A quote from Joseph Carroll – about human nature in `Wuthering Heights’ from a chapter in Evolution, Literature, Film: A Reader (2010).
First of all – if you haven’t seen the 2009 ITV two-part telemovie version of `Wuthering Heights’ – starring Charlotte Riley and Tom Hardy as Cathy and Heathcliff, then you have missed a stunning emotional experience. For one thing: Tom Hardy’s acting, alone… amazing.
For another: the story – haunting…! (in more ways than one.)
In my view, the `revenge’ as enacted by Heathcliff, (on Cathy – and in fact, upon many characters in the story) – makes him one of the more fascinating villains in literature.
Scene from `Wuthering Heights’, ITV (2009)
Wuthering Heights has been adapted in film, theatre, TV and radio over 30 times.
Joseph Carroll has a chapter in ELF: A Reader (2010) on the novel:
`Wuthering Heights occupies a singular position in the canon of English fiction. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece of an imaginative order superior to that of most novels – more powerful, more in touch with elemental forces of nature and society, and deeper in symbolic value. Nonetheless, it has proved exceptionally elusive to interpretation…
Postmodern critics have been more receptive to the idea of unresolved conflicts, but they have tended to translate elemental passions into semiotic abstractions or have subordinated the concerns of the novel to current political and social preoccupations. As a result, they have lost touch with the aesthetic qualities of the novel…
In the efforts to conceptualize a total structure, once chief element has been missing – the idea of “human nature”.
By foregrounding the idea of human nature, Darwinian literary theory provides a framework within which we can assimilate previous insights about Wuthering Heights, delineate the norms Brontë shares with her projected audience, analyse her divided impulses, and explain the generic forms in which those impulses manifest themselves. Brontë herself presupposes a folk understanding of human nature in her audience.
Evolutionary psychology converges with that folk understanding but provides explanations that are broader and deeper. In addition to its explanatory power, a Darwinian approach has a naturalistic aesthetic dimension that is particularly important for interpreting Wuthering Heights. Brontë’s emphasis on the primacy of physical bodies in a physical world – what I am calling her naturalism – is a chief source of her imaginative power.
By uniting naturalism with supernatural fantasy, she invests her symbolic figurations with strangeness and mystery.
From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the supernaturalism itself can be traced to natural sources in Brontë’s imagination.
An evolutionary account of human nature locates itself within the wider biological concept of “life history”. Species vary in gestation and speed of growth, length of life, forms of mating, number and pacing of offspring, and kind and amount of effort expended on parental care. For any given species, the relations among these basic biological characteristics form an integrated structure that biologists designate the “life history” of that species. Human life history, as described by evolutionary biologists, includes mammalian binding between mothers and offspring, dual-parenting and the concordant pair-bonding between sexually differentiated adults, and extended childhood development. Like their closest primate cousins, humans are highly social and display string dispositions for building coalitions and organizing social groups hierarchically. All these characteristics are part of “human nature” (Barrett, Dunbar and Lycett; Buss, Evolutionary Psychology; Dunbar and Barrett, Oxford Handbook; Gangestad and Simpson).
Humans have also evolved unique representational powers, especially those of language, through which they convey information in non-genetic ways. That kind of informational transmission is what we call “culture”: arts, technologies, literature, myths, religions, ideologies, philosophies, and science.
From the Darwinian perspective, culture does not stand apart from the genetically transmitted dispositions of human nature. It is, rather, the medium through which we organize those dispositions into systems that regulate public behaviour and inform private thoughts (Boyd, “Literature” On; Carroll “Evolutionary Paradigm” Literary Darwinism; Dissanayake, Art; Dutton; Gottschall and Wilson; Wilson, Consilience).
In writing and reading fabricated accounts of human behaviour, novelists and their readers help to produce and sustain cultural norms.
Novelists select and organize their material for the purpose of generating emotionally charged evaluative responses, and readers become emotionally involved in stories, participate vicariously in the experiences depicted, and form personal opinions about the characters. Beneath all variation in the details of organisation, the life history of every species forms a reproductive cycle.
