Friday, December 5, 2008
Book Review - The Classics - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - “This abyss where I cannot find you! I cannot live without my soul!”
When I read Wuthering Heights the first time, as a teenager, I thought it was the most romantic book I’d ever experienced. I still feel that way, but now, as an adult reader, I’m far better able to appreciate the book’s violence, its extreme use of the natural world, the juxtaposition of primitivism and civilization and the book’s beautiful structural symmetry.
Wuthering Heights opens in 1801 with the narration of Lockwood, a self-styled misanthrope who, despite his aversion to society, has been thwarted in love and is now renting Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire from its owner, the dark and brooding Heathcliff.
Annoyed by the housework being done at Thrushcross Grange, Lockwood sets out for a walk one wintry day and arrives at Wuthering Heights just as the snow is beginning to fall. He finds the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights very strange people, indeed. Besides Heathcliff, there’s Catherine Heathcliff, a beautiful young woman Lockwood mistakenly believes to be Heathcliff’s wife; there’s Hareton Earnshaw, a semi-literate young man who is the uncle of Catherine; and, there’s Joseph, a religious zealot.
Although Lockwood tries to make his escape back to Thrushcross Grange, the snow and the darkness make it impossible. Zillah, Heathcliff’s cook, takes pity on Lockwood and installs him in a room which, she says, Heathcliff would prefer be left unoccupied. Although Zillah doesn’t know to whom the room belongs, Lockwood notices three names written across the window ledge: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, and Catherine Heathcliff. That night, the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw Linton appears to Lockwood, unsettling him further and, the next day, he returns to Thrushcross Grange.
The above comprises the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights and in these first three chapters one can see the importance the natural world is going to play in the unfolding of this novel. Emily Brontë, herself, was a child of the moors, the snowstorms and the heather of Yorkshire. Although bleak, the Yorkshire landscape holds tremendous wildness and unbridled passion and Emily Brontë was deeply attached to that passion…so much so that she rarely spent any time away from home and, even as she was dying, her older sister, Charlotte, ran to pluck the last of the heather for Emily, one more time.
Wuthering Heights is deeply rooted in the beauty and wildness of the moors, something that can be found in the characters of both Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Both Catherine and Heathcliff are creatures of nature. Neither can tolerate the indoors for long, and they are happiest when they’re roaming the moors, among the heather, wild and free.
When Lockwood arrives safely back at Thrushcross Grange, he imposes on Nelly (Ellen) Dean to tell him the history of Wuthering Heights and, with Chapter Four, we leave Lockwood’s narrative and enter Nellie’s, which comprises the bulk of the book.
Wuthering Heights, Nelly tells Lockwood, is home to the turbulent past of two families, the Earnshaws of the Heights, and the Lintons of the Grange. Nelly sets the beginning of her story in the year 1760, when the master of Wuthering Heights returned from a trip to Liverpool with a "...dirty, ragged, black-haired" child he called Heathcliff. Although Mrs. Earnshaw and her son, Hindley, take an instant dislike to Heathcliff, Catherine sees in him a kindred spirit and truly, from the moment of their meeting, Heathcliff and Catherine, though their lives will not always follow the same path, will never be parted in spirit.
As the years go by, Heathcliff and Catherine grow close and, as Hindley put it:
It was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day, and after punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at.
Life, for Heathcliff and Catherine, changes one day when they come upon Thrushcross Grange and decide to spy on the Linton family. While admiring the Linton’s refined manners and fine clothes and furniture, Catherine is bitten by a dog and taken in to the Grange to recover while Heathcliff is sent back to the Heights. When Catherine does return home to the Heights, in many respects, she is not the same Catherine who Heathcliff left at Thrushcross Grange. This plot point marks the end of the almost idyllic happiness that Heathcliff and Catherine shared, just as it marks the beginning of Catherine’s desire to inhabit both the refined world of Edgar Linton, as represented by Thrushcross Grange and the stormy world of Heathcliff’s unbridled passion, as represented by Wuthering Heights.
Catherine’s brother, Hindley’s wife, Frances, dies soon after giving birth to Hareton, and Hindley finds himself lost in a downward spiral, morally, emotionally and spiritually. As Nelly Dean puts it he:
…had room in his heart for only two idols, his wife and himself, he doted on both and adored one.
Catherine, who is not aware that Heathcliff is listening, tells Nelly Dean that she wants to marry Edgar Linton, but her reasons, it would seem, are not the best:
…he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman in the neighborhood, and I shall be proud of such a husband.
Yet, Catherine knows that a marriage to Edgar Linton would, most probably result in tragedy, for she goes on to say:
I have no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now, so he shall never know how I love him, and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightening, or frost from fire….Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff….I am Heathcliff, he’s always, always in my mind, not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
These statements of Catherine’s are the key to her relationship with Heathcliff. I think it’s important to note that Catherine and Heathcliff never consummate their love, yet they love each other far, far more, and in a far deeper, more spiritual and enduring manner than do many people who consummate their love every day of the year. Heathcliff and Catherine have a connection that is deeper than love; more meaningful than love’s physical expression could ever be.
