Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë

Year of first publication: 1847
Genre: novel, Gothic novel, romantic novel
Country: UK

At a certain point in "Wuthering Heights", when Heathcliff learns of Isabella's infatuation for him, Emily Brontë writes: 'And he stared hard at the object of discourse, as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, for instance, which curiosity leads one to examine in spite of the aversion it raises.’ (p.115). I think this is how we look at the characters of this novel, morbidly, like we look at an eerie animal. Emily Brontë is often called the sphinx of English literature, because how the daughter of a clergyman who lived a secluded life in rural Yorkshire came to write this tale of human wickedness and revenge is one of the main concerns of critics of 19th-century Gothic and romantic literature.
This book was among my favourite during my teenage years, but I had not reread it since. What I saw at the time, of course, was the dark, strong, inexplicable love story between Heathcliff and Catherine. I could not care for the second generation: Cathy seemed to me a dull version of her mother and I was fascinated only by the (in)possibility of ghosts wandering the windy moors of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. I did not see all the implications and possible readings that the novel could have: an exposure of the unfair laws that regulated inheritance, the puzzle of Heathcliff's ethnic origins or the "nature versus culture" topos.
"Wuthering Heights" is the story of Heathcliff and his revenge, above all. The story is told by Ellen Dean, the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange, to a certain Mr Lockwood, the new tenant there. After an iconic scene where Mr Lockwood dreams of the ghost of a woman knocking at his window, but then wakes up and finds out that it was just the branch of a tree pulling against the window, Ellen Dean starts to tell the story of the two families who inhabited Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. She recalls that Heathcliff was first brought home as a child by Mr Earnshaw after a trip to Liverpool, but his origins were unknown. He lookes like a gypsy, with dark, unruly hair and black eyes and she likes to speculate, even suggesting that he might have Chinese or Indian origins (pp.64-65). He is treated like a son by Mr Earnshaw, but he is not considered as such by everyone else (here's again another topos, see Austen's "Mansfield Park" for instance). His only friend in the world is Catherine Earnshaw: together, they run and have adventures in the open air, like brother and sister. One day, they run away from Wuthering Heights, like children do when they play. They reach Thrushcross Grange, which appears like a nice cottage owned by the Lintons. Here Heathcliff is discarded as a gypsy, while Catherine is treated like a princess. In the following weeks at Thrushcross Grange, she is taught good manners and is given nice clothes. The interactions between the Earnshaws and the Lintons result in two marriages. Catherine marries Edgar Linton, despite she loves Heathcliff. 'I am Heathcliff' (p.90) she says, in one of the most famous monologues of English literature. The reasons why she loves him remain obscure, even after 150 years of the book's first publication. Is it the kind of love that twins have or is it a more carnal passion? What we know is what the text says: Heatchliff leaves after hearing who Catherine is going to marry and in the next few years nothing is known about his whereabouts. When he comes back, he is a gentleman, rich and good-mannered. He gambles with Hindley, Catherine's brother, in order to inherit Wuthering Heights, and teaches Hindley's son Hareton bad manners. Heathcliff – an outcast, dark-skinned and lacking lineage – manages to become the master of the house and to destroy the two families. Catherine dies in childbirth, but not after having hold Heathcliff in her arms for the last time, and Heatchliff elopes with Isabella, Edgar's sister (oh, God, this novel is getting so difficult to summarize!). The story goes on with the second generation: Catherine and Edgar's daughter Cathy, Heathcliff and Isabella's sickly son Linton and Hindley's son Hareton, whom Heathcliff has not taught how to read and whom he treates as a peasant. Hindley being dead, maybe murdered by Heathcliff, and Hareton not representing a menace, Heathcliff has almost accomplished his revenge. His next evil plan is to make sure that Cathy Linton falls in love with poor Linton, his son, so he will inherit Thrushcross Grange as well. He manages to do that, at his son's expenses. Linton, already ill, in fact dies soon after marrying Cathy. The epilogue takes place when Mr Lockwood goes back to the region after a few months of absence and finds Ellen Dean living at Wuthering Heights with Cathy and Hareton, who have become friends, Heathcliff having died in the attempt of seeing Catherine's ghost through fasts and long wanderings in the night.
All the characters in the novel are loathsome: even Catherine, the heroine of the story, is whimsical, sometimes cruel and above all, impertinent and bossy. Her daughter Cathy is perhaps less unpleasant, but she is altogether spoiled and superficial. Linton is one of the most annoying characters in literature and Heathcliff is just too cruel and evil to be plausible. This is why I suggest that readers look at "Wuthering Heights" as if it were a strange animal. We ask ourselves what could Emily Brontë possibly mean with this novel and we wonder why we are so attracted to it. I browsed the web to learn what critics wrote and came out with a lot of different readings, but none of them satisfies. Lord David Cecil in 1935 wrote that the principle of calm and storm pervades the novel, suggesting that "Wuthering Heights" should be read in that sense. He certainly had a good point, but I don't think that "Wuthering Heights" can be restricted to a single reading. Emily Brontë certainly tackles and subverts the question of power relations, for instance, with the Other (Heathcliff) taking the role of master. Heathcliff is, nonetheless, essentially the villain of the story, albeit forced to become so by circumstances. His is an usurpation of power by the Other, the undefinied colonial subject (gypsy, Lascar or Irish, the origin doesn't really matter). Race as a metaphor for gender works only partially here: while at the end of the story Cathy is reintroduced in the inheritance line (Hareton will formally inherit, I think, but it is Cathy who's managing the house), Heathcliff or his potentially benevolent descendants are wiped out. The only son he had was a sickly, hideous boy whose horrible fate the reader is encouraged to soon forget. Those whose lineage are unknown remain therefore exluded. In other words, gender is preferred over race. The novel questions and then reaffirms imperial ideology (as Susan Meyer says of "Jane Eyre"). I think that the problem of inheritance and power structures is integral to the story, but there are so many things in this book that one does not feel at ease by endorsing a particular interpretation over the others.
In my opinion, "Wuthering Heights" is, first of all, a tale of revenge, of what rage, hatred and isolation can do to human beings. It is a story that still exerts its quirky fascination over the readers: Heatchliff digging up Catherine's body or the isolation of Yorkshire moorlands roughening the character of people stay forever in readers' minds. It is a novel of extreme violence, sometimes unmotivated and prompted by frustration, with oppositions and strange haunting images (what about the dead rabbits or the hounds at the beginning of the novel?), and this is why it is a story that lingers in the mind of readers long after having finished the book.     