In the case of Homo sapiens, successful parental care produces children capable, when grown, of forming adult pair bonds, becoming functional members of a community, and caring for children of their own. With respect to its adaptively functional character, human life history has a normative structure.
In this context, the word “normative” signifies successful development in becoming a socially and sexually healthy adult. The plot of Wuthering Heights indicates that Brontë shares a normative model of human life history with her projected audience, but most readers have felt that the resolution of the plot does not wholly contain the emotional force of the story. Brontë is evidently attracted to the values vested in the normative model, but her figurations also embody impulses of emotional violence that reflect disturbed forms of social and sexual development.’
Carroll goes on to give a fascinating and illuminating account of the two major parts of the story: one which is a dramatic Tragedy – and one a Romantic Comedy. (See also this StoryAlity post on Nettle and story types.)
`…Brontë implicitly appeals to a model of human life history in which children develop into socially and sexually healthy adults. Nevertheless, the majority of readers have always been much more strongly impressed by Catherine and Heathcliff than by the younger protagonists.
The differences between the two generations can be formulated in terms of genre, and genre, in turn, can be analysed in terms of human life history. The species-typical needs of an evolved and adapted human nature centre on sexual and familial bonds within a community – bonds that constitute the core elements of romantic comedy and tragedy.
Romantic comedy typically concludes in a marriage and thus affirms and celebrates the social organisation of reproductive interests within a given culture.
In tragedy, sexual and familial bonds become pathological, and social bonds disintegrate. (On the structure of romantic comedy and tragedy, Frye, after more than half a century, remains the most authoritative source.)
Wuthering Heights contains the seeds of tragedy in the first generation, and the second generation concludes in a romantic comedy, but the potential for tragedy takes an unusual turn.
In most romantic comedies, threats to family and community are contained or suppressed within the resolution. In Wuthering Heights, the conflicts activated in the first generation are not fully contained within the second. Instead, the passions of Catherine and Heathcliff form themselves into an independent system of emotional fulfillment, and the novel concludes with two separate spheres of existence: the merely human and the mythic.
The human sphere, inhabited by Hareton Earnshaw and the younger Cathy, is that of romantic comedy. In the mythic sphere, emotional violence fuses with the elemental forces of nature and transmutes itself into supernatural agency.
Romantic comedy and pathological supernaturalism are, however, incompatible forms of emotional organization, and that incompatibility reflects itself in the history of divided and ambivalent responses to the novel.
Brontë would of course have had no access to the concept of adaptation by means of natural selection, but she did have access to a folk concept of human nature.
To register this concept’s importance as a central point of reference in the story, consider three specific invocations of the term “human nature”. The older Catherine reacts with irritated surprise when her commendation of Heathcliff upsets her husband. Nelly Dean explains that enemies do not enjoy hearing one another praised. “It’s human nature” (77)… Folk appeals to human nature provide a basis for comparing an adaptationist perspective on Wuthering Heights with humanist and postmodern perspectives. Humanist critics do not overtly repudiate the idea of human nature, but they do not typically seek explanatory reductions in evolutionary theory, either. Instead, they make appeal to some metaphysical, moral, or formal norm – for instance, cosmic equilibrium, charity, passion, or the integration of form and content – and they typically represent this preferred norm as a culminating extrapolation of the common understanding.
Postmodern critics, in contrast, subordinate folk concepts to explicit theoretical formulations – deconstructive, Marxist, Freudian, feminist, and the rest – and they present the characters in the story as allegorical embodiments of the matrix terms within these theories.
In their postmodern form, all these component theories emphasize the exclusively cultural character of symbolic constructs. “Nature” and “human nature”, in this conception, are themselves cultural artifacts. Because they are contained and produced by culture, they can exercise no constraining force on culture. Hence Fredric Jameson’s dictum that “postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good” (ix).
From the postmodern perspective, any appeal to “human nature” would necessarily appear as a delusory reification of a specific cultural formation. By self-consciously distancing itself from the folk understanding of human nature, postmodern criticism distances itself also from biological reality and from the imaginative structures that Brontë shares with her projected audience.
