Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Isolation

This post contains spoilers.

My general commentary on this book is here.


On one level, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a case study on abusive people and their methods. The story’s main character is Heathcliff, who is an abusive man. While he perpetuates physical violence against his targets, his greatest harm might be psychological. He practices both emotional and verbal abuse. Moreover, he plans his cruelty and concocts elaborate schemes that run on for years with a goal of ruining people’s lives. 

One component to his abuse is the way in which he isolates people. Almost everyone who Heathcliff harms is, through his machinations, isolated from people who might protect or support him.  At one point, through complex scheming, Heathcliff manages to reduce Catherine the Younger to the status of a near vassal. He forces her out of her own home and requires her to move to Wuthering Heights, where he can control and mistreat her. Nelly describes the scene when she is forced to accompany him to her imprisonment. 

"He signed her to precede him; and casting back a look that cut my heart, she obeyed.   I watched them, from the window, walk down the garden.   Heathcliff fixed Catherine’s arm under his: though she disputed the act at first evidently; and with rapid strides he hurried her into the alley, whose trees concealed them."

I find the above to be an extremely powerful passage that symbolically describes the isolating process where Catherine the Younger is “hurried” into an alley of concealing trees. 

Heathcliff manages to isolate many other targets. 

When Isabella Linton makes the catastrophic decision to marry him, she is cut off from her family. When he brings her to Wuthering Heights, she is put into the position of a near prisoner. Heathcliff uses this opportunity to treat her with great cruelty. 

At one point in the story, Heathcliff demands that his son, Linton, come to live with him. In the process, Linton is isolated from his uncle and cousin who would have shown him compassion. Subsequently, Heathcliff introduces him to a cold existence that is completely manipulated by his father. 

Likewise, upon the death of Hindley Earnshaw, Heathcliff maneuvers to become the de facto guardian of Hindley’s son, Hareton. Under Heathcliff’s control, Hareton is raised to be illiterate and uncultured.


Both of these children, isolated by Heathcliff, are molded in ways that are harmful to them. Furthermore, Heathcliff attempts to turn them into tools to be used to harm others. 

Catherine the elder, though not really a victim and a generally unsympathetic character herself, is in the end destroyed by her relationship to Heathcliff. Her obsessive connection with him isolates her from any genuine connection with anyone else, including her own husband.

The pattern is consistent throughout the narrative. Heathcliff maneuvers again and again to gain physical and legal control of people. He keeps them as near prisoners or slaves at Wuthering Heights, and he treats them in horrible ways. He typically isolates his targets as a prelude to his abuse. 

When Catherine the Younger establishes a relationship with Hindley, the couple succeeds in breaking out of the isolation imposed by Heathcliff. This is the turning point in the story and seems to be a harbinger of Heathcliff’s decline. 

Heathcliff is a manipulative abuser. His penchant for isolating his targets is very realistic. In the real world, abusive people are often known to isolate and alienate their spouses, children, etc. from family, friends and the world at large. This is a well - known tactic of such personality types.  In this novel, Brontë is portraying an aspect of the real world in a very realistic way. 

Brontë, like many other Victorian novelists, seemed to be a keen psychologist. Her examination of this aspect of abusive people is brilliant. Though he is monstrous, Heathcliff is a complex and nuanced character that one can spend a lot of time and words exploring.   All of this is one reason of many that this book is well worth reading. 





36 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

i agree with your analysis, but i believe that the Brontes were collectively damaged by their upbringing in some way or another and that this comes out in their books; haven't read them all, but the only one i've read so far that relates the experiences of "normal" people is "the professor"... i quite liked it: a love story with a happy ending and a minimalized dark side...

Suko said...

Compelling commentary! In addition to being an author, Brontë was a keen psychologist who created a notably cruel and memorable character, Heathcliff.

JacquiWine said...

It's been a long time since I read this novel, but your analysis rings true to me. In many ways, I think psychological abuse of this nature can do more damage to a person than physical abuse as the effects may last for many years.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- I never read The Professor. I would like to.

The Bronte's certainly understood abusive peopleI do not know enough about their lives. It is pity if they were damaged by them.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

I find that many of the Victorian authors were very perceptive psychologists.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- Indeed, psychological abuse can be devastating.

thecuecard said...

Good post Brian. Wuthering Heights seems like an unhappy place. This isolating of others by a person -- is something I hadn't thought of too much before. But you read it in the newspapers about abusive spouses -- keeping a spouse locked away -- usually it's a bit of insane jealousy too eh? But Heathcliff just sounds like he wants to inflict cruelty.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Your postings on Bronte's novel sent me on an exploration of other online commentaries. Here is one that I want to share with you:
http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/wuthering/mystic.html
And while I ponder the linked commentary and your postings, I accept the challenge of finally reading Bronte's novel. With my forthcoming holiday schedule, it may take quite a while, but I look forward to reading it with the linked commentary in mind. I would also like to know of your reactions to the commentary's thesis regarding religion and mysticism in _Wuthering Heights_.
BTW, Merry Christmas!

