her relationship with Heathcliff will, therefore, be unaffected by her union with Linton.

To Catherine he [Heathcliff] is between brother and lover; he slept with her as a child, and again in death, but not between latency and extinction. – Kermode (1993)

In a typical Victorian novel, the female characters are victims of their social position but the male characters are not.  Male protagonists (e.g. Rochester and Mr Darcy) have access to wealth and are free to marry as they choose.  In Wuthering Heights, Brontë turns this tradition on its head.  She presents Heathcliff as a man who is thwarted by his lack of social standing and who is consumed by unrequited love.  Heathcliff desire Catherine simply as a soul mate; producing a male heir does not seem a priority for him.

2.  The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel written in the 1st-person.  Werther recounts his travels to a friend called Wilhelm.  Most importantly, Werther meets and falls in love with a young woman called Charlotte.  The problem is that Charlotte is engaged to be married.  Werther is aware of Charlotte’s engagement, but he nevertheless fosters a close friendship with both Charlotte and her fiancé.  This situation causes Werther so much pain that he eventually kills himself.  The novel is semi-autobiographical: Goethe, too, was the victim of unrequited love.  In addition, he witnessed a friend’s suicide.

Adam Smith (in his 1976 Wealth of Nations) suggested that the destruction of the masculine firmness of character may be necessary for nations to become civilized.  The traditional (or Victorian) concept of masculinity has now given way to a range of competing models.  We no longer expect all men to be physically strong and independent.  For example, Werther is a man of feeling.  Men of feeling are not necessarily providers or protectors; they are free to be introverted and to be governed by the heart and not the head.

This man of feeling valued the moment over future plans, the unspoken over the spoken, the felt over the reasoned, and process over product—all in contrast to the older ideals of man the provider and protector with his eye on the horizon. – Brodey (1999)

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an important novel in the Sturm und Drang (i.e. Storm and Stress) movement in German literature.  This movement breaks away from the rules of French drama and embraces the natural world (Boerner 2005).  Despite this, Werther is not a typical Sturm und Drang protagonist.  He is a victim of unrequited love.  Moreover, his failure to win the heart of Charlotte relegates him to the status of un-male (ibid 2005).  Moreover, Goethe was described by an associated as a true genius whose thinking was noble and free of preconception.  Goethe intended to draw inspiration from his personal life and to produce a text that blurred the distinctions between literature and reality (ibid 2005).

3. Conclusion

Wuthering Heights and The Sorrows of Young Werther share (at least) two themes.  First, both texts deal with death and miserable circumstances.  Second, both texts blur the boundaries between the fictional and the real.  These two themes are hallmarks of the Gothic movement in literature and it likely that Goethe’s work was an important influence on Brontë.  Moreover, the male protagonists (i.e. Heathcliff and Werther) defy expectations.  In other words, they do not conform to the emotionally strong and independent male protagonists of Victorian fiction.

Heathcliff and Werther are both victims of circumstance (and in Victorian novels their fates are reserved for women).  Heathcliff is a victim of his low social status and Werther is a victim of unrequited love.  Heathcliff is very close to Catherine, but Catherine ultimately rejects him in favour of a more cultured individual (i.e. Linton).  And Werther enters freely into a close friendship with Charlotte, in the knowledge that he can never marry her.  Heathcliff and Werther both have their fates mapped out for them, in much the same way as female protagonists do in traditional Victorian novels.


Boerner, P., 2005. Goethe. Haus Publishing. London

Brodey, I S. 1999. Masculinity, Sensibility and The Man of Feeling: The Gendered Ethics of Goethe’s Werther. Papers on Language and Literature. 1:1. 115-141.

Eagleton, T., 2005. The English Novel: An introduction. Blackwell Publishing. Oxford

Kermode, F., 1993. Wuthering Heights as Classic. in Stoneman, P [ed.] Wuthering Heights: Emily Brontë. New Casebooks.  The Macmillan Press. London

Masters, T., 2010. The Right Stuff: An analysis of masculinity in literature. The University of Newcastle. Australia

Smith, A., 2010. The Wealth of Nations: The abridged version. Capstone Classics.  


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