Friday, December 2, 2016

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë


This post contains spoilers.


Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a world famous novel. This book, though disturbing in some ways, deserves the fame and accolades that it has garnered. This is the story of a man called Heathcliff and his malignant effects on those around him. It is a brilliantly written atmospheric masterpiece. 

Early in the story, the wealthy Mr. Earnshaw finds the orphaned and abandoned Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool. He takes him to live with his family on his estate called Wuthering Heights, which is located on the desolate Yorkshire moors. 

The Earnshaw family unit also consists of elder brother Hindley and the tomboyish Catherine. Joseph is a servant who is a religious fanatic and a harsh and unforgiving person. Nelly Dean is also a servant who possesses a strong moral and ethical core (I should mention that there is a school of thought that contends Nelly is, in fact, immoral and that she is actually the true villain of this book. A Google search will yield various versions of this theory.)  Nelly narrates most of the story.

Though Mr. Earnshaw shows Heathcliff love, he dies within a few years. Subsequently, Heathcliff is treated cruelly by Hindley and others. Simultaneously, Catherine and Heathcliff develop a love that can only be described as obsessive. This bond seems to transcend any conception of a conventional relationship and is a major driver of the remaining narrative. 

Like many of the characters in this book, Catherine’s personality can only be described as unconventional. The proper and bookish Edgar Linton is simultaneously courting her. She eventually agrees to marry Linton with the seemingly bizarre intention of using Linton’s financial resources to raise Heathcliff’s standing in life. When Heathcliff discovers the engagement, he flees the area and disappears for several years.

When Heathcliff returns, he finds that Catherine and Linton are married. Heathcliff spends the subsequent decades vengefully destroying both the Lintons and Earnshaws. He reestablishes his connection with Catherine and threatens Edgar. The emotional turmoil helps drive Catherine to her death in childbirth. Simultaneously, he marries Edgar’s sister Isabella and treats her with extreme cruelty. He gains control of Wuthering Heights and, eventually, the Linton properties. In plot developments that are even more sinister, he also gains control of people. Among those that he brings under his yoke are his own estranged son, Linton the Younger; Hindley’s son, Hareton; and the Lintons’ daughter, Catherine the Younger. He strives to destroy all of these people in Machiavellian ways. This leads to great suffering. His manipulative abuse is both physical and mental and makes parts the story difficult to take. 

There are multiple themes contained within these pages, each containing multiple levels of complexity. The characters and their interrelationships are also multifaceted. This book is full of deep yet enigmatic characters. The dynamics of abusive personalities and how they interact with others are explored in all sorts of ways.  Brontë also delves deeply into the themes of destructive love here.  The nature of good and evil is also explored. 

I want to share a few words relating to the theme of culture and literature and how this fits into the worldview that Brontë is trying to portray. Heathcliff has become a monster. Though he is intelligent, in many ways he represents the negation of civilization and learning. Books play an important part in this representation.  At one point he forces Catherine the Younger to live at Wuthering Heights, where he can control her. In one of many acts of cruelty that he perpetuates against her, he destroys her beloved book collection. Books were an important part of Catherine the Younger’s life. They represented hope to her. This act of destruction seems to represent an antagonism between literature and the dark forces that crush hope and also despise learning. 

Later, an important development occurs involving Hareton.  Heathcliff is trying to raise the young man as an illiterate brute, devoid of learning and culture. This fits in perfectly with the contention between malevolence and anti-culture contained in this work. However, there are signs that there is humanity inside Hareton despite his inadequate upbringing.  He is struggling to become literate and is collecting books that he attempts to read. He begins to develop an attraction to Catherine the Younger. At one point, after she mocks his efforts to read classic literature, he responds with hurt and rage and proceeds to destroy his own secret collection of books. 

