“Wuthering Heights” and Romanticism

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.

19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on April 18, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    After that post, any comment seems presumptuous.
    I suppose that I had seen ‘Romanticism’ as a reaction against the ‘Rational Enlightenment’, a reaction against a potentially knowable world, a reaction against a world that in principle contained reasons for all actions and saw an end to mystery and an end to seeing powerful emotions as a good thing. A world view based on reason and evidence is not not likely to satisfy the vainest human egos.
    Perhaps ‘Wuthering Heights’ is providing a critique of romanticism – a sort of ‘beware of what you wish for’.


    • I also think that to characterise Enlightenment perspective as one that is purely rational, and the Romantic as one that revels in irrationality, is to generalise, perhaps, a bit too far: a great many major works written during the Enlightenment era acknowledged the irrational. In “Gulliver’s Travels”, for instance, Gulliver clearly becomes demented; the principal character in Defoe’s “Roxana” is mentally unbalanced, as is Lovelace in Richardson’s “Clarissa”; and in the opera “Cosi fan Tutte”, the idea that human behaviour can be subject to rational ideas is viewed as nonsense. On the other hand, in “Prometheus Unbound”, Shelley, that arch-Romantic poet, celebrated “the end of mystery”: he celebrated Man coming to better understanding of the universe, and felt that some time in the future, this understanding would be perfect. This is the problem when one generalises in this matter: neither the Enlightenment nor Romanticism is monolithic.

      But even if we *were* to generalise in this manner, I don’t know that the rejection of a world view that is based purely on reason and on evidence is necessarily a consequence of “vanity”. We do not “wish for” the irrational: it’s part of us, like it or not. And much of Romanticism is no more than an acknowledgement of its existence, rather than an expression of vanity.

      Attempts to see human behaviour in purely rational terms do seem to me grossly misguided; and insisting that human beings act purely according to the precepts of reason seems to me dangerous. This is among the enduring themes of literature, from “The Bacchae” of Euripides to Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” and beyond: the irrational in ourselves must be acknowledged, and there is little point in pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that it may be conveniently ignored. The only way we can see an “end to powerful emotions” – as you put it – is to force humans into being something they are not, and this can only be achieved, if at all, with violence. If this is seen as “a good thing”, then I disagree strongly.

      I don’t know that Emily Brontë intended “Wuthering Heights” as a sort of cautionary tale. In this novel, the demons – which many refuse, even now, to acknowledge – are out in the open. It makes for a very disquieting novel.


  2. I loved Wuthering Heights. And while I will grant that there was a vein of romance running through it, the true themes of the story were tragedy and despair. It was dark. It was rough edged. You knew from the tone in the first chapter that this story wasn’t going to end happily.

    By comparison, while there was tragedy and despair in sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, the main theme there is hopeful romance. It may have not ended in the most joyous fashion, but it was surely a happy ending by any measure.

    Of the two, I cannot choose a favorite. Both touch personal experiences in my own life. This, of course, is what makes literature come alive for each of us. I don’t believe that someone who has experienced nothing in their own lives is completely capable of understanding Heathcliffe’s love or Jane’s, for that matter.

    As always, Himadri, your critiques are an education in themselves.




    • Well – I certainly hope there’s been nothing in my life resembling “Wuthering Heights”! That is horror fiction, that is! 🙂 No – seriously: a few weeks ago, I celebrated my 50th birthday by having an all-night Hammer horror session (don’t let anyone tell you I don’t kno whow to enjoy myself!) and there’s a superb scene in “Dracula Prince of Darkness” where Barbara Shelley, now turned into a vampire, appears outside the window, and begs in pathetic tones to be let in. It’s straight out of “Wuthering Heights”!

      Anyway, Eric, it’s good to see you here!


  3. Hammer films? Good stuff!

    Well, I need to round out my Sisters Bronte reading… maybe Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall next?


