19 September 2023
On Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights may be the most popular of the Brontë sisters' novels. It is a dark family drama. While too many believe it centers upon the romance between Catherine and Heathcliff, it truly centers—via gothic romanticism (not the same as romance)—upon the extremes of human emotion and psychological dysfunction. It is one family’s odyssey to clamber out of the depths of Sartre’s hell, if “hell is other people.”
It bugs me still, to this day, that of the Brontë novels, Wuthering Heights ranks higher in popularity and sales than Jane Eyre. I admit, I don’t know what’s wrong with me that my own does not jive with popular opinion on this. This must be the third time I’ve read this book. I read it once in High School and it left little impression on me. To satisfy my curiosity about why the book is so popular, I think I picked it up again in my late twenties or early thirties—but this time did not finish reading it.
My third read was force-feeding, once again, but I finished it. And I gave it the time and energy I give other books, with annotations and underlining and more, even though it did not keep my attention. Today, I am ready to do a book review; unfortunately, it will take more the shape of an investigation into why the book still did not engage me—why, for me, it falls flat compared to Jane Eyre.
Let’s do the good first, since there is much good.
It’s said this book is in part popular because it holds to different genres at the same time, creating tension between them. I noticed that Emily Brontë builds her characters in a sort of distant psychological realism—but exaggerated and caricatured in the gore/horror of gothic romance. Emily’s is not pure psychological realism, per my view, because it is third person limited versus omniscient; that is to say, we do not get any interiority of our protagonist’s thoughts because the story is told via their nurse/housekeeper, Ellen. As such, we can watch what happens to cause insane generational trauma and mental illness, but we don’t really get glimpses inside these peoples’ minds unless it is shared via dialogue.
Here's a Jack Kerouac quote that I find relevant on this point: “The details are the life of it, I insist, say everything on your mind, don’t hold back, don’t analyze or anything as you go along, say it out.” I admit, Emily Brontë accomplishes this well in Wuthering Heights. It is unclear whether Emily saw something in this story that rang true to her own life. Whether she felt that things should be a certain way based on the horrible characters in this story, this is also unclear. She just wrote it all out, didn’t hold back, and didn’t offer analysis (except, perhaps, from some smug observations by Ellen Dean, our most-of-the-time narrator). It’s just straight up family drama, including prejudices and preferences, joy and ire, adoration and detestation, without much sensemaking about it all. In that sense, it is psychological realism.
Here’s a great textual example of this. We learn much about why Heathcliff and Hindley act toward one another the way that they do—and it has everything to do with old Mr. Earnshaw:
…seeming to have got into his head the notion that, because [Mr Earnshaw] liked Heathcliff, all hated, and longed to do him an ill-turn.
It was a disadvantage to the lad, for the kinder among us did not wish to fret the master, so we humoured his partiality; and that humouring was rich nourishment to the child’s pride and black tempers. (41)
We get this sort of matter-of-fact realistic family drama throughout—especially at the front end, which is why I’m tempted to call this Cathy’s story (not Catherine and Heathcliff’s). All that happens before little Cathy’s birth might be considered backstory—am I wrong?
On the other hand, Emily exaggerates everything to make caricatures of the characters, the situation (plot), and the setting. Here’s a great example of that just bright blood-red vivid gothic gore: “As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window—Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes; still it wailed, ‘Let me in!’ and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear” (25). Common elements of gothic romance include ghosts, violence, blood, nighttime, rain, terror—yeah, I won’t go on, but you can see she’s got it all right here.
The same can be said of her descriptive language surrounding the setting of the moors. In fact, at moments, it almost appears as though the moors share our protagonist’s moods: dark and stormy one moment (Catherine and Heathcliff), then sun kissed and fruitful the next (Cathy and Linton/Hareton). In its reflections of the protagonist’s emotional states, this setting becomes a character in itself—which is utterly unnatural and gothic.
And then there’s the exaggerated characters. For example, Heathcliff is not just some dude who’s jealous his girl married another man. He’s literally out for Edgar Linton’s blood: “I’d not exchange, for a thousand lives, my condition here, for Edgar Linton’s at Thrushcross Grange—not if I might have the privilege of flinging Joseph off the highest gable, and painting the house-front with Hindley’s blood” (48). This is just one example of so, so many. He despises everyone in his life with two exceptions: Catherine and Hareton. And even these two he abuses viciously. Everyone else, from Hindley to little Heathcliff to Cathy, he treats with violent malevolence and threats of disfigurement and death. No; this is not a real person—at least not one I’ve ever encountered. Heathcliff’s passion reaches beyond what is natural.
