The Butler Scholarly Journal

Agnes and Adam: Emily and Anne Brontë’s Politics of the Animal Kingdom. An essay by Jack Probert.

One of the brilliant entries for our Anne Brontë competition. Jack Probert expertly explores the animal kingdom in Anne and Emily’s works. Featured image is a sketch of Keeper, Emily Brontë’s dog, by Emily herself.

In the work of both Emily and Anne Brontë, animals form part of a wider moral and political scheme in which both sisters examine the growing individualism of their own modern, industrial world. In exploring this, the distinction between wild animals and pets is crucial: for Emily, there is a separation between the animal and the human that Anne resists in her more compassionate approach to the animal kingdom that arguably advocates for a vision of greater social inclusion. There is, we note, no cordiality or bond between animals and humans in Wuthering Heights, with Heathcliff affirming that this dog is ‘not kept for a pet’ (Wuthering Heights, p. 4). This implies a strange contradiction in Emily’s depiction of the animal, which will repeatedly align amoral human characters with counterparts in the animal kingdom but affirm some kind of separation nonetheless: animals around the house are, it seems, expected to have a functional role in the novel, which speaks to its examination of commoditisation and class in the 19th Century following the Industrial Revolution. For this Brontë sister, animals seem to echo concerns raised in modern examinations of neoliberalism: the ‘morally lacking’ modern relationships Ilana Gershon warns of are anticipated in the animals and owners of Wuthering Heights (Gershon, p. 537). By contrast, Anne Brontë’s animals are notably sentient and, it would seem, capable of innocence and deserving of pathos: in Agnes Grey, she demands our compassion for what she sees as fellow creatures in a resistance to the moral problems both sisters find in strongly individualism modernity conducted along Christian dogma.

For Emily Brontë, the ultimate worldview her attitude towards animals in Wuthering Heights espouses is solitary, tenacious, and morally vacuous that, as with the rest of her novel, has a strong connection with the force of nature: animals and humans in the novel are fiercely individual competitors. Dogs are, from Mr Lockwood’s first encounter and indeed throughout much of the first part of the novel as a whole, dangerously individual, shown by how unpredictable they are. At the very beginning of Wuthering Heights, Mr Lockwood makes the mistake of trying to pet one of Heathcliff’s dogs: he tells us that ‘[his] caress provoked a long, guttural gnarl.’ in response, which is crucially echoed by Heathcliff growling ‘in unison’ with the animal (Wuthering Heights, p. 4). Mr Lockwood then describes how, despite his sitting still and behaving as we would logically expect to calm a dog down, the ‘ruffianly bitch’ he has encountered suddenly ‘[breaks] into a fury, and [leaps] onto [his] knees’, setting off ‘the whole hive’ in an episode of sudden violence anticipated by the explosive connotations of ‘broke’ and accentuated by the metaphor of a ‘tempest of worrying and yelping’ that occupies the room with its associations with natural power and brutality, or perhaps by the way ‘ruffianly’ sets us on edge with its image of exterior shabbiness that may betray an interior danger too, potentially making us suspect a low-brow attack (Wuthering Heights, p.4). The attack is certainly not sudden (the previous vignette in which Heathcliff warns Mr Lockwood against petting the dogs makes that much clear) but it is still shocking and unpredictable: something as trivial as Mr Lockwood’s ‘winking and making faces’ has secured his assault. It is easy to see the model for this early attack in Emily’s own mastiff, Keeper, who, Maureen Adams tells us, having examined early accounts of this ‘dangerous dog’, ‘was liable to attack anyone who tried to discipline him’: from early on in the novel and in Emily’s life, animals are vicious and wild (Adams, p. 44).

