An Unexpected Reaction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights Image for Final Thoughts

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) is a passionate (though unromantic) book that often evokes strong reactions from its readers. Some people love it; others hate it. I’m leaving Wuthering Heights unsure of where I belong on the spectrum between these two extremes.

To recap, as I explained earlier this month in Trying to Keep an Open Mind About Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I read this novel a long time ago and disliked it for reasons I can no longer remember. In fact, I recalled very little about the characters and plot of the novel, even though I could clearly picture the cover design of the edition I used to own.

I believe that Brontë’s only novel will stay with me longer this time, partly because I’m writing about it on this blog, and partly because, much to my surprise, I actually ended up liking it, and not just for the historical context.

There are many reasons to dislike this mid-19th Century English novel. Emily Brontë’s antiquated writing style takes some getting used to, Heathcliff’s “otherness” has racist overtones, the portrayal of abuse and neglect is difficult to endure, the main characters are unsympathetic, and the novel leaves many unanswered questions: Where did Heathcliff come from (hell being too obvious an answer)? What did Heathcliff do during his three-year absence from Wuthering Heights? What illnesses caused the many deaths in this novel?

It’s a brutal story about hateful people, but somewhat like Hareton Earnshaw clutching his tormentor’s corpse, I felt sorry to finish the last sentence, which, by the way, is one of my favorite lines in the book.*

Oddly enough, with each death, the novel became less painful to read, and I slowly found myself identifying with the survivors. Death is a merciful force that liberates its “victims” from their tortured lives.

So, with so much to dislike about this novel, what is it that has made Wuthering Heights a classic?

I doubt its endurance is simply due to Emily’s status as Charlotte and Anne’s sister. While the three Brontës, initially known in the literary world as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, are an intriguing group of siblings, Wuthering Heights has enough literary merit to stand on its own.

Additionally, while the novel seems to make some readers swoon, I don’t think that Wuthering Heights’ appeal has anything to do with romance. The characters are manipulative and abusive even to those whom they claim to love. At best, the novel portrays an obsessive infatuation between Heathcliff and Catherine that destroys them both. Interestingly, they reunite under scandalous and creepy circumstances that, counter-intuitively, provided me with the only laugh I experienced while reading this story.

However, I do believe that the secret to this novel’s success lies in that reunion. Catherine and Heathcliff’s tumultuous relationship has the appeal of a soap opera that makes us temporarily forget our own problems. It also touches on supernatural themes that resonate with a wide audience.

One of the many unresolved questions in Wuthering Heights is whether the suspected apparitions are the product of a delirious, desperate mind (in one case) or the imagination of a child (in another). Who knows, but the mystery is one that likely appeals to readers who can understand the desire to maintain a connection with the departed, whether they believe it’s actually possible or not.

*So as not to spoil the last line for those who would want to read it in its natural setting, here’s a link to it (scroll to the bottom).

** I read Wuthering Heights as part of Maggie’s read-along.

Other Thoughts on Wuthering Heights (on Chapters 18-26; having been behind in the schedule, I decided to skip a post on those chapters and instead focus on the whole novel):

  • Maggie at An American in France: “I have completely forgotten how this novel ends, but right now I’m earnestly hoping that Cathy gets some type of happy ending. I think it’ll be the only thing that can redeem this novel for me.”
  • Cleopatra at Classical Carousel: “Everyone, from the first character to the last, all seem pawns in Heathcliff’s lust for vengeance and what is most annoying is that everyone conveniently seems to play into his hands.  He drains the life from anyone he comes into contact with, yet with receiving life, only seems to move further from it.  I can’t imagine how this is going to end ……. well, I can imagine it, but I don’t want to think about it.”

35 thoughts on “An Unexpected Reaction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

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  4. Sorry I am so far behind in replying and publishing my last post! I am very happy that you ended up liking the novel! I wish I could say the same for myself, but I did appreciate those final three chapters (happy ending for Cathy and Hareton!). Thank you so much for reading along with me! Your posts offered wonderful insights, and I look forward to participating in other read-alongs with you in the future 😉

  5. SL

    Well that’s an interesting reaction! I was so sure you’d hate it ’til the bitter end. I can’t get over the part about the dog, but I can’t remember much else about the book. It’s probably time to read it again.

  6. Didn’t especially like the book the first time through in high school. This makes me think I should try it again. Maybe I’ll get a new take on it. Appreciate your perspective.

  7. Great assessment, A.M.B.! Your reasons for it being labelled a classic I can certainly see. I also think that Emily being one of the Brontë sisters must have been at least a minor factor in her popularity. While it is not THE reason that Wuthering Heights became a “classic” (personally I’m not sure I can make the stretch and call it that), the support of their writing must have helped.

    I really enjoyed reading all of your comments and I hope to see you on another read-along at some point!

  8. I am glad you read this book for it’s time it really was revolutionary…authors especially women authors didn’t ever candidly talk about these topics…it is a brave book in a lot of ways but like you I think it is totally misread as a romance!

    1. Yeah, these were taboo topics, which is probably why many critics panned the novel when it was first published. I agree with you that it’s not a romance, but many people feel differently about that!

  9. So it is like an early soap opera? I would still question, from your review, why it is a classic. Maybe because it has so much that make people raise their eyebrows and this was uncommon at this time? Like you said, it made people forget their own troubles.

