Wuthering Heights could be cynically summarized as such: boy meets girl, love blossoms but cannot be. Much misery, anguish and moor tromping ensues. Babies appear by magic (no sex needed). All the leading characters die eventually. The end.
However, in my (non-cynical, I hope) review of Emily Bronte’s only novel, I wanted to expand this view just a little! Be warned, this is a long post, as I felt I had to write more than usual to do this classic justice.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte was first published in 1847 under the male pseudonym of Ellis Bell. At first, it was systematically disparaged by critic James Lorimer noting that “…all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” (Source: www.wuthering-heights.co.uk/reviews.php)
However, this famous tale of tempestuous and anguished love between Catherine and Heathcliff, set on the moors of Yorkshire, has proved enduring. It has, in fact, far exceeded first critical impressions. Now, it is a staple on shelves in libraries everywhere, and graces the reading lists of literature students in the English speaking world, including those completing the Victorian Certificate of Education in 2014.
The countless retelling of Wuthering Heights (including an irritating song by Kate Bush and an inspired Monty Python parody) ensure that students, if not familiar with the novel, are probably familiar with the characters and basic plot.
Wuthering Heights is a nested narrative seen through the unreliable eyes of Mr Lockwood, the tenant Thrushcross Grange and the moral eyes of Nelly Dean, former housemaid at Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. It is a timeless tale of romantic love, family relationships and the destructive nature of revenge.
The first part of the novel focus on the unattainable love of Catherine (of the Earnshaw family) and Heathcliff, a ‘gypsy’ founding adopted by Catherine’s family. Growing up at Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff are rarely apart. However, when Catherine marries Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange, a “beautiful, a splendid place carpeted with crimson”, their idyllic, nature- loving life together is over.
After Catherine and Edgar’s union, Heathcliff allows Isabella, Edgar’s sister, to marry him and leave The Grange. This is clearly an act of retribution against the Linton family, confirmed, disturbingly, by the fact that Heathcliff hangs Isabella’s dog: “She cannot accuse me of showing one bit of deceitful softness. The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself.” This union would also allow Heathcliff to inherit Thrushcross Grange.
After a short period, Heathcliff abandons Isabella, leaving her with a son, Linton Heathcliff, to raise alone. This is a veritable life-sentence for a woman of a noble family in the mid-19th century. After Isabella’s departure, Catherine dies in childbirth, leaving her daughter Cathy to be raised by Edgar and Nelly.
The second part of the novel considers the relationship between Cathy and her cousins, Linton Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw (son of Catherine’s brother Hindley). The attraction Catherine feels first for Linton and then for Hareton (whom she subsequently marries) mirrors her mother’s attraction for both Edgar and Heathcliff, without the obsessive, selfish and childish overtones of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship.
Cathy is Wuthering Heights ‘moral redeemer’ (Richetti, p596), and through the actions of her character, and her happy union with Hareton, a character combining Heathcliff’s understanding of nature and attractive roughness with compassion, serenity and a willingness to experience intellectual growth.
Analysis and Commentary:
There are a number of important themes in Wuthering Heights, the major ones being:
- The concept of dichotomous romantic love, as seen between Catherine and Heathcliff. Suffering, anguish and despair are the dark, or negative, elements of this type of romantic love, while eternal connection, unity and the suggestion of a true ‘soul mate’ are the light, or positive, elements;
- Societal roles and class structures;
- Gender roles and patriarchy;
- The impact of legacies;
- The supernatural and its symbolism in nineteenth-century storytelling (such as Lockwood’s encounter, or lucid dream of, Catherine’s ghost during his troubled night at Wuthering Heights;
- Humanity’s relationship with nature and the elements; and
- Confinement and separation.
Wuthering Heights is a novel framed by dichotomies. Thrushcross Grange is respectable, orderly, civilised, contrasting with Wuthering Heights, which is dark, uncouth. The fire and kitchen, usually the domain of those less ‘civilised’ is a focal point at the Heights. The Grange’s residents are physically weak, pretty and well-mannered, while the Earnshaws of Wuthering Heights are rough, physically strong, prone to the evils of drinking and gambling and care little about formal education.
The Relationship of Catherine and Heathcliff
The characters of Heathcliff and Catherine are not very likable, particularly for leads in romantic nineteenth century novel. Heathcliff is anti-social, sullen and prone to violence against women (including in the latter part of the book, imprisonment). (Ask yourself, would Austen have ever given these qualities to Mr Knightly?)
Catherine is headstrong, quick to anger, manipulative and immature. Yet, despite this, Bronte skilfully ensures the reader understands that despite Catherine and Heathcliff’s shortfalls, their love is pure, wild and almost metaphysical in nature. It stands against the conventions of the rule-driven, religious society of England in the mid-19th century. While Bronte’s readers should feel repelled by Catherine and Heathcilff (who wouldn’t be?), the reader cannot also help by feel empathy for the two lovers, who cannot be together due to the societal and familiar barriers, and to the circumstances of their time.
The relationship of Catherine and Healthcliff also highlights another important dichotomy – nature versus nurture. Are humans shaped by nature, by our very genetic make-up, or by nurture, the external forces, such as education, class and upbringing? Did Healthcliff really have to turn out to be so cruel, so driven for revenge, given his treatment by the Earnshaws? Was it something in his ancestry that sealed his fate, or could he have turned toward a nobler path, redeemed his past ways?
It is at the end of the novel, in death, that Healthcliff finds a peace of sorts. He paid the ultimate price for his life of cruelty, yet he is also set free from the material world, and its limitations. In fact, in the world of Wuthering Heights, it is possible to believe that Healthcliff and Catherine are together in eternity as ghosts on the moors.
Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is an unconventional love story that successfully uses Gothic and Romantic elements to draw the reader into Catherine and Heathcliff’s closed world of the Yorkshire moors. It comments on class, gender, and societal role limitations, using dichotomies to illustrate the opposing forces in life. Importantly Wuthering Heights makes us reflect on our existence and our values. Through the characters of Cathy and Hareton, the second generation, Bronte shows us that the mistakes of previous generations need not be repeated, and that redemption is possible.
And let’s be honest here. It also makes us grateful for central heating, plumbing and hot showers. And the fact we don’t share our home with irritable ghosties intent of breaking into our bedrooms at night.
Rating: 8/10 – A classic
“I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again—it is hers yet—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change, if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up.”
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and [Edgar’s] is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”
John J. Richetti, 1994, The Columbia History of the British Novel, Columbia University Press, http://www.questia.com/read/34607112/the-columbia-history-of-the-british-novel
The Readers Guide to Wuthering Heights, http://www.wuthering-heights.co.uk/summary.php, accessed 2014
Dunkle, Clare, 2014 http://www.claredunkle.com/design/maidsbrmotifs.htm#narrator , blog post accessed 2014
Shahijanian, Ani, 2012 DHSAP: Wuthering Heights – The theme of opposites, http://prezi.com/p8a1zef8s9p2/dhsap-wuthering-heights-the-theme-of-opposites/ accessed 2014
York Notes AS and A2, Wuthering Heights Family Tree, http://www.yorknotes.com/alevel/wuthering-heights/study/study-tools/00010600_wuthering-heights-in-context accessed 2014