Wuthering Heights: a novel beyond ordinary life

Since it was first published in the 1840's, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights has received much consideration in the media and from the academic world. While there has been much attention given to the now considered classic, when it was published it was negatively reviewed and considered to be a below average work of literature. One anonymous author reviewed the book saying:

It is the province of an artist to modify and in some cases refine what he beholds in the ordinary world. There never was a man whose daily life (that is to say, all his deeds and sayings, entire and without exception) constituted fit materials for a book of fiction.

Though what the reviewer says, that the dullness of ordinary, life is too monotonous for a work of fiction, Wuthering Heights surpasses the ordinary and embodies developed characters, a simply based story line and a narration that includes many different voices, retold through one.

No matter what the medium - canvas, paper, clay, or an instrument - the artist working with it must old the everyday and refine it to appease the audience. A painter or sculptor must take a form and make it absolutely perfect, whether in beauty or grotesqueness in order to make the audience take notice of it. If a work of art is too ordinary people pass over it and move onto the next exhibit which does display a twist on their everyday life. With music, the musician uses his or her instrument to recreate emotion and images from their world in their music, but filled with splendour and grace. Without the contrasts of fortes and pianos, the fluidity of crescendo and decrescendo and the ever changing tempo, a piece of music would again lose the attention of the audience. Both artwork and music need to encompass a changing fluidity in order to captivate their audiences and give them a twist on reality.

Literature works in much the same way in that it must attract the attention of the reader. Both plot and characters must be identifiable to the reader but also encompass a sense of the impossible. If a story is exactly what the reader does every day it becomes boring, yet at the same time if there is no element of the plot that the reader finds feasible than they will become discusted and lose interest. An author needs to exaggerate and exemplify life in order to retain an audience.

When an author tries too hard to imitate life and fit a person's daily life into a book, a biography, autobiography, newspaper or tabloid is created. But differences still remain from a book of fiction: a biography or autobiography deals with summaries of important, exciting or interesting points in the person's life; a newspaper deals with shocking, tragic or happy events briefly summarised without much action; and a tabloid contains scandal and rumour, much of which is questionable "non-fiction." In all of these forms, it is a summary, not all "deeds and sayings, entire and without exception," that form them and spice them up for maximum audience attention and retention.

Though criticised by her contemporary critics, Bronte succeeds in simple exaggeration of reality in Wuthering Heights and dares the reader to compare his or her life to that of the Earnshaw's, the Linton's or of Heathcliff's. The characters are identifiable and each contain elements of reality. Even to the modern reader there are elements contained in all of the characters that are readily recognized and each contains a part of the reader's true personality. When Cathy is young she takes to exploring and as Nelly explains:

Catherine came to me, one morning, at eight o'clock, and said she was that day an Arabian merchant, going to cross the Desert with his caravan; and I must give her plenty of provisions for herself and beasts: a horse, and three camels, personated by a large hound and a couple of pointers.

In this act all readers can remember being young and playing "make believe" whether it be a fairy princess, a cowboy or an Arabian merchant. By placing everyday acts such as a child's imaginary adventures in the story to lead to major and important plot events, the story flows easily and places the story in a more relevant setting. If the characters were all unbelievable with unconnected, coincidental events, then the story would fall short.

The character of Heathcliff at times tends to stretch the limits of many reader's reality, though never does he fall into the Examiner reviewer's criticisms. Heathcliff is a character unlike any other in the novel and leaves much to the readers imagination; never are his motives fully understood, and never is it fully understood why he surrenders in the end of the novel. Through the book it is never Bronte's intent to include all of his "deeds and sayings, entire and without exception," and this is where the critique falls short. Heathcliff's main personality is shown, his quirks and idiosyncrasies, and it is this way that an intriguing and compelling character is created, not an unrefined ordinary character.

