For years I avoided reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I had seen a couple of film adaptations and did not like them. But every year when I chose books for the Back to the Classics Challenge, Wuthering Heights came up as a possibility. This year, I took into account that books are usually better and fuller than their movie adaptations, and there must be some reason so many people love this story. So I put the book in my queue.
The story begins with a Mr. Lockwood taking possession of a house rental. He goes to see his landlord at a neighboring house, Mr. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. Being a solitary man himself, Mr. Lockwood rejoices to find out that Mr. Heathcliff seems to be of the same disposition. But on this and a subsequent visit, he discovers Mr. Heathcliff and his whole household are not just loners: they’re strange and surly, even cruel.
Wanting to find out more about the household, Lockwood asks his housekeeper, Nellie Dean, for more information. She tells him that she was housekeeper for the Earnshaw family who used to live at the Heights. They had two children, Hindley and Catherine. On a business trip, Mr. Earnshaw found an abandoned child and brought him home. The rest of the family thought the child a gypsy and did not like him. Earnshaw took Heathcliff’s part against Hindley, which incited Hindley’s further mistreatment of Heathcliff. Finally Hindley was sent away to college and Heathcliff and Catherine became close.
When Earnshaw died three years later, Hindley came back, married now, and assumed the role of master of the house. He treated Heathcliff as a common laborer.
One night Heathcliff and Catherine headed over the the neighbor’s house at Thrushcross Grange, where they peeped in the windows and made fun of the two Linton children.Then the family’s dogs came after them, biting Cathy. The family rescued and took Catherine in, sending Heathcliff back home. Cathy spent five weeks recuperating at the Grange. When she returned home, she was no longer a wild young, at least outwardly. She had seen another side of life which tamed and refined her, and she and Edgar Linton had feelings for each other. Eventually Cathy and Edgar married, and Heathcliff left.
Hindley and his wife had a son, Hareton. Hindley’s wife died and Hindley checked out of life, drowning in drink and gambling. Nellie took care of Hareton.
After three years Heathcliff returns with wealth from an untold source. He wants to renew his relationship with Cathy, who advises Edgar to allow it against his better judgment. Edgar’s sister, Isabella, falls in love with Heathcliff, despite Cathy’s warnings against him. Heathcliff only encourages Isabella’s interest out of revenge. A series of arguments result in Catherine becoming gravely ill and Heathcliff and Isabella eloping. Catherine has a daughter, Cathy, and dies.
Heathcliff returns and sets himself up at Wuthering Heights, lending money to Hindley only to ensnare him in debt. When Hindley dies, Heathcliff owns the Heights.
The rest of the book details Heathcliff’s manipulation and revenge carried out in the lives of Cathy’s daughter and his son.
Wuthering Heights has had mixed reviews since it was first published. Respect for it has risen over the years: it even ranked as the number one love story in a poll several years ago. But others were shocked at it: one recent reviewer referred to it as a hot mess. Not a lot is known about its author, Emily Bronte, except that she was a very private person and she loved the moors, where the book is set. She died at the age of 30, a year after the book’s publication.
The introduction to the audiobook I listened to said one reason the book shocked people was because it had no moral. But I don’t think it needed to have a stated moral to convey the cruelty and futility of revenge. At first the reader feels sorry for Heathcliff’s being mistreated by everyone on the planet (including even Nellie and Catherine at first), and that treatment certainly contributed to his character. But his revenge exceeds normal bounds, wanting to ruin, control, and even annihilate the people and property connected with those who wronged him (near the end, when he has both houses, he speaks of arranging his will and wishes he could destroy both properties rather than let anyone have them).
Plus, I don’t think what Heathcliff and Catherine had was love. An unhealthy obsession, maybe. They both seemed motivated by selfishness than concern for each other’s good.
Also, there’s almost no “good” character. Joseph, the one religious character, curses and complains. Nellie shades the truth and outright lies. Even Lockwood takes a hand that has reached through his window and presses it against the cut glass. The daughter Catherine is better than most, but still motivated by self-will more often than not. But at least she does seek the good of her father and her cousin at times.
Still, there’s a strange fascination with the book — maybe it’s partly motivated by wondering how all these odd people and situations will end up. I had not known until a recent reading of one of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books that “wuthering” meant a strong, even fierce wind. There is something strangely drawing about the wildness of the setting and story.
And Emily was a skilled writer. I loved how the characters revealed themselves by their conversation. Even in the opening paragraphs, Lockwood tells much about himself in his little asides and observations. Emily mastered “showing, not telling” even then.
I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Joanne Froggatt (Anna in Downton Abbey) and read over some passages in the online version. I chose this for the “Classic Tragic Novel” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge.