Book Review: Wuthering Heights

WUTHERING HEIGHTSWuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. First published under the pen name Ellis Bell in 1847. Widely considered one of the best novels in the English language, it is Emily’s only novel; she died the following year at age thirty. I read it in conjunction with the other Bronte sisters’ novels. See previous reviews here: Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Agnes Grey. Three more to go.

*Painting for featured image is “Wuthering Heights” by Leon Nack, an artist out of Cleveland. (For more information, see HERE.)

**I will refer to Edgar Linton as Edgar and Linton Heathcliff as Linton. I will refer to Catherine Linton (nee Earnshaw) as Catherine and Catherine Earnshaw (nee Heathcliff nee Linton) as Cathy.

Let’s just get this part over with so I can move on to the real review: I did some research on brain fever. After two volumes of Sherlock Holmes, I was horrified when right there in one of the “best books of all time” (I am referring to Wuthering Heights, of course) a character fell into brain fever. More than once. What is this brain fever? Because I really want to think the Victorian writers made the thing up. It doesn’t fit with anything I have observed in reality and its presence in literature confounds me. Here goes nothing.

I’m going with the answer of “nervous breakdown.” That, coupled with these two thoughts: health in the time period was not ideal, and “brain fever” happened with more frequency and to more exaggerated extremes in literature than in real life. It is not meningitis or encephalitis, although that might be what we would use the term “brain fever” for today. It was, It believe, more of a polite way to say “crazy” but also encompassed more than that: fever, malaise, lethargy, hallucinations or fitful sleep, loss of consciousness, and sometimes even depression. I would want to call it “shock,” but it lasts much longer than modern “shock,” oftentimes for weeks or even months. As for the exaggeration and poor health, you just have to accept that between the two, Victorian characters did a whole lot more swooning and falling apart than we do. It can be a pretty useful (and perhaps even romantic) plot device, but yeah, it’s annoying too.

Did I like Wuthering Heights? I definitely found it entertaining. A great story, despite that its devices might get lost on the modern reader (like making the whole thing a parenthetical of a bystanding character). I was intrigued by the story-telling and the writing, to be sure. The characters were so finely drawn, so fleshed out. And I had those moments: those “Aha!” or “No!” or “Don’t open that door!” It’s sort of like an emotional horror novel. Yes, I think that might be the best way to term it. Emotional horror.

It was a bit meandering in the sense that I never had any feeling where it was heading or what exactly I even wanted to find out. As far as pacing, I always felt like I was just coming up on–or had surpassed–the end of the tale. That, I did not so much enjoy, and you might want to be forewarned: it deviates strongly from the Hero’s Journey construction, like with a clearly defined denouement and plot stages, etc.

Also, I feel like I have to mention that there is no one to like. Even Ellen, the second narrator, has so many glaring vices and makes so many horrible decisions that you are (at least at times) repulsed by her. Or horrified. Again, lots of me yelling, “No! Don’t do it!” And then she always does. Even the main narrator, who is basically a bystander, is so passive in character that you despise him. But perhaps that is the genius of Wuthering Heights. Perhaps it’s exactly what Bronte was going for.

The book an exploration of the dark side of life and the broken (and obsessive) side of love. So in that sense, we can all read it as a cautionary tale or a glimpse into our own (or others’) humanity. What I am convinced it is not, is a love story or a romance. There was not one moment past their earliest childhood that I actually wanted Heathcliff and Catherine to end up together, let alone Catherine and Edgar or Isabella and Heathcliff or Cathy and Linton. The movies all seem to get this part wrong. See my reviews below.

Of course, I’m disturbed by the idea that all the evil in the book springs from a character of a “different” race. Hindley and Catherine cause as much trouble as Heathcliff, but the whole mess starts with Heathcliff, his arrival, and ultimately from his stunted soul (which appears to have been bent before his arrival). Perhaps this is why modern adaptations make Heathcliff and Catherine out to be victims and heroes (but I’m telling you, they’re not). It’s more PC. Then again, Bronte may have been ahead of her time in creating some characters that did sympathize with Heathcliff and love him despite his race.

I am also torn on what to think about the few good characters in the story. Most memorably, I found Edgar Linton to be a nice man who truly did love his wife and was capable of forgiveness. When seen through the interpretation of his wife and his rival, though, the reader would be led to believe he was pathetic and silly and shallow. Somehow, though, I don’t buy it. Or I don’t want to buy it? I think there are probably a couple redemptive characters in the book, but it’s hard to find them surrounded by the mockery of the cruel people around them.

And then there’s religion in Wuthering Heights. On one hand, you could sort of see everyone’s downfall as a neglect of Christianity (further enhanced by some of the saner things that are said being pulled from the Bible). On the other hand, you have Joseph, who is one of the most despicable portrayals of a Christian that there is out there. And he’s the main representative. I would love to know what Bronte was thinking about it.

