‘Wuthering Heights’ has over 22,000 reviews on Goodreads alone; one has to wonder what else I could possibly add to that overwhelming weight of opinion and consideration?
The dark and gothic tale is constructed with a complex variety of framing structures – at one point the narrative is told by Mr Lockwood, the tenant of Thrushcross Grange, recounting the story told him by Nelly Dean, the housekeeper of the Grange and the Heights, who in turn recounts details of a message from Isabella Heathcliff (nee Linton). People drop dead with alarming frequency, and nurture dark passions to the grave and beyond. The novel opens in 1801 with Lockwood’s neighbourly visit to the Heights, and the story is then told in a series of flashbacks/reprises. This means we have a clear picture of how things are going to end – until the final closing chapters, at least.
At times the narrative tiptoes on the edge of parody, especially in the form of the surly labourer, Joseph with his near-incomprehensible Yorkshire dialect, “the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours” (Chapter 5). The gothic atmosphere of the Heights can only seem overdone, for example at the opening of the novel when Lockwood spends the night at the Heights to avoid a snowstorm, and drifts into what might be a dream:
“The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in – let me in!’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied, shiveringly ….’I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!’ As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window. Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, ‘Let me in!’ and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear. ‘How can I!’ I said at length. ‘Let ME go, if you want me to let you in!’ ….’Begone!’ I shouted. ‘I’ll never let you in, not if you beg for twenty years.’ ‘It is twenty years,’ mourned the voice: ‘twenty years. I’ve been a waif for twenty years!’ Thereat began a feeble scratching outside…”
‘Wuthering Heights’ is certainly a novel that engenders strong responses – people tend to either love it or hate it. It’s also not a novel one would read for light amusement – you have to enter into the spirit of the thing, picture yourself on the dark moors, buffeted by the wind, mourning your lost love.
But rather than summarising the complex plot, which is done well on various Brontephile websites, I thought I would take a closer look at a couple of specific aspects of the novel, namely how Heathcliff is portrayed, and some of the narrative devices used in the course of the novel.
Our first introduction to Heathcliff is ambiguous – he is described as a “capital fellow” but when he is taciturn and suspicious towards Mr Lockwood, his new tenant, he quickly reverses his judgment and describes him as ‘the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with’. There has been much debate about Heathcliff’s ethnicity – which I find surprising because Bronte is a very clear – he is a “dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose”. Later, Nelly Dean tells Lockwood the story of how Heathcliff is brought as a foundling to the Heights:
‘See here, wife! I was never so beaten with anything in my life: but you must e’en take it as a gift of God; though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil.’
We crowded round, and over Miss Cathy’s head I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk: indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s; yet when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand. I was frightened, and Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors: she did fly up, asking how he could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house, when they had their own bairns to feed and fend for? What he meant to do with it, and whether he were mad? The master tried to explain the matter; but he was really half dead with fatigue, and all that I could make out, amongst her scolding, was a tale of his seeing it starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb, in the streets of Liverpool, where he picked it up and inquired for its owner. Not a soul knew to whom it belonged, he said
Elsewhere Heathcliff is described as “that strange acquisition my late neighbour made, in his journey to Liverpool—a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway.”
It’s worth remembering that the novel is set in the time before the end of slavery, and the verb ‘belonged’ and the description “acquisition’ may both hint that Heathcliff may have been a victim of the slave trade. But the association between his dark skin and his satanic impulses is established on our very first meeting with Heathcliff, and this association is never broken. The parallel between dark-skin and evil is sustained throughout the novel – rarely is Heathcliff described without reference to his ‘black’ face. The images used to describe Heathcliff fall into two main categories – either he is an animal, or a devil:
‘“Is he a ghoul or a vampire?” I mused. I had read of such hideous incarnate demons.” (288)
‘It appeared to me, not Mr Heathcliff, but a goblin’. (287)
“he’s only half man; not so much, and the rest fiend” (157)
“that incarnate goblin” (149)
“a tiger or venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakens.” (125)
“Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?”(118)
“an evil beast prowled …the fold, waiting his time to spring and destroy” (92)
“a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man” (88)
“he howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast”
Heathcliff is the one character in the novel who unfailingly follows his passions, wherever they lead him. He is a brutal man, and his emotions clearly lead him to some very dark places, but at the same time he also has a mesmeric effect on many of the other characters, not least Isabella. As such he is one of literature’s great villains, alongside Richard III and Hannibal Lecter. Are his evil acts a response to his treatment, or an inherent feature of his character? – the reader is left to decide for themselves. Whether the portrait of Heathcliff is racist is a troubling question. Certainly, his gaining possession of the Heights and then Thrushcross Grange is seen as a challenge to the established order, and only when he finally dies and the natural heirs to the property are restored do the clouds lift, flowers blossom, and all is right with the world.
Leaving the enigmatic figure of Heathcliff to one side, I wanted to discuss the narrative perspectives used in the novel. Bronte is determined that this will be a story told by someone – Lockwood, Nelly Dean, Isabella, even Zillah, the temporary housekeeper at the Heights. We never see the action of the novel through the eyes of the central characters, except arguably when their letters are read or their speeches are reported. This means that if the series of narrators don’t witness an event, or subsequently find out about it, we aren’t told about it. This gives ‘Wuthering Heights’ on of its most distinctive features – many of the key moments happen “off screen”. The time Cathy and Heathcliff spend together growing up, in which the deep bonds of their relationship are formed, is passed by in a moment. The moors, where their spirits long to return, are never visited by the novel’s various narrators. Heathcliff’s key years in exile are neither described or explained, and the complex events that happen during the five days and nights Nelly Dean spends locked in a room in the Heights, while Linton marries Cathy, signs away his rights to Thrushcross Grange, then expires, are never explained or shown to the reader – we can only infer what happens from the reactions of others.
This determination to avoid an omniscient narrator means that even the deaths of central characters are not shown, but related in retrospect, perhaps most dramatically in the opening lines of chapter 16, when Nell Dean tells us “About 12 o’clock that night was born the Catherine you saw at Wuthering Heights: a puny, seven-months child; and two hours after the mother died”. If anything this makes the novel even more dramatic than if we had been shown these events – like radio, the pictures are more vivid.
To finish, I thought I would share with you a selection of comments from the always reliable one-star Amazon reviews:
- The dvd was nothing like this
- a book about awful people behaving stupidly
- You can clearly see that there wasn’t many other books available at the time,
- Awful beyond words. This was the considered opinion of 30/32 people (24 women/8 men) at my book club on this pitiful excuse of a book (let’s all queue up to join that one folks!)
- I only finished it hoping that it would get better. It didn’t