Saturday, February 27, 2010

Co-Review: Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte's book Wuthering Heights is considered a classic in English literature. It takes place in the English moors, with most of the action between the two great houses Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. The narration is interesting in that it's told by Mr. Lockwood, who is renting in one of the homes. He wants to know the turbulent history of the strange man Heathcliff that owns the home, so he gets the story from Nelly Dean, who was playmate and housekeeper for the families who resided in these houses.

Heathcliff was brought to Wuthering Heights as a young boy, described as a gypsy-like street urchin. His father favors him over his own son, Hindley, and his daughter, Catherine, becomes Heathcliff's best friend and eventually, his object of affection. Hindley treats Heathcliff horribly, as do the Lintons, who live in Thrushcross Grange. In a misunderstood moment, Heathcliff perceives that Catherine will never marry him and he disappears for a few years. He reappears after Catherine has married Edgar Linton, now as a man of wealth and full of plans for revenge. His plotting and malice reach down into the next generation.

The tale of Heathcliff and Catherine's tragic, violent love is well known, well-analyzed and has been discussed by smarter people than Caren and I, but we're going to take a crack at it anyway.

Jenny: Having never read this book before and only knowing the characters' names and not much else, I assumed it was a love story. I expected something like Jane Eyre. Gothic, dark, and tragic but eventually redemptive and beautiful. Wuthering Heights is more a tale of revenge, the way it consumes and destroys Heathcliff and those he preys upon. What do you think?

Caren: Yes, I agree that it is definitely a tale of passion, but not love. My copy had an essay at the beginning that briefly talked about its history and how it has been interpreted over the years. It has only become well-known and enjoyed in the last hundred years or so perhaps -- according to the essayist -- due to modern society's ability to enjoy it as a story of enduring love that cannot be bound within society's constraints or even by death.

I completely disagree with that interpretation. There may have been potential for love, but it was corrupted through selfishness and greed until the characters were destroyed by it. The choices they made to pursue revenge, vanity, and ambition twisted them into people who were incapable of feeling love. Love arguably requires a degree of selflessness, and the only person in the triangle who was capable of that was the unheroic Edgar Linton. Heathcliff and Catherine had no clue what real love was. Passion, yes. Obsession, yes. Manipulation, yes. Love, no.

Jenny: Amen to that. I kept thinking about how horrible all these people were and poor Edgar Linton was caught up in their manipulations because he was stupid enough to love Catherine. There is a sweetness to the love that blossoms between Cathy and Hareton, but it certainly was sowed in very poor ground. Catherine Senior wasn't much of a healthy example so it's not too sad she died before her daughter could know her and be influenced by her.

Something else that was upsetting, and that was pointed out in the introduction to my copy of the book, was the way characters refused to eat to manipulate others. Isabella does it, Catherine does it, and then Heathcliff does it at the end, refusing to eat for four days. The introduction said that Emily Bronte was known to do that to her family when things weren't going how she wanted to and that she eventually died from the effects of anorexia. I had no idea that even existed in that time period, figuring it was a product of our culture's obsession with size. I don't know much about eating disorders, but this made me think that it's more about power than a certain look. Well, and mental illness as well.

Caren: Yes, very interesting. I'm not sure I would have picked up on that on my own. Considering the relatively sheltered -- and short -- life that Emily Bronte lived, it is astounding that she could produce such an intense work. Such amazing women those Bronte sisters were! I wish there was some way of knowing exactly her feelings and intentions behind Wuthering Heights. My introduction said that Bronte doesn't allow her feelings to color the narrative, but I couldn't help but wonder if the biases of Nelly and Mr. Lockwood were more representative of her views than the intro gave them credit for. In any case, I'm intrigued that she would have poured so much energy into characters that inspired such a love-hate relationship with the reader.

I did like that the hopeful ending with Cathy and Hareton creates a slight feeling of redemption. But it's interesting that after such an intimate look into the poisonous lives of Heathcliff and Catherine, the narrator is prohibited from getting more than a cursory glance at the future happiness in store for Cathy and Hareton. Is that because Emily Bronte didn't have enough experience with healthy human relationships to know how to portray them? Or just because she didn't want to detract from the brooding melancholy of the novel?

