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.
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.