Wuthering Heights, second time around

I’ve read Wuthering Heights before, although I can’t remember exactly when — at least 10 and maybe as many as 15 years ago. I have vague memories of a dark, disturbing, confusing book, and that’s about all I remember. This time around what I’m noticing is the novel’s complicated structure. I find the love story, well, not much of a love story. It’s a story less about love than about deranged, violent compulsion. These characters don’t love; they go crazy with obsession.

But the structure is worth looking at closely, both in terms of narrative form and in the pairing and repetition of characters, places, and action. Much like Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights has multiple narrators; it starts off with Lockwood, a complete outsider to Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, the two major settings, and then moves to Nelly Dean, a servant who has worked at both houses. Nelly tells most of the story to Lockwood in conversation as they sit up late at the Grange. Lockwood somehow — we’re not told how — records or remembers the long tale and is repeating it to us, although at one point he says he has “condensed” her tale a little bit.

So we get two narrators, each telling the story from what could be an unreliable memory, neither of whom we have any particular reason to trust. Lockwood, in what I now realize is a mildly humorous opening chapter, sees Heathcliff and thinks he is a sympathetic soul, which he most definitely is not, a fact Lockwood must soon learn the hard way. He also thinks he may develop a romantic attachment to Cathy and prides himself at least once on what a good catch he would be for her. Nelly’s status as unreliable narrator is harder to sort out. Her loyalties shift as she tells her tale; at several points, for example, she feels attachment to Heathcliff but at other times is disgusted and frightened by him. She becomes involved in the plot, hiding or revealing information at important points, but she never acknowledges just how much she influences events. She pretends to be an outsider who is merely telling a tale, when she really is one of the most important characters in the novel.

These two narrators provide a frame for the story of the Earnshaws and the Lintons, but in doing so, they call into question any possibility of an unbiased, objective point of view. All we have is gossip and hearsay. I must say I do like this sort of novel, the sort that foregrounds issues of interpretation. Lockwood becomes a little like the reader, trying and failing to make sense of the characters he meets; as he gets his bearings in the world of Wuthering Heights, so do we as readers begin to figure out what is going on, although we may, perhaps, be a bit smarter about it. Just as he is both tempted to flea the place and strangely drawn to it, so we as readers are likely to be ambivalent about these larger-than-life characters who don’t behave like anybody we know.

Equally as satisfying as all the ambiguity introduced by the unreliable narrators is the way Brontë structures the story itself. It’s made up of pairs — Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, which come to be associated with civilization and wildness respectively; the Earnshaws and the Lintons; Lockwood and Nelly; Catherine and Heathcliff; older Catherine and younger Catherine; Heathcliff and Edgar; Catherine and Isabella; younger Catherine and Linton; Hareton and Linton, and on and on. Each character has at least one other alter ego or double or love interest or foil, and possibly several. There’s also the first half of the novel, with its love story between Catherine and Heathcliff, and the second half, with its love story between Catherine and Hareton; there’s the way the first half shows the breakdown of order and the way the second attempts, at least, to restore that order.

But although the novel sets up all these pairings and oppositions, it also emphasizes how no pairing or opposition, no boundary, wall, or exclusion can last. Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights begin as separate entities, each with their own metaphorical significance, but as the novel goes on, the boundaries between the two begin to fall apart as the two families meet and then marry and produce offspring that combine traits from both places. Heathcliff tries to control the movements of the other characters, ordering them around and locking them in or out, marrying them to one another or keeping them apart, and yet ultimately they escape his grasp. There is no end of breaking in or out, of jumping over walls, of invading enemy space, or of creating new alliances.

So although the novel is structured by pairings of various kinds, it really is about how these pairings dissolve. It’s about how nothing is permanent or reliable or certain.

Wuthering Heights describes such a murky world, one where wild emotion flies out all over the place and violence continuously erupts, but it’s also murky in the sense that nothing settles down into neat patterns or into clear meaning. I have to say that as I was reading, I referred to the genealogical table at the front of the novel constantly; I clung to it for some clarity and relief from the confusion of a novel where the same names get used multiple times and the story isn’t told in chronological order.  The genealogical table isn’t part of the novel itself, though; Brontë seems to want us to be confused.  She forces us to live without solid ground beneath us, at least for the length of time we choose to spend with her.

21 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

21 responses to “Wuthering Heights, second time around

  1. “I find the love story, well, not much of a love story. It’s a story less about love than about deranged, violent compulsion. These characters don’t love; they go crazy with obsession.” You took the words right out of my mouth! But, wow, you’ve certainly made me want to take another look at the book. One of the things I thought about when I read it the book was how isolated the two families were from the rest of the world and wondering if the same sort of story could be written today. Are people/can people be as isolated in this day and age? Ultimately, I decided the answer to that question is “yes.” People can be and are isolated, hiding all kinds of family secrets from the rest of the world. Which, of course, got my imagination running wild with a cool story about descendents of the original story living in the here and now, carrying on damaging psychological traits.

