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?
This is probably something that’s been done to death, and I don’t have the heart to look it up, so I’ll just address it briefly my way. I’ve been thinking, as I always do, but perhaps slightly more articulately this time, about character names in Wuthering Heights. Specifically about the two Catherines. In brief:
Catherine Earnshaw loves both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. She marries Edgar Linton, becoming Mrs. Catherine Linton.
Catherine Linton dies in childbirth, and her baby is likewise named Catherine Linton—but this is, of course, her birth name rather than her married name.
As a teenager, Miss Catherine Linton marries Linton Heathcliff, the main Heathcliff’s son, becoming Mrs. Catherine Heathcliff.
It’s clear from Heathcliff’s reaction to his daughter-in-law that he can’t stand to be around her. Surely this has at least something to do with her eyes, which resemble those of her mother. It also likely has to do with the other traits she has inherited from her father, an odious person to Heathcliff, having effectively stolen away the love of his life. But I would conjecture that it’s also her identity in a much more basic sense—her very name. Nelly Dean notes that Mr. Linton, who always called the elder Catherine by her full name (while Heathcliff called her Cathy), calls the younger one Cathy instead. For Heathcliff, this would bring her even closer to her mother. But most importantly, the Catherine whom Heathcliff loved could never become a Heathcliff. Instead, another Catherine did so—the wrong Catherine, and the wrong Heathcliff! Her very name is a cruel tease against the master of the household. And yet it’s only through this circuitous and painful path that any Catherine could become a Heathcliff.
Meanwhile, after Linton’s death, Catherine begins to strike up a great friendship with Hareton, the last Earnshaw family member left. Ultimately, they will marry, and the Catherine name will come full circle (though not in time for older Heathcliff to witness it). The original Catherine Earnshaw left her family and family name under rushed and perhaps ill-advised circumstances. After years of dealing with the sins of the father, things are ready to restabilize as they were previously. The remaining Catherine will be a Catherine Earnshaw again—but only after she has passed through the crucible that is the Heathcliff family.
Does any of this do anything to erase Heathcliff’s original entry to the Earnshaw home? Years of pain and suffering are not to be forgotten, certainly, but it seems that many indications point to an undoing of years of injustice. As Joseph is so quick to celebrate, the old family is back in power, and if not precisely intact, certainly on the way to rebuilding.
The second edition of Wuthering Heights, published after the death of the author with an introduction by her sister, Charlotte (credited, in this instance, as Currer Bell), open with her admission that “for the first time, [I] have obtained a clear glimpse of what are trmed (and, perhaps, really are) its faults.” She has
gained a definite notion of how it appears to other people—to strangers who knew nothing of the author; who are unacquainted with the locality where the scenes of the story are laid; to whom the inhabitants, the customs, the natural characteristics of the outlying hills and hamlets in the West-Riding of Yorkshire are things alien and unfamiliar.
Let me take a moment to recommend such to All Creatures Great and Small; though separated by nearly two hundred years, I think viewing might be instructive.
But back to Charlotte Brontë. She goes on to say that Wuthering Heights “is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath. Not was it natural that it should be otherwise; the author being herself a native and nursling of the moors.” I think probably half of the appeal of the novel—or at least a third of its appeal—is in this very rusticity. I am, after all, a nut for regional literature, and right from the title we know that’s what we are going to get. As Lockwood explains,
Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. “Wuthering” being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there, at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs on way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.
I almost feel like Lockwood could just have written this explanation of the term “wuthering” and how well it applied to the heights and skipped the rest of the story. All the high Romanticism is laid out right here; who doesn’t fall for “wuthering”? The power of the weather, which will be a significant force throughout the novel, is already laid bare. Wuthering Heights is a place of harshness, of stunted growth, of failed potential. Of gauntness, of thorns, of every living being craving the light of one being, far out of reach. And as an attempt to keep the outside tumult outside, the place is a fortress—just as good at keeping people in, with these narrow windows, as at keeping the wind out.
As a lover of regional fiction, I have an extra-soft spot for Wuthering Heights. Ditto as a lover of the Romantic. And of framing stories too, and unreliable narrators. It’s even funny, too. Surely I won’t say anything at all original about this one, at least not this time around when I fairly raced through it with simple delight at the story, but there’s little doubt I’ll be reading it again (and again, and again…).
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.