Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë was published in 1847 under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell. Contemporary critical reception was mixed at best, and it was constantly compared (to the disadvantage of Wuthering Heights) to Jane Eyre, thanks to the publisher’s attempt to cash in on the success of Charlotte Brontë’s novel by attributing both to the same author. Emily Brontë died in 1849 believing that her only novel had been a failure. In 1850, a new edition with a prologue by Charlotte Brontë was published, and the book’s popularity started to pick up… and up… and up.
Emily’s is a sad story, but it obviously wasn’t the first or the last time something like this would happen. Artists and scientists are often misunderstood by their contemporaries. Fortunately things move a little faster nowadays, and people are more open to accept new ideas, so they get recognition for their work while they’re alive–which, in my opinion, is the only time when it counts.
Why was Wuthering Heights ahead of its time? Well, that’s simple. The morality and rules of society it depicts are stagnant and damaging to the characters. The villainy goes ultimately unpunished. The characters behave scandalously and things aren’t pretty and refined. EB tackled difficult subject matters in an unconventional way and suffered for it.
I first read Wuthering Heights a couple of years ago. Or maybe “listened to” is the proper term, because I downloaded the audiobook version read by Janet McTeer and David Timson. (By the way, that version is wonderful.) I’ve read it a couple of times since, and been drawn in more deeply each time. Wuthering Heights is human, passionate, tense, sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes heartbreaking, and has a lot of adjectives. And exclamation points. And rather improbable monologues. And amazing feats of recollection on the part of the narrators. But it doesn’t matter, because whoever says fiction is supposed to be a carbon copy of real life should be smacked on the nose. Fiction is what you get when you peel away the minutia, the boredom, the chaos, and the randomness of life and present the very core of humanity with some semblance of order, filtered through the eyes of the author and the themes and characters they present, and that’s what Wuthering Heights is. A damn fine piece of literature.
I won’t deny that it’s dark, chilling, and depressing at times, but despite its ambitious, philosophical nature, its length and its density, it’s fun. There’s a reason why I re-read it multiple times. There’s a reason why it keeps getting movie and TV adaptations and people keep reading it. It’s not “fun” like the latest movie of The Avengers is fun (few things are fun like The Avengers is fun), but it has a magnetic power in its story and characters that make it a surprisingly easy read. Easy, but not simple. There are many things below the surface, many metaphors and complex literary devices at work, and dissecting it all is half the fun, so here we go.
Wuthering Heights Is Not a Love Story and Isn’t Romantic
First of all I’d like to address a popular misconception. Like Romeo and Juliet, WH is a story about many things that all get stripped away to bring the “love story” to the forefront, and we can probably thank the 1939 movie version and many subsequent adaptations for that. Heathcliff is heralded as some sort of romantic hero by modern pop culture, which is not only grossly ignoring the true depth of the book, but also frighteningly damaging to anyone who considers this the model of the ideal relationship. There are plenty of things more romantic than Wuthering Heights. For example, The Lord of the Rings. Or Star Wars. Or The Avengers, because Robert Downy Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow are totally cute together.
A love story is a story primarily about a romantic relationship between two or more characters. It doesn’t have to have a happy ending (those are romance novels) but it does have to revolve primarily around the characters involved in this relationship, and their love is the main focus of the narrative. Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is an important part of the story, but there’s so much more at work here that deserves just as much of out attention–if not more.
We don’t know what Emily Brontë’s intention was when writing this novel. All we know for sure is that it wasn’t for people to dismiss it and criticize her for her audacity so that she could die in bitter disappointment. But it’s clear from her writing that Heathcliff was a deconstruction of the “dark and troubled hero” stereotype, and we were meant, not to worship him as an ideal romantic partner, but to realize our misconceptions about the desirability of such characters. It’s been said before that she appears to be testing us, as if to see just how much we can take of Heathcliff’s appalling behavior before we renounce him as the romantic hero of the novel.
It’s also been said that what Heathcliff and Cathy share is more of an addiction/obsession than actual romantic love. As Cathy says in her famous monologue, (“I am Heathcliff,” etc.), there is no longer any joy to be derived from each other. They’ve left childhood behind, along with childhood’s safeguards, and the real world has changed them both beyond the capacity to reconcile their differences and be happy together. But the problem is that they’ve both developed an emotional dependency on each other–thus the term “addiction”–and are unable to let each other go. Would they have been happy if Cathy had picked Heathcliff instead of Edgar? Probably not, but that’s not the point. She didn’t pick Heathcliff, and if she had this wouldn’t be Wuthering Heights, and everything else Emily Brontë was trying to say would have been lost.
So what is it if not a love story? I’d call it a social drama. Like George Elliot’s novels, it does contain exploration of romantic relationships, but it’s first and foremost a story about society and how people’s lives and choices contribute to and are affected by its rules.
Since as usual I’m rambling on far past what I’d intended, I’m going to split my thoughts into three separate posts that I’ll put up during this week, because Wuthering Heights really deserves more than a brief and superficial analysis, and anyway where’s the fun in that? See you soon!