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Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

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I was surprised by how much I liked Wuthering Heights because I didn’t agree with some of the assumptions, felt lost in the class-related themes, and didn’t especially like any of the characters. But something about this class still had me reading compulsively.

This is a book that speaks to the death of romantic notions; even the relatively happy ending doesn’t seem to come from a grand love or fiery romance, but from quiet acceptance. The only (presumably) successful relationship doesn’t start in secret and it is never dramatic; it is a quiet acclimatization of two people towards one another, a co-evolution. To me, in many ways, Wuthering Heights was an anti-romance, exactly the opposite of what I had been expecting.

The plot follows the relationship between a well-to-do country girl, Catherine, and the orphan boy, Heathcliff, taken in by her father and how their relationship affects everyone in their influence over a generation. Catherine marries a boy closer to her station and Heathcliff’s life then becomes one of proving himself and of illustrating the error of his loved one’s ways. It does not go well, not for anyone. This, of course, makes for an excellent tale.

Even as I was wrapped up in the story, I struggled with how unsympathetic all of the characters were. They were foolish, naive, vindictive, whiny, and self-absorbed. They were, I suppose, very human, though in some cases it was hard to see anything redeemable about them at all. Take Catherine, the beloved whose rejection of Heathcliff spurs the book’s events. She had a singularly high sense of self-worth:

But I begin to fancy you don’t like me. How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me. And they have all turned to enemies in a few hours: they have, I’m positive; the people here.

And then there is Heathcliff, the central character of the book, the one woven into the cultural fabric, whom I thought I knew before reading a single page. Turns out I was wrong. My very first thought as I got into the book was one of utter disbelief: This is the Heathcliff that is supposed to be a sex symbol? I mean, somehow, that was my expectation before I cracked the spine. I expected Heathcliff to be dark and troubled and romantic and dreamy. Instead, he was possessive, controlling, and manipulative. Not to mention a little crazy by the end.

Heathcliff is the kind of boyfriend who blames you for his unhappiness and reminds you over and over that he would die if you left him. He was a selfish ass, albeit one whose unpleasantness may be the result of a hard-knock life. Sure, maybe Edgar Linton isn’t the kind of guy to get a girl all hot and bothered, but his love is as intense and enduring as Heathcliff’s. And way less creepy.

A contextual disclaimer: I say this as someone who almost always falls for the dark, troubled, morally ambiguous characters. (Now, cast Johnny Depp in the role and I might have to reconsider.)

Heathcliff does serve as an excellent reminder of the pitfalls of pride. So much of the tragedy in Wuthering Heights comes from pride. We see the deadliness of this particular sin, as people choose misery and inaction over the potential of humiliation. It is this part of the characters I most related to, in spite of the fact that it often made them so very unlikable. As Ellen Dean tells a young Heathcliff, “proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves.”

It was Ellen Dean whom I came closest to liking. In many ways, this is her story far more than Heathcliff’s or Catherine’s or Lockwood’s. Sometimes, I was frustrated by Dean’s inability to see that she was making the same mistakes over and over, and her lack of imagination when it came to potential consequences. But as our guide to the world of the Grange and the Heights and the moors, she was engaging, even as her dangerously Pollyanna-ish tendencies were frustrating. Even she saw her mistakes, her role in the story’s tragedy:

I seated myself on a chair, and rocked to and fro, passing harsh judgment on my many derelictions of duty; from which, it struck me then, all the misfortunes of my employers sprang. It was not the case in reality, I am aware; but it was, in my imagination, that dismal night; and I thought Heathcliff himself less guilty than I.

Over and over, Dean justified the bad behaviour of others, or imagined that this time everything would be decorous and proper.

Perhaps, it is decorum and propriety that are to blame for Dean’s powerlessness. The constraints of class and station are very foreign to me as a modern, middle class, Western reader. When I read books where the star-crossedness comes from class distinction, I often wonder what today’s equivalent would be. Is there one? In this culture so obsessed with independence and free will, it seems almost certain that Catherine and Heathcliff would indulge their passion, that Catherine would not choose Edgar simply because Heathcliff is below her. Even then, though, I imagine the relationship as something doomed. To me, the tragedy here lies in the flaws of the characters rather than in society’s oppressions and circumstance’s cruelties.

I concede there are many other ways to read this book. That plurality appeals to me. The text supports so many interpretations, any number of focal points. I have, for instance, nothing to say about Lockwood or Joseph (although that may be because I could barely manage to interpret his accented words). If Bronte had written a simple story, with clear heroes and villains and moral lessons laid bare, would the book have withstood the test of time the way this one has? Or would it become dated and empty as mores shifted? How differently I must read this book than a 19th-century reader would have.