  4. Posted by alan on April 24, 2010 at 11:28 am

    The claim that there might be reasons for actions is not the same as claiming that actions are necessarily rational in intention.
    But I think you are on to something when saying that some claims of the Enlightenment are not incompatible with Romanticism.
    It could be argued that 20th Century ‘hard’ science fiction makes claims that are both Romantic and Enlightenment in character; claims of both knowledge and a desire for dominance – men like gods. A dangerous and seductive mix that I think is echoed in the claims of both Communism and Nazism.
    (Godwin’s law strikes again! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law )


    • Oh, I am not claiming for a minute that the actions of Cathy or of Heathcliff are rational in the slightest. I don’t think anyone in their right minds would claim that!

      There is certainly a strong case for seeing Romanticism not necessarily as a reaction against the Enlightenment, but as something that grew out of the Enlightenment era. But I find it very easy when speaking of these matters merely to equate Enlightenment values to strict rationalism, and Romantic values to irrationalism, and that, really, is far too simplistic.

      I haven’t, of course, read the vast amount of literature on this matter, but one book I really did find very good on the question of Enlightenment & Romanticism is “The Roots of Romanticism” by Isaiah Berlin.


  5. This is a superb piece on one of my favourite novels; one of the things I love about WH is its elusivess, it simply defies definition, although you’ve done a very good job here. I think it has its roots in Romanticism, but also in the ‘Brontes Web of Childhood’ —the Angrian and Gondal fantasies, asd well as having a strong vein of 18th century Gothic running through it. And here–on just this one point—I’m going to take issue with you! For me, there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be gained from reading novels such as ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’, ‘The Monk’ and ‘Vathek’, (I’m not quite so keen on Mrs Radcliffe, although I’ve read her), but then it’s all a matter of taste, I suppose.


  6. Hello Klara, and thank you for that. I agree with you fully that Emily Brontë had drawn extensively from the Gothic tradition, and I think you are far better read in Gothic literature than I am. I have always had a bit of a problem, I admit, with the Gothic. I can enjoy it in Hammer films, say, but in order to enjoy it, I have to suspend my scepticism, as it were: it is not something I can take too seriously. I think that the ghost stories that appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries (by the likes of Sheridan le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, and – especially – MR James) gave us (or, at least, gave me) a taste for a different kind of horror: here, the environment is naturalistic and prosaic, and, as a consequence, when the irrational intrudes, it is all the more shocking. In contrast, the Gothic genre begins at such a high pitch of unreality, that the effect of the irrational, when it enters, seems to me less effective. It is for this reason I’ve never really enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe. But as you say, this is merely a subjective response. I am prepared to suspend my scepticism more for Gothic films – and I’m not at all sure why I respond to films differently to the way I respond to books. Perhaps I should read a few more of the Gothic books you mention.

    I suppose “Wuthering Heights” does present an unreal, stylised world, but it still deals with people in ordinary houses and in everyday walks of life rather than, say, with gloomy castles and bloodstained dungeons, The stylised world of “Wuthering Heights” is still within the boundaries of the real – although, admittedly, only just!


  7. Himadri, this is such a great exploration of Wuthering Heights and its Romantic roots! And a wonderful presentation of the strength of your own response to what, as you say, is an electrifying and disturbing novel…

    Like Klara, it’s that elusiveness of Wuthering Heights that, for me, makes this novel so fascinating. It just can’t be pinned down. There are always counterpoints hanging huge question marks in the air. That continual hanging in the balance is the very complexity of life; the elusive and the unknowable, actually sewn into the fabric of literature.

    As you say, that striving for the unknowable, so characteristic of Romanticism – is also hugely and powerfully encompassed in the amazing work that is Moby-Dick. That striving and longing is very central to us as human beings – vital to us in fact – and yet, if we allow ourselves to tip over an edge in our striving, we let loose destruction.