“He afterwards gathered the books and hurled them on the fire.   I read in his countenance what anguish it was to offer that sacrifice to spleen.   I fancied that as they consumed, he recalled the pleasure they had already imparted, and the triumph and ever-increasing pleasure he had anticipated from them; and I fancied I guessed the incitement to his secret studies also.   He had been content with daily labour and rough animal enjoyments, till Catherine crossed his path.   Shame at her scorn, and hope of her approval, were his first prompters to higher pursuits; and instead of guarding him from one and winning him to the other, his endeavours to raise himself had produced just the contrary result. “


Again, the destruction of books is linked to despair and human failure. By scorning his attempts to better himself, Catherine the Younger has temporally allied herself with the dark forces in the world. Her vitriol is emotionally devastating to Hareton. It translates into the destruction of culture and literature. I think that the above represents the point in the narrative where morality and hope are at their lowest ebb.

Later, when the bond between Catherine the Younger and Hareton is being formed, it is books that bring them together. When Catherine gives him the gift of a book, it helps to spark their budding relationship. This relationship is the ultimate driver of hope at the novel’s end. 

After Heathcliff’s death, when sanity has been reestablished in the world, Catherine the Younger is seen helping Hareton to improve his reading. The theme of reading books and yearning being connected to the good and virtuous aspects of the world is complete. 

This book is often compared to Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë’s sister. I thought that Jane Eyre was one of the greatest novels ever written. That work seemed to unify vital themes about humanity and the universe with unparalleled characterization. While I do not hold this novel in as high esteem, it deserves its reputation as a great and important classic. 

I have barley scratched the surface above. Thus, I will be posting at least one additional entry on this work. Brontë has melded so many brilliant elements into this novel that it deserves additional posts. Though disturbing in its depiction of an extremely abusive personality, it is full of ideas, brilliant characters and superb writing to name just a few of its virtues. 


62 comments:

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

Avoiding the spoilers, I read your opening sentence and the closing paragraph; however, those were more than enough to persuade me that I have been irresponsible: I have never read Wuthering Heights, and soon I must correct that oversight. Thanks for the warning and the persuasion.
v/r
Tim
Postscript: When I've read the novel, I will return to your posting(s), and then we can "compare notes."

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks RT.

I would be so curious to know what you thought about this book.

Stefanie said...

This is such a weird book with so many twisted relationships in it. It kind of has a force to it though that can;t be denied whether or not a person likes the story.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

I was gratified to find that you also consider Heathcliff a monster. I have read so many commentaries where he is described as a hero and a victim of child abuse. As usual the experts see this as a valid excuse for barbaric behavior and ignore all of the victims of child abuse who didn't turn out to be monsters.

Along with the books, I vaguely remember that he killed someone's pet dog, just because he wanted to.

Jonathan said...

I only read WH this year and was surprised at just how nasty Heathcliff was; I mean he is fuelled with hatred. I'd seen film adaptions before but they seem a lot tamer than the book.

CyberKitten said...

Here's a snippet of my review I posted back in May 2015:

Emily Bronte is certainly no Jane Austen (I understand that the Bronte’s didn’t think much of Austen and her lack of passion. I imagine that Austen wouldn’t think much of the Bronte’s because of their poorly constructed novels). For another thing I really couldn’t like any of the characters involved. How Heathcliffe can be a romantic icon is beyond me. At best he was a pig and at worst a truly evil man (and I don’t use the word evil lightly). If his life had been investigated by today’s police force he’d definitely be arrested, definitely convicted and would have probably spent a considerable amount of time behind bars for what he did. OK, he was passionate to the point of insanity but is that really a good thing? Anger management is the least of it I think! As to Cathy, OK she was a free spirit, a wild child also full of passion but she was also a fool and a magpie who only thought of he own comfort and self-interest. Edgar was a fool in a different way who allowed his legacy to be destroyed because he didn’t have the balls to do anything about it. No wonder Cathy hated him for it – for not being Heathcliffe.

As you can probably tell... I *really* didn't like this 'classic'.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian! This is one of my favorite books on so many levels. When I first read it, I hated Katherine and Heathcliff and hoped something bad would happen to them in the end and was angry when nothing did.