Julia Ergane said...

I haven't read this novel since grad school 45 years ago. Catherine and Heathcliff --I always wondered why so many women in my class absolutely loved them. I certainly did not. My major career happened to be as the head of library services for an American Psychiatric Association accredited hospital which had a full residency programme. Naturally, after reading about even more disturbed people I have never wanted to go back to re-read Wuthering Heights again. My feelings fluctuated between dislike to intense hatred. I felt so intensely incapable to remove those poor innocents from that monster because it was only a novel. I did want someone to kill him because it was justified in so many ways. In some ways I think he wanted someone to kill him -- that was why he was so monstrous.

JaneGS said...

Yes, I agree that WH is a study in psychological deviants.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT - Thanks for the link.

That is a very interesting article. I agree with it. There is a metaphysical, otherworldly link between Catherine and Heathcliff. I did not really touch upon it in my commentaries but it is worthy of exploration.

If you read this, I would love to read what you thought of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The isolation is so realistic. It is often spurred by jealousy. Here it seems more like strategy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - That is such a good term that you used.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Julia- Thanks for stopping by.

I felt the some way. I wanted to step onto this novel and stop Heathcliff in any way that I could.


I can see why you would not want to read this again.

Kathy's Corner said...

Years ago I read Juliet Barker's biography Wild Genius on the Moors about the Bronte Family. As I recall Barker made a point to stress the importance of Lord Byron and his poetry, in the lives of Emily and Charlotte Bronte and their future writing. In fact Mr Rochester and Heathcliff are sometimes referred to as Byronic heroes and from tne little I've read about him, Lord Byron was quite a character himself.

Brian Joseph said...

Lord Byron was certainly a character.

It seems that Rochester was the ultimate Byronic hero. Heathcliff seemed to go beyond the Byronic into the monstrous.

Tracy Terry said...

I'm beginning to think that despite my reservations I might have to actually read this at some point. Yet more great commentary, thanks Brian.

Guy Savage said...

I just read Beryl Bainbridge's Sweet William and there's one wonderful scene in which William is outside his girlfriend's flat crying and carrying on in his attempts to get back in the house. One of the characters asks if William thinks he's Heathcliff and it's a very funny inversion of the ghost-Cathy scene in the beginning of WH.

James said...

This is another wonderful commentary. I appreciate your insights and they suggest to me that I should reread this novel. I never enjoyed Emily's prose the way I did Charlotte's.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If i recall you mentioned that you had the book in the house. In some way it is a tough read as it is disturbing. But I would love to know what you thought about it,

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - That passage sounds hilarious,

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

I like Charlotte's prose better also.

The Reader's Tales said...

Hello Brian, great post as always! I never read Brontë. This novel intrigues me because the subject seems interesting and I like the Victorian period. And I add that Brontë Describes perfectly well these manipulative beings.
I can not wait to read it, so I'll take a look at the bookstore.
It's funny you know, every Christmas I read stories not very fairy tale....Hahaha. Happy holidays to you!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Reader's Tales - This is definitely not a traditional Christmas read!

When you read it I hope that you put up commentary.

Happy Holidays!

Maria Behar said...

Excellent commentary as always, Brian!

Your analysis of the theme of isolation in this horrifying novel is very insightful and well-written. As I read, I could feel once again the ruthless cruelty shown by this character. I could also feel a certain malaise, or perhaps existential nausea (I am reminded of Sartre, of course), along with anger. I was remembering the scenes you were referring to.

Everything you've written about this novel leads me to ask several questions about it: how on earth could anyone describe it as a love story? Why do some readers state that this is a novel full of "passion"? And how could ANYONE describe Heathcliff as "a Byronic hero"? Heathcliff is nothing but a psychopath, and this novel is all about him and his evil deeds. As for the so-called "love story", it degenerates into nothing other than a twisted tale of unhealthy obsession. As you have so aptly stated, everyone who comes into contact with Heathcliff suffers some damage, and Catherine Earnshaw is no exception to this. Like you, I don't think she's all that wonderful a character, either, but she certainly didn't deserve to suffer at Heathcliff's hands. He supposedly loved her!

Although it's true that Emily Bronte is an incredible observer of human behavior, I will never really understand why she described Heathcliff's cruelty in such minute detail. Did she actually enjoy doing this? How can a writer immerse themselves in such horrible evil and come away unscathed? The feelings I described above are, I'm sure, those that would be felt by any decent human being who found him/herself in the presence of such evil. How, then, can a writer possibly tolerate writing about these things? A few years ago, after the actor Heath Ledger died, I read an Internet article which stated that he was adversely affected -- in an emotional way -- by playing the role of "The Joker" in his last movie. The article added that perhaps this was a contributing factor in his death. So how, then, can writers delve into the nether regions of dark human behavior, and go on with their outer lives? This really baffles me.

