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 subvert them -partly because it seems to subvert them. The novel marks a point in English literature at which a turn in the culture began, which is a subject for another day. 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 (see Back to the Future Part II) only appears outlandish because we are used to seeing men standing the right way up. American novelist William Burroughs’ novel 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, or tries to ‘turn it from under’ (based on the derivation of the word ‘subvert’) – 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. 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.
Subversion can thus be a ‘good’ thing at certain times, when the cultural norms become oppressive, and a ‘bad’ thing when those norms are supportive and when rejecting them or undermining them would be destructive.
For our society, the majority of cultural norms are extrapolated from the Bible. But at the time when the New Testament was put together, slavery and patriarchy were the norm. St. Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters and wives to obey their husbands:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Slaves, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.
But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.
Masters, give your slaves what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 3:18-4:1)
There are other similar passages to do with the Roman Emperor and respecting earthly authorities. These are easily misunderstood as being supportive of oppressive cultural norms. In Romans 13, for example, Paul writes:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour. (Rom 13:1-7)
Taken to an extreme, this can be seen as an evocation to support Hitler. But Christianity is in many ways the ultimate in positive subversion. Christ commanded us to love our enemies not because they were ‘good’ but because God is good. The examples above outline Christian subversion: Christians do not do these things to uphold the powers of the world but to undermine them by asserting the supremacy of God. They place the world in perspective.
If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21)
Slaves should not obey their masters because their masters are right to own them as slaves; they do it because we all must serve the Lord. The Scriptures clearly portray a Lord who sides with slaves over masters.
Christian subversion is not therefore an earthly matter. Think of Christ’s conversation Pontius Pilate. Pilate threatens Him and reminds Him that he has the power to release Him or condemn Him:
You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (Jn 19:11)
In other words, ‘you cannot do anything that I don’t want you to do’. Obedience and service are not offered out of obligation or because others are right to demand them: they are voluntary. The world is powerless. True subversion is this standing apart from the world and only continuing to participate in its oppressive ways by choice, as part of a larger and wider obedience. The difference between ‘good’ subversion and ‘bad’ subversion is in the intention. Anchored to the Good, the world can wash over us without harming us. We have already subverted it, as the anchored and harboured ship ‘subverts’ the storm.
What gives subversion a bad name is when it is an attempt to do the opposite – to reject all obedience, to undermine all goodness, to destroy from within (or to ‘turn from below’) the nourishment of the spirit. When subversive literature points to no safe harbour, it becomes destructive. We live in a period where subversive literature with this negative intention has become the norm.
Hence the need for Superversion.
Grant P. Hudson B.A.(Hons.)
Grant P. Hudson is an editor, management consultant, founder of Clarendon House Publications, an online venue for independent writers, self-publishers and others around the world, and the author of several books including How Stories Really Work: Exploring the Physics of Fiction and the 12-week e-course How to Write Stories That Work – and Get Them Published!