    At the end of Wuthering Heights, I can’t help feeling that Mr Lockwood’s assertion that he could never imagine ‘unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’ has an underlying ambiguity. A sense that he is choosing to let that quiet earth close over them. His mind does not open out to those things. They are not vanquished, but put to rest beneath the barrier of the earth. The ghosts are no longer breaking through the window into his world – but there are reports that they still roam. There seems to be a question mark at the end here. Does Mr Lockwood expand and move on in his acceptance of the quiet earth? Does he put something destructive to sleep, or blinker himself to a dark heart of vitality within life? I don’t know if it’s a question that can be answered definitely – but with a complex mix of counterpoints. At the beginning of the novel, we see him as a character afraid to meet life. He meets all the gothic goings on at Wuthering Heights with a horrified excitement of fascination; the last time the ghosts broke through his barriers, he gave way to that darkness, fear and cruelty – and now puts a lid on them at the end. Just before we see him visit the graves, we see him grumbling jealously when he sees Catherine and Hareton in their mutual strength of quiet love. He still seems a man caught in his own smallness, afraid of life, unable to move on.

    A sense of resolution is left like an echo as the ‘quiet earth’ closes over the grave – but, it feels to me that on the other side of some crossover point, Heathcliff and Cathy continue restless, unresolved in their struggle and striving.

    Towards the end of the novel, Heathcliff implodes; for him, barriers between the real and supernatural blur. I read the novel for the third or fourth time last year, after a break of well over twenty years – and, this time round, was surprised by just how affected I was by Heathcliff’s demise. I was moved to a sudden, forceful, sad sympathy for Heathcliff – this demonic, and hitherto mostly unsympathetic, character. I don’t remember feeling like this so powerfully when I first read it. I wandered from room to room the day I finished the novel feeling very restless and sad – and it was specifically that spiralling downwards of Heathcliff that produced that feeling. It was a resolution of sorts – but one of total implosion; of giving up. A wasteland. A waste and a destruction of what he could have been.

    There seems to be a tension there between this waste of the energy, the twisted potential, within Heathcliff – and the self inflicted waste brought about by the malaise of a man like Lockwood, afraid to meet life head on. Maybe Hareton, flourishing in the love between him and the second Catherine, is what Heathcliff could have been. In his decline, Heathcliff says to Nelly, ‘Five minutes ago, Hareton seemed a personification of my youth…’
    In a complex, haunted reaction to the changes around him, Heathcliff loses the desire for revenge and destruction. Hareton, with his ‘generous heart,’ will be able to move forward and develop…

    I’ve rambled enough… but still don’t feel I’ve even touched the meaning of what I’m trying to say – nor do I have any conviction in my vague graspings at interpretation here. Where, at first, a truth seems to stand up, any conclusiveness just seems to slip away, as several counterpoints press their case! And that is the effect this strange, powerful, enigmatic novel has – and I guess the effect I most value it for. It is complex and accomplished in structure, in its themes and in the vastness of what it manages to both encompass and set free beyond its bounds.

    Thank you for your brilliant post, Himadri! I very much enjoyed reading it.



    • Hello Melanie, thank you very much for that. I suppose it is easy to forget as one reads those lovely last sentences that they are spoken by Mr Lockwood, and are, therefore, suspect. That being the case, the ending is, as you say, far more ambiguous than it may seem. For, after all, there have been more than hints that Cathy & Heathcliff *aren’t* sleepers in that quiet earth.

      Mr Lockwood is surely one of the most foolish of all characters in fiction. This is made clear from the very first paragraph, as he describes the world he has entered:

      “A perfect misanthropist’s haven: and Mr Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows…”

      Emily Bronte is not usually regarded as a comic author, but this really is quite funny. Mr Lockwood claims that he has come to this spot to get away from society, and yet the first thing he does is to seek out society. He actually mistakes Heathcliff’s very obvious hostility as welcoming; and he expresses himself in the manner of a cheap romantic novelette (“he little imagined how my heart warmed towards him…”) that really couldn’t be more out of place here. I also love the idea of “divid[ing] the desolation”, as if desolation were something that could be divided or shared. Later in the novel somewhere, Mr Lockwood hints that he has sought out this deserted location to recover from an unhappy love affair, and I’d guess that he’d been rejected by some girl on the very reasonable basis that he was a bit of a prat. He seems to have wandered in from a Jane Austen novel – and one suspects that Austen would not have spared him the sharp end of her wit.

