Trying To Keep An Open Mind About Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights

I read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) almost two decades ago. I can barely remember the circumstances surrounding my decision to pick it up, much less its content. What I do remember is my general reaction to Brontë’s only novel: I disliked it.

However, some books are better the second time around, after maturity and life experience give us the perspective to appreciate the heavy themes and historical context in many classical works.

So, when Maggie at An American in France announced a Wuthering Heights read-along, I jumped at the chance to participate. Unfortunately, though, the same maturity and life experiences that render classics more enjoyable to read have also left me with very little time for reading. Thanks to work and life obligations, I am about a week behind in this read-along (sorry, Maggie!).

Briefly, these are my thoughts on chapters 1 through 9:

The novel begins in 1801, when Mr. Lockwood visits his solitary neighbor and landlord, Mr. Heathcliff, and meets the rest of the eccentric and rude inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. It took me a long time to get used to Brontë’s writing style, and I found the early scenes, with the ferocious dogs, rude characters, and ominous winter weather, unenjoyable to read and hard to follow. The book became more interesting when Ellen “Nelly” Dean, a housekeeper and the primary narrator of the novel, begins to explain the history of the families at the heart of the novel — the Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliffs — but the early scenes set the tone of the book: It’s an unpleasant story.

Dean describes the ancient Earnshaw family, explaining how the father, Mr. Earnshaw, went to Liverpool one day promising his children, Hindley and Catherine, a fiddle and a horse whip, respectively. Three days later, he returns with a crushed fiddle and no whip, carrying instead a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child.” Mr. Earnshaw had found this child, whom he described “as dark almost as if it came from the devil,” abandoned on the streets.

This child is Heathcliff, whose presence at Wuthering Heights unleashes the disorder in the Earnshaw household that lays the foundation for the brutal plot. Brontë’s portrayal of Heathcliff, the root of the disaster, as a dark, foreigner adds to the discomfort I feel while reading this book. Heathcliff’s origin is ambiguous; Brontë describes him as a “dark-skinned gipsy in aspect” and “a Lascar.” In England, in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Hindley Earnshaw and Edgar Linton view Heathcliff as an “other,” Heathcliff wishes he “had light hair and fair skin,” and Catherine Earnshaw is in love with Heathcliff but is unable to marry him due to their different social statuses.

This portrayal seems like a reasonable depiction of how Brontë’s insular society would have perceived an orphan with a dark complexion; however, the novel contributes to those stereotypes by making Heathcliff a “savage” who is truly a villain, even if, at times, slightly more sympathetic than some of the other characters. Wuthering Heights is a product of its times, and I don’t blame it for that, but I am a product of my times, and so the pervasive racial stereotypes have certainly reduced my enjoyment of this novel — which, with its violent themes, is pretty unpleasant to read anyway.

That said, I am still planning to finish it, and I am glad that this read-along has given me an opportunity to develop my thoughts on Wuthering Heights. It’s a classic work of English literature that deserves a careful read. There has to be a reason it has persisted for a century and a half, whether or not I agree that it should persist much longer.

Let’s see if the remaining chapters redeem the first nine.

Other Thoughts on Chapters 1 through 9 of Wuthering Heights:

  • Maggie at An American in France: “Between the hostile dogs and the eerie ghost dreams [in Chapter 1], I found myself wanting to flee Wuthering Heights nearly as much as Mr. Lockwood did.  I was much more into the next several chapters, when Ellen ‘Nelly’ Dean begins her narration of Heathcliff’s upbringing. This is the part that helps me sympathize with Heathcliff. It helps me reconcile the harsh and unfeeling land lord with the abused and ridiculed orphan boy who needs a hug at one moment and a slap the next.”
  • Cleopatra at Classical Carousel: “What connects the reader to the two main characters of the novel?  So far neither have engaged my admiration but I think we can all feel a silent sympathy for their plight.  Their sheltered lives, amongst people who failed to nurture even a sentiment of human feeling in either character, evoke a tentative compassion, as their choices seem to have already been made for them, instead of being products of stable, empathetic temperaments.”

37 responses to “Trying To Keep An Open Mind About Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

  1. Pingback: An Unexpected Reaction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. I too seem to remember not liking the book either, maybe like you I should give it another go

  3. Yup, I remember not being a fan.

  4. Pingback: Heathcliff: A Man or a Devil? (Part II of the Wuthering Heights Read-Along) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  5. All the participants of the read-along seem to be affected in similar ways by this read. I don’t object to the subject material …….. I was just hoping for some more subtlety and depth to the book. But who knows; there is about 40% left so perhaps things might turn around.

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. What a great idea to quote other participants as part of your post. If you don’t mind, I may “borrow” your clever idea for future read-alongs!

    • Yeah, I’m having a very hard time enjoying this book. However, now that I’ve finally finished chapter 17, I can see what’s interesting about it (particularly the historical and legal context). I still can’t see what’s “romantic” about it, though!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. It is interesting because while I don’t enjoy the story of Wuthering Heights and the characters are all horrible people..I really admire and like the book. I think it shows the violent and dark side of human beings and human nature, I think it has a truth to it. I think however it is miscategorized as a romance..I think it’s more a love gone terribly, terribly wrong story.

    • “I think it shows the violent and dark side of human beings and human nature, I think it has a truth to it. I think however it is miscategorized as a romance.” Very true! There does seem to be a truth to it, particularly in Bronte’s portrayal of abuse. Now that I’ve finished chapter 17 (my comments will go up in the morning), I can see what’s fascinating about the book, but I still can’t see what many people find to be romantic about it.