A few years later I read it again and realized that in fact they were punished because hatred and revenge is self-devouring.

I also like how the victims of Heathcliff's wrath actually turn out to triumph after all, even though I didn't detect it at first. Those with strength of character exposed his weak character.

It's an interesting thing about child abuse (referring to Fred's comment). I think if one were treated as Heathcliff was, one could very well turn out sociopathic, but I don't think that was Bronte's point.

As you say, two people had become obsessed with each other and it ultimately consumed them.

I have read this book many times and now I must read it again thanks to you.

There are so many things to perceive in this book but I must say I never saw the angle you saw about Heathcliff being anti-education. That was interesting. I think he wanted to destroy everything he hated and destroying Catherine's books were symptomatic.

But he couldn't destroy her or Hinton's spirit in the end, could he?

A final thought: What do you think about the ghosts in the end? Do you think they were really there?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - I agree, for such a popular book, this was so odd.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Heathcliff is indeed a monster. I think that folks seeing him as a something of a hero says something about some people's tendency to support and rally behind abusive personalities.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Cyber Kitten - I agree that all the characters that you mentioned were unlikable. Seeing Heathcliff as a romantic hero is beyond belief.

With that I think that fiction sometimes needs to reflect the dark side of life.


I also think that Catherine the Younger and Hareton showed positive character traits and in the end, score a moral victory.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Johnathan - Heathcliff is indeed bad news. The film versions that I have seen do portray him as a dark romantic hero.

Suko said...

Excelent commentary about this classic novel! I enjoyed reading your review, and also the comments from others. I first read this many years ago, in school. I have since read many reviews, etc., about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Indeed, there were moral victories against Heathcliff. Despite the terrible things that happen in this novel it has a strong moral center.

I have been thinking about the ghosts, especially Catherine's. If I recall, Lockwood saw it before he know who Catherine was. If they were real I thing I need to give their meaning more thought.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - This was the first time I read this. I know that many people read it when they are in school. I wonder if it would be better to read this one when someone is a little older. I think that I would not gotten that much out of ir when I was very young.

Carol said...

What a great review, Brian. I got half way through and almost gave up but so glad i continued or I would have missed the redemptive ending. It was quite a few years ago that I read it and I do want to re-read it at some stage. It was a very strange sort of story and I appreciate your perceptive thoughts on it.

JacquiWine said...

An interesting review as ever, Brian. Many years have slipped by since I read this novel, but I can still recall the impact it had on me as a teenager. Such a wild and visceral story - I had never encountered anything like it before.

Caroline said...

I've read this as a teenager and remember loving it up to Catherine's death. I can so not remember that it was this dark. It's one if a very few novels I intend rereading though. A very interstate big review, Brian.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

Yes, they focus on the monster as victim and completely ignore the monster's victims, as if the monster's early experiences justify and take away the harm done by its actions which frequently are far worse than anything it suffered.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Carol.

I think that it was Harold Bloom who said something to the effect that all great literature has something odd about it.


At times I did find this hard to get though because of Heathcliff's abuse.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Wild and visceral are good words to describe the book. It seems years ahead of its time in its portrayal of what an abusive person looks like.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline.

At least for myself, things that I read as a teenager seemed to have less impact then they do now.

I would be interested in reading what you think about this work now.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Indeed some have argued that Heathcliff's childhood somehow justified his actions as a child.

Others also see him as romantic. Perhaps this says something about human's tendency to be attractted to abusive personalities.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

I have seen that in numerous commentaries about Heathcliff and have never understood why and how they could see him as a romantic figure. They must be deliberately blind to see his cruel actions and the way others are hurt.

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

Regarding Romanticism and characters: consider Frankenstein's "monster." Does that relate to whatever Bronte might have been attempting? I admit that I have not read _WH_, but your lively discussion has me poised to do so. So my Shelley reference might be irrelevant.

Fred said...

