Has fiction ever seen such a wretched anti-hero?
Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
First Published: 1847
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2010
The general idea is that Wuthering Heights is a fantastic romance, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it’s a terrible story of hate and obsession. This was my discovery upon opting to read Emily’s work, having remembered how much the Laurence Oliver movie adaptation focused on romance. To say I had no clue would be an understatement.
The Earnshaws lived a good life until the father brought Heathcliff home. Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff become incredibly close, but Cathy’s violent nature and Heathcliff’s hate of her brother provoke revenge when Mr Earnshaw dies. Power will shift back and forth and when Cathy chooses wealth over love Heathcliff’s nature degrades itself further. It won’t just be the Earnshaws who suffer his bitterness.
The story is in a narration of two layers, you have the reason for the story being narrated, Mr Lockwood who recently rented the old Linton property (Linton being the wealthy family Cathy married into), and Ellen, or Nelly, his housekeeper who is the one to tell the tale. In a way this set-up is odd, as Lockwood has nothing to do with the family, and is a rather rude person himself – at times it seems he wouldn’t make such a bad companion for Heathcliff – but it does allow for the story to move beyond the lives of the couple.
This is where defining the novel becomes difficult. Emily’s writing is good and generally easy to read. The technical side is alluring and for this reason it’s a brilliant piece of work. But then comes the story, which is painful to the extent of making you wonder what was going on in the author’s head. How do you rate a novel containing such extremes? In giving the book the rating I have, I’ve examined more factors than I usually do on other occasions because lauding the book as literary critics do is impossible, but shunning it is also equally impossible. The only thing I can really say is that this is a classic for the writing’s sake but there is nothing else to give it the clout.
I suppose I should list “romance” as one of the genres of this book, but I’m afraid I don’t see any romance in it. Not even violent love relationships. I don’t believe Heathcliff has a romantic bone in his body and any other relationships aren’t explored enough to warrant it.
To refer to the “generally” good writing of Emily, it becomes most intolerable when Joseph is speaking. Yes it can be helpful to have the dialogue of a person with an accent written in that accent, but when the person becomes incoherent due to the inability of letters to successfully dictate their words it’s surely more a hindrance. Perhaps more so than Heathcliff, the bane of this book is the amount of space given to Joseph, whole paragraphs in what is essentially a severe case of broken English. The structure of it means that after a few words you might be starting to gain an understanding of how Joseph speaks, but then you’re thrown by words appearing to be in an entirely different accent. For the most part I guessed Joseph was from Yorkshire, but sometimes he sounded like a Londoner.
Cathy and Heathcliff are made for each other, even if Heathcliff is truly violent and Cathy’s violence more childish. There are no words to describe just how awful Heathcliff is, and, as I wrote in my diary, even if he isn’t literally a devil, he is surely more evil than Lord Voldermort of Harry Potter, than Sauron of The Lord Of The Rings, and so on. The reason I say this is because Emily has detailed him so meticulously and we are given no motives for why he is like he is, Cathy’s rejection aside. Suffice to say all the other characters, with perhaps the exception of Joseph and Linton (don’t get me started on him), are good to read about. Although Emily does attempt to make you feel for Heathcliff, when Hindley is treating him badly, you never can because, to use a childish phrase, Heathcliff started it. As a reader you hope the other characters would have a bit more courage and emotional strength, the constant thought is why don’t they just leave? The only answer I can come to is that their helplessness stems from their culture and time period.
There are some particularly horrid scenes in which Emily pushes the emotional boundaries a little too far, but one thing that can be said is that it’s difficult to get used to the violence no matter how many of Heathcliff’s “episodes” you witness.
“Tell your master … I’ve sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention, in my experiments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing back! But tell him also, to set his fraternal and magisterial heart at ease, that I keep strictly within the limits of the law…”
The location of the story is apt, a dark and often dreary moor that Emily uses liberally in place of standard pathetic fallacy. The setting does of course make reading the story more difficult as the characters not only spend most of their time at home – and what time they do spend away you only hear reports of – but they spend it in the same few rooms.
When I approached Wuthering Heights, I brought, along with all my incorrect assumptions, the hope that Emily would bring me a joy similar to that of her sister Charlotte. But as much as I loved Emily’s writing style I’m not sure I’ll want to read Wuthering Heights again because of Heathcliff. An anti-hero with no legitimate reasons for acting so poorly is not someone I want to read about twice.
Wuthering Heights is a hideous creation created spectacularly. It is definitely worth the read to experience Emily’s writing but the story pales in comparison to Jane Eyre. Never hold any hope for the story turning positive, because baring a small redemption it’s content is nothing but malicious.
December 8, 2010, 10:08 pm
I read this one as a teen and like you I went in with completely wrong assumptions. I was told I’d find a great love story, and what I found was very much… NOT that. I want to give it another chance at some point now that I’m older, though. Perhaps knowing what I’ll find in advance will help.
Charlie: I’m really glad I mentioned it online before starting because it helped. I’m feeling the need to find an appropriate adaptation now!
December 9, 2010, 8:33 pm
I love this book! I’m actually one of those rare people who like it better than Jane Eyre. Maybe it helped that I read this one first so wasn’t making comparisons.
Charlie: I really like the fact that there can be no real comparisons except in writing style. You can say you dislike one more than the other but the stories are so different that saying anything else is impossible. This makes me think of originality, from what I’ve heard of Anne’s work, Emily sounds unique.