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.”