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The following passage is from the first chapter of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847):

He’ll love and hate, equally under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence to be loved or hated again—No, I’m running on too fast—I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him. Mr. Heathcliff may have entirely dissimilar reasons for keeping his hand out of the way when he meets a would-be acquaintance, to those which actuate me. Let me hope my constitution is almost peculiar: my dear mother used to say I should never have a comfortable home; and only last summer I proved myself perfectly unworthy of one.

(emphasis mine)

The text then goes on to describe the previous summer, wherein the narrator displays timidity, thus unintentionally snubbing someone he loved.

What is the meaning of constitution in this sentence? I've looked at the OED for constitution, n., and the definitions seem to include the following:

  • the action of constituting
  • a decree or law, or the action of effecting such a decree
  • composition; the way something is made up (its constituency, if you will)
  • physical nature and temperament

None of these definitions appear to readily fit the passage. Could someone define the word in context and explain what the sentence means?

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I want to believe that the legal term "constitution" was conjured to reflect the fundamental/elemental make-up and characteristics of the laws of the country, just as the "constitution" of a person or organisation would reflect the fundamental elements that constitute their characteristics and behaviour - which should be the common ancestral meaning of all other/derivative meanings of the word. –  Blessed Geek Aug 9 '13 at 2:42

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

In this case it's the last option you listed. Without a little more context of the passage it's hard to know what exactly it's in reference to.

It used to be commonly used in reference to somebody's character.

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Added more context; see my edit. Does peculiar here mean "different from that of Mr. Heathcliff"? If so, then how does almost fit in? –  WChargin Aug 8 '13 at 17:05
    
With more context I would say my initial feeling was correct. It seems to me like this is from an old passage. Back then peculiar was often used as a derogatory statement. So it means she was bordering on might be considered "too different", but still within acceptable the range. –  Jacobm001 Aug 8 '13 at 17:19

Definition #4 you have listed is the meaning of 'constitution' in the quotation you posted. The girl in the sentence his hoping that her trouble in finding happiness is a result of a peculiar physical makeup and temperament rather than something psychological.

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1  
There's no girl in Mr. Lockwood's sentence (Mr. Lockwood is the narrator at this point early in the novel), aside from his “dear mother”. –  jwpat7 Aug 8 '13 at 18:34
    
@jwpat7 while correct, I think this has little impact on the meaning of the word. –  WChargin Aug 8 '13 at 22:37
    
@WChargin, true, there's no impact on the meaning of constitution; but I'm unwilling to upvote an answer with this error. –  jwpat7 Aug 9 '13 at 0:51

I would have said this is a perfect fit for sense 3 you have quoted; nowadays one might say 'my make-up is unusual'.

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