However, though many of the dogs in Wuthering Heights, such as the fiercely named Growler, Thrasher, Wolf, and Sulker, are vicious, wild creatures, which, I would argue, stand as metonym for their owner and his amoral wildness, Fanny, the ill-fated pet of Isabella Linton, marks a contrast to this, distinctly, it would seem, masculine, wildness. Like many other critics, Marilyn Hume highlights Heathcliff’s wildness in her Jungian analysis of the novel, arguing that he is a projection of the psyches of both Catherine Earnshaw and the novel’s various narrators; however, instead of seeing Heathcliff as projection, in the context of animals is it perhaps more accurate to see him as the projected (Hume, p. 15-18). As the dog growls, so does Heathcliff: Isabella Linton, having escaped Wuthering Heights and returned to Thrushcross Grange, contends that he is ‘not a human being’ for the way he has treated her, excluding Heathcliff himself from a social network of meaning and allying him more closely with the blunt, often economic, purpose of the dogs, something we see most starkly in his treatment of Fanny (Wuthering Heights, p. 125). Adams’ reading of the dynamics behind the scene is apt: ‘Heathcliff’, she writes, ‘shows no remorse or empathy for the little dog or for Isabella’, and so, in this reading, Fanny becomes a metonym for the domestic violence and abuse perpetrated against Isabella (Adams, p. 45). However, I would argue Fanny is a unique animal in the novel because she has no distinct purpose: Adams notes that the strongest contender as a real-life model for Fanny would have been Flossy, Anne’s King Charles Spaniel, a breed associated with leisure and wealth in the period (Garber, p. 143). Consequently, Heathcliff’s hanging her is not only an act of metonymic aggression towards Isabella as Adams primarily reads it, but also a symbolic image of competition and functionality: held in brutal relief, Wuthering Heights depicts the rejection of an antiquated web of social meanings with which Fanny and Isabella are associated in favour of the dark, wild individualism Heathcliff and his dogs represent. For Emily Brontë, nature is a place of uncompromising competition, and animals represent a bridge between this and the human in a novel that consequently seems to anticipate the amorality and individualism modern anthropologists like Gershon have found at the heart of neoliberalism.

By contrast, Anne Brontë seems to resist this facet of modernity in favour of a more Christian paradigm of nature, subtly, I would argue, returning to the antiquated system of social organisation her sister’s novel destroys while still questioning whether it can survive. Pity and compassion, two very Christian values, are invoked, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the most devoutly Christian of the three sisters in her concern for animals and the old social meanings Wuthering Heights rejects in the form of Fanny. Instead of blunt functionality, Agnes Grey finds social organisation in compassion, a distinctly social, not economic, source of value that recognises the vulnerable as sentient beings themselves in a kind of reformed individualism. In Chapter V of the novel, we are told that Uncle Robson has ‘likewise encouraged Tom’s propensity to persecute the lower creation, both by precept and example’, with Agnes narrating a vignette in which she insists Tom stop ‘injuring sentient creatures’, specifically a nest of birds that she herself is later forced to kill (Agnes Grey, p. 48). Here, the treatment and representation of animals works more, I would argue, as an indirect metonym for the abuse of innocence and moral goodness by amoral people like Uncle Robson or Tom Bloomfield; yet we must note that animals are distinctly ‘sentient’ and, it would seem, innocent, suggesting what may be a politically radical egalitarian sentiment of equal creation and moral value. The ‘tortur[ing]’ of the birds implies a distinct power relationship in which the animals are victims, rather than, as in Wuthering Heights, aggressors and actors of their own with their own agency: it is down to the individual intervention of Agnes herself to save these defenceless creatures and thus uphold the ‘general sense of justice and humanity’ she has attempted to engender within the children for whom she cares (Agnes Grey, p. 51). In this action there is, I would argue, an inclusion of animals within a social organisation that recognises inherent goodness, rather than creating value from competition and function as happens in Wuthering Heights; however, we cannot ignore that Agnes is ultimately forced to kill the birds themselves, which challenges whether this form of social organisation is possible in this new world of ‘morally lacking’ relationships (Gerson, p. 537).

