Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, a year prior to the author’s death. It’s one of those books that you will find on every curriculum of English as a Foreign Language in France. I studied it during my 5th year of English. I’d read it before (in French) but it was the year when I actually understood the beauty and the darkness of that book.
We follow a number of characters whose lives intertwine in a dark and sorrowful manner sometimes. Mr. Heathcliff adopted into the household of the Earnshaws earns the hate of the heir Hindley by stealing his father and sister’s affection. Once Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley turns Heathcliff into a servant, preventing him to get an education. His sister Catherine, though she loves Heathcliff, marries into money for marrying her foster brother would be a shameful choice. That sends Heathcliff onto a quest for vengeance that he ends up enacting on Hindley, Catherine’s husband, her sister-in-law and the next generation.
Wuthering Heights isn’t an easy book: it tackles many of the same subjects as Jane Eyre or in Jane Austen’s books but in a much darker way. Where we have an insight in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility of how passion can lead to disastrous results, Emily brings us deeper in the dark recesses of hybris. Heathcliff’s desire for revenge is insatiable and it brings a violence/darkness to the book that isn’t seen in Jane Austen’s works, or in Charlotte Brontë’s. Both Heathcliff and Rochester are considered Byronian heroes: but in truth, Rochester feels like a lamb compared to Heathcliff. He doesn’t pursue vengeance relentlessly. Where Rochester is indeed moody and taciturn, Heathcliff is actively trying to bring about the end of the people he despises.
Aside from that, there’s a lot of physical or emotional cruelty in Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff practices emotional blackmail, trying to convince Catherine to come with him. He used other people’s emotions to hurt them. And even affection is warped and twisted: Hareton’s affection for Heathcliff is one example. Hareton will not hear a critic of the man who’s kept him miserable his entire life. Stockholm syndrome.
Of course, there’s the entire discussion about marriage between members of the same class or not. A common subjects in the stories of the period, which isn’t surprising considering social expectations then. And the place of women in society. Again not entirely surprising but much like marriage, addressed from a much more violent or calculating perspective than you would have read in other stories of the time. In many ways only Hindley Earnshaw seems to have a ‘happy’ marriage. And maybe Cathy and Hareton might get one. Who knows?
The narrating process is interesting too; we start in media res and we’re being brought up to speed. It’s a first person narrative and yet it’s artificial because it’s Lockwood talking about how Nelly is telling him the story. The double layer of narrative is interesting; and in fact you get to see the difference in the style between when Lockwood is the one speaking and when we’re listening to Nelly.
Every time I read it, I find the writing compelling. Heathcliff is a dark character and he cast a pall over all the others: whether he pollutes them or ruins their lives. Somehow all he does and is affects everyone else. And the writing reflects that. It brings you in. It has the feel of a gothic novel, something which is represented among other things by the ghost visitations or other foreboding sensations that the characters experience. Less romantic than Jane Eyre, more on the gothic or realist side of things.
I guess the weakness could be the same as its strength: none of the characters, apart from Edgar Linton are particularly positive, which can be a bit of a turn-off. Catherine is manipulative, Hindley is angry, Isabella Linton is vapid, Linton Heathcliff is despicable in his own way, Joseph is a self-righteous bigot, Hareton – for his lack of education – is hateful and angry. Even Nelly: she gets bribed, she feels resentment and she lies. Of his own admission Lockwood isn’t a particularly friendly fellow either.
Wuthering Heights may be a love story but a very dark one, one that doesn’t end particularly well. And it raises the question: to what length is someone ready to go to achieve his goal? In this case revenge. Heathcliff’s motivation might be his love for Catherine but really it feels more like an excuse plastered on his desire to punish those who would treat him as an inferior. Even Cathy’s affection to Hareton isn’t a satisfying ending, although if Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange go back to their rightful heirs, because Heathcliff himself considers the alliance of the two. So we don’t really know how it resolves everything. Nelly is happy it happens so but really it keeps things in an almost incestuous way.
Still it’s a book worth reading; and I’m not surprise to see it on that 100 Books to read before you die list.
Have you read it?
What have you enjoyed the most about it?