What, you may ask, are my thoughts about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, now that it’s finished? There are many, I promise you, as it is a surprisingly complex book. By and large, however, my reaction can be summed up in one five letter word, repeated over and over again. Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, this book is freaking key-ray-zee.
Here, I thought I was getting into a Victorian manners drama, albeit on the dark side, when I get this: “My surprise and perplexity were great to discover, by touch more than vision, Miss Isabella’s springer, Fanny, suspended to a handkerchief, and nearly at its last gasp.”
For no reason that I can fathom, Heathcliff sneaks into Thrushcross Grange and strings up Isabella Linton’s dog. I really didn’t get it, because he had already decided he wanted to marry her. Not exactly a winning engagement present, you know? From a narrative perspective, the near doggy demise is just foreshadowing, a prelude, to the violent, malicious heartlessness which dominates Heathcliff’s character.
The more I consider Mr. Heathcliff and what we, as readers, come to know about him, the more perplexed I become. On the one hand, we are made witness to many drastic and telling actions on his part. He is physically and emotionally cruel, and at times down right spiteful. On the other hand, we know so little about his past or motivations, he remains a mystery throughout the novel. I’ve never run across this particular duality before, and I’m not exactly sure how I feel about it.
From the minute he enters the story, Heathcliff uses people. He manipulates the old Mr. Earnshaw into loving him more than the man’s own children. After his “father’s” death and Catherine’s marriage to Edgar Linton, Heathcliff disappears for a while. When he comes back, however, he immediately ensconces himself in Wuthering Heights and begins to swindle the young Earnshaw out of his lands and money. We don’t see this happen directly because Nelly, the narrator, is never present when it happens, but there are hints that a great deal of alcohol and gambling are involved. When it suits him, Heathcliff convinces Isabella Linton, Catherine’s sister-in-law, to fall in love with him and get married. From this union, he connives to obtain a son and, ultimately, control of Thrushcross Grange and its lands. In the end, he manages to come from nothing and gain control of all that he has a mind to possess. It is done, however, with a rapaciousness which was sometimes difficult to read.
Heathcliff is the kind of character Anthony Hopkins would play. Indeed, Ralph Fiennes played him in the 1992 version, which doesn’t seem like a bad choice to me. Regardless, it would need to be someone who can carry off both a cold cruelty and a flaming anger. While we do see him being rational at times (usually when talking to Nelly, although not always), with nearly everyone he interacts with, Heathcliff treats them like hated possessions. He uses everyone, but seems totally repulsed by them and the fact that he finds them necessary. He gives vent to his anger without hesitation and inspires fear in all around him, especially his own son: “With streaming face and an expression of agony, Linton had thrown his nerveless frame along the ground: he seemed convulsed with exquisite terror…. ‘I dread him – I dread him!'”
The violence and intimidation isn’t limited to male characters either. On more than one occasion, Heathcliff hits the young Cathy Linton, and hits her hard: “…he seized her with the liberated hand, and, pulling her on his knee, administered with the other a shower of terrific slaps on both sides of the head….” As if that didn’t get the point across, Bronte has him call her a ‘slut’ a few times as well. I’m going to sound like a Victorian when I say this, but I was shocked. The rawness in these moments surprised me and had a decidedly modern feel. Likewise, I never would have imagined a word like ‘slut’ making it into print in 19th century England. Despite my incredulity, things like this happen over and again in the novel, and seem to be born out of love and madness.
Both motivations are presented in an oblique way, with Heathcliff never making any direct declarations. Truthfully, from a certain point of view, we never even get to see either one born to fruition, and maybe that’s the point. Heathcliff’s love for the elder Catherine Linton is an obsessive sort of emotion, and the closest he gets to any sort of good will (don’t get me started with the names in this book, by the way. The repetition between generations plays an important role in the emotional life of the characters, but makes things hard to understand). He will do anything for her, but I don’t think she takes him seriously. It is here more than anywhere else I got frustrated with the narration. The reader has to guess at a lot of the Heathcliff-Catherine relationship, filling in a lot of vague details about why things happen the way they do. The lack of information makes the characters seem capricious and mean. If that was Bronte’s intention, she pulled it off masterfully, but I’m not really sure.
In the end, it is the fact that Catherine never really loves him which drives Heathcliff mad, making him do the vile things he does. As a rule, madness seems to have come fairly easily to the English countryside. Catherine (elder) goes mad, Heathcliff goes mad, and both Earnshaws are totally loony. What I can’t decide is whether or not people in Victorian England were actually that crazy or if it was just a convenient literary trope. It certainly seems to do the job in the novel, since it comes on with little or no provocation and usually results in death, often unexplained. Paced out differently, that’s pretty much how all of the above characters go. Perhaps that was believable two-hundred years ago, but it hasn’t helped the book age well in my opinion.
At the end of things, I think this book is a worthwhile read, but not truly compelling. While there is a fascinating level of complexity, and it certainly bucks the trend of other Victorian novels I’ve read (which, I’ll be the first to admit, is not many), there are simply too many unanswered questions. Too much of Heatcliff’s life and thoughts goes unrevealed. The book is his book, and I think the reader has a right to understand more about him by the end. Much of this limitation comes from the first person narration through Nelly. Initially, I thought it was a great idea, but as the novel progressed and my questions continued to endure, I grew irritated with both narrator and author. It is a fine novel, and worth a read when you are searching for something against the grain, but I am going to stop short of using another five letter word, “great,” with regard to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.Powered by Sidelines