My biggest disappointment with the book was the ending. I like what happened at the end, I just didn’t like the pacing, at all. (SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ THEM.) Healthcliff’s demise was confusing and ambiguous and dragged on and on after I wanted to set the book down with a sigh. Yet Cathy’s and Hareton’s relationship brightened out of absolutely nowhere. Like, you knew it was coming, but it was so completely unbelievable. The only way we could go from Cathy’s treatment of Hareton to their marriage was with a lot more time or glimpses of a kinder, gentler, deeper side of Cathy earlier on. I mean, even doting Nellie had an awfully hard time of it convincing Mr. Lockwood (and therefore us) that Cathy was anything more than a shallow, spoiled brat with a beautiful face and a bit of a spark.

Literature could be divided in half. On one half, you would have writers who expect you to take all the characters and the narrator at their word. On the other half, the reader should approach the story like real life, using clues beyond the words of the characters and narrator to determine what is true and what’s really happening. Perhaps because I’m not great at speaking what is going on inside my own complicated soul, I love it when a writer falls in the latter category. And I really think that Wuthering Heights is right there. That’s right: when Heathcliff and Catherine and Cathy and Nellie make impassioned speeches about this or the other thing, they might just be talking out of their butts. It’s the reader’s job, through contextual clues, to determine just who these people really are and what is really going on. And I believe it gets no more complex than reading through an English gentleman narrator as told through the family’s maid. You have, therefore, a minimum of three lenses (a fourth when we are reading a letter to Nellie) to look through all at once and make sense of the action and words of Wuthering Heights. For example, Nellie is going to make Linton and Cathy look much better than they really were, and yet she is also reacting to who treats her kindly. Another example: Mr. Lockwood can not be relied upon to clearly tell us who is pregnant and when, since he is a Victorian gentleman. Most importantly, Wuthering Heights is a book with an exceptional number of fickle and impulsive characters, so they give one thing with their right hand, and retract it with the left.

Therefore, impassioned love speeches should be taken with a grain of salt, not made into sappy movies a la Sense and Sensibility (which really is a sappy love story and I love it).

Conclusion? Fascinating. Beautiful. Dark, for sure. And minutely drawn characters within a (meandering but) complex story. Much to think about and discuss.

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MOVIE REVIEWS

I searched out what are supposed to be the two best of the more recent adaptations of Wuthering Heights, and I limited myself to them.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS MASTERPIECE THEATERWuthering Heights, by Masterpiece Theater. I was scared, within the first minute of this movie, that it was going to turn a tale of revenge and bad character into a couple of typical love stories. It totally did.

To be honest, I have already found this reading of the tale on the internet, and it sort of confounds me. I read the book. It’s about broken people. It’s about malice and revenge and, if it is about love, it’s about twisted and consuming love. I just can’t see Heathcliff as a lover. He’s a hater. Even his one great love was so poisoned by hate that it killed everything around him. I also don’t see Catherine as a lover. She was (wild and) spoiled and bent beyond the recognition of love.

Also, much of the beauty of a tale like Wuthering Heights (or, perhaps, other Victorian stories) comes from the absence of love’s consummation (on many levels). It is perhaps hard for many modern readers to see this, but it’s true. Instead, they load a story like this one up with passionate kisses and sex on the moors and kill much of the pathos and meaning with doing so.

Beautiful scenery, but I fear it may have been the only thing in the movie that really caught the spirit of the book. If you don’t care how carefully it follows the book, it’s a pretty good movie.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS FIENNESEmily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche.

While a much truer telling of the story, it still doesn’t capture just what broken people Catherine and Heathcliff were even in their childhood, and how they thus grew crooked and stunted and mean and selfish and out of touch with themselves (and yes, I mean both of them), therefore unable to love except in the most twisted ways. It also underplays all the abuse and neglect, all the anger and hate.

That said, I think many decisions were made in the making of this movie that did work, very well. I don’t know why, in the other hand, they added so many things. There is so much material to draw from, I don’t know why you would continually write new scenes and even a character.

Compared to the previous movie review, these characters did not look like what I would have imagined, for the most part. And despite the plaudits that Fiennes got for this role, there was a softness there in the eyes that was too human for a real Heathcliff. Bronte herself describes his eyes as black and soulless, several times. Then again, it’s sort of the way this movie was: another well-loved and healthy child who is just a victim of a mean older “brother.” Ehn.

What both these movies do for me, though, is give me a visual on the homes, costume, and moors.

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QUOTES

“They had so many queer goings on, she could not begin to be curious” (p19).

“I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire” (p80).

“Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being” (p82).

“How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me” (p120).

“I sometimes wonder at him with an intensity that deadens my fear” (p144).

“Do you understand what the word pity means?” (p151).

“He might as well plant an oak in a flower-pot, and expect it to thrive, as imagine he can restore her to vigour in the soil of his shallow cares!” (p152).

“But treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends; they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies” (p172).

“After all, it is preferable to be hated than loved by him” (p178).

“One hoped, and the other despaired: they chose their own lots, and were righteously doomed to endure them” (p181).

“‘I know he has a bad nature,’ said Catherine: ‘he’s your son. But I’m glad I’ve a better, to forgive it'” (p277).

“That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case. I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing” (p312).

“The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!” (p313).

“I have to remind myself to breathe–almost to remind my heart to beat!” (p313).

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