About the author: Emily Brontë (1818-1848), was born in the moorlands of Yorkshire, the daughter of a clergyman. She had a stern education and never left Yorkshire. She had a close relationship with her two sisters, Charlotte and Anne, who were also writers. She left only one novel ("Wuthering Heights") and some poems. She died of tubercolosis at thrirty years of age. She was unmarried and, it is said, never knew love.


  1. a great review. I agree that this novel is difficult to summarise with all its complex interrelationships. You raised some important questions and have done a good job on the novel.

  2. Thank you. It was difficult to write about it, because it is such an iconic novel of 19th-century romantic fiction.

  3. Wonderful discussion. I have a copy of this book here somewhere but haven't taken the time to read it yet... which is odd, given my love of 19th-century British Literature. You inspire me to move it closer to the top of my reading queue!

  4. It deserves being read and pondered over, I guess. Do move it closer to the top!

  5. Great review. I have heard a whole lot on this book. Should be about time to get reading it. Thanks.

  6. Top rate review.
    I have reread this novel about once a decade (('m presently 60), and each reading allows for a different understanding and insight.
    Following it's criticism over the last two centuries reveals as much about the historical perspective of the times as it does about the novel itself.
    The mystical component is strong, the characters iconic, the structure post modern, and the claustrophobic space between two houses and a piece of the Moors we enter, through Ms. Bronte's pen, is immortal.
    In every sense a classic!

  7. @Barbaro Maestra: Thank you, I agree with everything you wrote.

    By the way, a great deal of the Bronte's work is about claustrophobia. I think that when readers wonder how could the daughter of a clergyman write a novel like "Wuthering Heights" they should also think of claustrophobia as her stimulus and urge to write.

  8. Just read a stunning ebook bio by Michelle Carter called Charlotte Brontë's Thunder that gives an analysis of Wuthering Heights that is amazing. It's stirring controversy here. Check it out if you don't mind being shocked.

  9. @Poppy: Interesting book. It's difficult to understand where the line between a scholarly publication and gratuitous speculation is, though.

  10. This story is such a brilliant romantic work; filled with love, romance, deception and heartache. What I loved most was how Heathcliffs love never faded, that was so romantic. Though the novel may be tragic, the way the author ties up the fate of all the characters is fantastic, and the reader is not left pondering the fates of any, not even the everlasting love of Heathcliff and Catherine.

  11. @Ceska: The first time I read it I had the same impression that you had. In my second reading, instead, I began asking other questions. It's one of those books we'll never stop speaking about.