Saturday, February 10, 2018
Classics Corner: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Romance Classic About the Dangers of Unbridled Passion, Between Unlikable Characters.
By Julie Sara Porter, Bookworm Reviews
Spoilers:There are many who find Wuthering Heights, the standard for classic romance, and Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, the ultimate literary couple: brooding, troubled, passionate but always romantic. I am sure there are many who darn it all, believe they should somehow have been happy ever after. Unfortunately, I am not one of those Readers.
I have such a complicated relationship with the Emily Bronte novel. I like the idea of it, the passion between two outsiders, and I love the Brontes as authors and individuals. They were creative and imaginative women, who because of a fairly isolated childhood, they and their brother created and wrote fantasy worlds and stories. Then as the women matured, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte co-authored a book of poems and wrote three individual novels that they published as a unit: Emily's Wuthering Heights, Anne's Agnes Grey, and Charlotte's Jane Eyre. I admire their creativity, tenacity, and Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels. Period.
So what I'm saying is that I wish I liked Wuthering Heights better, but every time I read it, I find it uncomfortable and not romantic with characters who are passionate but abusive and possessive in their passion. I find it more about the idea of love than love itself like two teenagers who keep insisting that they are in love, will run off get married and stay happy (ignoring the unfinished education, children born before the parents are ready, and the inevitable divorce that results) and what do Mom and Dad have to say about that. It's about two thoroughly unlikable characters that insist that the only people who matter are themselves and spend most of the novel making the other characters, each other, and themselves suffer.
Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship begins when they are children and Heathcliff is adopted by Catherine's father as a playmate for her in replace of the whip that she asked for. (Though in their insightful analysis The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gruber suggest that Heathcliff acts as "whip" exhibiting physical violence such as destroying her older brother Hindley's violin, on Catherine's subconscious behalf.)
Though he is welcomed as a best friend by Catherine, he is disliked by Hindley and after his and Catherine's father's death, Heathcliff gets treated as a servant.
As Catherine grows older, she is befriended by the Lintons, a more socially acceptable pair of friends. Even though Catherine and Heathcliff begin a passionate affair, Hindley separates them by arranging Catherine's marriage to Edgar Linton. A jealous Heathcliff is sent away and then returns mysteriously wealthy and ready to seek vengeance on the Earnshaw and Linton families for keeping him apart from Catherine.
Heathcliff is a character for which the so-called "Abuse Excuse" was invented.
"I was miserable as a child so I will be miserable as an adult and make everyone else miserable as well," is their credo. He takes over the Earnshaw estate Wuthering Heights and dominates Hindley's son, Hareton so he treats him as a servant in the same manner that Hareton's father treated him.
Heathcliff also receives the attention of Isabella Linton, Edgar's younger sister and then he pushes Isabella to run away with him where he instantly tires of her, systematically abuses her and destroys her self-worth because her family hurt him. His and Isabella's unhappy marriage ends in a separation in which Isabella gives birth to a sickly son, Linton, who is also used in Heathcliff's revenge campaign.
Every time that he hurts someone, particularly Isabella who is more or less an innocent bystander in Heathcliff's passion, this Reader keeps wanting to say "This is the guy who enchanted millions of readers? Is there another Heathcliff that I don't know about?"
Now I admit, I have a fondness for anti-heroes and I don't mind characters with troubled backgrounds. There are some like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary
(or most recently read Amethyst's Victoria and Tancredi Raven)
who are certainly victimized by their social status, race, gender, or unfortunate circumstances,
to the point where the reader knows that things won't end well. They still come across as fascinating even when they are trapped by their circumstances because they at least try to challenge them despite not because of them. They seem to say, "This stuff is happening to me so I will do this anyway. I may go down but at least I'll be myself while I'm doing so." Not "I am doing this BECAUSE of my background and no other reason." Heathcliff never seems to get beyond the troubled childhood past in a way that makes this Reader root for him.
