[Note: From now on I’m dumping the ‘things I liked’ and ‘things I didn’t like’ structure of these reviews as I found it restrictive as well as a little too basic. There are also some large spoilers for Wuthering Heights in this review.]
This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 13… Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about Wuthering Heights. It’s a novel that’s populated with some of the nastiest characters I’ve encountered in literature, with there only being a couple who are remotely likeable. Because of this there’s hardly anybody to root for. But these unlikable characters are also what make the novel so brilliant. The central love affair between Heathcliff and Elizabeth isn’t romantic like the one between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre – written by Emily Brontë’s sister – it’s selfish and destructive. It’s a relationship that’s filled with hate as well as love, having a poisonous influence on everybody who comes into contact with it.
While Mr Lockwood and Nelly are ‘technically’ the story’s protagonists, they are little more than observers. Given their positions in relation to Wuthering Heights, outsider and servant, there is no room for them to have any influence on the story. And that’s why they make perfect narrators. To have Heathcliff or Catherine as the narrator would take some of the mystery out of the novel and add too much explanation to their actions. Heathcliff in particular is the novel’s most fascinating character; he’s riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. His race is ambiguous, being described as dark-skinned early on and pale much later. His attitude towards Catherine is both loving and abusive. He acts both gentlemanly and animalistic. And we never do learn how he earns his large fortune or where he came from in the first place. Heathcliff is impossible to work out as a character – and that’s what makes him so great.
The novel belongs to Heathcliff – he is the sun that all the other characters orbit. It is telling that the novel begins just before his arrival at Wuthering Heights and concludes shortly after his death. However I would also argue that many of the characters that ‘orbit’ Heathcliff are much less interesting than him. Hindley just seems to wander through chapters, mad, drunk and threatening to kill children and Isabella never really becomes that compelling of a character. But Catherine is perhaps the worst. While Heathcliff’s complexities make his unlikableness tolerable, Catherine is just plain unlikeable. Her self-centredness becomes absolutely unbearable throughout the novel, making her eventual death more of a blessing than a tragedy. The way Brontë frames her illness, as well as how Nelly acts, suggests that it is something we should care about; but Catherine makes this impossible. As a result I felt conflicted about actually wanting to continue with the story. While some characters interested me deeply, others made me want to put the book down and go read something else.
If the novel had ended with Catherine’s death, I would’ve been disappointed. In many ways it is the second generation of characters that make the novel a classic for me. Like Catherine and Isabella, these characters are caught in the orbit of Heathcliff’s world and need to escape, even if they aren’t aware of it, to survive. Before knowing Wuthering Heights even exists, Cathy is drawn to where it resides. Heathcliff has an almost invisible influence, even pulling Isabella’s son back to him. The consequence of Cathy and Linton not escaping from Heathcliff’s world is having to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Heathcliff attempts to form his son into the same abusive person he is, demonstrating to his son how he should act towards Cathy through his own violence to her. Linton’s illness is the only thing that stops Heathcliff’s plan from come to fruition. Cathy is able to differentiate herself from her mother, acting with kindness instead of cruelty and helping Hareton with his literacy instead of teasing him about it. By their intended marriage they stop history from repeating itself.
I’m very split on Wuthering Heights. It’s a well-written and thematically rich novel, but was not a pleasant reading experience at all. There’s a lot that I dislike about this novel and a lot that I admire. It’s something that, on one hand, I’d love to read again to try and get everything out of it, but, on the other hand, would be happy never to touch again. At least I can now understand why it’s a classic.