I’m still slogging through Emily Brontë’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847 and now a classic.* I finished chapters 1 through 9 last week, at which point I said, “There has to be a reason [this novel] has persisted for a century and a half, whether or not I agree that it should persist much longer.” Now that I’ve finished Chapter 17, I can say that the novel has become more interesting but even less enjoyable.
Before I share my thoughts on Chapters 10 through 17, I should say that this post contains spoilers and addresses domestic violence.
In these chapters, after a three-year absence Heathcliff has returned with wealth and a genteel exterior, Catherine is married to Edgar Linton, and, much to Catherine’s dismay, Isabella Linton believes she has fallen in love with Heathcliff.
When Catherine discloses Isabella’s crush, Heathcliff looks at Isabella “as one might do at a strange repulsive animal,” and fantasizes about “turning [her] blue eyes black, every day or two” because “they detestably resemble Linton’s.” To retaliate against Edgar and to aggravate Catherine, Heathcliff elopes with Isabella, who says, “my heart returned to Thrushcross Grange in twenty-four hours after I left it.” She writes to Ellen Dean, the housekeeper, and asks, “Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?”
Heathcliff’s brutality towards Isabella during the early months of their marriage is severe — he even “hang[s] up her little dog” — but, at least in the beginning, he is careful to keep within certain limits. He says, “I keep strictly within the limits of the law. I have avoided, up to this point, giving her the slightest right to claim a separation.”
It’s moments like these when I feel relieved to live in the 21st Century and not in the mid-19th Century, when Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, or the late 18th Century, when Isabella and Heathcliff were married in the novel. While current societal responses to domestic violence are not ideal, at least today, a woman like Isabella could obtain a divorce and seek other protective measures in the civil and criminal courts.
Interestingly, in Wuthering Heights, the victim of domestic violence is a woman of the gentry, thus countering a stereotype about domestic violence that many people still hold 167 years after this novel’s publication. Today, many people misperceive domestic violence as affecting only women in lower socioeconomic classes when the reality is that it is also affects middle class and wealthy individuals, like Isabella Heathcliff.
At the same time, though, Brontë’s portrayal of Heathcliff — whom the novel takes great pains to depict as an ‘other’ — as the batterer also reinforces the perception of abuse as being perpetrated by individuals of certain backgrounds that no amount of property or education can erase. Heathcliff may have returned from his three-year absence as a socially acceptable “gentleman” on the surface, but he remains a foreigner, one whose adoptive father had described as “dark almost as if it came from the devil.”
Overall, by the end of Chapter 17, Wuthering Heights has become a worthwhile read for its historical and legal context, but not for its romance. Heathcliff has no love for Isabella, and uses her as an instrument for revenge on the woman he claims to love, Catherine, and her husband. I still don’t see what is romantic about this novel (unless we’re going by Houghton Miffling Harcourt’s warped definition of romance).
Other thoughts on Chapters 10-17 of Wuthering Heights:
- Maggie from An American in France: “[T]his section isn’t all bad. Heathcliff speaks some of those heart-wrenching romantic lines I enjoy for some reason, like when he discloses to Nelly that he would never have harmed Edgar or “touched a single hair of his head” (136) because it would cause Catherine to suffer. Although Heathcliff would have killed Edgar the moment Catherine stopped caring for him, the fact is that Edgar physically assaulted Heathcliff, and not the other way around. Maybe this is supposed to convince us that Heathcliff genuinely and selflessly loves Catherine? I’m not going to agree with that until I finish this novel–nothing is for certain at this point except that Heathcliff is still seeking revenge!”
- Cleopatra at Classical Carousel: “Where is this book going? We have finished slightly more than half of it and Catherine is dead, so I have to question whether the main theme of the novel is enduring love, which you often hear people speak of when referring to Wuthering Heights. To be honest, I’m finding Heathcliff quite repellent; I cannot find one glimpse of a redeeming feature or even something to draw from him that is a teachable moment. Hmmm ……”
* I am reading Wuthering Heights as part of Maggie’s read-along. Unfortunately, I’m a little over a week behind!