The novel Wuthering Heights by Emile Bronte opens in 1801 when the old rough farming culture, based on a naturally patriarchal family life, was to be challenged, tamed and routed by social and cultural changes. These changes produced Victorian class consciousness and ‘unnatural' ideal of gentility." This social-economic reality provides the context of Wuthering Heights.
The setting of the story at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange provides a clear example of social contrast. While the Heights is depicted as simply typical and "domestic," the Grange is described as a "scene of unprecedented richness" (80). Each house is associated with behavior fitting the description. For example, when Catherine is taken into the Grange, she experiences drastic changes, thus going from a "savage" to a "lady" (80). While at this house, she rises in status, learns manners, and receives great privileges such as not having to work. Heathcliff, on the other hand, learns to classify himself as a member of the lower class, as he does not possess the qualities of those at the Grange.
The struggle between social classes roughly resembles a real life conflict during this time. The reader sympathizes with Heathcliff, the gypsy who was oppressed by a rigid class system .But as Heathcliff pursues his revenge and tyrannical persecution of the innocent, the danger posed by the uncontrolled individual to the community becomes apparent. Like other novels of the 1830s and 40s Wuthering Heights reveals the abuses of industrialism and overbearing individualism,
Catherine is the daughter of Mr & Mrs. Earnshaw and Heathcliff is a pickup boy by Mr. Earnshaw from the slums of Liverpool city and is named Heathcliff Earnshaw by Mr. Earnshaw. Mr. Earnshaw’s treatment towards Heathcliff is likely a father’s treatment towards his own child. But the social contrast happens when Hindley returns to Wuthering Heights and forces Heathcliff to work in the fields.
The basic conflict and motive force of the novel is class conflict. Environment of the moor and same dwelling place gives both Cathy and Heathcliff a greater chance to develop their romantic love-affair. Both Cathy and Heathcliff love each other profoundly. But Catherine's decision to marry Edgar Linton rather than Heathcliff widens the gap between social classes. Edgar Linton is a wealthy man of high status, and Heathcliff is poor and possesses no assets. Catherine does not consider personal feelings, but instead, she focuses on her outward appearance to society. "Edgar Linton will be rich and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighborhood whereas if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars (81). It is obvious that wealth justifies social class, and Catherine strives to achieve high status. Cathy says to Nelley:-
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now.”’
The Earnshaw's and Linton's are part of a social class named the gentry, similar to the upper-middle class. Theirs social positions are not poor, but they try to improve their status. Another example is Heathcliff story. He begins as an orphan but moves up in status when he is adopted by Mr. Earnshaw.
Considerations of class status often crucially inform the characters’ motivations in Wuthering Heights. Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar so that she will be “the greatest woman of the neighborhood” is only the most obvious example. The Lintons are relatively firm in their gentry’s status but nonetheless take great pains to prove this status through their behaviors. The Earnshaws, on the other hand, rest on much shakier ground socially. They do not have a carriage, they have less land, and their house, as Lockhood remarks, resembles that of a “homely, northern farmer” and not that of a gentleman. The shifting nature of social status is demonstrated most strikingly in Heathcliff’s trajectory from homeless waif to young gentleman-by- adoption to common laborer to gentleman again (although the status-conscious Lockwood remarks that Heathcliff is only a gentleman in “dress and manners.”)
The writer draws a complex and contradictory relationship between the landed gentry and aristocracy, the traditional power-holders and the capitalist, industrial middle classes, who were pushing for social acceptance and political power. Simultaneously, with the struggle among these groups, an accommodation was developing based on economic interests. The area that the Brontës live in, the town of Haworth in West Riding, was particularly affected by these social and economic conditions because of the concentration of large estates ad industrial centers in West Riding.