Finally, a word or two about madness: It is interesting the way the book conflates madness and illness while at the same time casting a moral judgment on the sufferers of both. Sickliness is a shorthand character trait in this book and madness a character flaw. Again, this attitude is likely a product of the book’s era, but it’s one that I found intriguing because of the inherent contradictions I see in the way it was handled.

In its own way, Wuthering Heights is a perfect read for a long weekend. It is a novel about what happens when the guy doesn’t get the girl and how the universe can be set right again. In between, there is melodrama, tragedy, madness and, possibly, ghosts. It’s a quick read, a fun one, and the kind of book that gives you a little bit of insight into the stew of popular culture. Plus, it’ll make you feel good about yourself, since you’re almost certainly wiser, more humble, and less shallow than any of Bronte’s classic characters.

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About Bonnie

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Thanks for this, I love seeing new reviews of classics. Unlike some other classics, I’ve only read Wuthering Heights once, many years ago, and now you’ve inspired me to re-read it.

  • http://avalon_landing.blogspot.com Cass

    Catherine chose the safe option, Edgar. She was afraid of her OWN passions, so she decided not to pursue them. I HATED this book when I was forced to read it in high school, and I still hate it now. Usually, I am a sucker for tragic romances, but not this one. Cathy was stupid, just plain stupid, to not follow her heart. And Heathcliff became a psycho stalker, just because he wanted to hurt Cathy the way she had hurt him when she rejected him.

  • Kimemia

    Havinng read the book I feel that it represents, especially in the second volume the struggle that heathcliff faces reconciling his love for the dead Catherine and his anger at people, such as Edgar Linton who have benefitted from Catherine’s ‘betrayal’ of him and cathy who is a direct result of Catherine’s relationship with Edgar.

  • Paul Daniggelis

    Bonnie – I am a member of the Bronte Society, and I think your review of W.H. was on target. Which leads me ask, how old are you, how many times have you read W.H., when was the first time. and do you have any connections with the Bronte Society? Thanks for listening!

  • http://blogcritics.org/author.php?author=Bonnie Bonnie

    Paul, this was my first reading of Wuthering Heights, and I’m reading it as an adult. It’s actually the first Bronte novel for me, period.

  • http://Aashna Aashna Bisht

    After completely reading the book I thought for a second that if someone asks me who is my favourite character then what will I say! My mind was completely blank I sat for atleast 20 mins and found that I really appriciated Mrs. Dean as she was so loyal and sensible and stood with her destiny she saw only sadness and didnt loose hope gut finally got happiness. Although the book sometimes became bugging but still I appriciated Bronte’s imagination and wished that she was alive today. Maybe she would have written marvellous stories for us all!

  • guojq

    After reading this, to some degree, sad story, I cannot help finding some reviews to read on the internet because I cannot understand why such a novel is a classic one.

  • kamini singh

    After completely reading the book I thought for a second that if someone asks me who is my favourite character then what will I say! My mind was completely blank I sat for atleast 20 mins and found that I really appriciated Mrs. Dean as she was so loyal and sensible and stood with her destiny she saw only sadness and didnt loose hope gut finally got happiness. Although the book sometimes became bugging but still I appriciated Bronte’s imagination and wished that she was alive today. Maybe she would have written marvellous stories for us all!

  • aahna deol

    this book is really cool i enjoyed reading this book soo much!! i relly appreciate mrs dean u read this book ull really enjoy it!!

  • ahana deol

    yuck yuk such a sucky book……

  • Laura

    I’m currently reading W.H for a school novel summary and have found it so hard to stay interested in(I’ve read about 4 books in between) my summary is due tomorrow and I’m yet to read the end of the book. I was just so angered with Catherine Earnshaw/Linton’s personality that I stopped reading for a while. I was quite happy she died. Overall Wuthering Heights is a good book, but as said some characters are just to naive and self obsessed to be taken seriously. Good Review.(personally I like Hareton, I think if Heathcliff had his personality it would’ve been just the soppy rom/drama i was expecting from W.H)

  • http://www.gpb-katie.blogspot.com Katie McNeill

    I loved this book, I agree with you about the anti-romance.

  • Joanne

    Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite novels. It is one of the few novels that I have read that captured my attention and imagination. Bronte did a brilliant job in creating the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights.

    I have read other people’s review and most of them often complained that the book is too melodramatic and have unlikable characters. When Wuthering Heights was first released, I believe most of the critics also felt the same way.