Therefore, in its depictions of animals, Agnes Grey does not reject modern individualism, but rather seeks to reform it despite the violence Wuthering Heights finds in it, advocating a responsible individualism in its social inclusion. The power of the individual is shown in animals’ dependence on humans, but it is highlighted that in this hierarchical power and status there is a great responsibility. I would argue that this compassion has its roots in Anne’s own two-year study of the Bible. Marianne Thormälen’s close reading of Anne’s Bible reveals something very significant about her notes, namely that we find very little on the New Testament: Anne has made copious notes around the Old Testament, including the entirety of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as well as forty Psalms in a list of significant passages, but we have very little of what interested her in the New Testament (Thormählen, p. 340). From this we might derive the germ of her attitude towards animals in Agnes Grey: the opening chapters of Genesis depict a clear hierarchy of the animal kingdom in which Adam is placed above all other species and given the responsibility by God of naming them. This is, I would argue, an act of individualism and implied dependence similar to the rescuing of the birds in Agnes Grey: both acts affirm the elevated status of humanity above other creatures, and both are images of social inclusion, whether in the insistence that the birds be treated with this ‘general sense of justice and humanity’ (note the specific ‘humanity’ here, which suggests equality) or that the animals in Genesis be given a name and thus some degree of social significance and consequent inclusion within a hierarchy (Agnes Grey, p. 51). Thus, we can read the attitude towards animals in Agnes Grey as based around a philosophy of social inclusion we might find in a reading of the Old Testament; however, we have not yet examined the radical socio-political implications of the treatment of animals in Agnes Grey as metonym for social class. Carol Adams’s contention that ‘women and animals are similarly positioned in a patriarchal world, as objects rather than subject’ opens the text up significantly in what this implies, since it suggests a deeper engagement with the developing liberal market economy of the 19th Century than the examination of the violence and power of the individualism closely associated with it in Wuthering Heights (Carol Adams, p. 157). What Agnes Grey calls for is to resist Rosalie’s view of her lower-class servants as ‘mere automatons’ and, as we have with the birds from Chapter V, raise them into a view of social inclusion (Agnes Grey, p. 198).

To conclude, both Emily and Anne Brontë use animals in Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey to engage with the social consequences of a developing ideology of individualism that, as Emily depicts in Wuthering Heights, commoditises even animals and demands functional value from them, the violence of which is highlighted when Heathcliff hangs Fanny, a dog that contributes social, not economic, value to the household. In Agnes Grey, by contrast, there is an insistence on recognising this social value in the protagonist’s treatment and social inclusion of the vulnerable, dependent birds that Tom Bloomfield wants to kill: this is, of course, complicated and potentially exposed as an impossibility in a cruelly functional modern world when Agnes is later forced to kill the birds herself, but its inclusion in the novel is, I would argue, a radical point of resistance nonetheless. Indeed, perhaps this difference between the two sisters’ attitudes to the politics of pets and animals has something to do with their differing attitudes to Christianity, specifically Methodism. Thormälen notes that Anne is ‘the only one of the Brontë siblings who is not on record as ridiculing Methodists’, citing the influence of her Cornish Methodist Aunt Elizabeth in her formative years, and it is easy to see the radically unorthodox insistence on the salvation of all around which Methodism centres at the heart of the social message behind Anne Brontë’s animals in Agnes Grey (Thormählen, p. 343).


Primary texts:

Brontë, Anne, Agnes Grey (Oxford: The Shakespeare Head Press, 1931).

Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1992).

Secondary reading:

Adams, Carol. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. (New York: Continuum, 1990).
Adams, Maureen B., ‘Emily Brontë and Dogs: Transformation within the Human-Dog bond’, Brontë Studies, 29.1, (2004), pp. 43-52.
Garber, Marjorie, Dog Love (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
Gershon, Ilana, ‘Neoliberal Agency’, Current Anthropology, 52.4, (2011), pp. 537-555.
Hume, Marilyn, ‘Who is Heathcliff? The Shadow knows’, Victorian Newsletter, 118, (2002), pp. 15-18.
Thormählen, Marianne, ‘Anne Brontë and her Bible’, Brontë Studies, 37.4, (2012), pp. 339-344.