Jun 02, 10
Read in August, 2008
** spoiler alert **
There is no doubt that Emily Brontë’s masterpiece and her only novel Wuthering Heights is a modern myth. And superior to Charlotte Brontë’s (nonetheless, excellent) period piece Jane Eyre. The ingenious mind of the latter’s younger sister recognized, consciously or subconsciously, the archetypal structures of myth and the timeless forms of its characters and made them act on behalf of her own ferocious imagination. But those expecting to take a nice stroll down a comfortable literary landscape amidst a bunch of likeable, easily understandable characters, do not need to bother with this one. Because nothing about Wuthering Heights is easy. It is a complex and uncompromising, almost morbid study of the dark side of human nature.
The dissection is done through several characters - ambiguity and immorality isn’t attributed to the protagonist only, even if he towers above everyone else. Despite that, the book itself does not lack a moral center, which is personified by the narrative voice of the housekeeper Nelly Dean and to an extent by her co-narrator Mr. Lockwood. They are the two people who, no matter how affected by what they see or have to live with, never once lose their way.
The first volume of the novel follows the growth and transformation of Catherine Earnshaw and the second volume that of her daughter, but on the whole it is an observation of the character of Heathcliff. He remains an enigma, from the day he is brought to live with the Earnshaws - a little gipsy kid - to the day he dies, in circumstances also unexplained, leaving us to speculate whether he might have been coaxed into it by the phantom of Catherine herself. Heathcliff embodies the so called literary Byronic hero - basically a variation of an anti-hero defined as a brooding and tormented semi-romantic male and often described as clad in black and having dark eyes or hair. Generally, he expresses a hateful attitude towards the world and himself and is dominated by obsessive love for one woman. In classic fiction we need look no further than the figures of Dracula or Rochester; the more modern version of this archetype can be found in J.K. Rowling’s Severus Snape - a creation of another British female author. Heathcliff’s major personality flaw is common - pride, and his thirst for revenge Shakespearean. Though oddly stoic (when you think about it, psychologically he doesn’t really change much during the course of the book), his presence is so powerful that it grips us like a vice and doesn’t let go. A wide range of emotions is aroused - hope, sadness, pity, fear, terror, frustration, anger… even secret admiration and attraction, for he is a handsome, strong-willed and intelligent man. Unfortunately he is too far gone to be saved.
Catherine is a passionate and selfish woman suffering from severe bipolar tendencies. Her anxieties - partly self-imposed, partly caused by her mental disorder - reflect the poetic duality of her nature. There’s the wildness that corresponds to her fundamental love for Heathcliff and on the other hand a greedy desire for a life of a higher standard than what she is provided with at the residence of Wuthering Heights. The collision of these two forces inside of her renders her existence unbearable for her. Whilst maybe less memorable than, for example, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, Cathy is a tragic heroine of her own right. A sort of a beastess, always craving and hardly ever satisfied. Looking at the bigger picture, the flesh-and-blood being seems to dissolve into something abstract and ethereal… like a fragment of Heathcliff’s soul, violently ripped from him. The creepy inhuman quality that she has makes us ask the question: was she alive at all? Or did she just convince them, and us, that she was real…
For me, the third most fascinating and perplexing character might be Heathcliff’s and Isabella’s son Linton. An androgynous, relentlessly moody and lethargic boy, whom cruel fate robbed of any chance for a normal life the moment his biological father decided to claim him. Would he have survived and developed into a better person, had he been able to stay at Thrushcross Grange? He serves as a romantic red herring as well, because at some point we start to believe that him and Catherine junior are meant to be.
The tale told is so heavy on dramatic irony that it feels as though we encounter it at each new turn of the events. When drunken Hindley Earnshaw drops baby Hareton from the top of the stairs, it is his sworn enemy, Heathcliff, who catches the child. Hareton is then someone Heathcliff perhaps, against his wishes, becomes fond of. Disregarding her father’s efforts to secure her future at Thrushcross Grange, young Catherine Linton is drawn to her mother’s old home and its inhabitants and later ends up imprisoned in there. Catherine and Hareton together stand for what her mother and Heathcliff failed to obtain. And the ultimate twist - the dirty underdog and stable boy eventually raising as the triumphant master of Wuthering Heights.
The imagery is delicious and strewn with stylistically pure elements of the horror genre, and, on occasion, motifs from Nordic folklore. We have the grim interior of the house of Wuthering Heights; people getting lost in snowstorms or drenched in rain; moonlight walks, churchyards and gravestones; ghostly pale faces and locks of hair kept in lockets. Heathcliff (bless him) can’t rest before he digs out his lover’s coffin, and he gets so annoyed at his legal wife, he flings a kitchen knife at her. He is compared to a wolf, a vampire, a goblin, and numerous times to the devil. The idyllic Yorkshire moors play such an important role that they resemble a living, breathing entity. To the characters the heather moors symbolize freedom, a peaceful paradise, but are simultaneously a desolate place that spurs superstitious ideas about the world of the dead.
With its dynamic and tightly wound tapestry of murky, unsettling themes, Wuthering Heights represents the pinnacle of tragic storytelling. A gothic dream that lingers to haunt you for a long-long time. (Freud and Jung would surely have heaps of fun reading it.)