Note: A few Plot Spoilers!
Wuthering Heights is often billed as a love story, and portrayed sentimentally in old film versions. But readers who come to Wuthering Heights expecting a grand love story won’t just be disappointed; they’ll be shocked. Right from Chapter 1, when readers encounter the Wuthering Heights family for the first time, following alongside the prissy, citified sentimentalist newcomer Lockwood, they are plunged directly into a whirlwind of primitive, raw, elemental emotions. Love is there, though not easily recognizable, along with unbounded vitality and lust for life–but also hatred, selfishness, derision, cruelty, vengefulness. What makes this stormy story a classic, and in the end, believe it or not, a truly uplifting read?
Foremost, Wuthering Heights is a realistically observed, elegantly written work about flawed, often dislikable, yet very powerful people, enough in itself to make it interesting, even informative. More than that: Wuthering Heights is a book about Big Ideas. Emily Brontë’s novel challenges readers to re-frame every common assumption about Love and Hate, Mercy and Revenge, Life and Death, Heaven and Hell. One function of great art is to enable people to witness painful realities and strange ideas by making them in some way beautiful, thus granting us a larger perspective from which to view and consider. And Wuthering Heights does precisely that, making it a work of art on more than one level.
Weird People and Unreliable Narrators
The kinds of people Emily Brontë wanted to describe were quite different from the kind of people most of her readers would have encountered, and certainly different from characters they had encountered in books. Knowing that, Brontë does not plunge her readers directly among the apparently primitive folk at the Heights, but instead just lets us glimpse them through the eyes of her two main narrators, characters who might seem more familiar to readers than more unbridled personalities like Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw I.
We get most of the story from longtime nursemaid and servant Nelly Dean, who announces early on to her listener, Heathcliff’s new tenant Lockwood, “I certainly esteem myself a steady, reasonable kind of body.” A steady, reasonable person is exactly what readers might be looking for, at least at first, where all the other people seem so violent and unaccountably cruel to each other.
But as the story progresses, Brontë makes readers question Nelly’s salt-of-the-earth assumptions about what’s right and wrong by showing some of her own morally questionable actions. And Lockwood becomes an untrustworthy figure of fun right from the beginning, as readers enjoy watching every assumption he makes about the household at the Heights contradicted throughout Chapters 1 and 2. At the novel’s beginning, Lockwood fancies himself a Byronic misanthropic loner, and assumes when meeting Heathcliff that he has found a kindred soul. He finds quickly enough the difference between his own self-absorbed fussiness and true hatred and misanthropy as he confronts Heathcliff’s actual, extensive knowledge of the dark side of the human spirit.
Are the Characters Good or Bad? They Keep Changing. . . .
Thus, as the story unfolds, Brontë prevents readers from settling down to trust any of the narrators as her moral center for the novel. She also prevents us from getting comfortable with our judgment of any of the characters. Just when readers decide that Heathcliff is abused and develop some sympathy for him, they witness an act of his unbridled rage and cruelty. But then his monumental grief at the loss of his true love Cathy makes us pity him again, just as Nelly does. Cathy I is beautiful, funny, spirited, and, sometimes, loving; she is also egocentric, petty, unreasonable, vain, and amoral. Edgar Linton is cultured, lovely to look at, kind and loving to Cathy I, his wife, and later, to Cathy II, his daughter; he is also conventional, unimaginative, judgmental, and weak, completely unable to shelter either his wife or daughter from the elemental love or rage of Heathcliff.
The list goes on—every character we come to like, we find a reason also to dislike, even to hate, and then once again to feel sympathy for. How can readers find their feet when cruelty abounds, but there are no absolute villains? When love is palpable and unbounded, but characters don’t act loving? Indeed, the whole novel vibrates back and forth not just between goodness and badness within the same characters, but also between opposite definitions of every quality mentioned in the novel.
The Heights v. The Grange
This sense that the world is not defined according to univocal values, but that truth pulsates back and forth between radical opposites, reminds me of English Romantic poet William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Innocent speaker looks for God in the lamb, the experienced one in the “Tyger.” Both sides of God, the innocent and the destructive, are presented as equally true, and yet these qualities are total opposites. Readers might feel a similar vibration between versions of truth and goodness in Wuthering Heights—indeed, the novel is structured precisely to invite it.