The story line of Wuthering Heights is a very simply based one that spans the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff. Unlike as the review comments, the novel follows the main events and important incidents of the story and thus avoids the mediocrity of the everyday. The story moves quickly, giving detailed when needed, though giving brief descriptions when needed. Much of the early history of the story is given in this brief manner as is any time that Nelly is not around. Near the beginning of the story Nelly summarises Heathcliff's childhood saying, "Miss Cathy and he were now very thick; but Hindley hated him: and to say the truth I did the same; and we plagued and went on with him shamefully." Throughout the story it never stops over detailed analysis of a single character's actions and continuously covers the events of both Thrushcross Grange and of Wuthering Heights. As well, the plot has a clear start and end, even if it is not at the beginning of the novel. The reader can tell that the story starts with the introduction of Heathcliff into the Earnshaw family and ends with his death. From this the reader has a true sense of completion while it frees the story form over generalising or over analysing.

The narration of a novel must be objective and leave out trivial information in order to captivate the audience and to give the story a sense of reality. Through the eyes and ears of Nelly Dean, the reader of Wuthering Heights experiences the characters and the settings. Even though primarily told from one woman's point of view (some very small parts are narrated by Mr. Lockwood) other characters have the opportunity to speak through Nelly and therefore the story is broad based and complex. Because of the variety of voices coming through in the book Bronte escapes the error of the trivial points of one persons life, as commented by the critic. If the story was based on the everyday aspects of one characters life, there would not be the great cross section of characters or the quick skips from one event to the next. And while on occasion the story is biased by Nelly's opinion, Bronte counts on the reader's intelligence to deduce his or her own opinion.

While the story of Wuthering Heights is a fairly narrowly confined one, it is not legitimate to declare that it is the simple summary of one character's petty, dull life. Perhaps it is the time difference between the mid-nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth, but the description of a person's life is sometimes intruding to the reader, especially if it includes either something that they could only imagine themselves doing but could never actually do, or if it verbalises their thoughts. The modern author Douglas Coupland has perfected this and in his book Life After God describes a boy prostitute Donny:

But Donny actively invited stabbing into his life. He said that stabbing didn't hurt nearly as much as you'd think and that it was actually kind of cool, and that when it happened, "man, when the blade first digs into you it makes your soul leap out of your body for just a second, like a salmon jumping out of a river."

This passage describes the events of one man's life, "his deeds and sayings," and is yet intriguing to the reader. Although Wuthering Heights is somewhat tamer in language and idea, it follows the same principles as Life After God, that a familiar life with a twist is the easiest to relate to.

Though belittled when first published, Wuthering Heights has found its way into the ranks of classic literature by recent scholars and critics. Filled with relatable characters, a believable story in a realistic setting, it takes the ordinary and modifies it just enough to pass as authentic yet still retaining the magic of fiction. Argued that the story is simply a boring account of menial life, Wuthering Heights has captivated and enchanted generations of readers with a story that far surpasses the average and portrays a tale of beauty.

Differences between 1939 film, and the 1847 novel:

While the most basic elements of the plot of the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights are the same as those in the novel, those familiar with Bronte's work will notice many differences between the two.

As in the novel, Lockwood is a new comer to the world of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, and finds himself Heathcliff’s unwelcome guest. However, when he spends the night, he does not observe the books or bookshelves where Catherine’s name is carved. After the apparition of the ghost, rather than call to it from the window, as in the book, Heathcliff actually goes outside. It is while he is engaged in seeking this ghost, and later mourning for lost love that Ms. Dean tells Lockwood the story behind Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. This contrasts with the novel, where Lockwood learned of the story from Ms. Dean in his own home.

Once Nelly begins to recount the past to Lockwood, even more differences are immediately noticeable. Nelly and Hindley are not the same age; they were in the book. Hindley is actually much younger than he was in the book, and closer in age to Catherine. However, as in the book, their father, Mr. Earnshaw returns from a trip with a souvenir no one had seen coming—an orphan named Heathcliff. Catherine and Heathcliff quickly become very close friends, while Hindley is forever jealous of him. One of the arguments from the book is in the movie, however it is different. While in the novel, Heathcliff demands Hindley’s horse because his has fallen lame; in the movie Hindley demands Heathcliff’s horse. In both cases, the outcome is violent.

