Friday, March 20, 2009

Book 6 – Wuthering Heights

By Emily Brontë

When I was in university, I studied Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, loved it, then sought out sister Emily’s famous novel, but ended up losing interest about a third way through. Now more than a dozen years later, I’m finally able to get through this ‘Slough of Despond’. Although I can’t say I like it more than I would have, I did end up having some appreciation for this rather remarkable novel.

Wuthering Heights is the name of the Yorkshire manor built upon the moorlands and home of the Earnshaw family. Isolated and far from the stir of society, the land is described by one of the narrators as the “perfect misanthropist’s Heaven”. The novel can also be described as such. For one thing, it’s far from a traditional love story, and rather, more like an anti-love story. Here you have Catherine and Heathcliff, two very emotionally imbalanced people, falling into an all-encompassing codependent relationship, yet you never see them declare their love for each other. All the romantic action is peripheral. Their thwarted love has dire consequences for their immediate family. Even their descendants fall into the same trap and suffer from the ridiculously foolish choices they make.

What bothered me at first about Wuthering Heights was how the main characters are so prone to their human follies. The men and women both are emotionally immature, manipulative, vindictive and given to histrionics. In some ways, I was glad there were barely any passages with Heathcliff and Catherine together because my eyes would’ve rolled out of their sockets!

At that earnest appeal he turned to her, looking absolutely desperate. His eyes wide, and wet at last, flashed fiercely on her; his breast heaved convulsively. An instant they held asunder, and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive: in fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat, and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy.

What Brontë is really good at is the clever dissection of social niceties. With the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and neighbouring Thrushcross Grange removed from society and given free reign to develop anti-social tendencies galore, there is plenty of opportunity for misanthropic humour. Take the fascinatingly wicked Heathcliff, who becomes misanthropy incarnate once he thinks Catherine has rejected him, and is called by various characters such names as monster, devil, and fiend. He even tricks the nubile and naïve neighbour, Isabella, into marrying him, yet you feel it was really her fault for being so foolishly gullible when he tells the narrator:

She abandoned them under a delusion… picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character, and acting on the false impressions she cherished.

Brontë pulls no punches in portraying Heathcliff as anti-christ and villain, ‘notable for savage sullenness and ferocity’. The guy gets downright emotionally and physically abusive after he takes over Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants, which apparently shocked readers at the time. I wouldn’t say that Brontë’s portrayal of Heathcliff is very three-dimensional, yet somehow he still comes across as a complex and sympathetic character.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the strapping and masculine self-made landowner ends up having a son who is a complete pansy. But it could also be the very unusual narrative structure, which is non-linear, involving multiple flashbacks and two narrators—Mr. Lockwood, who is renting Thrushcross Grange, and Ellen "Nelly" Dean, the ever so patient housekeeper. It is probably a conscious decision that the narrators are mentally and emotionally stable, so the reader can identify with them as a cool spectator, since all the other characters, past and present, seem so preoccupied in making their own train wrecks!

All in all, I can’t say I totally enjoyed the novel, as I couldn’t lose myself in the story as I did with Jane Eyre, and I was too busy rolling my eyes at every stupid decision and emotional outburst. It was still a very interesting read and I'm glad I finally read it.


beemused said...

hey Redwing, I published your comment, but it weirdly never showed up, so I'll post it below. And thanks for the comments!

From Redwing:

Another excellent review, Meezly.

I haven't read this one, but had to teach Jane Eyre this year. I loved it, too! I have read a lot of essays about this one, and so haven't really wanted to delve in. One of the disadvantages of being an English teacher is that you get exposed to certain books and wind up building an immunity to reading them because you "kind of get it already."

And, coincidentally, tomorrow, 4/21, is Charlotte's birthday!

Crumbolst said...

This whole genre is painful for me to read. Too many words. Too much unresolved passion, thwarted by a society crammed up the butt with gentrified excellencies. So much worry about this class of people... You get the idea.