  7. I read Wuthering Heights in high school and can’t remember it very well anymore…I’ll see what you think of the end and then decide if it’s worth picking up for a second read. ;) But I definitely agree there are books I was forced to read that I disliked, but then enjoyed later in life. “The Catcher in the Rye” was one of those books for me, and “Heart of Darkness,” which I detested the first time around but now enjoy.

    • Hi! It’s nice to hear from you! It’s interesting that you enjoyed “Catcher in the Rye” more later in life. I loved that book when I was a teenager, but I’m afraid to re-read it. I’m worried that I’ll just find Holden annoying now.

  8. Being an avid reader of English victorian literature, I was really looking forward reading Wuthering Heights. I am a very fast reader, but it took me an incredibly long time to fish the book. Each new chapter brought some frustration… or rather a feeling of dissatisfaction that I couldn’t stand for too long and I often needed to take a break away from the book. So I totally agree, it is a very unpleasant reading indeed. I found nothing so fascinating about the book and I don’t understand why some think it is so ‘romantic’, but I am happy I read it. It is obviously a classic and a very unique ‘reading’ experience. English not being my native language might have made it harder for me and it could have explained that feeling of frustration I had all along, but I do believe it has more to do with the characters themselves and their lack of appeal. I just couldn’t find anything so engaging or fascinating about them. The violence, the dark feelings, the atmosphere, it was too much for me I guess…

    • Yeah, it’s taking me an incredibly long time to finish Wuthering Heights! I’ve finally finished chapter 17 (my comments on it will go up in the morning), and I still haven’t found what’s “romantic” about this book. I will say that there are certain aspects that are fascinating, though (more on that later!). Thanks for the comment!

  9. I’ve never read it but, AMB, your honest critique draws me towards it somewhat. Possibly this is more the social historian in me than enjoyment I’d gain in the process. This is the sort of world we are all evolved from and I note the racial and social stereotyping with interest rather than revulsion – haven’t we come a long way since that we abhor these things in our modern world?
    Out of interest I’m reading the autobiography of Lillie Langtry at present. She was an educated and caring woman (among other attributes) yet she carried the same prejudices of the late Victorian age as all of her social standing did then.

    • Wuthering Heights may be a good book for you. I think social historians would find it very interesting. It’s an interesting book, just not an enjoyable one.

  10. I am with Theo. I will not be reading it either. A classic, yes, but not my style.

  11. I love Charlotte and Anne Bronte but I too did find Wuthering Heights hard to like when I read it many years ago. I am ntending to read it again one day as I am interested in what my response will be to it now.

    • I love Jane Eyre and Villette! Emily’s Wuthering Heights, though, is a bit too brutal for me. I’d be very interested in reading your opinion of it if you read it again.

  12. Oh I hope you do like it in the end! I think it’s one of the most romantic novels ever and own more copies than any one person should.

    • I hated it in High School and only fell in love with it a good 7-8 years later.

      • It’s interesting that you loved it more as an adult than you did when you were in high school. I’ve found that to be the case with a lot of classics, but I’ve been thinking that Wuthering Heights might work better for a younger audience. For example, I can see teenagers finding the obsessive love between Heathcliff and Catherine more palatable than adults would. I don’t know, though. It’s definitely an interesting novel.

        Thanks for the comments. I really like hearing from Wuthering Heights fans.

        • I remember getting so bogged down in the setting and the weird narration. And I think the maturity allowed me to see past that. Or I’ve regressed.

          • Yeah, I can see Bronte’s writing style being really difficult for a high school student. I had a hard time getting used to it even this time around. I just can’t remember what my specific reasons were for disliking it the first time I read it. I wish I had taken notes (and kept them)!

            • I’d love to know what you find romantic about it, Geoff? What in Catherine and Heathcliff’s behaviour towards each other makes you feel that they care about each other? Was there anything in their behaviour that surprised you?

              Any help to try to expand my brain on this one, would be helpful, as I’m really struggling to see the romance in it.

  13. I’ve been afraid that I would find it juvenile if I read it today. I was in love with that book when I was young, but it’s kind of ridiculous. But I’d have to reread it to find out. (I did read it several times when I was a kid).

  14. Oh, I read that in high school and remember several girls in my class swooning over the “romance.” WHAT romance?? Unrequited love on a moor, between two people who can only be miserable together? Kudos to you for revisiting it; I think once was enough for me but I’m looking forward to your review of the next chapters!

    • “WHAT romance?? Unrequited love on a moor, between two people who can only be miserable together?” Well said. I’m only in Chapter 17–I just haven’t had any time to read lately–but I don’t find it romantic. I find it creepy.

  15. I’ve read WUTHERING HEIGHTS twice – tried to read it in high school and couldn’t get through it, read it through in 2008 and had mixed feelings, then re-read it subsequently and disliked it. Most of the main characters provoked a strong feeling of aversion or contempt, and the story creeped me out. When it comes to the Brontes, I much prefer Charlotte and Anne…

    • Yes, it’s a very creepy story! I really can’t remember much of what I thought about it the first time I read it, but I think the abuse Isabella suffers was over my head back then.

  16. I disliked this novel as much as you did the first time I read it, and I’m also giving it a second chance in the hopes that a decade of growth and maturity will help me discover some redemptive qualities in it. But so far, there are still so many difficult things to get through (namely Heathcliff and Cathy…)!

  17. Always meant to read it, never got ’round to it. Given it’s language and style, I doubt I ever will. Saw the movie though. Not a favorite, but entertaining enough. :) It certainly doesn’t stint on showing the bad side of people.

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