The friendship between Heathcliff and Catherine is different as well. While the novel only refers to the two running around together, in the movie they begin role-playing, and later in adulthood, Catherine suggests that Heathcliff run away because he gets no respect at Wuthering Heights.

Hindley’s adult life is different from that portrayed in the novel as well. The movie does not feature his wife, and he never has a son, Hareton. The omissions of these two characters are some of the greatest differences.

The ending, however, is the greatest shocker when the film version of Wuthering Heights is compared to the novel. The film ends rather abruptly after the death of Catherine, whereas in the book Cathy is born, and a romance between her and Linton later ensues.

For every similarity that can be drawn between the novel and the film Wuthering Heights, a difference may be found as well. In some cases, these are more subtle—one character delivers a line originally given to another, in others they are much greater, such as the omission of a character.

Emily Bronte likes to trick you, so read carefully.

If, like me, you read Wuthering Heights as a hormonal adolescent, you will, like me, have seen it as a gothic tale of love, tragedy and ghosts. I urge you to read it again, and consider the book in light of the following.

Heathcliff exerts a mysterious power over his readers. Women often think him charming, quite a hero; men think him scary. In defense of Heathcliff, many people point to his words to Nelly Dean, regarding a desire to crush worms, and his reference to his own 'moral teething'. "See!" they cry, triumphant, "he isn't really bad... it's a moral teething, and he inflicts cruelty without meaning to!" On the other side of this is the claim that Heathcliff was needlessly and deliberately cruel, as demonstrated by his strangling of Isabella's dog the night of their elopement.

Over all is the spectre of Cathy, haunting Heathcliff from the night of her burial, when he visits her grave, to the night of her husband's burial, when her ghost is laid to rest. (In the Penguin Classics edition this is Volume II, Chapter XV, p285). Of particular note is that when Heathcliff visits her grave some eighteen years after her death, her face is still recognisable: she has not decayed. "Ah" sighs the adolescent romantic, "the power of Love is such that she will wait for him, unchanged, till he should join her." So thought I, until my mind was disabused by the excellent lectures of Fred Langman of the Australian National University.

The first point of interest here is Heathcliff's moral teething. For a full discussion of this, dear reader, I refer you to John Sutherland's "Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?" Meanwhile, it suffices to say only that he is in his teething phase right through the second part of his life, after he returns from his mysterious three year absence. He never leaves his teething in the past, indeed he becomes worse, exacting revenge right to the last. So far we see Heathcliff as unrepentant. Or is he? Right at the end of his career, Heathcliff declares that he is unable to continue, that his plan of revenge leaves him unmoved. He doesn't repent, exactly, but at least he is not actively cruel.

Next there is the charge of cruelty. It's interesting that the charges laid against him are always the easily defensible ones. Nobody mentions poor Hindley, but they remember Isabella's dog. Do you remember Isabella's dog? Do you recall Nelly untying it so that it could run away yapping after the couple? That sounds to me (and to Fred) as though he tied up the dog to prevent it following and making a noise. If my intended bride had a yappy dog I'd certainly silence it before the elopement.

The biggest problem of all in Wuthering Heights is the ghost of Cathy. It appears first when Heathcliff almost opens her coffin the night of her funeral, haunts him for eighteen years until the death of her husband and on the night of his funeral, Heathcliff again disturbs her coffin. This time, he pulls the lid right off to see her well-preserved face staring up at him and he is, at last, in peace.

