Wuthering Heights comes with an awful lot of baggage. There have been endless adaptations, all of them presenting it as essentially a love story with two very attractive protagonists (it being an unwritten rule of any love story that people who are not physically attractive have no business falling in love), and none of them getting at all close to the very dark heart of the work; it has been subject to endless parodies, from Monty Python’s “semaphore version” to those marvellous Dave Allen sketches featuring a couple running through the moors shouting “Heathcliff!” and “Cathy!” at each other; it has inspired (if that’s the word I’m looking for) a more than usually vacuous (though very famous) pop song; and there has even been, Heaven help us, a musical, featuring Cliff Richard. The names Heathcliff and Cathy have become such hoary old clichés that the very mention of these names is likely to raise a few knowing sniggers; and worse, these characters are seen to represent archetypal romantic lovers, which, it seems to me, they most certainly aren’t. It is very difficult to offload all this baggage, and try to see the novel with fresh eyes.
The book has seen as the archetypal schoolgirls’ fantasy, and has been criticised on that score; and it has also been seen not to be the schoolgirl fantasy it has been made out to be, and has been criticised on that score also. I am obviously at a disadvantage here, since, never having been a schoolgirl myself, I have no clear idea of what it is they fantasise about; however, if schoolgirls do fantasise about this sort of thing, it is little wonder they used to scare the shit out of me when I was a schoolboy! I suppose it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not Wuthering Heights represents a schoolgirl fantasy: what is undeniable is the very powerful impact it had on me when I read it again recently. But trying to work out why this alleged schoolgirl fantasy made such an impact on me is not particularly easy.
It is, to state the obvious, a Romantic novel – but I don’t mean “romantic” in the sense that it celebrates sexual attraction: I mean “Romantic” with a capital “R”, i.e. relating to the aesthetic movement that came into being somewhere around the late 18th century. And here, I think I run into one of the many problems I have in trying to formulate my reactions to Wuthering Heights: while I can recognise this as being a Romantic novel, I really do not know how to characterise, let alone define, Romanticism. It is something more easily recognised than defined. We may recognise Schubert’s music as Romantic compared to Haydn’s, Delacroix’s art as Romantic compared to Poussin’s, Shelley’s poetry Romantic compared to Pope’s – but it seems almost impossible to identify the criteria that characterise Romanticism. Just about any observation one may make about Romanticism, it seems that the very opposite can also apply; just about any feature one may identify as belonging to Romanticism, one may find evidence for this feature in other works that are clearly not Romantic.
There is no shortage of learned and eloquent writing dealing with this issue, and I don’t know that I am foolhardy enough to attempt to add to it; but one aspect of Romanticism that I find particularly striking is its insistence on the importance of striving, of aspiring. Of course, the concept of aspiration is hardly exclusive to Romanticism, but there is at least a certain strand of Romanticism in which our very existence seems defined by our aspiration, and which, further, appears to have no conception of what it is precisely that we are supposed to be aspiring towards. In a pre-Romantic opera such as, say, Le Nozze di Figaro, what Figaro and Susanna aspire towards is very simple, and achievable: they want to marry, and live together in earthly contentment. But in a Romantic opera such as Tristan und Isolde, the idea of the protagonists living in earthly contentment as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde is unthinkable: the very intensity of their striving seems to transcend its object; even if circumstances were to allow it, it is inconceivable that anything so ordinary as mere earthly union could satisfy a striving so intense.
It is not merely that the object of Romantic aspiration is beyond earthly reach: it’s also that it has to be beyond earthly reach. It has, indeed, to be beyond what may be imagined. For if it is possible to attain the object of aspiration, then once it is attained, the aspiration itself will no longer be required, and the very feature that had characterised our existence to so important a degree will become unnecessary. Goethe’s Faust, for instance, is saved from damnation because he had never stopped aspiring; but once he is redeemed and his soul is taken into heaven, what then? The aspiration that had been, quite literally, his saving grace, now becomes redundant. Can a heaven even be imagined in which the very feature that defines our humanity is redundant?
