When I was almost finished rereading Wuthering Heights, a fifteen year-old I know asked me if it was good. “It is good,” I said, “but it’s also unintentionally funny.” My teenaged friend seemed to think good-but-worthy-of-mockery was a strange combination. To me, though, good-but-absurd is my home territory. I mean, hello – Pat Conroy?
I don’t know as much about the Brontës as I probably should, but I believe I remember that Emily was the most reclusive of the bunch. She lived longer than at least three of her siblings, but she rarely left her family’s property, whereas Charlotte spent some time teaching abroad and had at least a vague sense that there was a world beyond the moors. What strikes readers as a bleak, stripped-down, socially stifled existence was the only way of life Emily Brontë knew.
Like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights begins in a way that is startlingly modern. It begins not with Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw and their foster brother Heathcliff, whose arrival marks the chronological beginning of the novel, but with a narrative frame in which a man named Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights, having already arranged to rent a nearby property called Thrushcross Grange. Lockwood identifies himself as a misanthrope and assumes that he and Mr. Heathcliff, the narrator, will be great friends because they are both first-class assholes. Even Lockwood, though, is soon dismayed by the state of affairs at Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff lives with a burly, unsophisticated young man named Hareton Earnshaw – whom I picture looking more or less like this guy:
– a young woman who was married to Heathcliff’s son, who has died, and a servant named Joseph. Lockwood’s first impression of Joseph notes that he looks “in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner” (4), and he describes Heathcliff as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman…Possibly, some people might suspect him of a degree of underbred pride; I have a sympathetic chord within that tells me it is nothing of the sort; I know, by instinct, his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling – of manifestations of mutual kindliness” (5-6). In other words, he’s sort of a 19th-century Dr. House. Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law is, on the other hand, “a fascinating creature: a real goddess in my eyes” and admits that he never talks about his feelings but is nevertheless “over head and ears; she understood me at last, and looked a return – the sweetest of all imaginable looks. And what did I do? I confess it with shame – shrunk icily into myself, like a snail; at every glance retired colder and farther; till finally the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses” (6). While Lockwood will soon be off the page, his presence gives shape to the novel in a similar way that the sailor Robert Walton gives shape to Frankenstein.
Also present in Wuthering Heights is a cache of guns and a half dozen or so vicious dogs – which are also mentioned as reasons that Lockwood feels at home there.
When Lockwood gets to Thrushcross Grange, he meets Ellen (also known as Nelly) Dean, its longstanding housekeeper. He wants the dirt on Heathcliff’s creepy little household, and Mrs. Dean is a willing storyteller. Shortly after she begins the story, Lockwood falls ill with the sort of horrifying but mysterious illness that all Brontë characters must contract at some point, and is on the brink of death for a few weeks. When he comes to, he asks Mrs. Dean to continue her story, and she obliges.
Mrs. Dean grew up at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, which are both part of a single estate. As a child, Nelly was the same age as Hindley and Catherine Earnshaw, the children of the master and mistress of the estate. As a servant girl, Nelly has certain responsibilities that the other children don’t have, but her employers were fond of her and treated her well, often bringing her gifts when they traveled and allowing her free time to play with the other children. Edenlike language is used to describe this period of Nelly’s life.
At some point, the Earnshaw adults bring home a different sort of “gift” from their travels: they bring home Heathcliff, whose arrival is announced as follows: “See here, wife! You must e’en take it as a gift of God, though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil” (35). “It,” incidentally, refers to Heathcliff. Children under sixteen or so are often called “it” in this novel. Nelly remembers that her master was “half dead with fatigue” (36) at this point but manages to tell the family “a tale of seeing it starving and houseless in the streets of Liverpool, where he picked it up and inquired for its owner” (36) – which is pretty much exactly how I got my cat Emma. Earnshaw instructs Nelly to “wash it and give it clean things and let it sleep with the children” (36).
Given this introduction, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Heathcliff grows up to be a tormented, violent asshole. Let’s try to get through the summary quickly: the Earnshaw parents soon die (characters in Wuthering Heights have an average life expectancy of about forty pages), and Hindley, who is barely grown, becomes the master of the estate. He treats his sister Catherine and their foster brother Heathcliff terribly, and they respond by refusing to interact with anyone but each other and with Nelly. They are wild children together, spending long stretches of time out on the moors. Hindley’s wife dies – being “not strong enough for the moors” shortly after giving birth to Hareton, and Hindley takes to the bottle, taking occasional breaks from drinking himself into a stupor to lock Catherine and Heathcliff up in empty rooms (there is an Emily Brontë drinking game in here somewhere. Give me a minute.). While characters in Brontë novels are not known for leaving home all that often, at some point Catherine and Heathcliff are out in the rain or snow or polar vortex of some kind when Catherine falls ill from a mysterious wasting sickness (Back to the drinking game: Everyone take a shot!) and takes refuge at Thrushcross Grange, which at the time is owned by the Linton family. While she is wasting away there for several months, Hindley and Heathcliff have an altercation that involves Heathcliff trying to cut off the infant Hareton’s ear (!), and Heathcliff leaves. His absence from Wuthering Heights is like the absence of Jay Gatsby after Daisy and Tom’s wedding, like Magwitch’s long separation from England in Great Expectations, and like the absence of Edmund Dantes after he escapes from prison: he uses the time to become wealthy in mysterious ways.