  2. I never liked “Wuthering Heights” when I was younger, probably because I had it in my head beforehand that Heathcliff was a romantic hero. When I read it I found him so distasteful I couldn’t understand the appeal. (also my mother’s copy was a big old one with TERRIFYING woodcut illustrations in it)

    Alice Hoffman’s “Here on Earth” is actually a ‘remake’ of sorts, with the Heathcliff character as an abusive boyfriend (kind of the way I see him).

  3. I wish I could have read something like your analysis before I sat my final high school English exam on Wuthering Heights all those years ago. You make some really insightful observations and make me want to re-read Bronte straight away.

    By the way, I loved Wuthering Heights as a teenager- mostly because Heathcliff seemed the ultimate sexy ‘bad boy’. I’m glad my taste in men has moved on since then!

  4. What a superb review, Dorothy, thank you. I reread Wuthering Heights a couple of years ago, and was both confused and appalled. Your review helps clarify the mishmash of my response.

  5. Your review made me want to go back to WH once again. The more we read this novel the more we discover! I wonder how conscious Bronte was of all this complexity, murkiness and levels of interpretation. Her world was so different from her sisters’, it’s almost as if they hadn’t lived at the same period.

  6. This is an excellent book to teach for all of the reasons you mentioned. Almost the perfect novel to examine for structure and technique…

  7. Bookboxed

    I think so many people find this novel a surprise because of the distortions in the film versions and popular culture. It is a much darker tale as you make clear and far more interesting as a result. I have heard or read somewhere that it’s in some ways a story about the survival of the fittest, a kind of Darwinian account of hap-hazard evolution which predates the origin of species accounts. It seems thoughts of this kind were expressed in essays written by Emily when she was at school with Charlotte in Belgium. She illustrated her ideas with descriptions of the behaviour of creatures on the moors around Haworth. I keep thinking I must reread the novel to see if this is the case. Your account certainly seems to make it plausible, especially the parts about how everything decays and is superseded. Thanks.

  8. musingsfromthesofa

    I read ‘Wuthering Heights’ for A-level English, and loved it. I remember that I picked it up to read in bed one evening, read late into the night, picked it up again first thing in the morning and didn’t get up until I’d finished it. It was a shock to find out that it’s not a ‘romantic’ love story but I fell immediately for the complexity and the shifting narratives. I think it was one of the first books really to take hold of my mind.
    Thanks for the review! Now I shall read it again. It’s been a few years.

  9. What a wonderful review, Dorothy – one of your most sophisticated and elegant yet, I think! I’d forgotten all that framing, but you bring it back to my mind, and I love what you say about the principle of dissolution at work. That’s just perfect.

  10. I read this for exams at both 16 and 18 and still love it and re-read now, which is quite a testament to its power. Your points about the pairings throughout and the restoration of order in the second half of book are so interesting; you make me want to re-read it yet again.

  11. Emily — now that would be a fun story to tell and to read! Yeah, I think it’s possible to be that isolated today, although the location and circumstances would be different. It is amazing how little contact they seem to have with the rest of the world.

    Melanie — certainly if I were expecting a romantic story I’d be disappointed! The Hoffman book sounds interesting, and I can see Heathcliff as an abusive boyfriend (he certainly was abusive and violent).

    Jess — indeed, Heathcliff is someone all women should stay away from … but there are two women in the novel who fall in love with him, so he’s attractive on some level.

    Charlotte — I think being confused and appalled is a very fitting reaction to the book! I’m glad my review helped clarify things a bit!

    Smithereens — yeah, Emily’s work is quite different from Jane’s (I haven’t read Anne’s to compare), although they are both quite gothic in their style. But Jane Eyre is a recognizable world in the way Wuthering Heights is not.

    Jenclair — it IS a great novel to teach, isn’t it? It makes a good pairing with Frankenstein, with the gothicism and the complex narrative structure.

    Bookboxed — now that’s an interesting way of reading the novel, and I do think it could work. The weak characters die off and the spirited, strong ones make it. There must be some reason why Heathcliff fails to make it — he dies and his son dies too, so his genes don’t get passed on. Cathy and Hareton seem among the most resilient, though, and they are the ones left at the end.

    Musings — what a great way to read the novel, and what a great novel to have as an early influence! It’ll be fun to take another look at it, I think.