Thus, while the Romantics aspired fervently towards some heaven, the Romantic imagination did not allow any heaven to be imagined. So, many of them merely aspire for death instead. The protagonist of Winterreise, Tristan and Isolde, and, as we will see, Heathcliff and Cathy, are all unable to live in a world in which their terrible striving cannot be satisfied, and equally unable even to imagine a heaven in which it will: death is all they have left to strive towards.
This is, of course, madness, and it is not surprising that so many Romantic protagonists become mad – the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, Mr Tristan & Mrs Isolde … all mad as hatters, the whole bunch of them. Winterreise is, in many ways, archetypal in this respect: we start off with a hackneyed scenario – the protagonist has been rejected by his girl, and he is awfully cut up about it. But as the song cycle progresses, the longing becomes so unbearably intense, that it far transcends what is ostensibly the object of the longing: even if the boy were somehow to get the girl, such intense longing, we feel, cannot be stilled. Towards the end, the protagonist starts to hallucinate: longing without a clear object can only lead to insanity, and in works of Romanticism, we are never too far from that.
In this context, Wuthering Heights seems very clearly a product of Romanticism, and whatever irrational feature it is in us that responds to this Romantic irrationality, responds also to this novel. Wuthering Heights is unusual in this respect, because the novel, as a form, is very resistant, I think, to Romanticism. When we look through the history of the novel, we find a fine flowering in the mid-18th century with the likes of Richardson, Fielding, Sterne and Smollett, and another flowering some hundred or so years later, with the likes of Stendhal and Balzac in France, Dickens and Trollope and George Eliot in England, etc. But between these two peaks, there are very few novels of much note. There are the Gothic novels, which are impossible to read nowadays for any literary enjoyment; and there was Scott, who has much liked in the Victorian days but whose reputation has plummeted since and is unlikely to recover. But who else was there? Sure, I am generalising, as is inevitable when speaking in such broad terms; and yes, there was the odd masterpiece, such as, say, James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. But the only major novelist I can think of between Sterne & Richardson at one end, and Balzac & Dickens at the other, is Jane Austen.
The reason for this hiatus is, I think, Romanticism, which got in the way. The Romantic ethos, however one defines it, was very quick to capture the imagination, but the novel as a form simply wasn’t capable of accommodating this ethos. The novel as a form dealt with the everyday, the quotidian, and not with the heroic. The great larger-than-life figures such as Achilles, Clytemnestra, Medea, Othello, Milton’s Satan, Racine’s Phèdre – such characters belong to the realms of epic poetry, or to verse drama, and definitely not to the novel. From the very beginning, the novel was seen as anti-heroic: Gargantua et Pantagruel, Don Quixote, Tom Jones – these are all consciously mock-heroic works. How could a form that was so doggedly anti-heroic accommodate the heroism of infinite striving? How could a form so rooted in the everyday be compatible with that which seeks to transcend the everyday? Jane Austen flourished as a novelist in this period precisely because she bucked the trend: she didn’t have a single Romantic bone in her body, and she would certainly have relished the irony of her novels being marketed these days as archetypal romantic works.
In time, novelists emerged who were not so concerned with the Romantic ethos, and were happy to explore the everyday – Balzac and the rest. Some of the greatest novelists even found the transcendent within the everyday – Tolstoy, say, or Joyce. But finding transcendence in the everyday is not quite the same as transcending the everyday: the distinction may be subtle, but is nonetheless important. I can think of only two major novels (or at least, novels that I would place in the top rank) that have managed to accommodate the Romantic ethos within their confines, and they appeared in the mid 19th century, within a few years of each other: one is Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the other is Wuthering Heights.
Neither novel is realistic. Moby-Dick is clearly symbolic, as the intensity of Ahab’s striving seems quite out of proportion to what he is striving for – revenge against a dumb creature that had maimed him. Since we cannot believe that this simple circumstance could in itself occasion such immense passion, we are forced to see the object of his passion – the white whale – as some sort of symbol. But as soon as we try to identify what it is the white whale symbolises, we begin to flounder. This is not surprising: the very essence of Romantic striving is that the object of one’s striving is beyond definition, beyond even imagining; so, if one is to depict it at all, one can only do so with the use of metaphors. And the white whale Moby-Dick is among the most haunting of all metaphors.
