Classics Club Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)
Read for The Classics Club ❤
Ahhhh, the foolishness of back cover synopses' writers. My personal copy of Wuthering Heights describes the story as "one of the most unforgettable romances of all time." No. I tell you . . . no. This story is not, never was intended to be, never will be, a romance. Rather, it is a warning, a bell clamoring in your head to warn you away from making the myriad poor choices made by the characters in this story.
The story is this . . . Mr. Earnshaw returns from a trip to Liverpool with a dark-headed, evil-eyed little boy in tow that he names Heathcliff. The child had been abandoned and the man couldn't leave him to fend for himself (which is possibly the only kindness ever genuinely performed in the story). Heathcliff grows up beside Earnshaw's own children, Hindley and Catherine, and, despite his wildness, develops an attachment to Catherine and she to him. Bad news. Obsession, ravenous passion, and complete disregard for the wants and wishes of others ensue, leaving despair in its wake.
Catherine, while loving Heathcliff, is also fond of her neighbor, Edgar Linton, an attractive young boy only a little older than herself. Affection grows, and when Heathcliff runs away in his teens after hearing Catherine say it would "degrade" her to marry him as much as she loves him for she is him, Catherine marries Edgar. Three years pass. Heathcliff returns, bitterness raging that Catherine has married. So, in his rage, he woos Edgar Linton's younger sister Isabella, winning her heart though I have no idea how since he is so boorish. Isabella and Heathcliff elope and literally on her wedding night Isabella realizes the terrible mistake she has made and yearns to return home to Thrushcross Grange. Catherine's health declines rapidly and Heathcliff's desperate yearning for her grows until he visits her one night, her last night on earth. She manages to give birth to a daughter, who will be named Cathy, but dies in the effort. Heathcliff's cruelty expands and Isabella escapes him, giving birth to her own child, a sickly little boy she names Linton.
Heathcliff, in his menacing hatred, determines to ruin the happiness of all their offspring. When Isabella passes, little Linton comes back into his own care. Heathcliff's ultimate goal is unhappiness for those he hates and vengeance by obtaining the Linton land and inheritance through a marriage between his son, Linton and young Cathy. Begin cycle all over again.
Wuthering Heights is a tale of obsession, of bitterness, of vengeance devouring a man alive who, knowing he is being devoured, heaps more burning coals upon his head by stoking the fire deliberately. I cannot even imagine what it would be like going into this book and thinking you were reading a romance. As it happens, I already knew that Wuthering Heights is a brutal, cruel book and expected nothing else from it.
One thing I hadn't fully anticipated, though, is how much I would come to dislike almost every single character within its pages. Possibly with the exception of Nelly, the housekeeper, although there are distinct moments where I didn't like her either, and she's the NARRATOR. But as for everyone else, there wasn't a single character to hold my empathy for any length of time. Catherine and Heathcliff are selfish, spoiled, petted children, even in their adulthood, and fully deserve one another's company. Edgar is weak and useless, and the same is said of Hindley Earnshaw or even of Nelly, the housekeeper, who should have done something, but didn't.
These children are literally the most tragic of all the characters. When Hindley Earnshaw died, his son should have been saved from Heathcliff. But nobody even bothered to try. When Isabella Heathcliff dies and her son returns to her brother's house and Heathcliff demands him, Edgar just hands little Linton over to the man. He doesn't attempt fighting in court, or anything else, just a puny regret and "here's the lad" mentality. Heathcliff locks young Cathy up and forces her to marry Linton for revenge. He boxes her ears, hits any and all of the young people whenever he wishes, and is overall cruel and contemptible.
These children have no power, no rights, no reason to exist beyond how their adults can use them for their own means and ends. It is cruelty in the extreme and painful to read.
So, you might ask, why did I keep reading if the story is so morbid? Once I began Wuthering Heights, it was impossible to stop. It was like standing on a platform and watching two trains on a collision course and being unable to look away for morbid fascination. You only look away once the fire is extinguished and the bodies are carted away. Cold yes, but true in this case.
I've been trying to untangle my feelings regarding Heathcliff and Catherine. Oh, how I wish they had married. Then the destruction would have been limited only to themselves instead of expanding to encompass everyone around them. And yet, as much as I despise Heathcliff, I pity him too. What must it have been like to live so bitterly, so coldly? Young Cathy expresses pity for him, her cruel uncle, once, and Heathcliff responds with, "Keep you eft's fingers off; and move, or I'll kick you! I'd rather be hugged by a snake. How the devil can you dream of fawning on me? I detest you!"
The man is evil incarnate, but he was always so. Could salvation have ever found him? I don't know, but apart from young Cathy's one attempt, I don't think he ever encountered true, genuine compassion in the entirety of his life. He was always the wastrel, the foundling, belonging nowhere and to nobody. At least until Cathy came, but even that was not destined to be. So he is a tragic figure, but his brutality is impossible to overlook, making him the most unlikable character I have ever encountered in fiction.
Wuthering Heights is not the story of true love and redemption. It is not a romance no matter what certain readers might claim. There is nothing romantic in a story so ugly. Rather, it is the story of vengeance and wickedness. While I have no regrets in reading it, I do believe that once is plenty. You will never find a more depressing, melancholy, infuriating novel than Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and it makes me ponder her home life, poor thing. It is brilliantly penned, I will grant her that, but light only comes into the story upon Heathcliff's death, at the very, very end, when joy is allowed back into the Heights and hope gains a foothold. He was like a cancer spreading its malignancy across the moors. Death was the only thing to rid the surviving characters of his hate.
Poor Heathcliff. He could have been so much more had he but tried.