In both the biological and folk understanding, as in the humanist, there is a world outside the text. An adaptationist approach to Wuthering Heights shares with the humanist a respect for the common understanding, and it shares with the postmodern a drive to explicit theoretical reduction.
From the adaptationist perspective, folk perceptions offer insights into important features of human nature, and evolutionary theory makes it possible to situate those features within the larger theoretical system of human life history analysis.’
`A Darwinian approach to fiction involves no necessary commitment to a metaphysical ideal, or to an ideal of formal aesthetic integration. Identifying human nature as a central point of reference does not require the critic to postulate any ultimate resolution of conflict in a novel.
Quite the contrary. Darwinians regard conflicting interests as an endemic and ineradicable feature of human social interaction (Bjorkland and Pellegrini; Geary, “Evolution”; Geary and Flinn). Male and female sexual relations have compelling positive affects, but they are also fraught with suspicion and jealousy. Even when they work reasonably well, these relations inevitably involve compromise, and all compromise is inherently unstable.
Parents have a reproductive investment in their children, but children have still more of an investment in themselves, and siblings must compete for parental attention and resources. Each human organism is driven by its own particular needs, with the result that all affiliative behaviour consists in temporary arrangements of interdependent interests.
[In the novel] Nelly Dean understands this principle… In modern evolutionary theory the ultimate regulative principle that has shaped all life on earth is the principle of “inclusive fitness” – that is, of kinship, the sharing of genes among reproductively related individuals.
Kinship takes different form in different cultures, but the perception of kinship is not merely an artefact of culture. Kinship is a physical, biological reality that makes itself visible in human bodies. The species-typical human cognitive system contains mechanisms for recognizing and favouring kin, and perceptions of kin relationships bulk large in folk psychology (Barret, Dunbar and Lycett 45-66; Kurland and Gaulin; Salmon and Shackelford).
As one might anticipate then, kinship forms a major theme in the literature of all cultures and all periods. In Wuthering Heights, that common theme articulates itself with exceptional force and specificity. Kinship among the characters manifests itself in genetically transmitted features of anatomy, nervous systems, and temperament. The interweaving of those heritable characteristics across the generations forms the main structure in the thematic organization of the plot. Heathcliff and Catherine are physically strong and robust, active, aggressive, domineering. Edgar Linton is physically weak, pallid and languid, tender but emotionally dependent and lacking in personal force. Even Nelly Dean, fond of him as she is, remarks that “he wanted spirit in general” (52). Isabella Linton, in contrast, is vigorous and active. She defends herself physically against Heathcliff, and when she escapes from him she runs four miles over rough ground through deep snow to make her way to the Grange.’
For this reason alone – Isabella is possibly an archetypal precursor of Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween.
Carroll elaborates, about human nature in Wuthering Heights:
`Nelly… provides a perspective from which the local cultural peculiarities can be seen as particular manifestations of human universals. When Lockwood exclaims that people in Yorkshire “do live more in earnest” she responds “Oh! Here we are the same as anywhere else, when you get to know us” (49)’
Carroll then gives a fascinating analysis of Heathcliff’s `place’ in the family, in light of evolutionary theory:
`Nelly introduces her story of Heathcliff by saying it is a “cuckoo’s” history (28). It is, in other words, a story about a parasitic appropriation of resources that belong to the offspring of another organism.
That appropriation is the central source of conflict in the novel.
The biological metaphor incisively identifies a fundamental disruption in the reproductive cycle based on the family. Heathcliff is an ethnically alien child plucked off the streets of Liverpool by the father of Catherine and Hindley, and then, almost unaccountably, cherished and favoured over his own son Hindley. When the father dies, Hindley takes his revenge by degrading and abusing Heathcliff…
From the normative perspective implied in the romantic comedy conclusion of the novel, Heathcliff is an alien force who has entered into the domestic world of family and property, disrupted it with criminal violence, usurped its authority and disrupted its civil comity.
