Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847, Folio Society, 1991)
|Illustration by Rovina Cai|
Wuthering Heights has never been my favorite Bronte novel. I first read it in high school as one of the required texts for my British Lit class (the gloomy purplish Signet Classics cover is still stamped on my brain). All the characters with similar names, who persisted in marrying each other in various combinations, were terribly confusing, not to mention the complicated double framing device and the baffling Yorkshire dialect. I remember being struck by Catherine’s declaration “I am Heathcliff,” and including it in an essay, although I have no idea what else I wrote about. I’m sure that most of the passion and drama went right over my fifteen-year-old head.
I’ve read Wuthering Heights several times since then, but still found it a depressing story about unlikeable people. The last time I decided I probably wouldn’t pick it up again. I love Charlotte, I appreciate Anne, but Emily and I do not connect — I thought.
Then Girl with Her Head in a Book invited me to her December readalong, and I said yes. One more time, why not? And to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying it. Maybe because I was prepared for the perplexing and grim aspects, I didn’t find it overly perplexing or grim at all. Yes, Heathcliff and Catherine say and do terrible things, but it’s almost like watching a great storm sweeping over the Yorkshire landscape: their tremendous, alien passions make them more akin to a force of nature than human beings. As I started to look elsewhere for the actual human impact of the story, I began to realize how brilliant and multi-layered this novel is.
For instance, this time I noticed how involved and culpable Nelly Dean, who tells most of the story, actually is. No mere detached narrator, she lies, withholds information, and manipulates situations — with the best intentions, no doubt, but often in her own self-interest as well. These small moral slidings may seem minor in comparison to the grand depravity of a Heathcliff, but are they really? Oh Emily, you are clever indeed. Who is worse, the one who unabashedly displays his moral failings, or the one who doesn’t even notice them?
And then there is the question of where the moral center of the story truly lies. In its complex construction, so confusing to my teenage self, Wuthering Heights starts not with the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff, which is in the past of the novel, but with the younger generation (as witnessed by an obtuse outsider). Why is a lovely young girl trapped at the isolated house of Wuthering Heights, under Heathcliff’s diabolical power? How did the young man who ought to be the master of the house become reduced to the status of an illiterate servant? Even as we delve into the tormented past that created such wrongs, the possibility and hope of these two individuals being freed from their bondage remains the seed of the whole narrative. Its fulfillment at the end is what makes this often unbearably dark novel not a tragedy, but a story of redemption. (Heathcliff, notably, is never redeemed, never succumbs to nineteenth-century conventions of deathbed repentance; with his strange, mysterious death, his furious thirst for revenge simply fades away, as every storm or tempest must eventually die down and come to rest.)
In fact, all of these characters taken together form a picture of the human being. We all bear within us the fury and vengefulness of a Heathcliff, the pettiness of a Hindley, the capriciousness of a Catherine — though we might not act out such impulses so freely or so hurtfully. And though we may be repulsed by Heathcliff’s murderous tendencies, we can’t help but be moved by his cry at the loss of his great and only love, “I cannot live without my life — I cannot live without my soul!” Such primal forces usually work within us only unconsciously, but finding them expressed in narrative form may help us to understand and own them. Meanwhile, we also all carry the smug, self-satisfied conventional perspective of a Nelly Dean, not questioning the rightness of our own actions, and it’s equally important to recognize this part of ourselves. And we bear the potential to learn, to change, and to create new, fruitful relationships, as do young Cathy and Hareton.
These subtler aspects of the story are often ignored or omitted altogether, as in the Laurence Olivier film, to concentrate on Heathcliff and Catherine’s bizarre relationship as if it were a great romantic love story (which it decidedly is not). This truncates and distorts Emily Bronte’s achievement. Her insight into the furthest reaches of the human heart was much greater than that, and I’m glad I finally came to realize it.