There is striving too in Wuthering Heights, and it is less clear that the object of this striving is presented as a metaphor. However, the longing of Cathy and Heathcliff is not one that can be satisfied on earth. In this, it differs sharply from its sister novel Jane Eyre, in which not only is the longing of this earth, but it is actually achieved at the end, as the rough, masterful Mr Rochester becomes domesticated. An outcome such as this is unthinkable in Wuthering Heights. Unlike Jane and Mr Rochester, neither Cathy nor Heathcliff strives for domestic bliss. Cathy cannot even imagine a heaven in which her strivings can be satisfied: she dreams at one point that she is in heaven, but that she is so unhappy there, that she is brought back to Wuthering Heights. Forever reaching towards something that can never be satisfied, not even in heaven … it seems the very epitome of Romantic madness.
And there is a madness throughout this novel. Cathy and Heathcliff are both quite clearly mad. Heathcliff, indeed, becomes demented: he is a psychopath. The schoolgirl fantasy is of a rough, masculine exterior, masterful and threatening, but with a heart of gold that is capable of yielding to the more tender emotions. Indeed, these are the very terms in which Isabella sees Heathcliff. And Emily Brontë seems to have nothing but disdain for this sort of mush. That may have been all right for the likes of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, but it’s very out of place in this psychotically violent and terrifying novel. Heathcliff and Cathy are not capable of tenderness, not even, perhaps, to each other.
The sense of terror and of violence that runs through the novel is electrifying. It is not merely the graphic depiction of physical violence that is so striking: it is the atmosphere that pervades the entire novel of an emotional violence. The night Mr Lockwood spends in Wuthering Heights is about as terrifying as anything I’ve read: there’s nothing in any horror fiction that I know that surpasses for sheer terror the moment where Mr Lockwood puts his hand through the glass, and is met on the other side by an icy cold hand that enfolds his own. There follows the first of the many grotesque images of violence in this novel:
Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes
Terror can, indeed, make us cruel, but this (especially coming as it does from so insipid a character as Mr Lockwood) is horrendous!
It is, however, entirely consistent with the general tone of the book. There is a very hard edge throughout – indeed, a rather nasty edge. I cannot think of any other novel in which the author quite deliberately takes steps to ensure that we do not like, far less sympathise with, any of the characters. When, due to circumstances in the plot, we may feel inclined to sympathise with a character, Emily Brontë would put in something to make that character appear despicable. For instance, in case we feel inclined to sympathise with Isabella who is ill-treated by Heathcliff, she is shown taunting Heathcliff with Cathy’s death; in case we feel inclined to sympathise with Heathcliff’s ailing and brutalised son, Emily Brontë rubs in his utter selfishness and insensitivity. (Indeed, she possibly overplays her hand on this occasion, as she gives no reason at all for the young Cathy to love him.) Even the nice Mr Lockwood, as we have seen, is capable of rubbing a child’s wrist against a piece of broken glass; even the homely Nellie Dean, in one deeply shocking scene, can express satisfaction that Heathcliff’s teenage son is unlikely to live long. The only character one can come close to liking is Edgar Linton, and he, perhaps for that very reason, is kept more or less in the background. The picture we are given is unremitting: nasty people in an unremitting, nasty world. And yet they are compelling figures, and we watch, fascinated: these figures, and those of Heathcliff and Cathy especially, are larger-than-life figures that no novel hitherto had even attempted to accommodate.
To accommodate such figures, Emily Brontë had first to create a fictional world in which they would not appear incongruous. Melville had to do the same: he set his novel on a whaling ship, thus simultaneously suggesting an enclosed world (the ship) and also the vastness of an unbounded world outside (the seas). In Wuthering Heights, the world is reduced to two houses on the moors: once again, the setting suggests both an enclosed world (the houses), and also a vast immensity outside. Everyone who has read the book, even those who do not care for it, comments on the powerful atmosphere it projects of the landscape; so it comes as quite a surprise to see how little descriptive writing there is. At no point is there a single extended passage of descriptive writing of the type one gets in, say, Hardy’s novels. There is just the odd little touch here and there, but they are made to tell:
…one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.