      In Wuthering Heights, he is, of course, completely out of his depth, and in that astonishing scene where a spirit from this Gothic world enters through the window into his own, his reaction is one of instinctive cruelty: he cannot bring himself to come to terms with this. He hears the whole story (and we hear it with him), but it is of course, understandable for him to wish for a closure at the end – to wish for all that messy business of human rage and passion to be put away with once and for all. Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t really considered the possibility that the quiet ending to this book may really be no more than wish-fulfilment on Mr Lockwood’s part.

      Heathcliff’s transformation at the end really is tremendously striking, isn’t it? Heathcliff is a character who both suffers and inflicts suffering – who, indeed, inflicts suffering *because* he has suffered. There are many such characters in literature – from Euripides’ Hecuba to Shakespeare’s Shylock – and in each case, we are held in balance between feeling pity for what is done to them, and terror for what they do. In his last phase, he implodes, as you say: the desire to inflict suffering seems to dissipate, and what is left is not merely the memory of what he has suffered, but also the fact that he continues to suffer. And so, we may even find ourselves feeling at this stage sympathy for the man we know to be a vicious psychopath. Nothing is ever straight-forward in this novel!


  8. Himadri, thank you for your great reply (sorry for the delay in getting back to you).
    I’m so glad you mentioned that element of humour in Emily Bronte’s portrayal of Mr Lockwood. Emily is hardly ever given credit for that side to her abilities, is she? I think my abiding memory of ‘Wuthering Heights’ (from when I read it during my teens and early twenties) was of its gothic, windswept wilds of emotion – so, re-reading those opening chapters twenty or so years later, I was all the more struck by the lightness of touch in the writing, and by the extremely skilful – and as you say, funny – introduction of Mr Lockwood to the reader.

    Poor Mr Lockwood; he stumbles and slips down those gaps of perception so easily, doesn’t he? At the beginning, he comes across as an inexperienced, emotionally clueless youth who, as you say, places himself in a romantic idea of life incongruous to the reality around him. At the end, when he sees Hareton and Catherine, he is still stumbling – like a gauche, panicked, even sulky child – escaping from a feeling of exclusion and confusion. He’s like a child lost in a disturbing, adult world. He is disturbed not only by the wild cruelties of Heathcliff’s world and all those demonic passions wrapped up in obsessions of the self – but also by the quieter intensity of Hareton’s development through a more outward looking love. In his final demise, Heathcliff recognises he can’t beat that love with his revenge – and Lockwood says of Hareton and Catherine, ‘Together they would brave satan and all his legions’ – reacting to that with a selfish misery of jealousy.

    As you say in your post, Heathcliff scorns Isabella’s immature, unrealistic notions of him as some romantic hero in a novel (maybe, within the themes of the novel, this links to Mr Lockwood’s romantic notions). In Heathcliff, we see an honest portrayal of the darker aspects of life and humanity; a darkness which both fascinates and repels.

    There is so much going on in this novel exploring the darker sides of humanity – and, as you say, setting this exploration within an enclosed, domestic setting intensifies the powerful effect of that darkness. This seems to be a novel about barriers, about breakings through, testing limits to the extreme. The complex, careful structure of the book seems to be taking us through channels of artistic control that are all the time building an underlying structure of balance and tipping points – and carefully placed explorations of theme.

