I was pretty sure when I started outlining my first post that it would take a lot more than my approximate length for each post to talk about Wuthering Heights. In case you somehow missed the heavy hints in the first part, I’m very passionate about this book, and eager to discuss it at length. So without further ado, let’s move onto the next section. Please be warned, there will be spoilers.
The entire book is framed within the diary of one Mr. Lockwood, a newcomer to this mess that is the Earnshaw and Linton families and their very tangled relationships. We discover through him the current state of the surviving members of these families (it’s very hard to survive Wuthering Heights) and then through yet another framing device, the narration of Ellen Dean, formerly a servant of the Earnshaws and now of Thrushcross Grange, the Lintons’ former abode, we learn how everything came to be the way it is. Mr. Lockwood is rightfully intrigued by the not entirely welcoming and gentlemanly attitude of Mr. Heathcliff, and drawn by the delicate beauty of one Catherine Heathcliff, the seventeen-year-old widow.
Now, this technique gives us several things we wouldn’t be able to have otherwise: the mystery at the beginning of the novel as to who exactly these people are and how it is that everything came to be this way, and the point of view of two people almost completely adjacent to the main story. True, Ellen Dean had a few parts to play, but the events would have been much the same without her intervention.
The question is, why did Emily Brontë choose to use this technique? She could have narrated it all from the point of view of various characters more involved in the plot. She could have used omniscient viewpoint. She could have used the point of view of the houses and furniture (but then she would be Manuel Mujica Lainez, not Emily Brontë.) But she didn’t.
Ellen Dean and Mr. Lockwood represent the outside world. They lend a little sanity to the proceedings, a little “objective” (not really, but at least exterior) analysis, which the characters directly involved would not have been able to provide. The story is long, and even if they had intended to tell everything faithfully as they had perceived it or it had been told to them, these characters couldn’t possibly have gotten all the details right. The very notion of Mr. Lockwood copying Ellen Dean’s hours-long monologues into his diary hours, days, or weeks later verbatim is preposterous.
The story of Catherine, Heathcliff, and those who surrounded and surround them is complex, dark, and distant, apart from the characters who narrate it. It “others” the main conflicts and characters. Perhaps because a narration more emotionally tied to them would have been practically unbearable, but mainly, I think, because it creates a specific sensation: people are watching, and they will judge without knowing.
Ellen Dean and Mr. Lockwood observe the behavior of the main characters and without really understanding or sympathizing with them they formulate their opinions, as people are always wont to do. Society is always watching, judging, imposing its morality and rules upon what it observes. You can’t understand a person fully unless you’re in their shoes, but you’ll judge them anyway. This judgment, directed at characters without true knowledge of their nature and based solely on misconceptions and the rigid rules of morality and society, spurs a lot of the actions and behaviors of the characters throughout the book–Hindley’s hatred of Heathcliff, the first Cathy’s decision to abide by the rules instead of following her heart, Edgar’s condemnation of his wife, even Isabella’s infatuation with Heathcliff (which is, after all, based on misconceptions imparted on her by her upbringing).
The moral is: society will not understand you. If you try to abide by it by going against your heart, it’ll come back to bite you and you’ll be blamed for it anyway. If you resist and follow your heart, you will be condemned, because society strives to protect its homogeneity. It’s ridiculously difficult to win. Even today, that message stands true.
Whatever, Samuel Goldwyn.
Which is not to say the people at the heart of this story aren’t to blame. Heathcliff and Hindley Earnshaw in particular exhibit behavior that’s entirely their own fault, transferring their hatred and vindictiveness to characters who aren’t to blame for their mistreatment. Heathcliff was abused and mistreated in his youth, but that was no excuse for what he did to Isabella and various other characters. Hindley was neglected by his father in favor of Heathcliff, and society taught him to hate people on a classicism/racism basis, but that didn’t mean he had to treat Heathcliff the way he did. Everyone had a choice, and they’re entirely responsible for that choice, but at the same time they’re very much victims of their environment.
Let’s talk about the second half of the book, and why it’s so often ignored by adaptations. Obviously, it lacks the “star-crossed lovers” angle that made Heathcliff and Catherine’s story so popular. But without the second half, does the story still make sense? Of course it does, if you want to go the way of playing up the romance and suppressing everything else. Without the second half, the novel would simply be a tragic story of two people with an unhealthy obsession for each other who make bad choices and unsurprisingly end badly.
