Wuthering Heights Wuthering Heights discussion

Nature or nurture?

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Rita Lamb 'Now, my bonny lad, you are mine! And we’ll see if one tree won’t grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!’ Heathcliff believes he can make Hareton into an equally embittered version of himself, but he fails. Why? What ultimately decides someone's character - life experience, conscious moral choices, or just the body you're born with?

Rita Lamb Yes, Hareton and Heathcliff weren't exactly equal test-cases. Like Heathcliff, Hareton might be dispossessed, educationally neglected and reduced to the least-advantaged social status: but at least he knew where he came from, plus he had the love of his (admittedly-useless) father for crucial early bonding.

Hareton survives homelife with Heathcliff more successfully than poor Linton, though, apparently because his innately fearless nature means H is less tempted to bully him.

'Homelife with Heathcliff' - there's a title:)

message 3: by Mochaspresso (last edited Aug 21, 2015 05:40AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mochaspresso Mary wrote: "Heathcliff was fending for himself in the streets when he was a young boy. He survived like a ferrel animal. He never had a chance to learn trust. I bet he was shunned and got an occasional scrap t..."

There is no evidence in the text to base this theory on, but I did have the suspicion that Heathcliff may have been his biological child.

message 4: by Mochaspresso (last edited Aug 21, 2015 11:49AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mochaspresso Well, a similar situation occurred in Jane Eyre. Rochester was taking care of a little french girl named Adele. He called her his "ward". Jane was employed in the Rochester household as her governess. I don't remember if the book ever explicitly states that she is his daughter...but in those days, would it have been unheard of for a wealthy nobleman to raise his illegitimate child in his household as a "ward" or foster child?

Have you seen the movie "Belle"? It's based on this very premise, except her mother had been a slave in the West Indies.

Rita Lamb I know it can't be proved but I prefer to think Mr Earnshaw just picked Heathcliff out of random altruism. He's a bit of a god-botherer, I think? (Joseph gets a hold over him through this). Perhaps he saw saving this poor waif as a virtuous deed that would stand him in good stead in the afterlife. He likes to do gruff acts of kindness - Nelly remembers him slipping her a tip after she made the kitchen bright for Christmas "..then I remembered how old Earnshaw used to come in when all was tidied, and call me a cant lass,and slip a shilling into my hand for a Christmas-box".

Rita Lamb Cemre wrote:

"Homelife with Heathcliff"- Great. It can be the name of a reality show based on WH. Each contende..."

I'd watch it :))

Rita Lamb Cemre wrote: "Have you read Joyce Carol Oates's essay on WH ? I can't link to it now, but it shows up when you google "joyce carol wuthering".

It's not that bad, some of her views are insightful, especially o..."

Yes thanks, I found it and I've read it twice. (I don't get much out of a critical essay on first reading because I'm too busy trying to mentally interrupt the writer..'Excuse me! Rev. Bronte was Irish, not English!') I think it's excellent and puts into words (and literary context) a lot of what I half-felt already about WH. I'll read it again, bearing in mind what you say about it being too critical of Heathcliff:)

message 8: by Rita (last edited Aug 25, 2015 01:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rita Lamb If I understand her, Oates is arguing the whole novel is a kind of valediction to the seductive idea of the Romantic; and also, that when you take in the structure of the novel as a whole, it belies the message apparently inherent in its most powerful scenes. She seems (to me) to be suggesting Bronte was intentionally writing the world’s greatest romantic novel, precisely to show the limitations of the romantic approach to life. Is Oates saying that though Bronte knew she lived most intensely in her feelings and imagination, her book is nevertheless a conscious, deliberate statement that for life to flourish you have to outgrow this? Is this how you read her?

Now going back to concentrate on what she says about Heathcliff.

Rita Lamb I think it's something to do with the way Bronte has written her main characters. They seem to function both as Big Gothic Archetypes, and yet also psychologically plausible human beings moving in a convincing, even prosaic, social context. So Heathcliff is both a Monster who does what he does simply because his nature is monstrous - like Grendel, or the Minotaur; and yet still a man, of a certain class and time, with very understandable motives for seeking revenge on those who've wronged him.

I do think Bronte is observing that nature and nurture interact. Some people are born fighters but lack empathy, and some are born peace-loving, sociable...and a bit cowardly. Heathcliff is clearly stoic, hardy, energetic and naturally courageous: but he lacks sympathy, or, as he admits, pity. Presumably he wouldn't have survived on the streets of Liverpool otherwise. But had he not had to survive on the streets, or to overcome being oppressed and slighted, or lost Catherine - would his nature have developed into something quite so fierce and 'wolfish'?