    It seems to me within all the layers within layers in ‘Wuthering Heights’ there is a complex exploration of Romanticism going on. I do find Romanticism totally fascinating. As it happens, quite a bit of my reading over past months has followed trails which keep flagging up all sorts of points of connection within this subject – connections between Byron, Wordsworth, the Brontes – even through to George Eliot and Dickens! I can feel a blog post (or two!) coming on!

    P.S. Oh, I almost forgot – ‘a more than usually vacuous pop song’????? That song – and Kate – are legend!

    (huge Kate Bush fan) 🙂


    • First of all, Melanie, an apology for that crack about Kate Bush: I must admit that i find her voice grating. And even if it were not so, it’s hard to warm to any song that kept “Denis” by Blondie off the No 1 spot! 🙂

      I think when I last read it, I underestimated the impact of the growing relationship between Hareton and the young Cathy. I felt that Heathcliff lost his appetite for revenge purely because he was seeing Cathy’s ghost again, but on reflection, I think you’re right: he also acknowledges defeat in the face of what he sees developing between Hareton and the young Cathy. That relationship is in opposition to everything Heathcliff has represented, and has begun to bloom despite the worst he can do. This being so, perhaps Emily Brontë isn’t quite so non-committal as I had initially thought.

      Romanticism is an endlessly complex subject: after all – one can’t even define it! I am not really too well read on literary criticism, but a classic work that I *have* read on the subject, and which greatly impressed me, is “The Roots of Romanticism” by Isaiah Berlin. (Quite apart from anything else Berlin demonstrates that it *is* possible to present complex ideas in a lucid manner!)

      I do feel that the great 19th century novels had, on the whole, to turn their backs on Romanticism. Indeed, this very act of turning away from it became a major theme: so many 19th century novels deal with disappointed aspirations – from the disapppointed aspirations of Pip to those of Emma Bovary, from Frédéric Moreau to Lydgate, Dorothea Brooke, etc. Balzac even called one of his novels “Les Illusions Perdues”. Then there arethose characters who aspire towards being another Napoleon – Juilen Sorel, raskolnikov – only to find real life getting tin the way of their dreams. It’s a fascinating subject – and I look forward to your post on it! (Not that I’m putting pressure on you or anything…)


  9. Oh, no need to apologise, Himadri! 🙂 Coincidentally, I’ve been putting together a wildlife themed blog post this week that features Kate’s most recent album …so, you might want to give that bit a miss! 😉

    There’s so much food for thought in ‘Wuthering Heights’, isn’t there. I’m sure I’ll be pondering what it’s all about forever! So many avenues of exploration…

    Interesting that you mention Dorothea Brooke – she’s all part of that future post which has been brewing for some time in my mind…that and the tensions that existed in Victorian literature and society regarding Romanticism. It might be some time before I can get round to writing it; loads on over the next week or so! So many strands are gathering in my head, it feels quite a daunting task to piece it all together. As you say, Romanticism itself is so beyond grasp – it’s quite a major brain workout to ponder it all!

    The reading/ writing rate I’m managing lately, I might actually get that post written by the end of the year! Or more likely, I’ll break it all up into a series of posts…

    Either way, it’ll be great to discuss this all further when time’s less pressing…

    Many thanks again, Himadri for all your thoughts on this. Great stuff!



  10. Posted by Anjana Dey Clark on December 22, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Hi Himadri,
    Can you believe it ? Have JUST read your blog on ‘Wuthering Heights, having had it on my desktop for so long . Have not been well for days so,lying in bed reading your blog, I found the stimulation of it very comforting. I was surprised to find that you were so interested in Romantic/Gothic literature – especially ‘Wuthering Heights’ which is my own most favourite novel of all time. During my degree I wrote a dissertation on it because it was something that fascinated me; and (here’s the weird thing)I was so much part of that ‘schoolgirl romantic fantasy about Heathcliff’ that you mention (tell you about that another time!!) that I CHOSE to come to Yorkshire to study English Literature to be CLOSE to the Bronte’s and especially to “feel” part of the whole ‘Wuthering Heights’ feel!! Isn’t that mad ?!!