R.T.,

Interesting speculation, although it's hard to see Frankenstein's monster as a romantic hero. Of course, I don't see Heathcliff as a romantic hero either.

As for what Bronte was trying to do and what she thought, I have never read a serious in-depth biography of her, so I won't venture a guess as to her motivation or intent.

Brian Joseph said...

I think it is relevant RT. I do think that there are parallels between the Frankenstein monster and Heathcliff.


For all the horror he perpetuated, I have more empathy for the Frankenstein monster the Heathcliff. This may be a visceral reaction as I recall The monster in Frankenstein went on a terrible killing spree. I do remember that he articulated his pain very effectively.

I would also note that it does not seem that may people see the Frankenstein monster as attractive.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

Yes, I would have to agree that there is a parallel between the two, at least in my reaction to them.

In both cases I saw them sympathetically at first: Frankenstein's Monster (FM) when he first escaped and tried to educate himself, to be able to relate to people, just as I was initially sympathetic to Heathcliff as a young boy.

However, my sympathy for FM vanished when he began killing people, as did my sympathy for Heathcliff when he returned a number of years later.

I don't remember exactly, but wasn't FM constructed of parts of criminals?

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

Brian and Fred, I've probably already said too much, so my participation in the discussion needs to be halted until I do two things: (1) read _Wuthering Heights_, and (2) reread _Frankenstein_. Then whatever I've already suggested might be more supportable. As it stands now, my suggestion is heavy on blathering and light on substance. But I will add this distinction/clarification: When I use the term Romanticism with a capital-R, I'm using it as something different from the small-r word romantic, especially as it pertains to "hero" or protagonist. However, I am again blathering. So I will back off for now, and I will do those two things: read and reread.

Fred said...

R.T.,

Sorry about that: I should have written Romantic hero, rather than use the lower case (r). I have often read that Lord Byron is an example of a Romantic hero. If so, then I do not see either Heathcliff or Frankenstein's Monster as a Romantic hero.

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

With mentioning Romantic v. romantic, I guess I've opened a can of worms; let me put those worms back in the can and put the can back on the shelf until I've better educated myself by reading and rereading. I will also be giving myself a refresher course on Romanticism. I promise to revisit all of this later at my own blog. But it might take a few days (or a little longer).

Brian Joseph said...

More like a can of caviar R.T. :)

My use of the word "Romantic" here has been terribly sloppy. There are different meanings to the word.

JaneGS said...

Glad you liked this book. I think Emily Bronte was a genius and Wuthering Heights a masterpiece--I prefer it to the more conventional Jane Eyre, and Charlotte had the advantage of outliving her siblings and "apologizing" for Emily, which I think has damaged her reputation for the past 150 years.

It's been probably 10 years since I last read WH, but I remember last time thinking that it had a Biblical quality to it insofar as it felt like a story of creation/destruction/redemption. I think JE tells the story of women, but WH tells the story of humanity.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I think that your observation that Jane Eyre tells the story of women to be very thought provoking.

I have always observed that it reflect on the Feminine aspects of the Universe. One could certainly argue that this indeed tells the story of women. I would suggest that examining the feminine aspects of the Universe more then just the story of women however.

HKatz said...

I read this in high school and would like to revisit it. There's definitely much more to it than I could make of at the time. I like your observation about the humanizing influence of books.

Regarding Heathcliff as abusive, I agree. Also wondering if you've seen this Kate Beaton cartoon on the Bronte sisters. Poor Anne :)

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=202

Speaking of Anne Bronte, I'm planning to read Tenant of Wildfell Hall soon (never read any of her books but have heard great things about it).

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian,

Great review and the book as you say is an atmospheric masterpiece. Emily Bronte is able to cast a spell over the reader as we keep reading even though we are not sure what to make of the book, that was my experience.