    However, you must admit that the novel was revolutionary in its style and ability to tell the tragedy of the characters especially during the early nineteenth century where England was a conservative/traditionalist nation. It is rare to find a novel that is dark, gothical, mystical and passionate. The book left me feeling a bit disturbed and as a result it has

    The characters are very complex. We are only presented with Nelly’s point of view and as a result we are given a bias point of view about the incidents that occurs at Wuthering Heights. In a way Wuthering Heights is a psychological thriller- we begin to wonder the reasons behind Heathcliffs action- why can’t he let go of Cathy’s rejection and move on with his life? We never know the rational behind Heathcliffs thoughts as we only view him through Nelly’s eyes. Heathcliff is a ‘bastard’ but at the same time he has had a sad life which enhances the complexity of the novel. He is the epitome of the anti-hero.

  • bookza

    i really thougth this book was a bit twisted at the begining but when ibegain reading on i actually liked the plot it was very captivating i was very happy to finish it because it made me feel good aout my self to see that i wasnt or willl never be taht foolish or stupid in my life hopfully…… ever but it still left a feeling of what if.

  • rikki

    The ways of life was related to the environment and the charater…so ,there is no wrong in everyone…we can calmly appriciate them .

  • Liz

    There is a mistake in the book in chapter 34, the second paragraph, the first sentence. “One night, after the family were in bed, I heard him go downstairs, and out at the front door.” The word were is suppose to be was not were. That is wrong grammer if you say it that way.
    I really loved the book a whole lot. It was written very well except for that mistake.

  • hahah

    This book is way to long

  • #18 vivian

    i find many comment about this novel .i am so happy. i am an Chinese ,i have to write a paper for my gradulation. Thanks a lot !

  • aditi bahadur

    its a very good book according to me .it is twisty .very confusing

  • Funny

    This is a romantic social novel written by Emily Bronote.

  • Michelle

    I simply think that Wuthering Heights is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The love between Heathcliff and Catherine is so beautiful, passionate, intense, and compelling. And of course, is only made more complex by the fact that they cannot be together. I have spent my entire life trying to find a love as strong as the one they share in the novel, and I have come to a realization…It doesn’t exist. I know…it’s a let-down.

  • Sarah

    Could anyone give me some tips about how the relationship of Cathy and Heathcliff is represented, and its significance?
    Its for a school essay!
    Help would be appreciated!

  • keef

    I have finished reading the book and personally, I think Emily Bronte has created one of the most beautiful classics that I have ever read. Contrary to the many perspectives of Wuthering Heights, I thought the passion between Heathcliff and Catherine was beyond life, literally. IMO, Heathcliff’s “madness” or “tragic flaw” is not spurred on Catherine leaving him but simply, a natural reaction. He was mistreated by Hindley when he was young and then separated from Catherine because of the Lintons. This resultantly caused him to treat others with brutal violence. It is because of his passionate love for Catherine that initially causes this secondary passion for revenge. And ultimately, it is through the love between Catherine and Heathcliff that overwhelms the passion that Heathcliff has for revenge. Bronte illustrates that Wuthering Heights is not much of a tragedy. In fact, she makes it clear in the end that Heathcliff ultimately reunites with Catherine and a new love relationship between Hareton and Catherine is born. IMO, I see no tragedy in that. Furthermore, seeing as how Bronte could have been influenced by the Romantic Period and the Gothic Period, I don’t find it surprising that Heathcliff is a desired character, often compared to a byronic hero. Bronte makes it clear that in Wuthering Heights, the most imminent characteristic is passion. This is especially shown in chaper 9, 15, and 16. Those were amongst my favourite chapters and really distinguished the element of fiery passion.

  • Katrina

    I read this book for the first time when I was thirteen, and I could not put it down. I absolutely loved it, and I still do. It played on the darkness of the human soul, it made readers face their deepest, darkest fears. It was cool!!
    Anyway. I have to say my favorite character was Hareton.
    Nice review!

  • shivani

    wuthering heights is a very strange , savage , cold and breathtaking novel . Heathcliffs love for catherine and his transition from a sullen patient child to a inhuman and almost demonic man who is burning for vengeance forms the core of the book . I have never read such a novel and indeed its very captivating but the characters I agree are very complex and so inhuman .

  • shivani

    I READ THIS BOOK WHEN I WAS 14, WHEN WE HAD TO WRITE A BOOK REVIEW OF WUTHERING HEIGHTS. IT WAS A PART OF OUR PROJECT FOR OUR SUMMER VACATIONS. IT IS ONE OF MY FAVOURITE NOVELS AND I REALLY WISH IT WAS NOT EMILY’S FIRST AND LAST NOVEL.I WILL LOVE TO SEE A MOVIE MADE ON THIS BOOK

  • melina

    shivani: there already is aaaand u can watch the whole movie it at youtube! :)

  • Anonymous

    You have a problem with Johnny Depp? huh? He is the most AWESOME actor in the world. Skills others tend to lack are abundant in him.