    Well…I agree with so much of your observations on the graphic cruelty and darkness which envelops this novel; there’s even, dare I say it…hint of Satanism in the whole thing ? I feel there is another fascinating aspect to this novel, which has its roots in the Romantic, the Gothic, and that is the notion of the Spriritual. Could the diabolic nature of Heathcliff, and the bouts of inhumanity exhibited by many of the characters, be Emily Bronte’s reaction against the almost tyrannical, Christian fervour depicted in her home life ? Her father was a minister after all, and we know she and her sisters were subjected to daily, ritual Bible classes. I feel there was a lot of this anti-spirituality – in the conventional sense – in the novel too. The idea of the Spiritual in Emily Bronte’s writing including her poetry was the subject of my dissertation.

    Anyway – a fascinating read Himadri(dada)which I’ll do again soon. Many thanks.



    • I was so much part of that ‘schoolgirl romantic fantasy about Heathcliff’ that you mention (tell you about that another time!!) that I CHOSE to come to Yorkshire to study English Literature to be CLOSE to the Bronte’s and especially to “feel” part of the whole ‘Wuthering Heights’ feel!! Isn’t that mad ?!!

      Hello Anjana, I think you may be putting words into my mouth here! 🙂 I do agree with you, though, that Heathcliff does have a Satanic aura about him. It is quite interesting, because recently I have been reading The Brothers Karamazov, and as I have been commenting on various posts here, there is most certainly a demonic presence in that novel also.

      I don’t really now that much about the biography of the Brontës, although I gather that Juliet Barker’s biography is exceptionally good. However, Emily Brontë’s poetry – even her very late verse – does suggest a strong religious faith:

      No coward soul is mine,
      No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
      I see Heaven’s glory shine,
      And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

      But it’s curious how far from these lines Wuthering Heights is in mood: while Emily Brontë certainly depicts “the world’s storm-troubles sphere”, there is no indication of Heaven’s glory, or of faith – or anything else for that matter – “arming [one] from fear”. Emily Brontë was a very complex character, and it must be fascinating reading a biography. (Juliet Barker’s biography has recently been re-issued, by the way.)

      Anyway, it’s absolutely lovely to see you here. Hope to se eyou around more often!
      All the best, Himadri


  11. Coming from Guy’s blog, I’m wandering on your blog tonight.
    This is fascinating. I’m not able to write such an analysis of any book.
    I’ve read Wuthering Heights twice, and didn’t like it. My brain recognizes it is a masterpiece but it didn’t touch me. I never understood why Cathy and Heathcliff have this image of a romantic couple. And this was not my fantasy as a scoolgirl. Thanks to you, I now know why boys weren’t afraid of me 🙂

    Seriously. They are insane and don’t have any redeeming qualities.
    For me Romanticism is full of characters who, like you say, strive for something unearthly and thus create their own misery. And that’s why I usually don’t like books from that movement. I have no patience with self-created misery. (like Mathilde and Julien in Le Rouge et le Noir)Thanks for helping me understanding that.


    • Hello, and thank you for your kind comments.

      Wuthering Heights is a strange work for various reasons, not the least of which is that it doesn’t encourage the reader either to sympathize or to empathize with its protagonists. It shouldn’t work, but somehow – at least, for me – it does. It’s such a one-off that it’s hard to imagine what Emily Brontë might have written had she lived longer than her meagre thirty years.

      And, as I keep telling our teenage daughter, one needs to have been a schoolboy to know just how scary schoolgirls can be! 🙂

      Anyway, welcome to the blog!

      All the best,


      • Hello,

        If I had a teenage daughter, I would propose her to read The Tenant of Whitefell Hall. There’s the essence of what she should know about men and relationships in it.

        Your blog is interesting. Welcome to mine too.

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