Similar can be said of Catherine’s character—although equal to Heathcliff in maliciousness, she is less violent and more histrionic. Her dramatics annoyed me. At one point, Kenneth the doctor tells the household that she’ll die if anyone thwarts her: “Then the doctor had said that she would not bear crossing much, she ought to have here own way; and it was nothing less than murder, in her eyes, for anyone to presume to stand up and contradict her” (88). Like, what in the world, right? If that’s not toddler behavior, I don’t know what is. Later, when she flies into a hysterical temper because of Heathcliff and Edgar’s disagreement, she proclaims, “Oh I will die…since no one cares anything about me” (119). In other moments, I recognize in Catherine the histrionic personality of my own grandmother, who’d say to her husband and children, “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead and gone!” For example, Catherine says, “’I wish I could hold you…’till we are both dead! I shouldn’t care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do! Will you forget me—will you be happy when I am in the earth?’” (158). Now that my own grandmother is dead and gone, I wonder if it is true, for she did not have Edgar and Heathcliff to outlive and fawn over her the way that Catherine did.
And perhaps there is something to the family drama that pushed me away from Emily’s novel the first few times I read it; this family is a caricature of the dysfunctionality of my own families on both sides, maternal and paternal. At age 20, I sought nothing but to escape it, so why would I willingly re-ensconce myself in it through fantasy? No; instead, I sought the escapism and liberty from family dysfunction that can be found in Jane Eyre. Still, I'd prefer to be an orphan than to be involved in that mess. There may be something to that.
Because of these amplified characters, at intervals just prior to Catherine’s death, my annotations alternated between “She’s so gross” and “Okay that’s hot” – and I think this can be chocked up to the overwrought dramatism of the text’s poetic lyricality. This is a different tension, one between poetry and gothic romance. For example, there’s this moment when Heathcliff says, “Two words would comprehend my future—death and hell—existence, after losing her, would be hell” (147). This was one of the moments where I wrote “that’s hot” in the margin. Catherine waxes poetic equally about Heathcliff:
If all else perished, and he remained, I should continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not be 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… (81)
In this representation of passion, Emily’s poetic language illustrates the highest highs and lowest lows of human capacity for love. While all of us will live our lives somewhere at the center region of that vibrational frequency, we might never experience those extremes except through poetry and art. Emily provides us that outlet, here, and for that I can see why she’s so popular.
That said, what Catherine and Heathcliff share is far from “romance.” No; these two are trauma-bonded to the extreme. Their love is violently dysfunctional—tragically so. So anyone approaching this book as a romance needs to take off their rose-colored glasses. This is a disaster, not true love. Psychological realism, gothic romance, and poetry all in one corner store novel. What’s not to appreciate?
This book frustrated me most in its point of view and narrative distance. Regarding the so-called romance between Catherine and Heathcliff, which I had incorrectly assumed was the meat of the story, we are so far from inside of it that we cannot live it vicariously through either character. Like Shelley’s Frankenstein (and I wondered if there was any influence there), Emily employs two or three layers of narration (narrative distance). We get Lockwood recounting Nelly/Ellen’s story, within which we get Heathcliff, Catherine, Isabella, or even Cathy telling their own tales. As this happens, the first person (Lockwood or Ellen) becomes secondary or tertiary. We never hear the protagonist’s thoughts—only those of ancillary characters. We cannot get inside the protagonist’s heads to understand their emotions and motives. Thus, we’re looking in from the outside, through one or two or three different warped glasses. It’s simply not engaging—nowhere near as engaging as Jane Eyre’s first-person limited narrative.
We find some reprieve after Catherine dies and Cathy is born, insofar as our narrator actually loves Cathy—and Cathy is not insufferable, like her mother. Because they are close in this way, our narrator in Ellen waxes poetic about Cathy. We learn a lot more about her personality, her hobbies, her looks, her relationships. We come to finally love one of the protagonists. Finally. Ugh.
Okay. So my initial assessments were unfair; there is much to be loved about this book. Nevertheless, it does not capture and keep my attention the way a first-person narrative would. If the point of my re-reading this book were to determine some lesson to be learned for my own novel, it is this: I will engage my readers deeply via close narrative distance, so that they cannot put the book down. Emily Brontë does not accomplish this for me, here.