  • lost

    u guys really mixed me is it nice or not and is the ending something i’ll appreciate? or will the book bug me?? AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!

  • Raugie

    Bronte did an excellent job of working out the plot before she had to. Heathcliff’s revenge, and how comprehensive it was, was absolutely brilliant. Very sad, though, all the lives that could be ruined by poorly made choices. Fantastically written… it’s kind of sad Bronte didn’t get to see how greatly loved it would be…

  • Raugie

    Lost: don’t be so concerned about the ending. I don’t think it’ll bug you. Finish the book!

  • Dalshad

    Of course Wuthering Heights is very rich op psychological, social …..issues. Any way I think this is one of the most fantastic novel that i have ever read and the most interesting thing is how a writer like that little girle (EMILY) can creat this. I am kurd and my i was English literature student and according to all what i have already read this is the most one which affected me, but is this novel while reading is a dream or a nghtmare.

  • Stevie Martin

    I am so in love with this novel! I am reading it on my third way round, I love the way Emily decribes/puts across Catherines and Heathcliffs love for each other and how it makes you think that there might actually be ghosts! Because you believe that they belong together, I hope to do this novel at GCSE-I think I would use your review for help.
    I don’t believe that the characters are inhuman either- I believe thay are what any person is when they have gone throught- what the characters went throught, for instance-Heathcliff only has Cathy! Thats what he lives for, when Emiy Bronte says(Catherine says) “I am Heathcliff” it shows so many of the feelings in one sentance.

  • Stevie Martin

    I am 14 at the minute by the way ^

  • umesh prasad singh

    wuthering heights is a text of evolution and subjective analytical aspectology of oneness. emily bronte in this novel marks the sense of creative affirmations.

  • Stephanie

    goddamn absolutely right. i love this book.

  • hannah

    good review and excellent points made. i totally liked your opinion of it and it made me rethink book

  • Sophie

    I can’t understand a thing this book is about. I think i have it and then i get all mixed up and confused. I think that Emily Bronte does have a lot of talent in writng a meaningful sophisticated book but I think I would enjoy this book so much more if I knew what the words mean and what in the world was going on. Emily’s style is a little hard to read. She uses complicated words and an old english style of writing which makes it hard for me to enjoy the book but I guess some people may really like Wuthering Heights because it is a challenging book. I am in seventh grade and in a Literature circle for this book and I am not done with the book.

  • lujy

    in the age of uncontrollable passion and no passion from any one to heathcliff except cathrien who is the same character the wild , cruel uncontrollable girl so that brings unusual and uncontrollable love

  • Stephen

    I am a high school student doing WH as a prescribed text.

    It is a Romantic period novel. Note how Joanne, the 13th comment, said that gothicism is rare in these times? Indeed it is quite the opposite, WH is a prime example. Even though it is written towards the end of the Romantic period, and into the Victorian period, it still is essentially Romantic (not a love term), and Gothicism was a tenet in many Romantic texts. Romanticism seems to clash with Neoclassical ideas. Heathcliff is seen to be Romantic, with his brute feelings, where Edgar contrasts, being quite shallow and civilized. The same can be said about Wuthering Heights, where the ferocity of nature and the passionate feelings are felt, to Thrushcross Grange, which is Classical, and lacking in real feeling.

    Nelly is quite comical, and is very self-centred. She tries to please everyone to be in the good books, shall we say.

    The Moors can be said to be both gothic, because of their darkness and mystery, and pantheist, because of their awe. Catherine, Cathy and Isabella are all entrapped at one stage of the novel, a gothic notion.

    I do agree it is hard to analyze this novel because of the great time difference, and social normalities.

  • Sukriti Gupta

    somehow…almost all the bronte books have the main male lead as a sullen, rough kind of man..be it Mr. Rochester from jane eyre or heathcliff…she uses this device of ‘ruthlessness’ in each of her novel….but i really do appreciate the wave of feminism she got along with her….hats off to her :D

  • YourWelcome

    This book should burn.

  • Mckaylad

    I read this book for an English class and even I could connect to the plot so many years later . In the end I enjoyed it. If you read into it you may find that in the book life span is equivent to type of life. That is just what I read deeper into .

  • moin imam

    its beautiful book….this novel is first love story novel n it was a really sucks………..but emily was billian thoght

  • Kelli

    I read this classic, thinking that it was a romance novel. Just five chapters into the book, I could tell that this was going to be much more than a mere love story. It was a story full of depression, anger, death, sorrow, revenge, and human weakness. I learned a lot, and decided that it is a good read. However, it is a very difficult book to get through.