And until I read your review I hadn't thought about it but Emily Bronte may not have seen Heathcliff as a romantic hero. He was not her Mr Rochester in other words. She may have regarded him as monstorous or someone who became evil due to his thirst for revenge. I had forgotten for example until your post Heathcliff's brutal treatment of Catherine the Younger and Hareton and the fact that in the end after Heathcliff's death Catherine and Hareton go on to a happier life. It's an indication of who Emily Bronte thought the real heroes were.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila.

I love that cartoon.

I also have not read Ann Bronte. I jeep hearing that I should read Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I hope to give it a try soon.


I do not think that I would have gotten all that much out of this book in High School.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy.

I really did not get too much into the atmosphere of this book which was as you say masterful.


I wonder if the film versions of this story are influencing people's impression of Rochester.

So many books, so little time said...

This is one I haven't read but on my list, will double back to see your thoughts once I have read it xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I was also a latecomer to this.

I would love to know what you thought if you read this.


Hibernators Library said...

Great analysis Brian. This is a classic that I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. Someday!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I think that you would have some very interesting insights into the psychological aspects of this book.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian

I've seen the film version of Wuthering Heights starring Lawrence Olivier and the movie Heathcliff is practically a different character than the book Heathcliff. Alot of editing done to make the character more romantic and empathetic.

Fred said...

Kathy,

I agree. I've also seen the film, and while Olivier gives a wonderful performance as Heathcliff, he certainly isn't Bronte's Heathcliff.

Mudpuddle said...

read this once long ago... depressing... it's hard to read about human savagery when there is so much of it going on in the world. i don't say popular media are responsible for the bad things that happen, but they contribute, imo... so (this may be age related) i tend to read happier things. i believe all men and women live in fantasy worlds of their own choosing, so i like mine to be undark...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy and Fred - I agree, the film is so different.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I vary between happy things and dark er works. I read this before the election. I do not think I could read it at this point.

thecuecard said...

Nice review. Somehow I have missed reading this classic, but want to in the future. Heathcliff does sound like quite a monster. To the Bronte Sisters, I must go ....

Violet said...

WH is my favourite novel, so I'm glad you found it interesting. For several years I tried to find someone to supervise a PhD looking at the performance of masculinities in WH, but I wasn't able to make it happen. I'd still like to write that book one day. :)

Heathcliff is such a great Byronic hero, and I love all the Romanitc sturm und drang in WH. Emily was a genius, if you ask me. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - That book sounds like it would have been really interesting.

Heathcliff is indeed something else.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan - A monster indeed.

Maria Behar said...

What a superb, brilliant review, Brian!

I have always hated this novel, from the very first moment I read it, back in high school. I really never finished it then. Years later, I read it again, and then, about five or six years ago, I read it once more.

I have never understood, nor will I ever understand, Heathcliff. Why he took such implacable, cruel revenge on innocent people is beyond me....

As for Nellie Dean being the "real" villain of the novel, I had never heard such a viewpoint before. I'm actually shocked that anyone would actually consider her to be the "true" villain. I certainly cannot recall any acts of hers that could be construed as being as evil as Heathcliff's. To me, she is the one person in the whole narrative who seems to see reason, who is the epitome of ethical morality, and her take on all of the highly distressing events in the novel, as well as her interesting, calm retelling of them, were a huge part of the reason I kept reading the book, in spite of my dismay at Heathcliff's terrifying actions.

I loved and greatly enjoyed your analysis of Heathcliff's savage opposition to the forces of civilization, as represented by books and culture. Of course, the destruction of books is something that oppressive, cruel tyrants have always enjoyed doing. I totally missed this aspect of the novel when writing my own review, so I am very much indebted to you for mentioning it!

Of course, I much prefer "Jane Eyre"! Even though Rochester is, in some ways, a dark hero, he is obviously not without hope. When Jane disappears from his life, he does not blindly strike out against those around him in a violent rage. Also, he's able to seek God's help, in contrast to Heathcliff, whose demonic pride will not allow him to do such a thing.