There are other anti-heroic characters that are fascinating because they are so charming, troubled childhood or not like Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp and What Makes Sammy Run's Sammy Glick (who as many will recall was one of my favorite read books from 2017). They may draw characters
into their confidence, but only the most foolish of characters would leave before checking
their pockets, purses, and probably their drinks and backs afterward. Even when the anti-heroes are more brooding and serious, they show a dry sense of humor and snarkiness that can be amusing at times.
However what sets these characters apart from Heathcliff is besides their superficial charm, they also show modicums of humanity and vulnerability to show that they are more than someone who lives a life of gray morality. These characters show loss and some slight emotions for others, that border on human concern, making them more understandable though not always likable.
Heathcliff never goes beyond that brooding persona, constantly railing, abusive and angry.
Even his affection for Catherine borders more on narcissism than any real concern for her. It seems more like adolescent infatuation that never matured and is instead destructive.
Not that Catherine comes across any better. While Heathcliff manipulates those around him physically and uses his new-found money, Catherine often resorts to verbal abuse constantly yelling and arguing with those around her. She taunts Edgar with her affection for Heathcliff saying that Heathcliff is manlier than he will ever be and derides Isabella seeing her as a rival for Heathcliff's affections. (Though since Isabella married Heathcliff, wouldn't that make Catherine the other woman?)
Even in her passages with Heathcliff, the two aren't particularly happy together. Instead their dialogue is constant accusations, backbiting, and arguing over who hurt who. They show very little real affection for each other beyond a constant desire to be together physically.
Catherine does gain some sympathy as she sinks further into a mental breakdown. Many readers who are mentally ill themselves may understand how one's emotions and psyche can overpower them so much that they find it impossible to function. But even that sympathy is at a minimum. Catherine seems more manipulative using her state as a means to attack those around her. She blames her emotions for Heathcliff and her marriage to Edgar putting her in this state. Like Heathcliff, Catherine's affection for him is adolescence becoming unstable to the point where she is unable to live with anyone even herself.
Even as Catherine dies and long afterwards, she and Heathcliff continue to alternate between longing for each other and saying that they were responsible for their decline. They are like that couple in a group of friends, who constantly get separated, insisting that they hate each other, attacking one another on social media, only to reunite again all affection, tenderness, and sex swearing all is forgiven. This couple often leaves their friends sighing in frustration, wondering "Why don't they just get divorced already?"
If they lived today, Catherine and Heathcliff would probably be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Two people who believe that only their emotions matter, display immaturity with everyone else around them, and manipulate others to get what they want. Unfortunately, when they have what they want, i.e. each other, they still make each other miserable. Their relationship motto seems to be "If I can't have you no one else can, including ourselves."
There are many Readers who don't like the second half of the book in which the narrative is filled with characters who repeat names of earlier characters: Hareton Earnshaw (son of Hindley), Linton Heathcliff (son of Heathcliff and Isabella), and Cathy Linton (daughter of Catherine Earnshaw and Edgar Linton). Many see the next half as a " sanitized, more censored, and socially acceptable" version of the previous half. However, I actually find the younger generation better characters than the original.
While Linton Heathcliff is extremely sickly and whiny, he is more of a plot device, for Heathcliff to marry him off to the younger, Cathy. However, Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw exhibit many of the negative traits of their forebears: Cathy is snobbish and emotional. (She often mocks Hareton's illiteracy while teaching him to read). Hareton is more cynical and hardened. (He often seeks Cathy purposely to argue with her). However, the two are able to mature and bring out deeper emotions such as love and friendship, rather than constant physical passion bordering on instability like their forebears.
Since this was Emily Bronte's only novel (she died in 1848), she never got the opportunity to develop her craft into another work like her sisters did. Perhaps one could see the second half of Wuthering Heights, less as a retelling of the first half than the work of a maturing writer who developed her characters beyond infatuation. The second half of Wuthering Heights, could be considered Emily Bronte's second novel, the work of an author who grew up and wanted her characters to do so as well even if she didn't live to see it.
This is not a beautiful romance, Wuthering Heights could be more seen as a cautionary tale of unbridled passions. When characters' emotions can't seem to get beyond adolescent infatuation and constant obsession, they end up destroying each other and themselves.