And yes he's a villain in the book's terms, and in terms of conventional morality. But he dies unrepentant because in his own understanding of the world, and by his own scale of values, he has done nothing wrong.

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Rita Lamb A critic nearer to Bronte's own time wrote (1857):
"The whole gloomy tale is in its idea the nearest approach that has been made in our time to the pitiless fatality which is the dominant idea of Greek tragedy."

And I think there is a feeling of tragic inevitability in the plot of WH. Mr Earnshaw does a kind act which accidentally spoils his relationship with his own son; that son is naturally hurt, but unjustly takes out his resentment on Heathcliff; H becomes embittered and returns to wreak his own terrible revenge. But if Hindley was wrong to blame Heathcliff for his father's failings, what is Heathcliff for using Hareton, Cathy2 and his own son as surrogates for their dead parents? Yet you don't feel, given their respective natures, either man could have behaved other than as he did. Hindley's nature was over-sensitive and self-pitying, he didn't bear up well under life's disappointments. At 14, he cries because his promised present is broken; as a man, when his wife dies he takes to drink. Heathcliff's nature is fierce, stoic and active. After he loses Cathy his sense of wrong is so great that even if his enemies die, his need for revenge must still be assuaged.

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Rita Lamb In her evaluation she sees and addresses the archetype more than the human being? Although she knows Heathcliff is both. He may be "the lifeforce" but he's also the experienced farmer who tells Hareton to bar the sheep in the porch before the snow comes. He may be vengeance personified but he never turns Joseph out to beg - I suppose because he needs a farm servant, and Joseph knows the job. But then, Joseph is a tough old bird who to some extent shares H's pitiless values, his lack of empathy, and so doesn't excite H's compulsion to destroy weakness. (Quite funny that it's Cathy2 who terrorises Joseph.)

Oates says some things that surprise me. She seems to think it's an aggravation of Heathcliff's offence that he delivers his devastating analysis of Isabella's deluded love for him in her actual presence. I mean - why would he bother saying it if Isabella weren't there to suffer the hearing, or Nelly to witness and report back? He's begun a war with the Lintons. They've outraged him by their past behaviour and anyway they aren't his tribe. If they don't seem aware of the state of war, that's their lookout.

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Rita Lamb We all have a natural urge to rival or excel each other, especially as children. Heathcliff's desire for dominance and control is very strong. It's backed by the advantages of strength, speed and cunning. The urge is easily triggered by the sight of weakness. It's his nature, as it's the nature of a cat to pounce on a bird. He is a gifted predator, as surely as his son is the reverse.

Unfortunately, born with such a nature he is also born and raised in a world where the strong (whoever fed him on scraps in Liverpool, kind but autocratic Mr Earnshaw, the magistrate Linton, the insecure bully Hindley, the woman who loves him but dumps him) dispose of the weak.

He's born without much of a gift for empathy, and nobody gives him any insight into another way of connecting to people. Religious precepts are delivered via Joseph, who signally fails to get the core message himself.

Nelly he knows can be relied on to behave decently:as long as she doesn't thwart his plans, he's unlikely to attack her. Those he perceives as attacking him - he only knows one way with them. Take the war to your enemy, and take it to him till he yields. If people admire this in him, it's not entirely cringing masochism. These are warrior values. Humanity learned to admire these qualities long before it realised mercy, love and a desire for peace have value too.

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Rita Lamb There are understandable reasons why Heathcliff acts "unnaturally" at times. Isabella for example - it's no surprise that she is unattractive, even hateful, to him. He's deeply unhappy because the woman he truly loves is not his. No-one can replace her, certainly not the sister of the man who took Cathy off him. The girl's personality would madden him anyway - what business does she have projecting her schoolgirl fantasies onto him and expecting him to play along? (I'm not saying this is how I would see Isabella: just that Heathcliff, with his mindset, can't see her any other way).

If Heathcliff had been accepted and fully socialised into the society which he was kidnapped into - if he'd ever embraced its religion in some meaningful way - if he'd absorbed its professed moral code rather than just learning which actions were legal and which weren't - he'd have something to regret, something to repent. But he never repents because, as he says very honestly to Nelly, he really can't see anything to be sorry for. By his own code, everything he did was justified: "...as to repenting of my injustices, I’ve done no injustice, and I repent of nothing."

This isn't idle talk. This is what he genuinely believes. Perhaps Bronte wants us to realise that we all live alone in slightly different universes. We're always astonished when we find others don't see what we ourselves know to be true.