Not a single image, not a single word, is wasted.
The sense of the enclosed world is accentuated by several means. While an outside world is known to exist, all the characters (except Mr Lockwood, the narrator of the framing story, and Hindley’s wife Frances) belong to this enclosed world of Wuthering Heights and of Thrushcross Grange. (Heathcliff is also an outsider, of course, to begin with, but he very soon becomes part of the landscape, as it were.) We are never taken outside this enclosed world: every scene happens in one of the two houses, or in the moors between them. Only briefly in the final chapters are we allowed a brief scene in nearby Gimmerton. And what happens in the outside world is never clarified: so we never know who Heathcliff really is, why Earnshaw decides to adopt him, or how he makes his fortune: what happens outside the world of Wuthering Heights and of Thrushcross Grange, even if it impacts on the story, is not depicted.
Even the names keep reappearing in different combinations – Catherne Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, Catherine Linton, yet another Catherine Linton, Linton Heathcliff, Catherine Heathcliff, and so on – as if there were only a few names to choose from, and each name must be made up of these scraps: over a century afterwards, Gabriel García Márquez used a similar technique in One Hundred Years of Solitude to suggest a similarly enclosed world.
The story itself, with all the various inter-marrying between families, seems to have an incestuous feel about it. Indeed, the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy may well be incestuous: the possibility that Heathcliff may have been Mr Earnshaw’s illegitimate child must surely have crossed the characters’ minds.
The plotline is very convoluted, and most of it is narrated indirectly, but such is the quality of the storytelling that we never for a single moment lose the thread. I was also surprised by how quickly the plot moved: there is an awful lot of incident crammed into less than 300 pages. The danger in telling so eventful a plot in so relatively short a space is that a disproportionate part of the narrative would be spent on explaining the mere mechanics of the plot; but once again, Emily Brontë is too skilful an author to fall into such a trap. The pacing seems to me masterly.
The various framing devices through which the narrative emerges must have seemed quite bizarre to readers of the time. (And incidentally, those who think that the “unreliable narrator” is a modernist innovation would do well to take a look at Wuthering Heights again!) The framing narrative is told us by Mr Lockwood, but the main part of the story is narrated to him by Nellie Dean; and quite frequently, as in Nellie’s readings of Isabella’s letters, we get narrations within narrations. All this is done to root the fantastic tale in some sort of reality. Wuthering Heights is not, as I said, a realist novel, but if touch with reality is lost altogether, the result may well be utter chaos. Mr Lockwood’s foolish vanity and Nellie Dean’s homely common sense provide a much needed counterbalance to the demented nature of much of the content.
Melville, too, needed a level-headed narrator to tell the terrible story of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick; but unlike Melville, Emily Brontë never tells us more than her narrator could have known. Melville’s narrator, whom we are instructed to call Ishmael, often relates scenes at which he could not have been present: Brontë never does this, and even takes the risk of leaving unexplained gaps in the narrative rather than break this rule. However, she gives herself the liberty of diverging from the narrator’s tone of voice. So while she will let Mr Lockwood say a few things to establish his foolishness, once his narrative starts in earnest, a far more perceptive narrative voice takes over. Some may object to this, but I can’t say it bothered me too much: a long narrative completely in Mr Lockwood’s voice would have been very tiresome, to say the least.
