Wuthering Heights

Existentialism in three acts

Themes Explored: destructiveness of love, passion, classism, social class, nature versus culture, revenge, familial discord, suffering, the supernatural, betrayal, foreignness, terror

Synopsis: Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. The evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Review: Published in 1847, Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s first and only novel. The novel was published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell and Brontë died the following year. Due to the success of her novel, Jane Eyre, Charlotte edited her sister’s manuscript and arranged for the second edition to be published posthumously in 1850. While the novel is now widely regarded as a classic piece of English literature, it received incredibly mixed review upon publication. A majority of critics took exception due to the stark depiction of mental and physical cruelty. Also, the novel challenged the strict Victorian ideals in vogue including: hypocrisy, morality, social classes, and gender inequality. Today, Wuthering Heights is vaunted for its supposedly romantic narrative. I read this novel one summer and was expecting something along the vein of Romeo & Juliet. However, there is nothing romantic about this tale and I despise every single character.

From a literary perspective, Wuthering Heights contains several excellent qualities. The prose is written in a gorgeous old-fashioned style that is both challenging and interesting to read. While the plot is not remotely romantic, it is interesting and evokes strong emotions. Though those emotions tend to veer on the negative side, at least for me. And the main characters are complex and conflicted souls. There is a lot of spite and anger coursing throughout the narrative. Also, the novel contains some excellent social commentary about classism in Victorian England. When viewed through the lens of social commentary, the novel is a solid tale about the consequences of rampant classism. And Bronte explores the psychological and societal consequences beautifully. But the novel has been marketed as a piece of gothic romance excellence and that is what I expected to read. As a romantic story, the novel fails on all counts.

Literary significance aside, I struggled with this novel because I dislike practically every character. None of them have any redeeming qualities and treat each other in a horrific manner. For instance, the majority of the book relates with Heathcliff’s endeavors to make life a living hell for the children born from the atrocious mismatched union between the Lintons & Earnshaws. The depths of his cruelty are laid out in painful detail.  Heathcliff’s horrific behavior cam about due to his tragic relationship with Catherine Earnshaw. And their relationship is supposed to be a wild and tragic affair set against the moody atmosphere of the moors. Of course the failure of this relationship lies firmly at the feet of our “romantic” couple. Catherine is vain and selfish, while Heathcliff is cruel and menacing. Supposedly their all consuming passion causes them to act out in awful ways. Really, they deserve each other.

Sorry, I just really dislike the fact that this is considered a romantic story. This is not an intense Shakespearian love story set in the mist draped Yorkshire Moors. At the heart of the narrative, this is a revenge story. Heathcliff was an orphaned gypsy child who suddenly finds himself embroiled in the drama of a well-to-do family.  While Heathcliff rises in status with his adopted family, his fall is just as spectacular. His one true love runs off, marries someone else, and his status drops to somewhere around the servant level. Naturally he returns with an education and money to spend. And then the rest of the narrative explores Heathcliff’s quest to gain revenge on the families he blames for ruining his life. Oh, he keeps putting Catherine on a pedestal and glorifying her loving disdain. Catherine spends most of the novel reveling in her selfishness and enjoying the attention of her suitors. Gah, this is a painful read.

Now, Wuthering Heights is a classic gothic style novel. The gothic style emphasizes the mysterious or supernatural, and the setting usually focuses on dark/exotic localities. Another feature common in gothic literature is the double/mirror concept. In this case, Hareton and Cathy’s relationship is a double of Heathcliff and Catherine. And the narrative contains two stories that are a mirror of each other. One of the reasons this novel bothered critics was the lack of morality. The tale delves into the darkness and pitfalls of the human psyche but never explores the consequences. Well, the non-romantic consequences at least. Modern critics tend to rate the novel highly for its cyclical plot that details the destruction and reunification of two twisted families. So Emily Brontë was quite ahead of her time when it comes to literary plot devices and motifs. If you wish to feel depressed and lose all hope, then this is the literary romance you were seeking. Just do not expect any “O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo” lines expressing deep romantic emotion.

Wuthering Heights, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, ISBN 9780393978896