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Timelines in Emily Brontë’s «Wuthering Heights»

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Michael Weber

The temporal structure of Wuthering Heights has long been regarded as opaque or even flawed. This is explained by the fact that the years 1778, 1801 and 1802do not entirely cohere with the numerous relative time references in the novel if, as scholarship contends, the years 1801 and 1802 refer to Ellen Dean’s narration of the story. By means of mathematically precise calculations and a grammatical analysis of the text, this critical new approach argues that the time frame of Wuthering Heights is sound if the years 1801 and 1802 date the writing of Mr. Lockwood’s diary. The crucial differentiation between the recording of Mr. Lockwood’s diary and the narration of Ellen Dean’s story leads to a deeper understanding of the intentions of the two narrators and the behaviour of the protagonists.

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I. Questions and Contradictions

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When reading Wuthering Heights, sooner or later – and always when it is too late to orientate oneself chronologically – the question arises as to the timing of events at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The reason for this is the legendary “confusion of minds” which inevitably sets in during reading.1 This confusion is due to the year 1801 given at the beginning of the novel, which suggests that events can be dated from this point on, and that Mr. Lockwood arrives at Thrushcross Grange in the winter towards the end of 1801 when Ellen Dean then begins her story. After this, the novel is filled with an abundance of time spans with reference to the second absolute year named in the text, 1778, the year of Hareton Earnshaw’s birth (Chapters 7 and 8). Confusing forward and backward references also appear, along with a plethora of indefinite time expressions. The third and last absolute year named in the text, 1802, appears surprisingly late towards the end of the novel at the beginning of Chapter 32.

Based on these time references, literary criticism has contended, for example, that the wedding of Catherine Earnshaw and Edgar Linton takes place three years after the death of Edgar’s father when Hareton is nearly five years old, and that Cathy is eighteen and Hareton twenty-three when they become lovers. These claims suggest that the major episode – the short, highly dramatic period with the near-fatal fall of Hareton, the disappearance of Heathcliff and the...

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