In general, I have a huge problem with reading any novel which contains an evil protagonist. Reading about such things is much too overwhelming for me. The evil being depicted inevitably wraps me in a horribly constricting cocoon of agony, and I am unable to endure it.... I did read this novel three times -- although the first time, I never did finish it. Was I a glutton for punishment? No, I simply couldn't believe that anyone could be as evil as Heathcliff. How naive of me! We have the example of Hitler, Stalin, and Fidel Castro.

You know, I once read a science fiction story (unfortunately, I don't remember the title) about a future society in which criminals such as murderers received a very unusual, and chilling, punishment: they were taken to a far-off planet, where, through some sort of machines, they were FORCED to relive -- in their minds -- the crimes they had committed, over and over and over again. Furthermore, if I remember correctly, they were also forced to feel their victims' emotions. Eventually, these criminals ended up insane. I'm not sure, but perhaps the story was by Harlan Ellison. Anyway, this is the kind of punishment Heathcliff deserved. And so do all cruel tyrants.

I think I should write several posts about this novel myself. I would like to express how utterly I despise it, what a sickening feeling it gives me....

Of course, I have avoided -- and will continue to avoid -- reading such books as "The Lord of the Flies" and "A Clockwork Orange".

I have mentioned to you before that there are books that are actually toxic. "Wuthering Heights" is certainly one of them.

Thanks for your thoughts!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria.

Thanks for the great comment.

In regards to the question of why folks identify this book as a love story and Heathcliff as Byronic. I will just throw this out there: There deems for some, a very dark and twisted for of love and passion. This dark version seems to be embodied in Heathcliff. Maybe other Byronic characters embody a little bit of this darkness, but just a little bit. Heathcliff goes all the way. It seems difficult for some of us to understand this darkness.

I have similar feelings about Nineteen - Eighty Four as you have about this book. I found it to be disturbing beyond what fiction should be. Though the protagonist of that book were not malevolent. Monstrous forces found a way to destroy them in a deeper way then in anything else that I have ever read.


I seem to also remember the science fiction story that you are refereeing to! I also cannot remember the title or the author. I spent a couple of minutes Googling but I still cannot find it.


Have a great weekend!

Hibernators Library said...

It's interesting that Ms. Bronte's understanding of abusive people is so thorough. I wonder what her experiences are or if she just has a great instinct. I really should read this book. It's not long. I don't know I I'm waiting. There's even a Juliet Stevenson reading of it at Audible, and she's one of my favorite narrators. Maybe I'll read it this year. :)

The Bookworm said...

Great thoughts again Brian. Heathcliff does isolate his victims in order to take everything away from them. I wonder where Bronte got the idea for his character from. Reading certain parts of this novel was emotionally draining, your excellent posts are now making me wonder what emotions Bronte felt while writing about Heathcliff, mainly towards the latter half of the book once he starts taking his revenge.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I also wonder if Emily encountered real people like Heathcliff. I suppose that there is biographical writing out there that speculates on this.

I agree that Juliet Stevenson is a great Ebook narrator. Anything that she narrates is worth listening to.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida.

I found Heathcliff's abuses difficult to take. I was disturbed, angered and frustrated when reading this book.

You raise a very good question: What did Bronte feel when writing this book?

Caroline said...

This is so interesting. It actually made me realize how often abusive people act like this. I had an abusive boss who spread lies, warned people not to socialize with me and almost managed to isolate me. I'm even more tempted to reread the book. Great post, Brian. At first, I thought it would be about the landscape. The Brontes must have led isolated lives.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - It is striking how so many abusive people act the same way.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian. I just read this. I've been out of the country. Your modern interpretation is very interesting. While I completely agree with what you say, I find your terms of expression..i.e.. how someone today would interpret Heathcliff's psychology very interesting. I've never heard the story analyzed using those terms of "abuse" and "isolation", very modern types of descriptions for what was going on.

I also find Maria Behar's thoughts interesting. Why do people romanticize evil? I am reminded of a stupid, sentimental song about Bonnie and Clyde. They were a couple of thugs and Clyde was an abusive drunk toward Bonnie. Why romanticize that?

As you say, it is certainly twisted.

In wonder if anyone truly knows what Emily Bronte was trying to achieve.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - You raise a good point. I used some very modern terms and concepts describe Heathcliff and what he does. Contemporaries of Emily Bronte would have no idea what I was talking about.

With that, even though the terminology is different, it seems that Emily Bronte understood exactly what this kind of person was as well as how they hurt others.

I also am baffled by people's attraction to evil.

The Reader's Tales said...

I read it and adore it and will review it, next month. But in my opinion the real villain is Heathcliff's brother. Behind a villain often hides another villain. Don't you think?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi A Reader's Tales - I think Hindley is a bad person. The cruelty that he metes out to Heathcliff seems to be a contributing factor in Heathcliff's malevolent character. I think that Bronte was trying to illustrate how abuse leads to abuse.


With all that, in the end Haethcliff is ay his core evil, his horrendous behavior seems to be the heart of this story.