I first tried to read Wuthering Heights when I was around 20. I had just read, and loved, Jane Eyre, and moved on to a different Bronte sister. Much to my chagrin, Emily is just no fun, and I didn’t make it through more than a few chapters. Since then, I think I’ve tried twice more and made it even fewer pages through.
In May, I took up the challenge again, determined to at least finish the damn thing. And I did! And I can check this off my list, know that it is not a book for me, and move on with my fucking life.
If you’re not familiar with the story, Wuthering Heights is the story of two families who occupy a stretch of land in ‘the North’ of England. The setting is based on the childhood home of the Bronte family, which was north of Leeds. The setting is perhaps the second most iconic character in this story. Long stretches of windy and cold countryside, simultaneously bleak and beautiful. That’s what people think of when they read Wuthering Heights. It’s a perfectly isolated and lonely part of Yorkshire. Or it was in the mid-19th century, at any rate.
The multitude of characters, many of which share the same names, can get confusing. I found a chart online, which only confused me more–and I’ve read the book.
If you concentrate, you can usually figure out which Catherine and which Linton and which Heathcliff is being discussed. Plus, people keep dying in nearly every chapter, so most of the characters with the same name don’t interact often as their other half is already dead.
The story is told through a moronic and useless narrator, Mr. Lockwood. Seriously, Nick Carraway has too much personality compared to this guy. Most of the story of the two houses that are concerned in the story is told through Ellen Dean, a servant of one family, and then the other.
We learn that Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw are brother and sister, and their father brings another boy into the home. An orphan, possibly of Romani origin, that he found alone in the big city. Heathcliff. He is uneducated, parentless, and dark-skinned (a mortal sin in 19th-century England). Most of the family detests him from the beginning, but he is spoiled by the father of the house and by Catherine. The two grow up running around the moors together, like feral children.
The other family is the Lintons. Mr. Linton is a member of the gentry, and his family is a far more socialized and gentile one than the Earnshaws. When Catherine meets their son, Edgar, who is very handsome and very sophisticated, she begins to turn against the ways of her family. In some ways, she dislikes the Linton children because they are so sheltered and weak. They are polite and kind, but the smallest unkindness sends them into tears. She is used to a rough and tumble existence with Healthcliff.
As you might be able to guess, Catherine agrees to marry Edgar. She likes being treated like a princess, being revered, and being in a kind and comfortable home. The Lintons spoil her incessantly, which she also enjoys. In her heart, she admits that she loves Heathcliff as if he were a part of herself, but says that she would debase herself by marrying him. His parentless, landless, poverty-stricken existence makes him an unsuitable match for her.
From that moment on, everyone involved is absolutely doomed. Heathcliff, furious with Catherine, with Linton, with Catherine’s brother, and with himself, turns from wild to calculating and vengeful. He disappears, and doesn’t return for months (years?). He has a plan to exact revenge on everyone who has wronged him. According to his own calculations, this is everyone he knows. Catherine’s brother, Hindley, is the first on the list. Inticed to gambling, Hindley ends up turning over his entire property (the eponymous Wuthering Heights) to Heathcliff in an attempt to win back what he continuously loses at cards. Heathcliff gains revenge on Edgar Linton by running off with Linton’s sister, marrying her out of spite.
After a few years, almost everyone is dead. Edgar, Hindley, Catherine, Edgar’s sister. Heathcliff has a son, Catherine and Edgar a daughter. Hindley also has a son, who is left to be more or less wild, raised piecemeal by servants. Confused yet?
Heathcliff feels his last revenge will be to get his son married to Linton’s daughter. On the one hand, I think that he feels if they marry, it is the closest he will come to marrying Catherine himself. But mostly, he wants to own what money and property Catherine has inherited.
Long story short, he accomplishes his goal, just before his son dies. Then he goes mad and dies, and Catherine falls in love with Hareton Earnshaw, her cousin.
It’s a terrible story. There are a few main themes that are sort of smashed into your head multiple times.
One is the difference between those that are treated well in life and those that are not. The Linton family, and all that have that name, live in a comfortable house surrounded by polite people. They are kind to each other, and have no evil in their hearts. On the other hand, they are terribly weak and often spoiled, and barely have the capacity to care for themselves.
The Earnshaws and Heathcliff live in a dark, dreary house with angry, drunk, violent people. They all grow up to be angry and violent. But they are tough. They outlive and outlast. Heathcliff proves himself the toughest and the most violent main character I can remember. At one point, he tries to kill a dog. Multiple times, he hits and beats, or threatens to do the same, women and children. He gets what he wants by brute force. He becomes the richest, the most powerful man in the area–a man Catherine would not have refused if given her chance again…but it is too late. She’s long dead, and his inability to fix that is what drives him mad. He has a lot in common with Jay Gatsby, if you think about it. A Jay Gatsby who is evil and cruel.
The book also shows a somewhat radical (for the time) idea of social class. At first, the Earnshaws are the owners of Wuthering Heights. While Old Man Earnshaw is alive, Heathcliff is treated like one of the family. When he dies, and his son Hindley is in charge, Heathcliff is demoted to the place of servant. When Heathcliff takes charge of the house, he elevates his own son and sends Hindley’s son, Hareton, to live the life of an uneducated servant. Yet, once Heathcliff is dead, Hareton and Catherine Linton own both properties together. Time and time again, Heathcliff takes people into his house (often by force), and forces them to debase themselves. Used to having servants, his wife, then his son, then Catherine Linton, have to learn to live by their own means.
Two things drive me crazy about this book. No, three. I’ll stop with three, though I could probably find more.
1-No one is likeable, in any way. Everyone is violent or weak, stupid or condescending, overly pious or entirely evil. You don’t care about a single character, because they are all awful. I didn’t want a single one of them to find happiness, because none of them deserve it! And I thought It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was bad!
2-Everyone makes the same mistake, over and over again. Particularly Nelly (Ellen Dean), who is the main narrator. She must say 10 different times that she should have and wanted to intervene, but paused momentarily. Then, oops, who could have guessed, Heathcliff beat them all and locked them in the house until he got what he wanted. Or Mr. Linton tells his daughter not to go to Wuthering Heights or to see its occupants, and that rule is broken again and again, supposedly by accident. If your neighbor had a habit of beating women, or forcing them into marriage, would you go visiting? Even if your horse was tired or his son was sick? I wouldn’t. What morons.
3-Heathcliff is a romantic hero. This is not the books fault, to be fair. But women love Heathcliff. Women love him more than Mr. Darcy?! Who are these women? They must be the same women who write love letters to prisoners and stay in abusive relationships. Heathcliff is a sadist. I guess that means they are also women who read 50 Shades of Grey.
Yes, it’s briefly romantic to imagine a man so enamored of you that he will destroy the world without it. A love so strong that 20 years after you’ve died he is still entirely devoted to you and finds no point in living without you. When I was 14, that would sound romantic.
But as an adult, I don’t get it. Even if he wasn’t horrible, sadistic, violent, abusive, and mercurial, it is not romantic to have someone live for you. Not in reality. I would rather have a partner who has his own hobbies, his own desires, his own independent life. Not only would it be a lot of pressure to be someone’s entire world, but it would be quite dull. It seems a very immature view of love, to want something like this. The fact that grown women are so fond of him makes me both irritated with and embarrassed for them.