So much has been written about Wuthering Heights that I could add little to the cultural dialogue which has been taking place ever since the book appeared in 1847 under the androgynous psuedonym Ellis Bell, creating little stir except to be characterized as coarse, with a "moral taint", 1 offering "shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity." Readers were advised to "burn Wuthering Heights", 2 though there were glimpses of the coming recognition, as when a reviewer said that the work "of Ellis Bell is only a promise, but it is a colossal one." 3 Critics and audience alike seemed perplexed--Victorian sensibilities were shocked, but the genius of the author was undeniable. One reviewer expressed this in writing, "Wuthering Heights is a strange sort of book,—baffling all regular criticism; yet, it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it. " 4
The book opens with the ambivalent narrative of Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff--whose glowering brow has cast shadows and thrills through countless susceptible rebels for over 150 years through book, drama, television, and music--is introduced and the strangely-assorted house of Wuthering Heights described. And then the story unfolds. When Lockwood falls ill, his highly voluble housekeeper begins to tell the story of the Earnshaws and Lintons with all their loves and hates and intermarryings. Lockwood stays divorced from these wild dwellers of the moors, leaving the frame story quite distinct from the central narrative, returning at the end in time to witness the only happy turn of events in the story (young Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw walking through the moors together, happy with a happiness their unfortunate parents never experienced) and leaves without being detected by any other than old Ellen Dean, the housekeeper.
Heathcliff. The name summons up images of immense cruelty and romantic torture, the dark-browed Bryonic hero in all his agonies wreaking havoc unapologetically on those around him. The rags-to-riches story is universal, as is the idea of the hero found in obscurity and raised to wealth and prosperity by a benevolent sponsor, eventually falling in love with said sponsor's daughter and restoring honor and wealth to the ancestral home. Interestingly, each of these conventions is inverted in Wuthering Heights, for Heathcliff--though initially seeming favored by the master of the house--falls out of favor in a drastic way with his successor and, upon falling in love with the daughter of the house and overhearing part of her conversation condemning his place in life, leaves the Yorkshire moors for parts unknown. He returns only when he has earned enough wealth and learning to thoroughly undermine the house of Earnshaw and, it is obvious that he hopes, to win the hand of the lovely Catherine.
But Catherine--the sprite of the wilds, capricious, willful, beautiful, sympathetic and cruel by turns--has married the foppish neighbor, Edgar Linton, and here is where the story, which has heretofore been painted in tones of sepia and burnt match ends, turns to sullen charcoal and ashes. For Heathcliff is not the man to yield to fate, nor has he the resources within himself to find joy in anything at all without Catherine at his side. His obsessive love for Catherine expresses itself as a kind of creeping hate which reaches out and encompasses nearly every person on the moors who has ever touched his life. He embroils the master of Wuthering Heights in gambling debts until he owns the mansion and the man (Catherine's older brother) kills himself in drunken despair, he perverts the affections of young Hareton Earnshaw, the son of the slain man, taking great pleasure in seeing a vigorous mind sinking daily into slothpits of twisted ignorance, and he marries Catherine's pale sister-in-law only to torture her until she flees with his weak-minded son to faraway environs.
The spiralling story continues as Catherine dies in childbirth, her physical sufferings only a shadow of the emotional pain caused by a fierce interview with Heathcliff. Years pass, while Heathcliff hordes his hate, until the children are old enough to be manipulated into his diabolical plans involving a forced marriage between his son and Catherine's daughter. Here, however, for the first time in the story, a ray of light shines in pearly splendor over the tortured moors. For Cathy is not only her mother's daughter, but also her father's, and she has a depth of true affection and nobility within her which begins to slowly overcome the putridity around her.
Eventually Heathcliff, tortured for twenty years by yearning for Catherine's ghost, finds it and dies happy--or at least as happy as such a twisted soul without the benefit of early love or even the slightest strain of nobility of character can, and Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw begin a new generation of lovers in Wuthering Heights, blending some of the intensity of their forebears with a purity of affection that is altogether new on these windy moors.
Much as the early reviewers did, I found myself riveted to the reading of this complex, rough-hewn book. Emily was the most private of the three Bronte sisters, and much of her personality has been obscured by the careful apology, purging, and editing done by her surviving sister, Charlotte, who was much more concerned with the opinions of the world than the others and who seemed to find the accusation of coarseness so often applied to all three sisters' work a cutting criticism. There is little remaining after Charlotte's "defense" to tell what Emily thought or felt, though she has been characterized so often as the Wild Mystic of the Moors. We have only her published work--some poems, Wuthering Heights, and a few diary pages and letters, to grant us a clue into her character.
Which leaves us solely her work to judge, not a bad situation for an author of such great stature and originality. Novels spring from their authors' minds and hearts and lives, but are not the sum or even necessarily the parts of the creator. To insinuate that Emily--to all accounts a virgin, not knowing the love of a man to her death--somehow personally experienced and embodied the characteristics of her story is to ignore the workings of creative mind and imagination combined with acute observation of humanity and nature and executed with outstanding technical prowess. Full of power, Wuthering Heights shivered me to the soul, skewering me with a kind of sympathetic horror for the individuals who so ruined their own lives and those around them. The blending of identity between Catherine and Heathcliff--embodied in her famous statement, "I am Heathcliff!" 5 --brings an underlying uneasiness to this love story and cries for repeated reading and consideration.
Have you read Wuthering Heights or seen any of the many video adaptations? What are your impressions of the story and characters?
1 Unknown. "n/a." Rev. of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Spectator 18 December 1847: n/a. Print
2 Anonymous. "n/a." Rev. of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Paterson's Magazine March 1848: n/a. Print
3 Anonymous. "n/a." Rev. of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Atlas 22 January 1848: n/a. Print
4 Anonymous. "n/a." Rev. of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Douglas Jerrold's Weekly Newspaper 15 January 1848: n/a. Print
5 Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: New American Library, Inc., 1959. Print. p. 84