First noted in a famous essay by Charles Percy Sanger published in 1926, the novel is structured with meticulous symmetry to induce this continual comparison-contrast by readers. The plot features two families who intermarry, creating a perfectly balanced family tree, and two generations, the first featuring Heathcliff, Cathy I, and Edgar, and the second, featuring Cathy II, Linton (Heathcliff and Isabella’s son), and Hareton Earnshaw. It’s interesting that almost exactly half of the book is devoted to Generation I and half to Generation II. My Kindle reader puts the end of Chapter 16, wherein Cathy I dies and Cathy II is born, at 48% through the book.
The most obvious contrast structured into the novel is between the two households of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, so different in appearance and culture that they appear to be inhabited by two different types of human beings. The name of the house of the Earnshaws, “Wuthering Heights,” embodies the qualities of both home and family, being set up on a hill on the moors where the wind blows constantly, wild and strong. Both home and family are old, going back to 1500. The house is strong, defended against the wind, yet full of life and rough plenty: a huge fireplace, always with a blazing fire, a massive dresser full to ceiling with pewter dishes reflecting the light, legs of beef, mutton, and ham along with guns and numerous dogs needed for effective hunting, all reposing in the huge open living area.
Like the house, the people too seem elemental, more primitive than the people that city-bred readers would be likely to encounter. Emotions are both deep and explosive, close to the surface, rough, raw, and honest. Violence is as close to the surface as love, as is revenge, drunkenness, and dissipation. Loyalty is also strong. It’s interesting that Cathy I never really turns against Nelly, even though Nelly says she doesn’t really like Cathy and often acts opposite to her wishes.
Thrushcross Grange, built on a cultivated farm down in the valley, is newer and apparently more refined than the Heights. When children, Heathcliff and Cathy once scamper down into the valley and peer into the window of the Grange, and see what looks to young Heathcliff like heaven, but which the Linton children are laughably turning in to a little hell:
“It was beautiful—a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers. Old Mr. and Mrs. Linton were not there; Edgar and his sister had it entirely to themselves. Shouldn’t they have been happy? We should have thought ourselves in heaven! And now, guess what your good children were doing? Isabella—I believe she is eleven, a year younger than Cathy—lay screaming at the farther end of the room, shrieking as if witches were running red-hot needles into her. Edgar stood on the hearth weeping silently, and in the middle of the table sat a little dog, shaking its paw and yelping; which, from their mutual accusations, we understood they had nearly pulled in two between them. The idiots! That was their pleasure! to quarrel who should hold a heap of warm hair, and each begin to cry because both, after struggling to get it, refused to take it. We laughed outright at the petted things; we did despise them! When would you catch me wishing to have what Catherine wanted? or find us by ourselves, seeking entertainment in yelling, and sobbing, and rolling on the ground, divided by the whole room?” –Heathcliff upon his first sight of Thrushcross Grange
Of course, the child Heathcliff does not grasp the positive sides of the Linton character: they are educated, nicely dressed, cultivated in their manners; they experience wealth and plenty. They know how to be gracious to people they consider to be in their own social class, so that Cathy’s beloved Heathcliff seems “funny and grim” to her after a 5-week stay with the Lintons. They fit the contemporary mold of what is considered beautiful and desirable, as Lockwood confirms for us when he sees Edgar Linton’s portrait:
“I discerned a soft-featured face, exceedingly resembling the young lady at the Heights, but more pensive and amiable in expression. It formed a sweet picture. The long light hair curled slightly on the temples; the eyes were large and serious; the figure almost too graceful. I did not marvel how Catherine Earnshaw could forget her first friend for such an individual. I marvelled much how he, with a mind to correspond with his person, could fancy my idea of Catherine Earnshaw.” –Lockwood after viewing Edgar Linton’s portrait
Namby-pamby Lockwood may be surprised that good-looking Edgar was attracted to Cathy I, but somehow readers are not. Even Nelly, who loved Edgar, says he “wanted spirit in general.” The Wuthering Heights people may be volatile and primitive, but they are vital, strong, powerful, and larger of soul. Edgar seems to be drawn to Cathy’s vitality like moth to flame. However, theirs is hardly a match made in heaven. Heathcliff understands how Cathy’s marriage to a Linton drains her vitality. When Nelly praises Edgar for his gentle tending of Cathy I during her illness, Heathcliff shouts, “He might as well plant an oak in a flower-pot, and expect it to thrive, as imagine he can restore her to vigour in the soil of his shallow cares!”
Why the Second Half of Wuthering Heights?
