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.”