Earlier this week when I began writing about Wuthering Heights Amateur Reader joked that I was “mak[ing] the novel sound almost sane, as if it were about humans.” Whether or not this approach is in fact productive, it’s something I was conscious of throughout my read: how realistic any of the characters’ psychologies are.
One, I think, oft-cited passage meant to show those psychologies aren’t realistic is Cathy’s speech to Nelly about her love for Heathcliff—a speech she gives in the middle of explaining why she’s going to marry another man. I, at least, have seen this mentioned as an instance of the ridiculous obsessive love portrayed in the novel, and I’d like to quote it in full:
“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. —My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, 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. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable; and—”
I decided to avoid reading this as the melodramatic speech of a teenage girl obsessed with the “wrong” man and try to see what Cathy was actually saying. One of the first things I noticed was the religious nature of her attachment to Heathcliff. He provides her with a kind of afterlife, and a meaning beyond her own life. She doesn’t need to take comfort in thinking her soul will go on in heaven when she thinks it will go on in Heathcliff himself—he is quite literally her salvation. And she recognizes that this salvation is not easily come by—not always a pleasure. I’m not sure how human this type of romantic obsession is, but it does seem more interesting than the average infatuation.
The other remarkable thing about this passage is how much it telegraphs the rest of the novel. Cathy speculates on what would happen if she died, and she gets it entirely right: she continued to be, as a part of him, haunting him, unable to separate despite the fact that their connection is not always a pleasure. And she speculates on what would happen to her if he died—“the universe would turn a mighty stranger”—exactly what happens to Heathcliff after Cathy herself dies.
I have never actually discussed Wuthering Heights with someone who complained that they expected a romance but got a bizarro Gothic Romance-with-a-capital-R instead, but I hear this is a fairly common complaint. That seems like a shame, because whether the obsessions characters like Cathy and Heathcliff have are human or not, Emily Brontë does just what I’d want her to do: she follows through on what she starts. It may be hard to imagine a love like Heathcliff’s, but once imagined, it is real within the novel, and Heathcliff acts on it as he must if it is to be taken seriously. I suppose it requires a certain kind of suspension of disbelief, or a willingness to go along with a certain genre of novel, but I find this sort of thing satisfying. “I am Heathcliff!” Swoon! I mean, he’s going to have visions of her and then demand to be buried so their remains can mingle. And he’s going to do it partially out of revenge! My point is: Eliot dials up the intensity, and then maintains it in a strangely believable, if twisted, way.
And all the while, normal humanity can’t help but peek through. Hareton and young Cathy, for example. And who could be more human than Joseph—or Nelly—or Mr Lockwood himself?