Wuthering Heights—the blame game will not help us here

I just completed my second re-read of Wuthering Heights, a novel I became quite taken with as a teen and continued to turn back to. I’ve only become a re-reader in relatively recent years, and I think my three total reads of this novel make it my most-read ever. At least in whole. This time through, knowing the plot quite well from my first read, and the issues of narration from my second, I found myself casually playing a bit of a “blame game” with regard to the characters and their actions. An experiment in blame, I suppose would be more accurate—an exploration of whether blame actually makes sense at all in this novel. I have great doubts—in many ways, it becomes a tragedy.

This post will necessarily give away a fair amount of the plot, so for those who don’t want to know, fair warning. But it’s obviously key to this discussion. The quick and dirty: The patriarch Mr Earnshaw has two natural-born chidren, Hindley and Catherine. One day, after a trip to Liverpool, he mysteriously brings back another chid—a dark and mysterious child, with no clear parentage or origin at all. Old Mr Earnshaw fairly adopts him into the family, to the resentment of Hindley and delight of Catherine. Hindley sees his role as favorite being usurped—and by a complete outsider, with no family history let alone connection to the Earnshaws. But the boy Heathcliff is to be brought up as a member of the family, stealing affection from the Earnshaw parents. Cathy, by contrast, has a clear and intense affinity for Heathcliff, and before long the two were “as thick as thieves.”

The death of Mr Earnshaw changes everything. Hindley, new master of the house (and with a bride he’s brought home for the first time), turns Heathcliff into a servant in his own home. Constantly degraded by her brother, Heathcliff is no longer fit to be Cathy’s husband, and she turns instead to a gentleman. She knows, all the while, that Heathcliff is her real, intense love, but figures marrying Edgar Linton is the best she can do to help Heathcliff ultimately. This, of course, does not go well.

Meanwhile, Heathcliff insists on exacting vengeance against all those he feel has wronged him. Hareton, Hindley’s son, largely ignored by his drunk and disorderly father, becaomes Heathcliff’s charge, and Heathcliff insists on degrading him in the very same way he himself was degraded, as an unlettered and uncultured farmhand.

But blame for any of this is such a tricky issue: everyone and no one is to blame. We could go back to the ultimate cause: Mr Earnshaw’s bringing home this dark and mysterious stranger, who is to cast a shadow over the family for the rest of his natural life (and beyond). Or perhaps its Mr Earnshaw’s bringing him home and insisting he was a part of the family like any other—something bound to bring even more resentment among an oldest child than simply announcing that his mother is pregnant again and his place in the family will shrink and be displaced. Heathcliff’s arrival must be recognized as a massive and traumatic disruption to home life at Wuthering Heights.

But then, any chance anyone gets at further such massive disruptions is grabbed at the first opportunity. Old Earnshaw’s death leaves Hindley open to do just as he pleases, and so he does. Any any point in the chain, anyone could have shouted, “Stop!” I don’t want my revenge, I don’t want to relive the past, I don’t want to repeat these same old hateful patterns that only lead to one place over and over—a place of discontent and stagnation, full of ill feeling and dishonesty. From Heathcliff to Hindley to Hareton to Joseph to Edgar Linton to Catherine Earnshaw Linton, no one is willing to put the brakes on. Righteous indignation is a powerful force, but a largely destructive one.

But the cycle is broken, eventually, by young Miss Cathy (later Mrs Heathcliff) and her cousin Hareton. To be sure, it takes some scolding from Nelly Dean for Catherine to behave better towards he fellow creature, but once begun, kindness and friendliness overtake baser emotions. Mr Lockwood, self-described misanthrope that he is, can hardly stand to see them together (partly from jealously, but I think not completely).

It is so easy, with a novel like this, to point to dozens and dozens of places where a character could have acted differently and put a stop to a chain reaction of bad feelings and circular patterns of destruction. But Brontë wraps the psychology up very tightly. As much as I might have wanted some of the characters to change their ways, it was always clear that that was literally impossible for them. At least, until the generations and the presence of Heathcliff were distant enough to allow it—the positive in the human spirit does overcome, even if it takes generations. The Earnshaws may have appeared a cursed house, but they proved not to be. It took adversity, hard work and encouragement from the eminently sane Nelly Dean, but the younger people remaining by the end of the novel have turned over a dramatically new leave. The saddest part for me, perhaps, was that they planned to leave Wuthering Heights to do so. How I would love to see that old, harsh place turned into something else. Still old and harsh, but also welcoming. It had become a toxic environment, of course, but the reclaiming of the Heights for the old family would have been extremely satisfying.

4 comments to Wuthering Heights—the blame game will not help us here

  • <em>Wuthering Heights</em>&mdash;the blame game will not help us here: http://t.co/51ltra32 @bibliographing

  • Interesting reading- I must read WH again, been meaning to for a while: specifically to road test my own sense that this is a novel that deals with the effect of the Irish famine on the second generation Brontes. Heathcliff is clearly Irish and there are many dualities in the novel which could be seen to reflect the ideas of ‘rational, civilized England’ and ‘wild, romantic Ireland’.

  • I relished reading this post, first because WH is a personal favorite (way up in my top five), and second because I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the topic of its characters’ dysfunctions so neatly laid out. But it’s a dynamic one can see everywhere, from the microscale of families to the larger political sphere.

  • Seamus—Interesting idea. I have always seen Heathcliff as very Irish. “Dark” is such a relative term in pre-20th c. English literature, after all, which I fear so many people now don’t realize.

    Scott—Thanks! I am always interested in tracing “responsibility” in books like this: where did something go wrong, who had the chance to right it and did not, etc. As in life, in a good novel it’s not going to be very clear-cut! But worth examining, I think.