I have one very important thing to bring to your attention regarding this moving account of Heathcliff's nocturnal visits: early in the book, when Lockwood is walking around the moors, he sees the very church where Cathy is buried. He comments that it is a swampy, damp place, very low, and that it is said that the swamp preserves the corpses buried there. "Aha!" exclaims the rational adult reader. "I knew there was a reason!"

Now, I know you're just saying that to save face, but that's okay. You know now. Cathy's miraculous unearthing is the product of nothing more than the circumstance of her coffin being placed in a peat bog. From here, it is but a small step to the application of modern psychology to explain how Heathcliff haunts himself until the death of Linton. Doesn't that make you feel better?

‘WUTHERING HEIGHTS’ – PROBLEMS OF POSSESSION

‘Towering over the romantic fiction of the mid-19th century are the Brontë sisters, in particular Emily and Charlotte, who with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre set a standard, the first for the novel of doomed love, the second for the novel of the young woman’s climb to moral independence and a passion underscored by equality.’ Oxford Companion to English Literature
I find I have an irresolvable problem with ‘Wuthering Heights’. The accepted view of the novel, like that stated above, is that it is revolves around the passionate relationship between the two main characters, Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Their love for each other is meant to transcend all barriers, be they physical or spiritual. But the nature of this love is destructive – it tears apart the fabric of the landscape around it. Even Catherine herself admits:
‘… “he’s always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself.”’ p82
The nature of their love is controlling and selfish – not unconditional. The lovers make disastrous decisions, often for their own gratification as opposed to each other’s. The actions are possessive and, therefore, I believe that this is a novel, not so much about ‘doomed love’, but about possession of people, property and ideas. Throughout the novel all of the characters are, at some point, emotionally or physically dispossessed. Heathcliff is introduced to the family, by old Earnshaw, as a childhood waif and stray – miles away from the fiddle and whip that Hindley and Catherine hoped for. While his appearance suggests that he comes from gypsy stock, Nellie later points out that he could be heir to some far off kingdom. This is reflected in Earnshaw’s observation,
‘… “I was never so beaten with anything in my life; but you must e'en take it as a gift of God; though it's as dark almost as if it came from the devil.”’ p36
He is continually made to feel like an outcast, as with the death of old Earnshaw and Hindley’s succession, when he is reduced to the rank of mere farm labourer. Again, when he and Catherine visit Thrushcross Grange and she is taken in, injured, the closed windows highlight their separation, not only from each other, but also in terms of social spheres:
‘… “The curtains were still looped up at one corner; and I resumed my station as a spy…’ p51
Ultimately he is isolated by Catherine’s choice of Edgar for a husband. Hindley, in turn, feels understandably dispossessed by the arrival of the stranger – on whom his father showers affection. He, like many of the characters is emotionally isolated, save for the short period of time he has with Frances. When Heathcliff grows up and challenges him, Hindley is cast out of his role as master, and the order is upset once more. This in turn dispossesses Hareton of his birthright. Meanwhile, Catherine, in the words of Terry Eagleton, ‘becomes after Earnshaw’s death a spiritual orphan as Heathcliff is a literal one.’ She is dispossessed by association and allowed to run wild. While she attempts to find a resolution in her marriage to Edgar, and the subsequent move to Thrushcross Grange, her desire to have her cake and eat it – by continuing her relationship with Heathcliff – results in her being stranded between the two. Is it naivety, self-deception or arrogance at her own level of control that causes Catherine to make this cataclysmic error of judgment? I believe that it is probably a bit of all of the above, illustrated by her flimsy rationale that:
‘ … “if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.”’ p82
