What Is Your Damage, Heathcliff?

Spoiler alert for…uh…Wuthering Heights because duh.

The Bad English Major Train hasn’t left Brontë Station yet. Now that I’ve read all about Jane Eyre, Edward Fairfax Rochester, and Antoinette Cosway/Bertha Antoinetta Mason, I moved on to Wuthering Heights, the only novel published by Charlotte’s younger sister Emily before her untimely death at the age of 30.

From what I’ve researched (and it’s not that much), very little is known about Emily Brontë’s biographical details: it sounds as though much of it comes from her sister Charlotte, who may not be a very reliable resource. Emily was very reclusive and seems to have had very few friends outside her family. This makes constructing an accurate biography difficult, since Charlotte was the most famous and lived the longest of the Brontë siblings (and Charlotte’s 1857 biography by North and South author Elizabeth Gaskell is full of false information that was approved by Patrick Brontë).

A little bit of biographical information on the Brontës: their family history is very tragic. Their father, Patrick Brontë, outlived his entire family. Most people only know about the three sister novelists—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—and maybe their brother, Branwell. But there were actually six Brontë children altogether: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Their mother (Maria Brontë, née Branwell) died of cancer before Anne was two years old, and her sister Elizabeth Branwell moved in to help bring up her nieces and nephew. The two eldest daughters got sick at school and died before they hit their teen years. The other four survived into adulthood.

In 1847, the three sisters all published novels under male pseudonyms: Jane Eyre was released as one volume, and Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published together as another. Branwell became a published poet, an aspiring artist, and a drunkard (perhaps laudanum addict). He died of tuberculosis in September 1848. Emily died two months later, and Anne in May 1849—also of tuberculosis. Charlotte married in 1854 and died in 1855. Her cause of death is not totally known: she may have died of tuberculosis, typhus, or as a result of dehydration and malnutrition from extreme morning sickness during pregnancy. Charlotte published three novels during her lifetime (her father published a fourth posthumously), Anne two novels, and Emily just the one.

In my post on Jane Eyre, I talked a lot about how the Brontës’ novels (at least those of Charlotte and Emily, but I’m reading Anne’s work next!) are unlike many of the novels of their time. These novels don’t have large, complex social worlds and they don’t try to mirror the real lives of middle class people. Instead of realist novels, they’re Gothic romances that take place in very small, physically isolated worlds that are populated with intense characters. Like really intense. Like “this is one of the most messed up books I’ve ever read, you guys.”

It doesn't help that there is approximately one name for every two characters. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It doesn’t help that there is approximately one name for every two characters. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Holy crap, if I thought Jane Eyre was intense, it was like a light-hearted farce compared to Wuthering Heights. Compared to Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester is practically Hugh Grant. I’ve been hearing for years that Wuthering Heights is one of the greatest love stories ever written. Now that I’ve actually read the novel, I see two options: either no one else has, or humanity is wayyyyyyyy more messed up than I thought.

Wuthering Heights (named for the Earnshaw family’s house) spans two generations of heartbreak. At its center is Heathcliff, a child found on the streets by Mr. Earnshaw. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff home, where his son, Hindley, abuses Heathcliff. Heathcliff and Earnshaw’s daughter, Catherine, become obsessed with each other. The Earnshaw parents die, Hindley’s wife gives birth to a son (Hareton) and dies. Heathcliff, Catherine, Hareton, and the servants live under Hindley’s brutal rule: Hindley is a raging alcoholic who showers physical abuse on all others in the household. He forces Heathcliff to act as a servant as revenge for his father’s favoritism.

Even though she loves Heathcliff, Catherine marries Edgar Linton, the rich guy at the next house over, Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff runs away, gets rich, comes back to live with Hindley (and gamble with him until he’s forced to give Heathcliff Wuthering Heights), then comes around to stir up trouble. Catherine and Heathcliff do this weird hate-love dance for a while, until Heathcliff elopes with Edgar’s sister, Isabella. Catherine becomes sick, Heathcliff and Isabella return, and then Catherine dies and gives birth to a premature daughter. Isabella escapes her cruel husband, gives birth to a son named Linton and dies many years later. Hindley dies six months after Catherine, and Heathcliff is in charge of Hareton.

The second half of the novel is often left off in film adaptations, including Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation, which I saw before reading the novel. The second half follows Catherine “Cathy” Linton (Catherine and Edgar’s daughter), Linton Heathcliff (Heathcliff and Isabella’s son), and Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley and Frances Earnshaw’s son). Heathcliff brings Linton to live with him, even though he obviously hates him. Hareton has been kept in total ignorance, mirroring Hindley’s cruel treatment of Heathcliff. Cathy and Linton become friends, though their families keep them apart. As the years pass by, Heathcliff forces Cathy to marry his ill son so that he can inherit Thrushcross Grange (and keep Cathy from her dying father’s bedside). Edgar and Linton both die; Cathy becomes almost a prisoner in Heathcliff’s household. Cathy gets a wild hair to befriend Hareton and teach him to read. Heathcliff’s scheme undone, he starts tripping balls with visions of Catherine and then he basically starves/exhausts himself to death because that’s the power of literacy I guess. The novel closes with the impending marriage of Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw.

