Reviewing Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

April 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë wasn’t what I was expecting. That’s the problem with picking up a classic; you have pre-conceived notions. Years of unintentionally accumulating snippets about Heathcliff and Catherine had manifested in a haphazard skeleton of a story in my head, which did not at all correlate with the book itself.

You see, I was under the impression that Wuthering Heights was a romantic story, when really it’s a Romantic story. See the distinction? Heathcliff and Catherine’s devotion to one another is dark and disturbing, more destructive than affectionate, and I wasn’t altogether prepared for that.

Wuthering Heights begins with Mr Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, visiting his neighbour and landlord Mr Heathcliff. Kept overnight at Wuthering Heights by some dismal weather, Lockwood returns home brimming with questions about his unusual landlord and his peculiar family. As it turns out, Lockwood’s housekeeper, Ellen Dean is well-acquainted with Mr Heathcliff, having known him since childhood and proceeds to share the story of Heathcliff’s coming to Wuthering Heights and the tumultuous events that have happened hence.

‘Well, Mrs Dean, it will be a charitable deed to tell me something of my neighbours – I feel I shall not rest, if I go to bed; so, be good enough to sit and chat an hour.’

Wuthering Heights is problematic for a number of reasons: predominantly because it is told (almost) entirely through the recollections of Nelly, the housekeeper who admits her feelings for Heathcliff have often been less than favourable. Hardly an impartial narrator, Nelly recounts years of events for Lockwood, spanning two generations, dating right back to when the homeless gypsy boy was first brought to Wuthering Heights by Catherine’s father.

I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk – indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s – yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over some gibberish that nobody could understand. I was frightened, and Mrs Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors: she did fly up – asking how he could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house, when they had their own bairns to feed, and fend for?

Despite Heathcliff’s less than ideal introduction to the Earnshaw family, he soon becomes the favourite of the master, which the older boy, Hindley resents him for, and upon Mr Earnshaw’s death, makes him pay severely.

Catherine and Heathcliff become inseparable and spend their days romping about the moors. That is, until Catherine is forced to spend some weeks at Thrushcross Grange after being attacked by one of their dogs. This period spent in the company of the Lintons is transformative for Catherine, changing her from a “little savage” to a “dignified person”, which drives an immoveable wedge between her and Heathcliff. This is only the beginning of the couple’s problems, which affect not only their lives but also their children’s.

At some point in reading, I forgot where Heathcliff’s intense hate of everyone and everything had come from. The events that take place in Heathcliff’s youth, while terrible and violent, do not seem quite enough to justify the extreme manipulations he orchestrates in later life. His insatiable hunger for vengeance and destruction comes to possess him, becoming so much a part of him that without it, there is nothing left. His life is built entirely around his efforts to make Hellish the lives of those who have wronged him, but what kind of existence is that?

The isolated setting of Wuthering Heights is a facilitator of extreme behaviour and reactions. Each character plays a part in their own undoing: Catherine takes to bouts of madness rather indulgently, seeming to draw a kind of sick satisfaction from Heathcliff’s reactions to seeing her at death’s door.

‘I wish I could hold you,’ [Catherine] continued, bitterly, ’till we were both dead! I shouldn’t care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do! Will you forget me – will you be happy when I am in the earth? Will you say twenty years hence, “That’s the grave of Catherine Earnshaw. I loved her long ago, and was wretched to lose her; but it is past. I’ve loved many others since – my children are dearer to me than she was, and, at death, I shall not rejoice that I am going to her, I should be sorry that I must leave them!” Will you say so, Heathcliff?’

‘Don’t torture me till I’m mad as yourself,’ cried he, wrenching his head free, and grinding his teeth.

Brontë world is intoxicating and absorbing. You read on, not out of compassion and empathy for her characters, but out of a desire to learn how much more pain and anguish they can put each other through. How else can they make each others’ lives miserable? Wuthering Heights is a dense book with many possible interpretations far beyond the scope of one reading, but I can see that there is more value in this story — the grim, atmospheric and haunting story (although who’s to say how accurate it is given Nelly’s possible embellishments and biases) — than the romantic story I expected.

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