When he returns, a long time later, Catherine has married Edgar Linton, who apparently fell madly in love with her while she was wasting away in his family guest bedroom. Hindley is dead by this point, the estate has been heavily mortgaged in order to finance Hindley’s dissolute lifestyle. Well, guess what? Somehow Heathcliff is the holder of all those mortgages, and he shows up after Hindley’s death to claim his right to be master of Wuthering Heights. He can’t marry Catherine, of course, but he retains a fierce, passionate love for her and is often looming around the estate, acting creepy. Then Catherine dies (Take another shot!) after giving birth to her daughter, Catherine, who later is known as Cathy. The death of Catherine crushes both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton, and both cope by retreating more and more into themselves and into their respective houses. Edgar raises his daughter Cathy on his own – with Nelly’s help – and almost never leaves home. He refuses to allow Cathy to ever leave home, and his goal is for her not even to know that Wuthering Heights exists. Then Cathy grows up, sneaks off, meets Heathcliff, finds out that Wuthering Heights exists, and becomes obsessed with her sickly cousin. At this point her life becomes slightly less like the inside of Plato’s cave – but not much.
But wait. I forgot to tell you how Cathy got a cousin. Edgar Linton’s sister Isabella marries Heathcliff at some point, for reasons that are entirely unfathomable. As far as I can tell, Heathcliff marries Isabella as a way of intertwining himself with Catherine as much as possible. He clearly hates her, but somehow they manage to conceive a child. Isabella manages to arrange for herself and the child – Linton – to live apart from Heathcliff, and when she dies of a wasting disease (Everyone take a shot!) Edgar tries to bring Linton back to Thrushcross Grange and raise him there, but of course Heathcliff finds out that his son is there and insists on bringing him to Wuthering Heights so he can more properly terrorize and abuse him. In the process, though, Cathy finds out that Linton exists and, having never met another child before, becomes obsessed with her cousin in a way that is simultaneously romantic and infantile (Emily Brontë shows signs of having never met a teenaged girl, in spite of presumably having been one for a while, and in spite of having many sisters, a couple of whom actually survived infancy. But I digress.)
Never in the history of literature has a child been more in need of social services than Linton Heathcliff. Following in the footsteps of their various parents, aunts, and uncles, he and Cathy develop a frighteningly dysfunctional relationship in which they arrange (with Nelly’s unauthorized help) to meet on the moors once or twice a month. Most of the time, by the time Nelly and Cathy arrive, Linton is so exhausted that he just kind of lies on the ground and tries to catch his breath. Often he is horribly rude to Cathy, who placates him like a spoiled child and enables his martyr complex. Granted, his life is supremely miserable, living with Heathcliff, who alternately berates him and orders the servants to coddle him – leaving him more or less despised by everyone. Heathcliff is absolutely incapable of acting on his actual feelings. He loves Hareton Earnshaw but treats him like crap. He hates his son Linton but insists that the household put him on a pedestal, from which he learns absolutely no life skills and emotional strategies to help him deal with his profoundly miserable life. Heathcliff claims to honor Catherine Earnshaw’s memory (oh, and every so often he digs up her grave and climbs into her coffin and hangs out with her for a while – didn’t I mention that?) and admits to seeing his beloved in young Cathy’s features – yet he hates Cathy, whose existence reminds him of the fact that he was never able to marry her mother.
Then Edgar Linton wastes away and dies (Drink!) and Heathcliff imprisons Cathy and forces her to marry Linton, who proceeds to waste away and die (Drink!), events that result in the household that Mr. Lockwood meets at the beginning of the novel when he visits Wuthering Heights. There’s a little more to the story, of course, and there does seem to be a slight glimmer of happiness for Cathy on the horizon when the novel ends. But overall, sheesh. This novel is bleak. Bleak and – well – also hilarious.
This novel is very much about its characters’ “constitutions” – i.e. the natural selves that they cannot change – and the nature-nurture debate is at the heart of this novel. There seems to be something magical about characters like Heathcliff and Hareton (both of whom were abandoned children), who seem totally incapable of getting sick or falling prey to any physical weaknesses. Everyone else, on the other hand, is eventually overcome by some vague ailment – and, if anything, it seems almost to be the setting of the novel that kills them. Why is it so dangerous to live on the moors? I get it that they’re cold and damp, but San Francisco is cold and damp too, and it’s known as one of the healthiest cities in the country and its property values are through the roof. Symbolically, the moors seem to be aligned with Heathcliff and Hareton, who thrive there – physically, anyway – in a way that no other characters are able to do. I suppose that if the moors are lonely and isolated – as they certainly were in Emily Brontë’s experience – then it makes sense for lonely and isolated characters to feel an affinity with them.
There’s tons that I could say about Nelly. I’m going to try to keep my comments brief for now, although I can imagine a few dozen doctoral theses that could emerge from a careful study of her character. She’s the ultimate powerless woman (in Virginia Woolf’s terms, as well as Gilbert and Gubar’s), yet she is also ultimately the one who tells the story, giving her narrative authority over everything Mr. Lockwood – and the reader – knows about the characters. She does what she has to do to survive (because what would she do if she were fired as housekeeper, get eaten by wolves?). Though a sympathetic character by most standards, Nelly is the “enabler” of these dysfunctional houses. Dr. Phil would not approve. However, she also seems to be the only character who sees the other characters for who and what they are (or maybe I only think she does, because I am reading the story as told through her voice).
There’s certainly more I could say, but I’m going to leave this review behind for now. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone reading this novel and not giggling – and apparently there are people who read this novel and actually find Heathcliff appealing? He’s sympathetic enough as an anti-hero in the Byronic sense, but as someone who inspires teenaged girls and middle-aged small-town librarians to gush with romantic ecstasy at the sound of his dirty boots clomping around on the front porch? I just have nothing I can say about that.