Without the second half, however, Heathcliff’s character arc would be brought up short. His development in the first half–his origin, so to speak, when he’s mistreated by Hindley, who’s jealous because old Mr. Earnshaw treated his adopted son, Heathcliff, with more deference than his biological son, Hindley, and swears to exact revenge on him; and of course, when Catherine marries Edgar instead of him–is crucial, of course, but what was merely set in place at first comes into fruition in the second half. Catherine Earnshaw/Linton, his love, is gone, and Heathcliff has nothing to hold him back. Catherine saw her mistakes and regretted every decision and action that brought her to be married to Edgar Linton, with Heathcliff courting Isabella Linton in order to revenge himself upon Edgar out of jealousy and resentment of his privilege and his marriage to Catherine, and she exacted her own revenge, in a way, by dying. She went against what she felt and believed in in order to conform to society, and she paid the price of this betrayal. Things are a mess, but the board is clear for Heathcliff to make his move. He has nothing to lose.
It would be a simple thing if the marriage of Cathy Linton II, daughter of Catherine and Edgar, and Linton Heathcliff, daughter of Heathcliff and Isabella, resolved everything. It would seem like a vindication of the mistakes Catherine and Heathcliff made, to have their children fall in love and marry. But although they do marry, it’s all part of a ploy on Heathcliff’s part to secure the inheritance of Thrushcross Grange, the Lintons’ estate. Heathcliff clearly doesn’t see this as a second chance. There’s Linton blood in the mix, which there was never supposed to be; he despises his son because of his association with Isabella, and Cathy because she’s the product of Catherine’s rejection of him by choosing Edgar. If Heathcliff had treated his wife better, she might not have felt the need to compensate by spoiling Linton, and if he’d treated his son better, Linton might have grown into a much nicer young man. Of course, Linton’s illness makes it all a foregone conclusion, and he dies just a few months after his marriage to Cathy Linton, but they might have been happier if Heathcliff hadn’t felt the need to take out his resentment and hatred on others who had nothing to do with his misfortunes.
After his son’s death, Heathcliff inherits Thrushcross Grange. Hindley’s long since drunk himself to the grave, leaving Wuthering Heights in his possession. He’s turned Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley’s son, into a brute in order to get back at Hindley for doing the same to him. Cathy Linton, now Cathy Heathcliff, is under his power. With everything accomplished, he begins to feel unfulfilled–his horribly misplaced desire for revenge couldn’t help but leave him unsatisfied. He abandons his torment of those around him and at last turns to the memory of Catherine, the only thing that can afford him consolation.
When Heathcliff dies, Cathy is free to fall in love with and marry Hareton Earnshaw, finally making the right decision. Catherine rejected Heathcliff because he was a “brute;” uneducated, poor, and under her brother’s oppression. Hareton spiritually represents Heathcliff, with Heathcliff taking the place of Hindley, and in a way Linton represented Edgar–the wrong choice, although made for different reasons than her mother’s. Cathy raises Hareton from his ignorance and they can live together in comfort, as they own both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange now.
But the question is: do Cathy and Hareton have a happy ending because they made the right decisions, learning perhaps from what happened to their parents, or because the circumstances are different? Clearly, they’re different people, and much more sympathetic–but how much of that is who they are and how much is because of what they experience? Did Catherine and Heathcliff ever really have the chance to have this happy ending?
Hareton, who lives in similar conditions as Heathcliff, overcomes his upbringing and becomes a decent man. But he never had Heathcliff’s other disadvantages, such as his traumatic early childhood, and his oppressor dies, leaving him free, whereas Heathcliff was rejected by Catherine before he had a chance to escape his oppression. If Catherine and Heathcliff had married, they would have been poor, because Hindley would surely have disowned his sister.
Again, it’s a subtle balance of circumstance versus choice, environment versus personal character, and there’s no easy answer, just like in real life. We all have a choice, but sometimes we’re unlucky. Sometimes there’s a fault in our stars that’s beyond our power to correct.