- Teaching Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in a Variety of Courses
" . . . in a short time she has made much improvement."
"Sir, you have now given me my 'cadeau'; I am obliged to you; it is the meed teachers most covet; praise of their pupils' progress."
"Humph!" said Mr. Rochester.—Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
I have taught for more years than I think wise to enumerate at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, a small, liberal arts college for women that has recently consolidated with Fordham University. Given this particular teaching experience, I would like to make a few points at the outset. First, my students have all been young women, which has, of course, influenced these students' responses to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. My students frequently do speculate about what "guys" would think of certain aspects of the novels (Jane's hearing Rochester's voice at the end of the narrative springs immediately to mind) and, indeed, how their own responses might differ had said "guys" been present for our discussions. Second, before the consolidation with Fordham in 2002, many of our English majors did not plan to attend graduate school immediately upon graduation. This, and the [End Page 451] fact that Marymount is a women's college, created a campus culture in which classroom situations tend to be supportive rather than competitive and geared to teaching rather than research. These first two points will certainly be reflected in my comments, which will most often be in the form of questions I ask the students to stimulate their thinking about the novels. Third, since Marymount's number of English department members is few, and my years there many, I have had the opportunity to teach the Brontës' novels in several different courses: The Victorian Novel, Survey of English Literature II, and Women Writers.
The Victorian Novel, subtitled Wuthering Heights to The Way of All Flesh, is an upper-level course aimed at junior and senior English majors and minors, mostly education majors. The first two novels we read are Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which I find helpful in dispelling any preconceived or prelearned ideas the students may have in determining what, exactly, "the Victorian novel" is, one of the questions I have them revisit as they read more novels. Our third novel, William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, for example, might fit more easily into the prevalent notion of an extremely long, serialized, "omniscient" narrative. The fact that these three novels were published within months of each other emphasizes immediately the variety of this genre for the students.
Topics we explore in these first novels are ones that we will continue to apply to later Victorian novels, along with other issues not relevant to the Brontës—the effects of serialization, for example. One such topic is the distinction between narrator and author, essential in understanding narrative, and presented in such an original way in these two novels. Emily Brontë's use of the dual narrators in Wuthering Heights raises immediate questions. What effect does this unusual method of storytelling have on the novel itself? On our view of the characters whose stories are being told by someone else? What do these narrators think about the characters at the center of the story? What does Emily Brontë think about these characters? The latter was a very problematic issue for Charlotte herself, as seen in her preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights. I find the novice reader may tend to believe everything she is told when she reads, but a careful reading of Wuthering Heights produces a much more savvy reader. Charlotte Brontë of course uses a different method—a first-person narrator in Jane Eyre. What is the effect of this method on the novel itself? On our view of Jane? Do we trust what Jane tells us? Why? Do we trust what other characters tell Jane, which she tells us? Why or why not? What does Charlotte Brontë think about Jane? Is Jane [End Page 452] Charlotte Brontë? How do we feel about being addressed directly by Jane, "Dear Reader"?
Another important issue in understanding the novels is the manner in...