Heathcliff's tribe consisted of only two people. He dedicated his life to repelling the enemies who destroyed it.

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Rita Lamb Yes, if we discount anything supernatural is going on, then Heathcliff is just suffering hallucinations brought on by his monomania about a dead woman, worsened by dehydration and starvation. In his own mind though, clearly he is about to reunite with Cathy, whose presence surrounds him and becomes more and more real. It's as if she is gradually materialising. This is why his revenge becomes irrelevant - he has so much greater a prize nearly in his grasp.

message 15: by Rita (last edited Aug 26, 2015 03:12PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rita Lamb @Cemre
I don't think Bronte was extolling the qualities of brutal or macho types above those of men with less propensity for violence. She's not some sad power-worshipping fascist. I do think though she recognised that because people are born with different innate abilities, this can distort human relationships. A narrow-focused, strong-willed, energetic man of few scruples, like Heathcliff, stands a better chance of shaping affairs to suit himself than one sensitive to, or respectful of, other people's needs. But in the long run, the world re-balances itself. The future belongs to Hareton and young Cathy.

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Rita Lamb Cemre wrote: "I'm sorry if I've sounded angry in my previous post, I actually enjoy our discussion a lot. I also don't think that the "Darwinist" thing (I use the word "Darwinist" here quiet liberally."

You don't sound angry, just passionate about the book and keen to clarify your response. Maybe a bit frustrated that I'm missing the point :)

I will re-read Oates and get back to you, but meanwhile this is me again:

Heathcliff does some appalling things but an important part of the book, for me, is that Bronte seems keen for us to understand that he genuinely feels his actions are justified. He is not 'sinning'. He is not violating his own moral code. This isn't because he's following some other kind of 'gypsy' code, or is primitive, or unintelligent, but because he only ever had one real human attachment: Cathy. His empathy with others is based entirely on her. Imagine if you lived on a planet with one dearly-loved human companion but swarming hordes of vexatious pipsqueaks, androids and zombies: and then the zombies stole your human love away.

Okay, he's fond of Hareton a bit, and Nelly a bit...and maybe at the end there's even a half-recognition that Cathy2 is some kind of human being he may have damaged.

There I have to leave it till Monday, because I'm away. I will though try to study Oates between times.

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Rita Lamb Thanks - family wedding!

Katie Rita wrote: "Homelife with Heathcliff' - there's a title:)


Katie Mochaspresso wrote: "There is no evidence in the text to base this theory on, but I did have the suspicion that Heathcliff may have been his biological child."

I so agree, I had my own pondering on that very thing while i was reading it. Why else would he just randomly bring him home to raise him above his own children. Which makes his strange obsession with Cathy even more creepy!

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Rita Lamb Katie wrote: "Mochaspresso wrote: "There is no evidence in the text to base this theory on, but I did have the suspicion that Heathcliff may have been his biological child."

I so agree, I had my own pondering..."

I'm not convinced Bronte meant us to suppose that Heathcliff was Mr Earnshaw's natural son. I admit something feels psychologically incestuous about Heathcliff's love for Cathy, because they grew up together like brother and sister before their mutual obsession became sexualised. But, historically, people have sometimes felt moved to take in an abandoned child they felt sorry for, and it's always been seen as a charitable, meritorious act. Mr Earnshaw, we're told, was anxious about the state of his soul, disappointed in his own children's character - Hindley especially - and increasingly inclined to be autocratic. It's convincing to me that once such a man took what he thought was a highly-moral decision, he'd scorn the reactions of others who disagreed with him on any grounds whatever - whether financial (Mrs E) or emotional (Hindley) or simple eeugh-you-don't-know-where-it's-been prejudice (Nelly). The more opposition he got, the more determined he'd be to show that he was right and the others were wicked and morally-blind.

One of the saddest lines in the book to me is his comment when poor Hindley sets off to a fresh start at college:"Hindley was nought, and would never thrive as where he wandered." Nice send-off.

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Rita Lamb "He seized, and thrust her from the room; and returned muttering—‘I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain.’

What does H mean by the last sentence? I've always taken it to mean " The pain of others only makes me want to hurt them more". Or does he mean he is becoming hardened by what he's doing, so that any remnants of distress he feels at behaving so cruelly are an incitement to push the process further, faster, until he no longer feels anything at the sight of another's suffering? Which sort of implies he is feeling something, initially.

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Rita Lamb It's the odd image of moral "teething". You do see this in babies - it hurts them to push those teeth through sore little gums, but they just can't stop biting, biting till the teeth are through. Is this Heathcliff? He has to make himself harsher and harsher until he can do this without any feeling at all.