As for the content, one hardly knows where to start. There are many parts of the novel that are pure horror. (Certainly, the Hammer studios had no problem ripping off the scene in which a pathetic figure appears outside the window, begging to be let in: this was recycled to quite splendid effect in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.) There is that terrible scene where Hindley comes home drunk, tries to force a knife down Nellie’s throat, and then nearly kills his infant son. Or those scenes of delirium before Catherine dies, where she is terrified of her own reflection in the mirror, and then rips open her pillow and takes out the feathers, and starts talking about which bird each feather had come from; it is completely demented: I can’t remember the last time I read anything so feverish. Then, as Cathy dies, Heathcliff stands outside howling like an animal, beating his head repeatedly against a tree, making the blood gush down its knotty trunk: here, he is barely human. Or take that scene where Isabella narrates Hindley’s attempt on Heathcliff’s life: everything seems piled on top of each other to a wild, phantasmagoric effect – Hindley’s horrible wound with the knife, the relish Heathcliff takes in trampling on Hindley and kicking him in the head, even when he is already unconscious – and as if all that weren’t enough, there’s Hareton hanging up puppies from the back of the chair. The unmitigated sadism nauseates even as it fascinates; and the febrile, thrilling excitement that is generated has no equal except, perhaps, in the novels of Dostoyevsky. It is a world completely alien – thank goodness – to anything I know, but it is utterly compelling. Even when Heathcliff digs up Cathy’s grave to hold her decomposed corpse in his arms once more, one feels compelled to read on even as one feels faintly sick. This is a fictional world in which the inner demons are not on the inside any more – they are out in the open, and they are utterly uninhibited.
At the centre of it all, of course, is the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy. Normally, everyone loves lovers: the world will always welcome lovers, as the song goes. But not if they are like this pair. For this is not the sort of love that one tends to find in love stories – the love that may be satisfied. These two crave each other with a longing that hardly seems of this world: it is completely unimaginable, even if circumstances allowed for it, for these two to find earthly happiness with each other in the manner of the insipid Jane Eyre or the rough-diamond-with-heart-of-gold Mr Rochester. These two are demonic. They crave each other because they must – because cannot do otherwise. Is this really what schoolgirls fantasise about? I sincerely hope not!
I do not want to go as far as to suggest that the longing Heathcliff and Cathy have for each other is a metaphor for something else, as is the longing Ahab has to destroy Moby-Dick. But the intensity of Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s longing does indeed seem to outstrip its ostensible ends. These are superhuman desires – way, way larger than life – and it is hard to see how it could possibly be satisfied with anything earthly. It is that Romantic longing for that which is forever beyond one’s reach; and for the first time, it has found expression in a novel.
By any rational standards, Cathy and Heathcliff both become mad before they die. Once again, this madness is very much part of the Romantic ethos: what else can one be when one desires so fervently what can never be? Heathcliff’s madness takes the form of a sort of psychotic hatred and sadism. It frankly defies belief that this monster could possibly be regarded by anyone as a romantic hero. But, rather disconcertingly, Emily Brontë passes no moral judgement: Heathcliff is as he is because he could not be otherwise – and how can one pass a moral judgement on that? One might as well pass moral judgement on a wild beast.
I don’t know whether Emily Brontë endorses the Romantic ethos she depicts in this book. It is of little matter anyway. What we do get is a vivid depiction of a favourite theme of the Romantics – madness: here, we straddle that vague borderline between sanity and insanity. It may not always be a pleasurable experience, but it hits you with a force that makes most other novels seem a bit bloodless. And it is executed throughout with the most marvellous skill.
The ending, particularly, I found surprisingly moving. (It is, incidentally, surprising that one can be moved despite the very obvious lack of any sympathetic character.) The ending was always going to be difficult: how can one provide a satisfactory end to something so very turbulent? Melville ends Moby-Dick with a breathless, extended climax, as Ahab and his crew finally come face to face with the great white whale. Emily Brontë has a quite different ending up her sleeve: she opts for a quiet ending. Rev Brontë would, I am sure, have had a copy of Milton in his well-stocked parsonage library, and the Brontës would all have been familiar with the quiet endings of such turbulent works such as Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes. Here, Heathcliff, at the very moment when his great revenge would be complete, loses interest in it. He loses interest not out of any moral consideration: that would have been deeply alien to his character. He loses his desire for revenge – indeed, his desire to go on living – because he is, quite clearly, seeing Cathy’s ghost. In the end, he starves himself to death. He does this almost, as it were, passively, because he no longer has the motive to keep himself alive: as he says himself, he has to remember even to breathe. Like the true Romantic hero, he craves death, and welcomes it.
And with this transformation, the whole tone of the novel changes marvellously. It is as if all the dark storm clouds vanish, one by one, leaving a sky of clear blue, and an air of hard-won serenity.
The closing sentence is one of the loveliest of any novel:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.