    1. Yeah, it’s a 167-year-old soap opera. While I see the merit in it, it’s definitely not for everyone! I hope you’ve been doing well. We’ve been under snow and ice that has taken down lots of trees, causing massive power outages and cancelled school. I’m so ready for this winter to end!

  10. Luanne

    Heathcliff’s otherness does have racist undertones. He’s part of the wild man paradigm which was at its “best” in the 19th century. But the way Catherine’s soul becomes merged with his upends (for her and for the reader) the racism that is indemic in the culture. In that way, I think the novel is very NON racist for its time.

    1. That’s certainly a good point. I still think that Heathcliff is such a bad human being (really, a devil) that it’s hard for me to see the novel as non-racist, but I do see your point. Thanks for dropping by during this read-along. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments.

      1. Luanne

        You don’t think the novel is an attempt to show a sociological source for bad behavior? Kind of a very early prototype for a book like Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her?

        1. I think Bronte is saying that Heathcliff’s bad behavior comes as much or more from his devilish “other” background as it does from his upbringing and treatment by Hindley, Catherine, and Edgar.

            1. Sure, but I think that’s putting a modern spin on Bronte. She portrayed him as having inborn evil traits (like a sociopath who just happens to also be described as “dark” and “foreign”).

                1. I don’t think his nature vs nurture percentages make him any less interesting. Why wouldn’t it be worthy of a book? He has very few redeeming qualities, even at the end when he just loses interest in terrorizing everyone. Besides, just the fact that we’re having this conversation shows that it was worth it to spend so much time on Heathcliff and Catherine. Reasonable people can come to very different conclusions. I will admit that I would’ve preferred a higher percentage of the book devoted to Cathy and Hareton. By the way, there’s another read-along of Wuthering Heights next month (I heard about it from @riverheadbooks on Twitter).

                  1. Luanne

                    If the book were along the lines of “The Stranger” or “Crime and Punishment,” I would agree with that. But this book is a romance, and there is a reason why Heathcliff was a romantic figure for generations. Maybe it’s like the guy in the musical Carousel (the original play is Liliom, but I haven’t read it or seen it)–what was once seen as tragic consequences of a romance is now seen as dealing with a sociopath or a “bad guy.” I think that is putting a contemporary perspective on the book. Of course, I might be putting a “naturalist” spin on it, and that’s almost as wrong as a contemporary spin.

                  2. Perhaps it was a romance for its time period (I am so glad I didn’t live back then!), but I have no problem seeing the abusive relationships in that novel for what we know they are today. Domestic violence, while more accepted back then, was never really romantic. There’s a beauty to the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, but it’s one of the most unromantic novels I’ve ever read.

                  3. Luanne

                    Yes, you’re reading it through a contemporary perspective, which there is nothing wrong with and is healthy when it’s a story like this. But it’s important to remember that’s not how previous generations read this book.

                  4. The book was panned in its own time, though, and has always been controversial. It’s kind of surprising it has persisted all these years. There’s certainly a lot to appreciate in it for modern readers, but I found it very hard to see any merit in it until I had an opportunity to reflect on the whole novel.

    1. I definitely recommend reading it (and sticking with it until the end–boy, it’s rough at the beginning). In case you’re interested, there’s another Wuthering Heights read-along next month (I got a tweet about it from @riverheadbooks, which I retweeted today).
      Thanks for the comment!

  11. You made me want to read this again, to see if it would be more memorable this time. I, too, read it a long time ago and barely remember it. I do recall not liking anyone in the book, which may be why my mind put it on the “forget this sucker” shelf. 😉 Perhaps distance will lend a small amount of enchantment.

    1. Yes, most of the characters are entirely unlikable, but there are a few who aren’t quite so bad by the end. I’m glad I gave it another chance. I hope you’re doing well. My part of the country is under snow and ice, and we’re not coping with it well (massive power outages, school’s been cancelled nearly all week, etc).

      1. COLD and more cold, unfortunately. We went all the way up to 11 today, but wind chills continue to be horrible and people aren’t going out if they can help it. I can’t remember the last time it stayed this cold this long (going on two months now!).

        1. That sounds terrible! It’s been well below average here, too (single digits for a few days at a time, then it might go up to 34 for a day, and then back down to single digits). It’s very strange weather. I hope your area warms up soon!

  12. This one is on my TBR pile challenge this year. I only skimmed your review as to avoid spoilers (on a 160+ y/o book! LOL) but I appreciate your opinion and look forward to checking this post again after I’ve read it!

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I edited my post to reduce the spoilers, but there are still some modest ones in there (and in some of the comments, too). By the way, there’s another Wuthering Heights read-along next month (I got a tweet about it from @riverheadbooks, which I retweeted today). It might be a good opportunity for you to finally get it off your TBR pile.

  13. Ha! Now read it again in another few years and see what your thoughts are, it changes every time. I see the love there, not necessarily between Heathcliff and Catherine (but I would argue that his is a type of love), but what about the love between Cathy and Hareton and what that says about the ability of love to overcome? It’s always hard to talk about this novel (I find) because there are so many different ways to read it.

    1. Hi Geoff! Thanks for encouraging me to keep an open mind on Wuthering Heights. It was definitely a worthwhile read. I think Cathy and Hareton’s relationship was sweet, but Bronte didn’t devote enough attention to it in the novel for me to really sense its depth. While their relationship was not a substantial enough part of the plot for me to call the novel “romantic,” I think it had quite a bit to do with why I ended up liking the story. It’s only thanks to them that the novel ends on a hopeful note.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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