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Subversion in Literature

One of the most popular and highly esteemed novels in English literature, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, sold very poorly at first and received only mixed reviews.

Victorian readers found the book shocking with its blunt depictions of various incidents of passionate love and cruelty (despite the fact that the novel actually portrays no actual sex or bloodshed). Emily Brontë’s sister Charlotte was very reserved about the strange intensity of her sister’s novel. She stated, ‘Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know. I scarcely think it is.’

Today, however, Wuthering Heights has secured a position in the canon of world literature. Emily Brontë is respected as one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century. The novel itself is based partly on the Gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century, which largely contained elements of supernatural encounters, crumbling ruins, moonless nights, and grotesque imagery, portraying atmospheres of mystery and fear, but transcends its genre with its sophisticated and artistic subtlety. Examined using every imaginable critical perspective, the novel’s symbolism, themes, structure, language and unforgettable characters remain unexhausted.

Undoubtedly, part of the success of Wuthering Heights, in rising from being almost rejected to its current fantastic acceptance, though, stems from its relationship to the accepted social and literary conventions of its day - it draws that power from the very knowledge of the existence of Victorian social and literary conventions, not only in the story but in the readers’ minds. Its wildness is wild because it is in the context of something less wild; symbolism, theme, structure, language are all counterpointed.

Its strength is based on underlying patterns, then, even when it seems to reject them -partly because it seems to reject them. The novel marks a point in English literature at which a turn in the culture began. But the important point here is that even those novels or stories which appear to defy standard fictive conventions draw much of their power from those conventions.

A man appearing upside down in a film only appears outlandish because we are used to seeing men standing the right way up. American novelist William Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch (1959), deals with life as a drug addict in a unique, surreal style by chopping up pages of text and rearranging them in an apparently random order -but this only has an effect because we are used to seeing text in the correct order. So what might be termed ‘subversive’ literature - that is, literature which goes ‘against the grain’ of its surrounding culture - only appears subversive because of that surrounding culture and its norms. Men appearing upside down would seem unremarkable if all men did so; novels arranged in random order would be considered normal if all novels were arranged so. So context is important.

But there is more to this. There are times in human culture when ‘subversion’, or the presentation of something at odds with the cultural norms around it, is more prevalent than at other times, just as there are times when ‘subversion’ is isolated and unremarkable . This has important ramifications for fiction of many kinds as a whole, as is touched upon in the book How Stories Really Work.


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