Despite their deep connection, both Heathcliff and Catherine marry others, and both marry for all the wrong reasons: Catherine for social standing and Heathcliff in an act of revenge. And predictably, these marriages lead to tragedy, the first being the death of Catherine Earnshaw Linton shortly after the birth of her daughter and Edgar’s, also named Cathy. There is a passionate scene between Catherine and Heathcliff that occurs shortly before her death during which Catherine asks for Heathcliff’s forgiveness. He answers:
It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands….I love my murderer, but yours! How can I?
And, the reunion between the still pregnant Catherine and the stormy Heathcliff is nothing if not violent. The two can’t get enough of each other, and their need for each other is so great that they find themselves tearing out each other’s hair and leaving bruises on each other as physical manifestations of their love.
The reunion of Catherine and Heathcliff, and Catherine’s death only a few hours later, mark the emotional climax of Wuthering Heights. In fact, if you’ve only seen a film version of this passionately romantic novel, this may be all of the story you know. But, there is much, much more, and it is in the second part of the book that Brontë displays the remarkable symmetry and structural balance of her novel, for the intertwining stories of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange have not concluded. There is a second generation of Earnshaws and Lintons and Heathcliffs who must have their say.
In detailing the story of the second generation, Brontë moves from the passionate, wind-swept world of violence and death back to the world of childhood. Is this a second chance? No, not really, for second chances don’t really exist, and especially not after death.
Although Cathy Linton is a strong and beautiful young woman, and in personality, if not in looks, resembles her mother, her cousin, Linton Heathcliff, the son of Heathcliff and Isabella Linton, is nothing like his father. Sick and peevish, Linton wants nothing more than to be indulged. And, it should be noted, that Cathy meets Linton in the same way her mother, Catherine, met Edgar…through trespassing on his father’s land. This is but one of the instances of symmetry with which Brontë has peppered her book.
Yet, even in this story of the “second generation,” the passionate love of Heathcliff and Catherine has not been forgotten. One night, eighteen years after Catherine’s death, Heathcliff, feeling close to death, himself, bribes the church sexton to exhume Catherine’s body just "to have her in his arms once again." And, he makes arrangements to have his own body buried with Catherine’s, so that when both return to dust and ashes, no one will be able to part them, indeed, no one will be able to tell "which is which."
The novel ends with a beautiful structural symmetry that shouldn’t really surprise any astute reader. Catherine Earnshaw, of the earlier generation becomes Catherine Linton. Catherine Linton, of the second generation, becomes Catherine Earnshaw. Life moves from the wildly violent Wuthering Heights to the placid and “civilized” Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff, after his death, is almost non-existent. Nothing of him is left behind and no one mourns his passing. But in Brontë’s world, that’s as it should be, since Heathcliff was not of this world; his world was Catherine, only Catherine:
The more ordinary faces of men, and women, my own features mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!
When Lockwood comes upon the graves of Catherine Earnshaw Linton, Edgar Linton and Heathcliff, he:
…wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for sleepers in that quiet earth.
Brontë made the necessary distinctions in class and education when writing each character’s dialogue. Each one of the personalities that people Wuthering Heights has a very distinctive voice. Sometimes the dialect is a bit difficult to read, but I think most readers will get used to it after a few pages. It’s certainly not enough to cause real trouble.
Most people see Wuthering Heights as the most romantic love story ever written. or perhaps the most passionate. Yet, as I mentioned previously, Heathcliff and Catherine, the book’s most passionate characters never consummate their love. Brontë never tells us exactly why, for the two certainly had several chances to do so. Perhaps it’s because they were raised as siblings. More likely it’s because Brontë knew that unconsummated love is often stronger than love that is consummated. It’s human nature to desire that which is out of reach and Catherine only becomes more out of reach, as far as Heathcliff is concerned, as the book progresses.
Wuthering Heights is a book that pushes the idea, and the ideal, of “union” to the extreme, especially in Heathcliff’s final wish to buried, not beside Catherine, but actually with her. It is also interesting to note that while Heathcliff has a tremendous propensity toward violence, we, as readers, never doubt his passion and love for Catherine. She is everything to him; she is his soul, perhaps even more than he was hers. And Heathcliff is definitely a Byronic character, filled with brooding darkness, stormy poeticism, and unbridled romanticism.
Another thing to consider when reading this book is that Brontë gave the most passionate and lasting emotions to, perhaps, her most flawed characters…Catherine and Heathcliff. In comparison, the love that Cathy and Hareton share is quite mild, and except for the two involved, quite forgettable. Another thing that is very important for me, is the fact that Bronte often ascribes seemingly “male” characteristics to females, e.g., the high spirits and stubbornness of both Catherines and seemingly “female” characteristics to males, e.g., the desire of Linton to be indulged.
Wuthering Heights is, of course, a story of excess, but it is a glorious story of excess. And I think part of its timeless appeal lies in the fact that most passionate women, if given the chance, would actually choose to be loved with the all-consuming love Heathcliff showed Catherine. Intense and poetic, Wuthering Heights richly deserves its reputation as English literature’s most passionate love story.
Recommended: Absolutely, not to be ignored.