It’s interesting that when most readers talk about Wuthering Heights, they talk mostly about Cathy I and Heathcliff, and maybe Edgar, and very rarely mention the love triangle of Cathy II, Linton, and Hareton. Thus, in Wuthering Heights Part I, the vigorous Heights people seem to come out slightly ahead in the comparison with the civilized but petty and weak Lintons. But if so, how terrible!
I think that Brontë saw plainly that as attractive as “bad” boys and girls can be, she wasn’t presenting the Heights people just to be admired; she was warning us about them, just as Cathy II warns naïve Isabella to stay away from the wolfish Heathcliff. Must humanity really choose between primitive vitality and weak over-cultivation, or else be stuck with continual conflict between the two? Is a compromise possible? Can Heights primitive and Grange refinement be bred together somehow, so humanity can achieve a calmer blend of both vitality and cultivation? The second half of Wuthering Heights exists to explore these questions.
Cathy I’s daughter Cathy II is at the center of this plotline. As a character, she herself seems to represent a blend of her vital, self-willed mother and the gentler, warm-hearted Edgar. Also like her mother, she becomes entranced by a weak but educated man, Heathcliff and Isabella’s sickly son Linton, only to end by being repelled by his weakness and selfishness.
Her final choice is to unite with her Earnshaw cousin Hareton, who has been raised as a savage but is amenable to her civilizing process. Does this bring peace, and the best of both types of human character together? Nelly, our “steady, reasonable kind of body,” certainly thinks so.
Does the Compromise Work? Why I Keep Changing My Mind
I would like to agree with Nelly, but fluctuate between seeing this couple’s relationship either as vital and loving, or as paltry next to the largesse of Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s monumental passion for one another. As reader, you must decide for yourself. I think Brontë did mean to rest with a sense of compromise. But the pulsating nature of the values in this book won’t let readers settle with that, just as Cathy’s ghost may, or may not, appear to derail Heathcliff from his plans of revenge.
Whatever her conclusion about Cathy II and Hareton, there is one issue Brontë raises that clearly has no univocal answer: what is Heaven, and what is Hell, and who belongs where? From page one, when Lockwood claims he has found “a perfect misanthrope’s Heaven” at Wuthering Heights, the words “heaven” and “hell” appear on almost every other page of the book. No one seems to agree on the definition.
For instance, when Cathy I’s father dies, she and Heathcliff don’t reiterate traditional descriptions of heaven, but create a beautiful Heaven for him in their own imaginations. Later in a dream, adolescent Cathy I finds herself in a conventional heaven and is miserable. She cries for Heathcliff and the Heights until the angels toss her out, when she happily finds herself on her beloved moors again. Much later, Heathcliff anguishes to Nelly that the married ailing Cathy, at home with the Lintons, is “in hell among you all!” Years later, Heathcliff has a vision of Cathy I’s ghost and starves himself to death in order to join her. He tells Nelly, “No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me—I tell you, I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me!’”
Is there actually a Heaven and a Hell, or merely a lot of different Heavens? Cathy II and Linton get into an argument about that when describing to each other their “most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness.” Sickly Linton wants to lie all day on the moor among flowers listening to the bees, while Cathy II wants to be up in a tree with the west wind blowing, birds singing, clouds moving, grass rustling, “the whole world wake and wild with joy”:
“He wanted all to lie in an ecstacy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle, and dance in a glorious jubilee. ‘I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine, and began to grow very snappish. At last we agreed to try both, as soon as the right weather came; and then we kissed each other and were friends.”
What is Heaven, Anyway?
Who is right, Linton or Cathy II? Put that way, the question is absurd. Is Heaven, then, merely a question of taste, not morality? I don’t think Brontë specifies her own view on that. I’ll leave it to each reader to trace out any other implications of Cathy and Linton’s argument, and of Brontë’s deconstruction of typical definitions of heaven and hell.
I will, however, point out that the many uncertainties throughout Wuthering Heights leave would-be interpreters up in Cathy’s tree, where all perspectives on truth are in motion, rather than down on Linton’s moor where they can rest their minds among unquestionable certainties. The ever-shifting perspectives in the novel do make me uncomfortable; it’s more peaceful to be at rest with our certainties. Therefore, I will usually climb back down to more solid mental ground after I have a look around up there. However, my mind is a little bit bigger for the climb. I wish all readers of this classic work the same experience.
Please comment on your experiences and thoughts reading Wuthering Heights!
1939 Movie Still: By Samuel Goldwyn Productions [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frontispiece Blake’s Innocence and Experience: William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Emily Bronte: By Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons