Wuthering Heights is one of those classics that are constantly abused for being “depressing” or “gloomy” — as if a work’s quality consists solely in its ability to cheer its audience. The expressions of hatred directed at this book really shock me, because I found it a very gripping tale. I read it long ago and enjoyed it then, and this reread has only solidified my esteem for Emily Bronte’s only novel.
I have heard charges levelled at the novel that say there are no likeable characters, and that it is impossible to like a book if you don’t like any of its inhabitants. It is true that many of the principal characters are hard to like. Cathy is sometimes shallow, selfish, and thoughtless. Heathcliff is something of a monster. Edgar Linton is listless and weak compared to the other two. Isabella Linton is a foolish girl. But I disagree with the contention that their faults make us care little for their fates.
Part of what spurs me to read on in cases like this is to see if the characters will undergo any kind of change for the better. And even if they don’t, it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into their minds, so different from our own.
And there are other characters to like if we are completely put off by the characters above. Our frame narrator, Mr. Lockwood, is actually rather humorous. He is Heathcliff’s tenant down at the Grange, and had removed there because of a love affair. The love affair is laughable: Lockwood was attracted to a girl, she returned his feelings, and it so disconcerted him that he immediately fled to the moor, to escape her company! His honesty about himself is very disarming.
Nelly Dean, the servant who has witnessed the entire story of the Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliff, tells Mr. Lockwood (and us) the tale. And I think she is very likeable indeed! To keep her head amidst all the raging passions and dangerous undercurrents of the other characters, and be that steady rock that really all of them trust, is no small feat.
I think the point of Lockwood and Nelly is to be our guides on the harsh crags of the Heights of love, obsession, and passion. Not for nothing is this story called Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff and Catherine live on a different emotional level, stark and bare and unforgiving. Wuthering Heights and the Grange are set up as polar opposites throughout the novel. The Grange is sheltered, comfortable, safe — Wuthering Heights is dangerous, exposed, and harsh.
As readers, we need to see the world of the Heights through the eyes of someone with whom we can identify, someone who will express some of the same feelings we have. By using both a male and female narrator, Bronte fulfills that need and renders her dark tale accessible to the rest of us. And this, I think, is partly why this novel has attained classic status in spite of its many detractors.
Despite attempts to humanize and romanticize Heathcliff, he remains harsh, forbidding, and cruel. He is not the Darcy of Austen’s lighter imagination, or a dark, brooding, misunderstood hero. He is a villain through and through, and everyone in the story knows it. It seems Bronte anticipated the attraction his darkness would have, for she wrote a female character into the story, Isabella Linton, who convinces herself that Heathcliff’s gruff exterior is really hiding a noble character. She was horribly wrong, and suffered from her mistake all her life… an oblique warning to the fangurls of the future.
And yet one cannot help wondering what would have happened if Heathcliff had married Cathy. Would his rapacious desire for her (and desire in every sense of the word, not just the physical) be satiated by constant proximity? I rather think she was strong enough to hold her own against his need for her. Perhaps Heathcliff is overly romanticized by certain female readers because of his unflagging devotion to Cathy. But I think it is better viewed as the unflagging devotion of a stalker who is dangerously obsessed with his object.
There is a wonderful symmetry to this story. We start with a Catherine Earnshaw, who becomes Catherine Linton. And we end with another Catherine Earnshaw (who has also borne the name Linton, as well as Heathcliff, as a sort of bridge). The Earnshaw estate of Wuthering Heights, unnaturally owned by the interloper Heathcliff during his life, passes once more into the hands of the Earnshaws at the end of the story. The original Catherine Earnshaw lives again in her nephew Hareton, and the lady of the house again falls in love with an uneducated laborer. But Hareton’s and Cathy’s story ends much more happily than that of their predecessors.
Many readers note the importance of the moor in the story, as almost a character in its own right, that colors the tale with its dark bleakness and lays bare the pretensions of civilization. I was actually surprised how little description the moor gets — it is described far less often than the landscape in, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and yet it is central to the story, because it provides a believable context for the characters’ motivations. It isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I love the Gothic atmosphere and the thought of the wind “wuthering” on the moors.
If this is a book you have avoided because of its reputed gloominess, I hope you will not leave it unread forever. A happy ending is wrested from the characters’ choices, and I found it very satisfying. Emily Bronte’s writing is very graceful, and I applaud her skillful characterizations. Her insight into the dark heart of Heathcliff is especially unexpected from a sheltered clergyman’s daughter. But Emily loved the moors, and it is perhaps that harsh landscape that informed her imagination of the dark obsession and hatred possible in the human heart. I highly recommend this book.