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Rita Lamb If you really don't feel pity, why do you need to tell yourself you don't?

Not a warrior chieftain then - this is like Othello, manning up to murder: 'My heart is turned to stone / I strike it, and it hurts my hand.' Your heart bleeds for Othello there because you know he's lying to himself. He isn't stony-hearted. He's going to kill himself for pure grief before the end.

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Rita Lamb ‘I believe you think me a fiend,’ he said, with his dismal laugh: ‘something too horrible to live under a decent roof.’ Then turning to Catherine, who was there, and who drew behind me at his approach, he added, half sneeringly,—‘Will you come, chuck? I’ll not hurt you. No! to you I’ve made myself worse than the devil.'

Does he not understand what she must feel about him, there? Is that not empathy?

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Rita Lamb I wouldn't claim he ever becomes touchy-feely. His nature is harsh and unsparing: almost the only times he smiles or laughs are when some other person is at a disadvantage. The passage I quoted though does show he is capable of seeing himself from another's viewpoint. He's grimly amused that Nelly - who's known him from infancy - might seriously think he's some kind of agent of darkness. And Cathy2, he realises, can only hate him, because of the way he's treated her.

It's not over-stated, it isn't humane or sympathetic: but it does show some capacity for imagining another's inner life.

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Rita Lamb I think he likes Hareton because Hareton has courage, spirit and endurance: it's not just that he understands Hareton's sufferings because he felt them himself long before.

I don't see he likes Lockwood. He's just a tenant. A walking rental income.

Nelly was good to him when he was a boy, so he may not love her but doesn't fear her either. He only enjoys sadistically harming those who hurt him (or represent those who have hurt him). He's not a kind man, he'll boot a fierce dog to make it behave as he wants: but he doesn't spend his evenings torturing puppies.

message 27: by Rita (last edited Sep 07, 2015 08:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rita Lamb We have to judge people by the standards they believe in, not our own. Heathcliff doesn't appear to subscribe to the milder precepts of any religion. Everything about him suggests he has a raw conception of human relations: it's better to be strong than weak, because the strong abuse the weak (he knows this from personal experience): desireable qualities are courage, hardihood, and utter lack of self-deception. (Deceiving others, strategically, is okay. If they're fooled - more fool them. Don't they know what life is like? There's a war on.)

Hareton is hurt and jealous when Lockwood is chatting up Cathy2 in the opening scenes: Lockwood rudely barges into him as he storms out of the Heights in a temper, ready to march off unguided into a blizzard. Cathy2 won't/can't help: Heathcliff is unfriendly: Joseph gloats. What does Hareton do?
'"I'll go with him as far as the park," he said.'

Hareton, with all the right physical attributes for a bully, and raised by Heathcliff's iron rules, is always looking to mend things: to soften someone else's hardship. Remember how his gentler feelings get the better of him when he first distresses Cathy2? He tries to apologise. She cuts him in the face with her whip. Heathcliff would have pulled her off and kicked her. Hareton swears and..just gets over it.

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Rita Lamb It's more than ideology, it's a fundamentally different experience of the world and relations with others. I would blame a criminal who attacked me in the course of a robbery. But I wouldn't blame a schizophrenic who attacked me because he genuinely believed Satan was after him, and I was Satan. Nothing Heathcliff says suggests he can relate to other people in any normal way, become close, have a friend. In his world, there was only ever one other being like him: Cathy. Without her, he's alone in the abyss.

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Rita Lamb ".as to repenting of my injustices, I’ve done no injustice, and I repent of nothing."

That's Heathcliff's calm statement to a reproachful Nelly, shortly before his death. Perhaps it's a blustering lie, and, deeply conscious of wrongdoing, he is smothering his overwhelming sense of guilt. Or, he's saying what he believes. From what he understands of the world and how people should behave, he did nothing wrong. It's not the view we would take, but it genuinely appears to be his.

Nelly doesn't speculate on his attitude, but when she encourages him to consider the state of his soul, in a Christian context, he ignores her other than to issue details of his funeral - which don't include any religious ceremony.

Honestly, I can't conclude anything but that his whole interior value system, his mores, was not something learned from, and shared by,others - but is peculiar to himself.

