A guide to the classics: Wuthering Heights
|August 23, 2011||Posted by Jess Kadow under guide to the classics|
Despite the fact that many people’s first reaction to the title Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is to sing lines from the Kate Bush song, this novel has clearly made enough impact in the literary world for it to be considered one of the staple classics along with Austen’s novels. But Wuthering Heights is far from the cosy world of arranged marriages and family tiffs of Pride and Prejudice. It conveys an entirely new world comprising of deep, raw emotion and violence that is beautifully offset by the simultaneously dangerous and passionate setting of the misty moorland, a setting which reflects the isolation of the characters as well as contributing to the gothic atmosphere Brontë creates. Even the name boasts the powerlessness of the characters in the lonely countryside as well as indicating the gothic theme. In this way, powerful love and hate settle themselves next to each other and the conflict between them is the centre of attention throughout the novel, along with the reaction of society towards the events that unfurl because of this suppressed tension. The drama unfolds right from the very start.
The story begins not with the main protagonists, but with a man named Mr Lockwood, who rents Thrushcross Manor, a cosy manor house in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors. He visits his landlord, Heathcliff, who lives in the ancient and gothic Wuthering Heights across the moor, but is forced to stay there overnight due to adverse weather conditions. It is there that his interest is piqued, as he experiences the iconic scene in the novel where he sees, or perhaps dreams of, Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost outside the window, crying to be let in. He watches the cruel, old figure of Heathcliff whirl into the room in a fit of rage which degenerates, as soon as he is alone, into helpless anguish and crying for his Cathy to come back to him. Lockwood then begins to record the history, as told to him by his housekeeper Nelly, of the childhood romance between the carefree and rather tomboyish Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a poor orphan boy who was adopted into their family in his youth. Their love blossoms throughout the pages, re-telling their playtimes on the moors and their inseparability as they become trapped under the power of Catherine’s cruel and unfair brother, Hindley.
Yet the power of Wuthering Heights is not in the early stages of the couple’s love and their happiness together, despite the desperate injustices they face at the hands of others, but in Catherine’s later denial of their love. She becomes interested in Edgar Linton, a fairly ordinary and plain boy from a respectable family across the moors, marrying him instead of the one she really loves. In this way, Wuthering Heights really displays an example of the cruelty of society at the time. Heathcliff is subject to hatred by Catherine’s brother merely because he is an orphan adopted by his father and not of the same social class. Catherine is unable to escape her brother’s care unless she marries, because women were always to be cared for by men, who were seen as more responsible and powerful. Catherine denies herself a fundamental and long-lasting love because Heathcliff’s background would not allow for a comfortable life or the security that she believes should come from marriage. The unfairness of this situation is what turns poor Heathcliff from a loving companion into a hateful man with a deep desire for revenge and an obsession with a woman that will never be his.
The narrative style in the novel adds a lot to the atmosphere that is created. Nelly’s story, complete with her own biases and opinions, is then conveyed to us through Mr Lockwood’s eyes, who also has his own biases and opinions, giving rise to a tangle of different interpretations of characters and situations, which would have been lost with a simple third person narration. Nelly’s style is dramatic and exciting in comparison to Lockwood’s more refined tone, giving each narrator personality, and they are both easy to connect with, even though they feature in the main story rather little. It also feels comfortable and friendly to have a companion in Mr Lockwood, as both he and the reader are discovering the story at the same time, so that our opinions can be compared with his and the emotion of the story strengthened by his shock and sadness.
It is in the midst of this lovers’ turmoil that the setting really comes into its own; the misty moors on which several characters become lost portray the confusion and lack of understanding between the characters. But they also provide a brighter element when the mist recedes and the beauty of their surroundings can be seen, perhaps showing the inner love underneath the cold exterior. The weather contributes to this too, often reflecting the moods of the characters; whether through dense mist, thick snow or bright sunshine, the prevailing tone of that particular moment is filled with further life.
The descriptions of people, places and situations that make your heart break with their emotional depth and passion are, however, what make this novel so powerful. The novel is filled with vivid accounts of the moors and detailed descriptions of flowers, insects, and rolling hills which breathe life into the world that Brontë created. It also adds much to the gothic setting, but does not exclude elements of hope and occasionally happiness, creating a much more balanced and realistic portrayal of events and characters. The characters themselves are described critically and their actions judged accordingly by both separate narrators, leaving the reader to decide whether to make their own assumptions or follow the ones laid out before them. I found this very interesting, as Heathcliff is portrayed as a malevolent, violent, old man, who acts in a sadistic way towards the wife he does not love and seems to act purely out of spite, yet he is heralded as a popular romantic hero. This may be because the reader can relate to his suffering and the torment of watching Catherine reject him despite her undying love for him. Therefore I found it difficult not to like him, or at least feel some warmth towards him, despite his complete lack of warmth towards anyone else and the critical judgements of both Nelly and Mr Lockwood. However, this may not be so unusual, as the story is not simply about the love of Catherine and Heathcliff – the novel is split into two sections and the second deals with Catherine’s daughter, Cathy, and Heathcliff’s son, Hareton, alongside Heathcliff’s own life, making him the only character who really occupies attention the whole way through. Whilst my only criticism of the book is that I found the second half less engaging and passion-filled than the first, it shows the progression of Heathcliff’s life along with his degeneration, which became powerful and emotional to watch.
In comparison to most novels I’ve ever read, Wuthering Heights really stunned me with the amount of emotional power it had and with how quickly I bonded to all the characters. It may have had something to do with the fact that there are only a small, select group of characters due to the isolation of the moorland, but I found that I grew to know them all well and hence their terrible situations became more and more heartbreaking. I was devastated by the tattered ruins that Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship became and how Heathcliff’s life took on a downward spiral that he never seemed to be able to get out of, but I was also awed by the poetic quality of the writing and how the language and the intensity of the images created were used to make you feel like you were out on the heath, breathing the cold air and feeling the wind on your face. I love novels that immerse me with settings, characters, plot and narration, and this one managed to do it all.