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#14 – Wuthering Heights

October 9, 2008

I would ordinarily say, as I usually do when I read a book that everyone else on the planet has already read, that there’s no point in reviewing Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – after it’s been in print for 160 years, what more can I really say about it after one cursory read?  However, this one really took me by surprise.  I didn’t know what I was getting into with here.  I’ve had a vague sense of the plot of Wuthering Heights for so long I can’t even remember where I got it from – Heathcliff is some roguish cad, Catherine is forced to choose between her true love and his aristocratic rival, blah de blah firey passion on the moors of England.  And I figured, I already read Pride and Prejudice, and once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.  But I started hearing a lot of really strong and really surprising recommendations for the book.  When a friend compellingly described it as “the greatest hate story ever written”, I basically had to check it out for myself.

And, wow.  Where I was expecting a standard love triangle, I got it for maybe a third of the book.  The rest of the story involves the slow destruction of three generations surrounding Heathcliff, for petty revenge, out of spite, or for no reason at all.  My initial cliché impression, “roguish cad”, does not even come close to doing him justice.  Characters throughout the book constantly refer to him as a monster or the devil.  I would probably have to go with “cartoonish supervillain”, by the time I got to the end.  Standard machination gives way to unimaginable cruelty gives way to him just being a dick for no reason at all.  In one particularly touching passage, Heathcliff plays matchmaker between his son and the neighbour’s daughter:

“Miss Linton, take your seat by him.  I give you what I have; the present is hardly worth accepting; but, I have nothing else to offer.  It is Linton, I mean.  How she does stare!  It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me!  Had I been born where laws are less strict, and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two as an evening’s amusement.”

He drew in his breath, struck the table, and swore to himself.

“By hell!  I hate them.”

And that’s not even mentioning his insane treatement of his wife, who he marries purely out of hatred of her brother, and then proceeds to practically torture.  So shocking that I had to laugh out loud at times.  I would say how impressed I am that, a century and a half later, Heathcliff still manages to be one of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever read.  But then I think back to the Thurdsday Next series, which refers to Heathcliff as the most tragic romantic hero, and I start to rethink my position.

I can see where that point of view comes from.  All of Heathcliff’s ridiculous evil can be traced back to those who kept him from his love Catherine, and I’m reminded of a Harvey Danger lyric: “When you base your whole identity on reaction against somebody, it’s the same as being in love.”  But that still doesn’t explain the soulless depths of his evil, or why he persists on harassing everyone around him long past the point where he could hope to help himself by it.  And it’s easy to focus on Heathcliff, as he’s the most mercurial of the characters, but they’re pretty much all horrible people, in one way or another.  I’m sticking with that completely accurate description from the start: “greatest hate story ever written”.  Completely worth reading, if only so you can form your own opinion on the matter.

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8 comments

  1. Glad you enjoyed it!

    I do see Heathcliff as tragic. At the same time, the abuse he takes from Hindley and his thwarted love for Catherine help to turn him into someone who literally strangles puppies for fun. (Possibly he was born bad, but I don’t read the book that way.)


  2. Also, I must register my approval of the phrase “just being a dick for no reason at all” as applied to Heathcliff.


  3. Heathcliff was a Byronic Hero type. He definitely had a mean streak, but it was due to his childhood and the abuse heaped upon him by Henley and Catherine, especially Catherine.

    She was the really hateful one–always playing head games with him; declaring her undying love for him one second and then scorning him and calling him an animal the next. He was a fool for putting up with her crap!


  4. Heh. Thanks, Elinor. I may have undersold Brontë’s lyrical romanticism a bit with that one.

    I can see where you’re coming from there, Chartroose, and it is interesting to see how the initial relationship between the young Cathy and Hareton gives the reader a lot more sympathy toward Heathcliff in comparison. But, come on – like Elinor says, he did kill that dog, and his treatment of Isabella is just ludicrous, even as revenge against Edgar. I’ll agree that he started out as some wronged tragic hero, but by the end, he ought to be wearing a dark cape and bathing in the blood of the innocent. That passage I quoted in my post still makes me laugh at how disproportionately furious he is, all the time.


  5. Well, the Byronic hero type is always pretty dark and tortured and often borderline evil. But really…Isabella believes that Heathcliff is a sensitive, heartbroken soul who just needs The Love of a Good Woman, and he proves her very wrong.


  6. I definitely need to become better versed in classic literature. When you guys start talking about the Byronic hero, my first thought is to make a terrible Byronic Commando joke. My second thought is to check Wikipedia, and learn that Batman is a modern example of a Byronic hero.

    I do not have a third thought, as I consider the matter pretty much settled at that point.


  7. I hate to say it but, I despised this book. Whoever called this a “love story” should be shot. The writing was just fine, but god did I hate the characters. Halfway through it, I wanted Heathcliff and Catherine both to just die to put everyone out of their misery – including me. I can see why they were drawn to each other though. They were both so hateful that they truly did belong together. Currently, my two copies of this book have been relegated to the back corner of my bookcase – far, far away from my beloved “Jane Eyre.”


  8. Man, I love seeing people’s first reactions to this book.

    I actually think that as children, Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley are all very sympathetic, and part of what’s so awful and compelling about the book is watching these recognizable and sympathetic (if spoiled) children turn into monstrous, tormented adults. I’ve been re-reading the early chapters of the book, and the sequence that starts with 13-year-old Heathcliff saying “Nelly, make me decent, I’m going to be good” is heartbreaking.



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