In the romantic comedy resolution, historical continuity is restored, property reverts to inherited ownership, and family is re-established as the main organizing principle of social life. The inheritance of landed property is a specific form of socio-economic organisation, but that specific form is only the local cultural currency that mediates a biologically grounded relationship between parents and children. The preferential distribution of resources to one’s own offspring is not a local cultural phenomenon. It is not even an exclusively human phenomenon. It is a condition of life that all humans share with all other species in which parents invest heavily in offspring (Figueredo et al; Trivers; “parental Investment and Sexual Selection”). The cuckoo’s history is a history in which a fundamental biological relationship has been radically disrupted.’
`Readers have often expressed feelings of pity for Catherine and Heathcliff, but few readers have liked them or found them morally attractive. The history of readers’ responses to the two characters nonetheless gives incontrovertible evidence that they exercise a fascination peculiar to themselves.
In the mode of commonplace realism, they are characters animated by the ordinary motives of romantic attraction and social ambition, and in the mode of supernatural fantasy, they are demonic spirits, but neither of these designations fully captures their symbolic force.
At the core of their relationship, a Romantic identification with the elemental forces of nature serves as the medium for an intense and abnormal psychological bond between two children.’
`In the folk understanding of human nature, the needs for self-preservation and for preserving one’s own kin have a primal urgency.
From a Darwinian perspective, those needs are basic adaptive constraints through which inclusive fitness has shaped the species-typical human motivational system. In Wuthering Heights, the movement of the plot toward the resolution of the second generation demonstrates that Brontë herself feels the powerful gravitational force of that system. Her empathic evocation of the feelings of Heathcliff and Catherine nonetheless indicates that her own emotional energies, like theirs, seek a release from the constraints of human life history…
For both Catherine and Heathcliff, dying is a form of spiritual triumph. The transmutation of violent passion into supernatural agency enables them to escape from the world of social interaction and sexual reproduction. In the sphere occupied by Hareton and the younger Cathy, males and females successfully negotiate their competing interests, form a dyadic sexual bond, and take their place within the reproductive cycle.
In the separate sphere occupied by Heathcliff and Catherine, the difference of sex dissolves into a single individual identity, and that individual identity is absorbed into an animistic natural world.’
`The fascination Heathcliff and Catherine exercise over readers has multiple sources: a nostalgia for childhood, sympathy with the anguish of childhood griefs, a heightened sensation of the binding specific to siblings, the attraction of an exclusive passional bond that doubles as a narcissistic fixation on the self, an appetite for violent self-assertion, the lust of domination, the gratification of impulses of vindictive hatred and revenge, the sense of release from conventional social constraints, the pleasure of naturalistic physicality, the animistic excitement of an identification with nature, and the appeal of supernatural fantasies of survival after death.
All these elements combined produce sensations of passional force and personal power… Wuthering Heights operates at a high level of tension between the motives that organize human life into an adaptively functional system and impulses of revolt against that system.
In Brontë’s imagination, revolt flames out with the greater intensity and leaves the more vivid impression. Even so, by allowing the norms of romantic comedy to shape her plot, she tacitly acknowledges her own dependence on the structure of human life history. She envisions her characters in the trajectory of their whole lives. The characters are passionate and highly individualized, but life passes quickly, death is frequent, and individuals are rapidly re-absorbed within the reproductive cycle. Catherine and Heathcliff seem to break out of that cycle, but in the end, they are only ghosts – elegiac shadows cast by pain and grief. Investing those shadows with autonomous life enables Brontë to gratify the impulse of revolt while also satisfying a need to sacralise the objects of elegy.
That improvised resolution points toward no ultimate metaphysical reconciliation, no ethical norm, no transcendent aesthetic integration, and no utopian ideal. Brontë’s figurations resonate with readers because she so powerfully revokes unresolved discords within the adaptively functional system in which we live.’
And so – What does all this have to do with the top 20 RoI films?
Just that – a biocultural evolutionary examination of Human Nature casts light on why they became the most viral films in culture.
Also – Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project and The Evil Dead also include supernatural themes, and their central story conflicts can all be traced back to: Survival, Reproduction and Revenge.
And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:
StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)
And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:
StoryAlity #71 – On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication
Comments, always welcome.
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
Joseph Carroll, reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.