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.