From Status to Contract: Domesticating Modernity in Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss and Dracula

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



In England, the nineteenth-century was a time of change. The social developments instigated by the French Revolution in France were making way across the channel, intensified by the technological innovation generated by the Industrial Revolution. As social hierarchies were altered by the rise of the middle class, so too was political organization disturbed with the passage of the Great Reform act of 1832. The final transition to a constitutional monarchy at home, together with the fall of the ancient Spanish, Chinese, Holy Roman, Portuguese and Mughal empires abroad, made the period a time of unprecedented and fundamental change. Modernity, with a unique concentration on the present rather than the glorification of the past found in classicism or romanticism, would become the measure of social life. While the principles that would define modernism were evolving, as Bram Stoker notes, “the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill.” The literature of the time reflected the transitional phase within the realism of the newly popular medium – the novel. Exploring the role of self and society, the novel, with the genre of realism as its distinguishing feature, allowed for a theoretic space in which social change could be understood and mastered. With antecedents in autobiographic and epistolary works, the novel offered an intimate and ‘real’ microcosm of the contemporary social landscape, contributing new, or literally novel, case studies that reflect how individuals could, and did, come to terms with modernity. Literary critics often use twentieth-century theories of social or psychological development to explicate character motivations or plot progression in the nineteenth-century. Yet, would not such analysis be more fruitful if the works were read in context of Victorian theory that is able to offer a glimpse into how Victorians themselves understood their relation to history and their role in society? To capture this very notion I will turn to the Victorian comparative jurist and historian Sir Henry Maine and his book Ancient Law (1861), which will provide the theoretical framework to my analysis. Henry Maine is pertinent to this study because his legal theories reveal how writers of the period theorized the emergence of modernity. The novels I have chosen precede, are concurrent with, and follow the publication of Maine’s work, so that the impact and progression of social development can be perceived over the span of the century. It is known that George Eliot read Maine’s work and thus his influence can be more directly surmised in The Mill on the Floss. By the time Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, Maine’s theories were ubiquitous and although it is unknown whether the author encountered Maine’s work personally, the ideas put forth in Ancient Law would inevitably have influenced Stoker via popular culture. In the case of Emily Brontë, however, Wuthering Heights predates the insight offered by Maine, but in some ways it follows Maine’s thesis. The work of both authors can be seen as a response to the issues of 1840s-1850s. The move from status to contract that Maine identified, was not isolated to the time of his publication, but was the impetus behind the French Revolution, and the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité that were expressed almost a century earlier. While Emily Brontë, unlike George Eliot, would not have read Maine’s work, the social changes later identified by Maine could not have escaped her. Wuthering Heights explores concepts later solidified in Ancient Law and thus Maine’s theory is critical in explicating the novel. The achievement of Henry Maine is perhaps best summarized by John Hartman Morgan who introduced Ancient Law with the following lines: Published in 1861, it immediately took rank as a classic, and its epoch-making influence may not unfitly be compared to that exercised by Darwin's Origin of Species. The revolution effected by the latter in the study of biology was hardly more remarkable than that effected by Maine’s brilliant treatise in the study of early institutions.