I'm glad that, like me, you consider "Jane Eyre" to be the superior of the two novels. In Charlotte's work, there are moments of depression and even despair, but there are also moments of great beauty, and love wins out in the end. In "Wuthering Heights", no such hope exists; the novel remains dark and dreary throughout. Worst of all, Heathcliff is never punished for his evil deeds. No human justice can touch him, although I'm sure divine justice eventually caught up with him after he left this world.

I shall forever love "Jane Eyre" just as much as I will forever hate "Wuthering Heights"! Although I do recognize Emily's work as a masterpiece, it's a book that's totally permeated by evil, and, as such, is thus a very disturbing, distressing read. Still, this novel certainly deserves profound study.

Thanks for your enlightening thoughts!! :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. After submitting my previous comment, and reading the other comments, I realized that there's a tiny bit of hope at the end of this novel, when Hareton Earnshaw and Catherine Linton are able to start a new life, free of Heathcliff's evil influence. They are also able to love each other freely, and they are both wonderful, if wounded, people. Still, this triumph of love comes too late, in my opinion, in the sense that many innocent people needlessly suffered at Heathcliff's hands, and there was no hope for them in the end.....

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. Also thank you for the great comment.

I do think that at the end of the novel, there is a lot of hope. It was just painful to read through all the evil perpetuated by Heathcliff.

There is famous essay proposing that Nelly is a villain. I am having trouble finding it, but here is a short summery of the theory.

http://members.tripod.com/fuzzy_lionel/literature/engnelly.html

I disagree with it also.

I though that Jane Eyre was one of the greatest novels ever written. I thought that it dug, in sublime way, into the nature of existence. Though Wuthering Heights is a striking book with a lot to recommend it, I find that the two are not equal. I also agree, Rochester is touched by darkness, but he is not evil as Heathcliff is.

Tracy Terry said...

Despite my having a copy that belonged to my mam on the shelves alas I've never read it. Don't know why, I've picked it up several times only to put it back.

Great commentary as always Brian. Perhaps 2017 will see me reading the book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy.

I would love to know what you thought if you read this book.

The Reader's Tales said...

Glad to hear that you thought that Jane Eyre was one of the greatest novels ever written. Sweetheart loves it immensely. I only saw the film many years ago.
That said, I'm in the mood to read HW by E. Brontë.
Thank you for this fabulous review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Reader's Tales - While I thought the classic Jane Eyrie film version was great, the novel is a must read.

If you read Wuthering Heights I would love to know what you thought.

The Reader's Tales said...

I bought it during my lunch break - in French version (not found in the original version) - I will start reading it tonight.
Yes, I will write a review. That said, it will be hard work because yours is really top! Happy holidays.

Brian Joseph said...

That is great to hear Reader's Tales. Happy reading!

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian. I enjoyed your thoughts on this one very much. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite classics, I re-read it a few years ago and have been meaning to read it again. As you mention, Bronte writes about the destructive love between Heathcliff and Catherine so well. I find them both to be unlikeable, yet Heathcliff has always been one of my favorite literary characters. He is unforgettable. The things he does, the efforts he puts into ruining lives is unbelievable. It is hard to believe that he could ever love anyone at all. There is a fine line between love and hate and I feel Bronte expresses that exquisitely. Plus I tend to like the baddies in books and films so there's that lol.

I have so many favorite lines bookmarked in my copy of this novel, the writing is beautiful and dark. So atmospheric. I also like that Catherine literally haunts Heathcliff after she dies. I watched the BBC film version of this one and enjoyed it. I think that the film version romanticizes Heathcliff alot, making him seem less villainous.

The Reader's Tales said...

Brian I just finished my review on Wuthering Heights. Writing my book reviews always takes time because first, English is not my mother tongue then, find the time. So I want to thank you very much for this discovery, it was a wonderful book. I will publish my book review this Wednesday, March 1st. Have a nice weekend :-)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Reader's Tales - English is my first language and I am still a very slow writer :)

I am looking forward to reading what your thoughts are on this book.