Jenny: Now, that's interesting. Jane Eyre is very autobiographical, because Charlotte Bronte taught at a girls' school and had some of the experiences she wrote about, but Emily was very sheltered. She tried going to that same school that Charlotte was at and didn't do well. That was where some of the starving episodes started. It seems that Wuthering Heights is pure imagination. Not every book has to be based on personal experience and maybe this is one of them. I felt relieved at one point when Nelly said that she wondered if the only soul around that had any common sense resided in her own body. At least Emily knew that this wasn't normal behavior!

The only part I found romantic was the idea of a windswept English moor. I didn't find much romantic about this book, but that enchanted me. Now that I think about it, it's more a carry over from Jane Eyre, where the moors are very dramatic and romantic. I could write a whole post about how much I love Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester is gruff and difficult but inherently likable. There is nothing likable about Heathcliff or Catherine. I think that was a barrier for me to really enjoy the book since the only person I liked was Nelly and she mostly served as narrator and observer.

Caren: Yeah, this type of "romance" certainly doesn't fit our modern use of the word. Why has it endured as such a famous love story? No idea. Maybe because it's so disturbing! I realize that it's not autobiographical, but how an author can write so convincingly of such dark relationships without having much life experience herself is fascinating to me. And I think that's part of what has made it an enduring classic. Her skill and insight go far beyond your typical young woman's romantic imagination. I can't help but be impressed at what a keen and sensitive awareness she must have had, even though I didn't care for her characters and their ruined lives.

One thing that I just have to mention before we end (because I kept being reminded of it while I read), is the comparison that Stephanie Meyer makes with Wuthering Heights and her Twilight love triangle. If I remember right, the Wuthering Heights entanglement loosely served as the model for Meyer's Eclipse. Reading it for the first time (though I've seen the Ralph Fiennes/Juliette Binoche film version) I couldn't help but wonder why Meyer would ever think such a love triangle deserved to be recreated. No wonder her characters seem immature and selfish and obsessive in their relationships! And no wonder of the four books in the series (which I enjoyed overall), I absolutely loathed Eclipse!

Jenny: Now I'm really interested to see what our readers have to say about the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff and if they think of it as an enduring love or if they agree with us, that it was a selfish and destructive obsession.

I have to say, I love Jane Austen's books but there's something about the darkness of the Bronte sisters' books that I love even more. I wish there were more books to read and examine. I didn't like Wuthering Heights, but I did appreciate how new and dangerous it was for the time, the supernatural elements, and the imperfect ending. I could have skipped most of the violence though, especially baby Hareton being tossed over the stairwell. Yikes.

We'd love to hear what the readers of this blog thought, especially if you can find more worthy aspects of the book that we missed!


  1. I read this once when I was 19, and decided to reread it last year. Man, what a difference 10 years makes. (Okay, a little more than 10 years.) The first time I read it I was totally into the love story, and I felt compassion towards Cathy and Heathcliff, but when I read it last year, all I felt was loathing. They are despicable. I think when I was 19, I mistook the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff for love and devotion. I wonder, how old was Emily Bronte when she wrote this book? I wonder if, to her, it was wildly romantic, or if she saw it as a character study that shows what happens when people become obsessed and vengeful. I see it as the latter, of course, but I have no desire to read it again. Maybe in 10 more years when I'm at yet another stage of life. The more I think about the book, the more I think of Thomas Hardy novels. He tends to take people with a major flaw and show their spiral into poverty and depression, and how their families are destroyed by their poor decisions. The difference between his books and Wuthering Heights is that he offers hope (except in Tess of the D'Urbervilles--that one's downright depressing). I don't see a lot of hope in Wuthering Heights, because no one enters their lives to better them. They get stuck in the same awful cycle of horridness. All this commentary I'm making, of course, is based on my sketchy memory of what I read a year ago, so I may be way off base. So, do you think Stephenie Meyer read Wuthering Heights as an idealistic, passionate teenager? Otherwise, why would she take her favorite 3 characters and put them in that comparison? Ick.

  2. I haven't read this book since high school but I remember being incredibly intrigued by it. I had an amazing teacher though and I wonder if her guidance colored my views. I don't remember a lot of details but after reading your co-review, I am definitely going to be re-reading this soon. I can't wait!