Discussing the development of law in the nineteenth century A.W.B. Simpson went so far as to claim that Henry Maine “wrote the only legal best seller of that, or perhaps any other century.” Immensely well written, the book had a cross-generational appeal, as well as the propensity to reference multiple topics fashionable at the time. It participated in the contemporary debate about progress, as Maine sought “constantly to assess whether or not certain practices encouraged or impeded the development of societies.” Unlike previous, prominent jurists, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, who perceived law as a wholly abstract entity “independent of any particular place in which it functions,” Maine understood law as inextricable from social practices and historical events. Hailed as one of the forefathers of modern sociology of law, as well as anthropology, Maine’s project was to trace the emergence and development of the modern concepts of contract and the Individual. By using Maine’s work, we are able to understand the status quo and status quo ante as Victorians themselves did. It is important to note, however, that Ancient Law divulges the evolution of modern law from an earlier Roman prototype, rather than analyzing ancient jurisprudence in isolation. Indeed, Maine’s objective is “to indicate some of the earliest ideas of mankind, as they are reflected in Ancient Law, and to point out the relation of those ideas to modern thought (italics mine).” The transformations his book takes into account can be said to project the metamorphosis of his own culture onto that of antiquity. The need to rationalize the breach between modes of association is evident in the work of Maine and the literary authors in question. While Brontë, Eliot, and Stoker address the changing social landscape in the private sphere, Maine does so in the public. Putting the texts into dialogue will reveal a more complete understanding of how the novelists rationalized the developments of the milieu. By extrapolating Maine’s theories of social progression and applying them to Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, and Dracula, we are able to understand character motivations as products of complex historic transformations. In the pre-modern past, social and economic life was organized in terms of kin. The attainment of prestige and influence of certain independent, but consanguine groups, over time, led to the development of aristocracies. In history, membership in this privileged class offered status and power, but as Maine argues, its benefits were bestowed at the cost of individualization. At such a point in societal development, according to Maine, a person’s “individuality was swallowed up by his family,” never was he “regarded as himself, as a distinct individual.” Thus, a society like ancient Rome, “[had] for its units, not individuals, but groups of men united by the reality or fiction of blood-relationship.” Modernity, however, provided an opportunity for volte-face; it nurtured individualization. In multi-national, multi-ethnic imperial societies, like Imperial Rome and Modern Britain, kinship was no longer a viable way of social organization. In Britain, “the decline of kinship solidarities was understood as a necessary consequence of the economic specialization and bureaucratic rationalism associated with modernity and industrial development.” Status was no longer “colored by, the powers and privileges anciently residing in the Family,” as was the case in ancient Rome and pre-industrial England, according to Maine. Instead, there appeared a “gradual dissolution of family dependency,” replaced by “the growth of individual obligation in its place.” As Maine concisely stated, “the movement of progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.” Contract refers to the “tie between man and man which [replaced] by degrees those forms of reciprocity in rights and duties which have their origin in the Family.” The “free agreement of Individuals” superseded ties of affinity. With the move towards a contract-based society came new forms of social association. People were no longer grouped though blood, rather, they were organized via the places they shared. The move from consanguinity to contiguity was crucial to the individualization of modern society. Maine defined the development of social categories that the novels explore in the microcosm of a fictional reality. In novels we are able to see Maine’s ideas set in motion, affect characters as they would real people, and determine a range of outcomes depending on the characters’ individual proclivities, prejudices, adaptive capacities and environment. The genre of realism that gained prominence in the nineteenth-century’s prevailing medium, the novel, allowed for “new realities” that mirrored the non-fictional world, but which also attempted to solve or fathom change. This need for reflection is a search for something to ground reality in a world that was rapidly and fundamentally changing from old sensibilities of custom, family ties, nobility, and other sentiments of the old order, to the new rationale of independence in the public and private spheres. Maine’s narrative is theoretic in nature and seeks to give meaning to the nineteenth-century developments that the novelists addressed within the private spheres of each narrative. The novel’s relation to the social is unique, for it can be both descriptive and speculative, without being merely reflexive. It is able to go beyond mere representation by exploring novel scenarios in which new realities pose new challenges for the characters, and offer new ways of mastering social change. While Maine abstracted the development of the Individual in law, the novels depicted his relation to society. In the chapter on Wuthering Heights, I identify Heathcliff as a product of both antiquity and modernity, which differs from the critical precedent that attempts to pigeonhole his identity. At the outset, I explore the implications of his absent surname, which I argue qualifies him as an individual who is independent from familial ties. I then explore the subject of kinship, particularly the ways in which the adoption of individuals into the family unit, discussed by Maine, is played out in narrative form of Wuthering Heights. Additionally, I argue that there is no clear marker in the novel to identify which moment in history the Heights belongs to, for it could function as both a feudal and modern manifestation of an estate. In the third section, I look at Heathcliff’s largely capitalistic maneuvering. By targeting the Linton and Earnshaw families Heathcliff is acting as an individual capitalist pivoted against the old symbol of social order – the family – as identified by Maine. Next, I analyze Heathcliff’s entanglement with revenge and patriarchy both of which cast him as an individual tied to ancient forms of social relations. Finally, in the last section, I take on the subject of Hareton and Catherine, arguing that their union is characterized by the creation of a nuclear family, one that is independent from generational ties and its symbols in the form of heirlooms.