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Rita Lamb No Mary, I'm not arguing Heathcliff has no moral system: just that it clearly isn't any we're familiar with.
For starters, it isn't one based on the accepted Christian code of the day: he's been exposed to that as a boy, having it beaten into him by Joseph, but I can't recall any speech which suggests he's interiorised it, or subscribed to it in any meaningful way - except perhaps for the conversation Nelly overhears him having with Cathy after Mr Earnshaw dies. But that's only an indication he believed in an afterlife of some sort, as a child; and later, as an adult, his last conversation with Nelly confirms he definitely does believe in the survival of the spirit after death: "...if you neglect it (i.e. his burial) you shall prove, practically, that the dead are not annihilated!" But in fact his overwhelming belief that Cathy - whose slightly-decayed corpse he has actually seen with his own eyes - is somehow returning to him, obviously indicates he does believe very much in an afterlife.

What God if any he believes in though, I don't know. When he speaks to Cathy in their last interview he appears to believe in a deity: "...nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us..." Actually, he appears there to be equating God and Satan as equal powers, so he may have some belief in a dual deity?

Anything else about his beliefs or moral code is sort of guesswork: but it isn't the same as yours or mine, I think. (You'll be relieved to know I personally don't believe in the strong having the right to dominate the weak, or revenge being perfectly acceptable behaviour, or hatred being a sound basis for social relationships.) Heathcliff clearly values certain qualities - physical courage; determination; cleverness; strength of will; some forms of loyalty. And above all, whatever quality he sees embodied in Catherine - a spirit of freedom, an intensity, an utter honesty? I don't know. I think most women reading the book don't actually like Cathy much, and even Nelly has her doubts about her because she's so wilful. But at the same time Nelly says: "A wild, wicked slip she was—but she had the bonniest eye, the sweetest smile, and lightest foot in the parish: and, after all, I believe she meant no harm; for when once she made you cry in good earnest, it seldom happened that she would not keep you company, and oblige you to be quiet that you might comfort her." Cathy is self-willed but not deceitful. Hypocrisy, or dishonesty about your true feelings, or playing a role you've imagined for yourself - seems to be a very bad thing in Heathcliff's eyes. It's what he punishes gleefully in Isabella, and apparently despises in Linton. I think he truly believes anyone who pretends to be motivated by any kind of higher feelings is a liar - lying to others and perhaps to themselves too. It's quite possible I suppose that he sees Edgar merely as a superior kind of hypocrite, the ultimate moral humbug - because just as nobody in WH understands Heathcliff's interior life, he doesn't really understand theirs.

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Rita Lamb "Bu da geçer yâ hû."

(Couldn't resist that, Cemre, I found it in Wikipedia.)

I don't really know how I'd identify the central theme, the novel's got so many aspects. But if it was weather, it would be an almighty thunderstorm, followed by birdsong and clear skies.

Definitely how the past shapes the present. Perhaps also it's the impossibility of us all fitting in with each other, all the time, given that we can barely understand one another anyway?

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Rita Lamb If I was God, and could intervene to save somebody, you know who I'd save? Hindley.

First I'd fix it so his dad wasn't disappointed in him because of his weaknesses, but loved him unconditionally and let him know it. I'd have Heathcliff adopted by another passer-by who got there five minutes earlier than Earnshaw. I'd have Mr E struggle through to Wuthering Heights, collapse laughing in a chair and throw open his greatcoat to reveal the best bloody fiddle in creation, which he'd carefully brought unscathed from Liverpool so his dear son should have what he'd been promised.

And of course, Frances wouldn't die.

Mochaspresso I think the major theme of this novel is how allowing oneself to be completely ruled by emotions can ultimately destroy you. Especially, the emotions of love and hate.

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Rita Lamb @Cemre
Sorry about the off-topic rant on poor Hindley. Yes, I had overlooked the obvious - of course Bronte knew all about maternal-kin names.

Cemre, Heathcliff's alternative adoptive parent was a kindly Spanish sea captain, who named the boy 'Joaquin' after a son who died in childhood. The two eventually settled in Mexico where, after some early struggles, Joaquin became President of the newly-established Republic - a post he held with remarkable success for the next thirty years. He is particularly remembered for suppressing a secessionist rebellion in a northern province. There are statues to him all over Mexico.;)

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Rita Lamb Literary critics see him as 'a symbol of nature' perhaps. I can't imagine his tenants did :)

Joseph saw him as a limb of Satan, somebody who was taught the true path and wilfully refused to follow it. Nelly never quite knew what he was - a mystery, a threat from Beyond, a typical tight-fisted farmer who always knew his own mind and would see to it his orders were followed. (She respects that, rather.)

I have to say he didn't alter much, for all he went away and made himself a gentleman. In that sense he's like rocks or weather. He doesn't soften or change.

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Rita Lamb No, remember what he says as a boy after the incident 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!’

He has the inclination right from the start, he just comes back more capable.

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