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.