But this is a forlorn hope, as her decision fails to make either man happy. Finally, Isabella, Cathy and Linton are all ‘removed’ from their natural surroundings. Isabella marries into a ‘sphere’ alien to that which is natural to her, while Cathy is physically isolated at the Grange, only to be further isolated by her marriage to Linton. It is only at the novel’s conclusion, with the union of Cathy and Hareton that emotional isolation and physical dispossession comes to an end. However, the other side of the novel is the possessive nature of the two main protagonists, and the need for many of the characters to take possession of people or places. Heathcliff is the main culprit here. Desperate for revenge, he becomes master of Wuthering Heights by steadily eroding Hindley’s capital at cards. This effectively gives him possession of Hindley – he is now his landlord and master – as well as possession of his son Hareton, whom he brutalizes, in spite of the boy’s affection for him. He then goes onto secure Thrushcross Grange by forcibly marrying Cathy to Linton. He has seized both of these children from Edgar – Cathy is kept under house arrest. Also, the love expressed by Catherine and Heathcliff is often controlling. While we feel sympathetic to Heathcliff, as Catherine’s jilted lover, it is harder to accept the boundless acts of selfishness he indulges in to win her back, punish her and sometimes just to make himself feel better! He arrogantly rejects Edgar’s love of Catherine as callow and constantly attempts to undermine it:
‘… “And that insipid, paltry creature attending her from duty and humanity! From pity and charity!’ p152
He even wishes to usurp Edgar in death, by being buried next to Catherine with the walls of the coffins removed. By so strongly denying Catherine’s relationship with Edgar, Heathcliff is effectively rejecting her decision and even her autonomy. While one may feel that Edgar does not fully understand or know Catherine, he is at least a dutiful and loving husband. In fact, the greatest criticism that could be levelled against him is weakness – he allows himself to fulfil the role of Heathcliff’s victim, and this is especially true when he makes no attempt to stop the man seizing first Linton and then Cathy. Catherine, in turn, uses identity to control. Does her abstract declaration, ‘I am Heathcliff!’ merely express a boundless love in which identity becomes irrelevant, or is it also a useful means for her to continue possessing a part of him, in spite of her forthcoming marriage to Edgar? This, surely, is the central crux of the novel. But either way, the statement binds Heathcliff and her together, at a time when she has promised herself to someone else. This in turn leads onto the subject of male ownership of women, for the very identity of the novel’s two women ‘leads’ is dependent upon the man with whom they are aligned at the time. Brontë does this through surnames – which feminists would also regard as a symbol of male ownership. Catherine starts out as ‘Earnshaw’, when she is under her father’s jurisdiction; with his death comes her bond to Heathcliff; then finally her agreement to marry, and thus become a ‘Linton’. The cyclical nature of the novel, with the conciliatory second half, means that her daughter experiences the reverse: she begins as Catherine Linton, then Heathcliff, before finally becoming an Earnshaw. This merely serves to highlight the possessive nature of the relationships within the novel. The narrative, meanwhile, provides the reader with the important task of deciding what to accept or reject as true. Lockwood and Nellie are both relatively uninvolved in the general thrust of the story – but, to differing degrees, make up for their limited roles by taking possession of the story itself. Lockwood ‘frames’ the narrative for us, and yet bizarrely the story appears to have little effect upon him. While he clearly enjoys a good yarn, and probes so much that one might go so far as to suggest that he’s really a bit of a gossip, he fails to appreciate the drama and passion. He only claims to be interested in the characters ‘more or less’ and his talk of the ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ suggests that the whole event his remote or inaccessible to him. His entire understanding is superficial, even crass. He talks as if the only function of this lengthy and often terrible history is to ‘amuse’ him, and judges it, foremost, on such a basis:
‘She (Nelly) is, on the whole, a very fair narrator and I don’t think I could improve her style.’ p157
However, while he fails to appreciate the passion that exists between the main characters, he does enjoy romanticizing events for himself. His attachment to the area, and particularly Catherine Heathcliff, is clearly much greater than he would allow the reader to believe. At one moment he states that:
‘… my residence in that locality had already grown dim and dreamy.’ p305
But upon hearing of Catherine’s engagement to Hareton he admits,
‘I bit my lip, in spite, at having thrown away the chance I might have had, of doing something besides staring at its smiting beauty.’ p308
