8 February 2015
My experience of WUTHERING HEIGHTS was simple: the unrelenting hate of the characters inspired hate for them in me; their contempt for each other inspired contempt for them in me; their cold callousness inspired in me an almost total lack of interest in their fates. Normally I respect and enjoy wicked characters as much as virtuous ones, but these, especially Heathcliff and Hindley, are so unrelentingly and irredeemably wicked, with an almost if not total lack of virtue, that I could not get past my own violent dislike of them. It is said of Hindley that: "He had room in his heart for only two idols - his wife and himself: he doted on both, and adored one ..." And this is one of the milder descriptions of his self-centeredness.
My antipathy for this book comes from the fact that of all the components of a story - language, plot, themes, characters, and so on - characters are usually the most important to me, and I found every character in WUTHERING HEIGHTS, without exception, to be either repugnant or ridiculous. Some of my favorite characters in literature are characters that I love to hate, but they are usually balanced by surrounding characters who are more sympathetic. WUTHERING HEIGHTS may be the first book I have ever read in which I could not bring myself to care about a single character, not even a minor one. And of course, the book is famed as the story of Cathy and Heathcliff's tempestuous, heart-rending love for each other. However, I did not see them as lovers at all, because their need for each other was so much greater than their love for each other. If it is love at all, it is an extremely selfish love, which seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. This is not a romance, this is a story of destructive obsession. In my eyes, the book's greatest redeeming features are its inspired use of language and very effective atmospheric details, but for a reader like me, these were never going to be enough to overcome its ghastly characters.
True to its era, there are many differences in style between WUTHERING HEIGHTS and modern novels, sometimes enchanting and sometimes disconcerting. Not the least of these is the story's tendency to meander and digress. Sometimes these sidetracks lead to hidden gems and sometimes they lead nowhere at all. WUTHERING HEIGHTS is comprised of stories within stories within stories. This layering has several interesting effects, such as sometimes giving a feeling of distance from the narrative, allowing room for retrospective contemplation, and building suspense.
Ellen Dean, who narrates the greater part of the story, seems a particularly unreliable narrator, almost as passionate in her own way as Cathy, although Nelly's is more akin to a passionate scorn for her employers. As a servant, Ellen appears to be sullen, impertinent, and even spiteful, which makes her neither a sympathetic nor a very trustworthy narrator. She is not the only one, though. The book has several narrators, all of whom have quite strong prejudices, which is important to keep in mind while sifting through the second- and third-hand accounts of Cathy and Heathcliff's lives. It is easy to forget that the bias of its narrators is an extra, subtle component of the story's mystery.
Mr. Lockwood's first exploration of Wuthering Heights itself reveals more about the book than it does about this house full of secrets - it certainly establishes its Gothic nature and is strongly reminiscent of that other Bronte sister classic, JANE EYRE. Indeed, its Gothic feel and the constant presence of the bleakly beautiful moor was the thing I enjoyed most about WUTHERING HEIGHTS. This sentence is a typically evocative description: "A sorrowful sight I saw: dark night coming down prematurely, and sky and hills mingled in one bitter whirl of wind and suffocating snow." The moor is more even than a character in this story, it is an all-pervading presence, infecting people - especially Heathcliff and Cathy - with its implacable wildness and even, at times, reckless savagery. There is a very real and essential connection between the wild moor and the wildness of the souls of Cathy and Heathcliff. It is some kind of primal connection that seems all but essential to their lives and their sanity and their selfhood.
This book is full of violence, not just latent or implied but casually and frequently evident. As we are introduced to Wuthering Heights during Cathy and Heathcliff's youth, we feel that we have entered a madhouse, full of the most vicious hate as well as the most violent love. It can be truly overwhelming at times. I found this passage particularly evocative: "[Heathcliff's] abode at the Heights was an oppression past explaining. I felt that God had forsaken the stray sheep there to its own wicked wanderings, and an evil beast prowled between it and the fold, waiting his time to spring and destroy." Everything about entering the pages of WUTHERING HEIGHTS is dark and forbidding, with an undercurrent of malevolence. This applies even more to the people - who are almost "uncanny" in the Freudian sense - than to the setting. As Nelly says: "We don't in general take to foreigners here ... unless they take to us first."
Cathy is quite the wildcat, and her excessive passion and pig-headedness can be wearing to say the least, even when inspired by apparently good intentions. She says of Heathcliff that: "'... he shall never know how I love him: and that ... he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same ...'" And to me, this passage shows her obsessiveness to a chilling degree: "'My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.'"
Cathy is the very picture of a woman who desires to have her cake and eat it, too. Despite her protestations of love for Heathcliff, she attaches herself to the wealthy and genteel Edgar Linton, limply asserting that she is doing so partly to help Heathcliff rise in the world. It is abundantly clear that she wants Heathcliff all to herself as well. This makes her appear selfish, mean-spirited, and grasping, along with her other repugnant qualities. She quietly - or not so quietly - enjoys being the center of a love triangle. Nelly has many instructive things to say about Cathy's pride and selfishness: "... she was full of ambition, and [it] led her to develop a double character without exactly intending to deceive any one"; "... she was so proud, it became really impossible to pity her distresses ..."; "... she felt small trouble regarding any subject, save her own concerns"; "... it was nothing less than murder in her eyes for any one to presume to stand up and contradict her"; "... she seemed to allow herself such wide latitude, that I had little faith in her principles, and still less sympathy for her feelings."
Of Heathcliff we only hear at second- or third-hand from the aforementioned unreliable narrators, so that he appears doubly dark and mysterious. Heathcliff epitomizes the sentiment that "vengeance is a dish best served cold," but he also demonstrates how thoroughly it eats away the heart and blackens the soul. Whether he is justified in hating anyone is almost beside the point for me. His premeditated, willful torture of virtually everyone who is unfortunate enough to fall under his power can have no adequate justification. Even Cathy says: "'Pray, don't imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He's not a rough diamond - a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.'" And as Edgar Linton learns through bitter experience: "'Mr. Heathcliff ... is a most diabolical man, delighting to wrong and ruin those he hates, if they give him the slightest opportunity.'"
WUTHERING HEIGHTS will always be for me the classic that I so badly wanted to like but simply could not. Perhaps I can say that the moor itself was the only "character" that really gripped me, whereas every human character repulsed me in some way - usually in some violent way. At least this book confirmed for me that characterization is absolutely central to my reading experience. If I cannot feel something for a story's characters, even beautiful writing and an evocative setting will most likely fail to move me.