It might seem preposterous to include the criticism by Graham’s Lady’s Magazine (1848) here, nonetheless interesting to get it emblazoned into the heart of readers’ as the prelude in reading Wuthering Heights – it is often interpreted as a maddening and depressing novel it can get. “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery.” Wuthering Heights, the first and also the last novel by Emily Brontë, published a year before her death of consumption at the age of 30, is categorized as Gothic literature branched off from Romanticism. It is typical to possess a satanic hero lurking around with his fatally fallible character, contriving schemes and darkness materials that expose retributions of deep treachery and violence. It is complete with an ancestral home, high moorland landscape and climatic wilderness as the atmospheric backdrop; the story streams, whispers, and howls along with gale, rain, frost, hail and snow – this is a work in want of emulation! Another suffocating and tantalizing element must be the intricate plots and characters – the names and conflict between two families (though not so tough like vendetta), could be as convoluted as Armadale by Wilkie Collins (calling a bingo with four Allan Armadales in a row!)
Arrival of Heathcliff
The most enthralling and unsettling element of Wuthering Heights, to me, is the limitless undying love, however well-intentioned and tormenting (Linton), maddening (Catherine), and vengeful or distorted (Heathcliff) it might be, it is beautiful, irrational, unwrought as well as passionate and descriptive. As a Gothic romance, never have I come across a novel which dissects love on so many levels to make it so rich, so transcendent and immortal that “time” in which is not potent but to be consisting of garden-like facades and properties. One aspect of love touches the notions of Dreams – to Nelly Dean, one of the main narrators of the story, she says that superstitions of dreams often are adhered to dreadful presentiments of fearful catastrophe – but the lingering dream that Catherine Earnshaw conveys could be the concept of her past life, not only be seen as a premonition. Her transformation from vexation to saddening revelation of confession of love conjures up a profound feeling to readers,
“The heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth, and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights.”
From interpretation of dreams, Catherine then dwells into the destined and doomed love reminiscent of Dream of the Red Chamber by CAO Xueqin (Chinese author of the 18th century) – the unity and mutual existence of mankind which stretches beyond you. Although love surrounded by the mortal life of trivialities makes it finite, wandering and tormenting, it is complementary to demonstrate love on a more tangible aspect.
“What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world would have been Heathcliff’s miseries and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”
This love, however, contributes to indisposition and sickness in Catherine and later on ends up with hallucination and illusion. She perceives of Ellen Dean as a witch who tries to separate herself from Heathcliff. On the other hand, death of Catherine embitters Heathcliff’s mind, longing to witness her apparition beyond the grave with his vehemence and paroxysm. “And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad!” Near to the end of the story, love and suffering mingles with supernatural notions of “ghoul” and “vampire” with past life, birth, illness, death stretching beyond the grave. Love is dissected and hurled with the hardship of pain, anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction.
Linton Heathcliff – self-absorbed moroseness of a confined invalid – “I felt disgusted at the little wretch’s composure, since he was no longer in terror for himself. The anguish he had exhibited on the moor subsided as soon as ever he entered Wuthering Heights; so I guessed he had been menaced with an awful visitation of wrath if he failed in decoying us there; and, that accomplished, he had no further immediate fears.”
On the other hand, although all characters might be unlikable on an equal footing, readers have the empathy and connection to be sympathetic towards them. They are misers and weaklings on the inside, just like Heathcliff that perceives of Hareton, “I can sympathise with all his feelings, having felt them myself”. Each character is miserable in its self-degradation and over-indulgence, more or less attributable to the notion of carefulness and kindness confined only for themselves. They dispense with “extra-animal” qualities of human virtue by the harmful influences of upbringing, as we can see, maternal and paternal love is not infiltrating in the abode of Wuthering Heights. With this result the house is invaded with a stultifying aura and a sense of “Hell in Epitome” seasoned with Hindley the profligate and alcoholic, sanctimonious Joseph, revengeful Heathcliff, brutish Hareton, and self-piteous Linton Heathcliff. However, I find Catherine Earnshaw and the young Cathy are exceptions of being embroiled themselves with an over-indulgence of selflessness of their own accord, not haughtiness, which somewhat lead to their own destruction, though I’m not sure about that. It is also the antithesis between duty-humanity and pity-charity, in which the elements also echo that of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë profusely.
“The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against him; they crush those beneath them. You are welcome to torture me to death for your amusement, only allow me to amuse myself a little in the same style, and refrain from insult as much as you are able.”
In Heathcliff’s case, his uncontrollable paroxysms of passion of love and insults which consumed with himself towards Catherine lead to his vengeful actions filled with tyrannical attributes and wild wickedness. Apart from substitution to the loss of love, his revenge is also product of his persisting emotions and best representation regarding extremity of survival under the roof of Wuthering Heights, as an aloof outsider, which wrought such cruel madness in him. Through this revenge, we also delve into the reality of the disadvantaged and injustice during the time (1771 – 1803), for instance, slave trade, cruelty to animals, servants’ roles, inferiority of women’s status it implies in relation to confinement, and estate tail, which are all evidently taken for granted of the time before the implementation of Married Women’s Property Act.
“Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little.” – Samuel Johnson
All in all, there are so many ideas and notions conjectured from Wuthering Heights. It is a powerful and thought-provoking novel, which entails religious, psychological and philosophical references with a close look of human nature – it also links to the Universe, Nature, and mortal pursuits in life. The stubbornness in mankind will eventually culminate in a notion of void and emptiness, which is somehow formulaic and lead to the route of realization and enlightenment. It is the unity of emotions with nature. Wuthering Heights is also about the self-discovery and spiritual struggles found in one and each of the characters. It is a delicate examination of love as realistic and serious as earth, purgatory and hell but also descriptive, sepulchral, ethereal, emotional and irrational, found in mortal ground (Hareton and Cathy) and eternity (Heathcliff and Catherine). Volume 2, Chapter 19 is phenomenal in rounding up the theme, so fantastical! To get you into the brooding mood, you can also read some poems by Emily Brontë.
By the way I can’t overlook a reviewer who says Wuthering Heights creates readers and the second half of the novel mirrors the first part of the story. Nicely told!