In the second chapter, I argue that Eliot’s realism in The Mill on the Floss embarks on a demystification of ancient social paradigms, focusing on the evolution of power, function, and structure of the family. The “givens” of the past familial social structure are no longer viable, according to Eliot, so that the archetypes of Gemeinschaft – consanguinity and hereditary status – are undermined in the novel. In their place, Eliot introduces a new kind of “objectivity,” in which I suggest, identity is no longer colored by family name, status is not derived from ancestry, education is removed from family dominion, and extended kinship alliances are supplanted by the nuclear family. In The Mill on the Floss this new “objectivity” is firstly exemplified by Mr. Tulliver’s lawsuit and Mr. Deane’s rise to prominence, both of which signify the rise of contractual modes of association outside the bounds of status derived from heredity. Secondly, the new order is epitomized by Tom’s remote education, which, I will argue, signifies the birth of the Tulliver nuclear family. This differs from Joshua Esty’s argument, which identifies the premature birth of the Tulliver nuclear family as the result of the bankruptcy. Thirdly, the new objectivity is represented by Mrs. Glegg’s financial independence, a point contrary to critical precedent thus far, which places Mrs. Glegg in the “givens” of the past social structure. I will prove that Mrs. Glegg’s financial autonomy is not only a foil to Mrs. Tulliver’s fiscal dependency, but Eliot’s commentary on women’s property rights. Finally, I will discuss the Dodson family as an example of the status quo ante that is not entirely untouched by the new objectivity, as well as Maggie’s ahistoric station as a consequence of insufficient discernment. Focusing the discussion on secondary characters, I hope to avoid the idiosyncratic tendency of many scholars who center their study exclusively on Maggie. Invoking the theories of Eliot’s contemporary, Henry Maine, I will show the ways in which the subjects of Eliot’s social experiment grapple with individuation wrought by modernity and obligation to consanguinity imposed by kinship. In the chapter on Dracula, I argue that the Count displays dualistic tendencies not unlike Maggie and Heathcliff. First, I analyze the relations of the human characters stressing the egalitarian nature of their union and identify Quincey Jr. as a foil to Dracula. Secondly, I turn to the family structure of the un-dead, classifying their union in terms of Maine’s theory concerning the adoption of individuals into the family unit. I then explicate the familial roles arguing that not only does incest cast the coterie in an antiquated light, but that the type of incest committed can further tie the union to an older model of social relations, explored in Romanticism. In the section on Dracula’s domesticity and sociality, I identify his opulent castle, as well as his commitment to hospitality and revenge, as antiquated penchants that reveal the Count’s reliance on outmoded social obligations. In the following section, the discussion on patriarchy and nationality centers on Dracula’s understanding of society, which reflects Maine’s theories of consanguinity and contiguity. The final section focuses on the juxtaposition of Dracula’s embodiment of the family corporation, with the individuality he displays in his single-handed invasion of England. Coming to terms with modernization and the resulting social evolutions are the subjects that Brontë, Stoker, and Eliot explore, whether consciously or unconsciously, in their respective novels. The temporal setting of both Wuthering Heights (1847) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) is antecedent to the novels’ publication, while Dracula’s (1897) setting is conspicuously concurrent. If looking back is a form of coming to terms with the present, Brontë and Eliot had, perhaps, more reason to do so, for at the time of the novels’ publication the gears of change were spinning arguably faster, fueled by its novelty, while at the fin-de-siècle, when Stoker penned Dracula, pervasive change was ubiquitous requiring less rationalization. Stoker, of course, is no exception, for he too turned to antiquity, and in particular, the medieval past in constructing the novel. Even Maine, as discussed previously, referred to the ancient Roman jurisprudence to draw comparison and contrast to modern law. Rationalizing modern developments by turning to the stability of antiquity is a pervasive theme in the nineteenth-century. As people grapple with modern advances in virtually every area of life, the past provides a safe haven to which habit or fear often reverts. Indeed, the main, and even some secondary, characters of the three novels repeatedly conflate antiquity and modernity. They, however, must pay with their lives for their muddled fluctuations, for regression cannot belong to a world of progress, and if survival of the fittest truly describes the human condition then in the case of these novels the fittest are the most adept at assuming change.






Foreman, Violeta (2011). From Status to Contract: Domesticating Modernity in Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss and Dracula. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.