Every character in this novel is someone I would not like to know in real life. Most of the cast are completely horrible to each other. I don’t understand them at all and in some way Emily Brontë must not have either: almost none of the story is relayed through the perspectives of these characters. Instead, the novel opens on a renter named Mr. Lockwood who travels up to Wuthering Heights from Thrushcross Grange to visit his landlord, Mr. Heathcliff. He’s treated very rudely and attacked by the pack of feral dogs running around. He asks the housekeeper at the Grange (Ellen “Nelly” Dean) what Heathcliff’s problem is and Nelly tells him the whole story, much of which she witnessed firsthand as Catherine’s and then Cathy’s nurse. Some of Nelly’s story comes from old letters, but the point here is that whatever is going on in Catherine and Heathcliff’s heads only comes out through dialogue.

Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is the kind of love I know I definitely experienced (unrequitedly) as a teenager. I really do think Brontë does a wonderful job of putting Catherine’s feelings to words. It’s moments like these that actually make Catherine sympathetic (note: all citations come from the fourth Norton Critical Edition):

“I was only going to say that [in the dream] heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.” (63)

That is some pretty powerful shit. However, Catherine’s anger is just as intense as her love. Where as Jane Eyre will tear people to shreds with her words, Catherine tries to tear people to shreds with her bare hands. Her savagery is soothed when she marries Edgar—but only because Edgar and Isabella just bend to her every will. She keeps Heathcliff around after she’s married to her husband’s chagrin and uses Isabella as a pawn in her cruel games. Here’s an example of what Catherine does after Edgar and Heathcliff scuffle (narrated by Nelly):

She rang the bell till it broke with a twang; I entered leisurely. It was enough to try the temper of a saint, such senseless, wicked rages! There she lay dashing her head against the arm of the sofa, and grinding her teeth, so that you might fancy she would crash them to splinters! Mr. Linton stood looking at her in sudden compunction and fear. He told me to fetch some water. She had no breath for speaking. I brought a glass full; and as she would not drink, I sprinkled it on her face. In a few seconds she stretched herself out stiff, and turned up her eyes, while her cheeks, at once blanched and livid, assumed the aspect of death. Linton looked terrified. (93)

Like, I consider myself an emotional person, maybe even overly emotional, and I just don’t get it. And Heathcliff’s character is just as intensely, angrily, in love as Catherine. If this is what love truly is, if it’s Heathcliff threatening to murder people and digging up graves and seeing ghosts and exacting multi-generational revenge, I never want to truly be in love. Above almost all things, this novel just made me depressed. Not even the good, cathartic kind of depression where you weep beautifully and learn more about yourself. I mean, I’m not having a good time in my life either so maybe that influenced my reading, but I just couldn’t handle this novel. I began trying to have sympathies for the characters. Heathcliff is some kind of racially ambiguous “other,” which could probably be the topic of some interesting critical discussion—he also might have some kind of Gothic “otherworldly” thing going on, since just before his death Nelly sees him as like a scary goblin/demon thing. But as the characters went on ruining their own lives and the lives of others that sympathy faded, the excitement faded, and at times I felt like I’d been consigned to read Wuthering Heights rather than choosing to read it. 

Heathcliff and Catherine experience this gut-wrenching love of one another seems to me to be where most of the substance of the novel lies. A lot of the novel is kind of unexplained: there aren’t really demonstrative episodes of Heathcliff and Catherine’s childhood obsession. Nelly is a really unreliable narrator, not just in the sense that there are gaps in her memory, but because she seems to hate Heathcliff and then when someone insults him she will defend him. Her feelings toward the other characters are pretty inconsistent.

I found the pragmatist in me always asking, “Why?” at this novel: why does everyone just enjoy torturing each other? if everyone around her died of colds, why does Catherine stand out in a storm and make herself sick from refusing to change out of her wet clothes? Why does Wuthering Heights make people crazy? And that’s really the scariest thing about this novel to me: there’s no answer for why the characters are how they are. They seem sort of doomed to move forward as they are, die, and pollute future generations; Heathcliff will live on and drive others away from one another, away from happiness, away from their personal property, as though trying to thwart his beloved Catherine from her grave. The book does have a happy(ish) ending because Cathy stops judging Hareton on his ignorant state and actually BECOMES AN AGENT OF CHANGE, but it’s like, “After all I’ve been through with this novel I’m not sure how I even feel anymore.” If I’m not going to risk TB by standing in the rain for my lost love and then foaming at the mouth when people get me to change into something dry, then do I even HAVE FEELINGS?

I suppose the bottom line is I kind of hated this novel, but I also kind of didn’t: imperfect novels are more interesting than perfect ones. I will end on a positive note, though, and say that this book really made me want to learn more about the Brontë family.  Like, what kind of upbringing produced these women? What of Emily is biography and what is myth? Do we even know?

Also now if I want to wander around any moors or whatnot shouting “HEATHCLIFF! HEATHCLIFF!” now I can officially do as such and not be a poseur. English major win.

Next time: I don’t really know because I have to move in like the next week and am completely overwhelmed. But I am going to start Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


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