The reader suspects that Lockwood would have done nothing but stare – his role as bystander in the novel appears to be a metaphor for his entire life. But he does appear to be an incorrigible romantic, possibly exaggerating descriptions, such as that of the Heights when he returns one last time at the novel’s end, in an attempt to enhance his own desire for a happy, romantic conclusion. As a result the reader remains wary of him – his only real involvement with the plot is his recounting of it. Similarly, Nellie Dean, whilst perhaps the ‘specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity’ of Charlotte Brontë’s 1850 Preface, is also well observed as the ‘hidden enemy’. Indeed, the reader would be mistaken to place a large amount of trust in her, for she only appears to live through others, and the power vested in her by her possession of the narrative. There are many examples of her hypocrisy and unreliability. For a start, she could be seen as culpable in the novel’s pivotal event – Catherine’s consent to marry Edgar, for Catherine seeks her advice but Nellie just piously lectures the ‘wicked, unprincipled girl.’ She is also involved in Heathcliff and Catherine’s secret meetings at the Grange, whilst at the same time disapproving of them. (This she does again with regard to Cathy and Linton’s love letters.) She enjoys taking the moral high ground, whilst also revelling in getting her hands dirty in the murky politics and dangerous liaisons. She works hard at getting people’s confidences, but has little problem breaking them. She is fickle in her allegiances, one moment suggesting a romance between Lockwood and Catherine Heathcliff; the next lauding her delight at the latter’s union with Hareton. One might suggest that she is the perfect narrator, for she appears to enjoy imparting things be known only unto her. But the reader must question one who is clearly so expert in knowing what to conceal or reveal:
‘As soon as he recovered, I related our compulsory visit, and detention at the Heights: I said Heathcliff forced me to go in, which was not quite true.’ p282
Her life is clearly empty and her experiences limited. We can guess that her interest in the relationships of others stems from the lack of one herself. We can, therefore, go onto suggest that the only real sense of possession of person that she has is through her telling of the story. In conclusion, it is my belief that the novel is not true to its organic self. The imaginative centre, as we have established, is power and possession. This tells throughout, in the actions of the characters, the isolation of their existences and even in the means by which the story is told. On the other hand, I find much of Brontë’s description of a transcendent love inconsistent. Why, if their love can survive even heaven and hell, does Heathcliff feel the need to degrade it by such a physical and mortal act as opening Catherine’s tomb? Why, if their spirits will live on at the Heights and on the moors, as is implied at the end, does Heathcliff feel the need for the sides of the coffins to be removed? The ending of the novel does not belong to it, either. The power and attraction of the text lies in the destruction, not in the healing. The cyclical means by which the reader goes full circle, and leaves the Heights as an open, scented place where Catherine Earnshaw resides is not true to the novel’s very core – it feels false, formulaic. By comparison, ‘Middlemarch’ and the ending for Fred Vincy and Mary Garth is entirely consistent with the novel’s development – it is organic – while Cathy and Hareton’s union is not. One is about a wholesome, adult love, while the other is about a destructive, adolescent passion. That is not to detract from Brontë’s work, which is powerful and poetic, but I believe that it’s real power lies in the tale of destruction that can be caused by I need to own and control. She is perhaps, as William Blake wrote of John Milton, ‘ … of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ Bibliography Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës by Terry Eagleton, Macmillan 1975 Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights by Frank Goodridge, Edward Arnold 1979 The 19th Century Novel and its Legacy Unit 5: Wuthering Heights prepared by Graham Holderness, The Open University Press 1976 Penguin Critical Studies: Wuthering Heights by Rod Mengham, Penguin Books 1988 Wuthering Heights: a Worksheet Guide by Jane O’Neill, Literary Images Limited 1992 York Notes on Wuthering Heights by Angela Smith, Longman 1980 New Casebooks: Wuthering Heights edited by Patsy Stoneman, Macmillan 1993

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