    Litlove — thank you! I find I’m particularly attune to structural issues like framing and so I latch on to them and give them a lot of thought. I reacted to this book much like I did to Frankenstein — in awe of its structure.

    Eloise — what a wonderful book to look at again and again! It certainly would reward multiple readings.

  12. This makes me want to read the novel again. I read it for the first time maybe three years ago, and found it very dark and not terribly romantic, but I still loved it for its passion. Ever since I’ve wanted to go and see those windswept moors. I don’t know much about the Brontes (wasn’t their father a clergyman? Where does a story like this come from?

  13. I was very struck by the violence of it when I reread “Wuthering Heights” as an adult, particularly so because it is so often presented to young girls as the ultimate love story. I ended up making it the centrepiece of the title story (“Summer Reading”) in my first short story collection. The main character is reading “Wuthering Heights” and using it as a lens through which to make sense of her older cousin’s summer romance.

  14. Bronte is in the air around me recently. (Just read Judith Thurman’s & Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays on the Brontes — then this.) Is the universe telling me to go re-read a Bronte?

    Wuthering Heights haunts me. There is this sheer psychic energy running through the book, and all these doppelgangers all over the place. Of all the Brontes, I’ve always thought Emily was the most intense and the most interesting, because of what she wrote.

    I should go re-read a Bronte. The universe beckons me.

  15. I read Wuthering Heights about seven or eight months ago and hated it. The story was about heinous vile people doing heinous vile things to each other. That the book could be called a romance was laughable to me. (I read Jane Eyre immediately after finishing WH and felt better about the Brontes). Anyway, your review made me think about some of the things I missed because I was so focused on hating the story. Thanks for the insight.

  16. Wonderful post Dorothy. I never found it to be much of a love story and when I read it the first time I was very confused. If that was love I wouldn’t want to see what hate was. I like what you say about the dissolving pairings. I never looked it quite like that. And now, like everyone else, I want to read the book again too!

  17. Danielle — I don’t really know where a story like this might come from, but Emily was known from a young age for her imagination, and she and her sister Anne created their own imaginary world together. Emily was also quite isolated and homebound, so that might help explain why she would be drawn to writing about a world like Wuthering Heights, which has so few connections to the outside world.

    Kate — that sounds like a fabulous idea for a story; I’ll have to get my hands on a copy!

    Dark Orpheus — the universe IS calling to you — don’t resist it! I’ve always preferred Charlotte’s work, but now I’m beginning to change my mind; there’s nothing like teaching a book to make you appreciate it.

    Jessica — I can see how the novel might inspire hatred, even though I didn’t feel that way myself — it’s so odd and dark and violent.

    Stefanie — thank you. It’s too bad that so many people think it’s a love story and then don’t know how to respond to what they actually find in the book!

  18. zhiv

    Nice work, DW–what a great post and comment thread, where I think just about every single person is saying almost the exact same thing, and you can just add me to the list. WH is one of the first classics that I ever read (at the late age of 18) and it knocked me out, just the sheer power of it. I would add, I think, a response to the complexity of narrative form that you talk about. What I remember most over all this time is the atmosphere–that isolation mentioned above, a kind of sheer ruralism and exposure to the forces of nature, very much the Bronte/Haworth/Yorkshire thing. You get some of that in Hardy and his Wessex, but nowhere is it so pure as in WH. I love the idea of setting it up next to Frankenstein. And I also remember a strong reaction to the major distortions in the movie version. Like everybody else, it seems imperative to reread it.

  19. I read WH as a teenager and thought it was terribly romantic, tragic and all that. I loved it! I reread it just a year or so ago and was both enchanted and repulsed by the story. I couldn’t agree more with your comment that the novel isn’t a love story – it’s about obsession and destruction. I remember being very surprised at how differently I perceived both Catherine and Heathcliff in my adult reread. I hadn’t thought about the structure or the pairings before, and you point this out so eloquently. Wonderful review!

  20. Simran

    Off-late, I have come to realize that authors and poets of the 20th century had a far greater imagination than those of the twenty-first. Some of the greatest writers of that era for me are JRR Tolkien, who wrote the spell-binding and valiant series of fantasy books called Lord of the Rings, which he started conceptualizing in 1917, and CS Lewis who created a whole new world with his series- The Chronicles of Narnia in the years 1949-1953. Their creativity and brilliance continue to astonish me till date and no wonder their writing have been put to reel.
    In fact, Disney and Walden are coming up with the latest Narnia movie-Prince Caspian, this May 16th. It promises to be awesome by the looks of the trailer!!
    But Wuthering Heights is one of my all-time favourites! So is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Excellent books!

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