|Ralph Fiennes will always be my Heathcliff|
I first read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë at the tender age of fourteen, and remember quite clearly that it was my birthday, and my mom and dad took me out to the movies. One glance at the poster and I declared we’d go watch Wuthering Heights starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, and that was that. I was transported by the thwarted romance that played out on the bleak Yorkshire moors. Of course I had to go read the book straight after, and while my youthful self probably didn’t “get” half the relationship dynamics or the full depth of the dialogue, I nonetheless knew this is a book I’d need to reread at some point.
Fast forward 20 years (gee whizz, it’s been *that* long) and I downloaded the book from Gutenberg.org – a far cry from the battered paperback copy I inherited from the family home, and was immediately transported – again.
Wuthering Heights is primarily a story about relationships, and of people who willfully twist and allow others to twist them. We are first introduced to our narrator, a chap by the name of Lockwood, who has rented the grand Thrushcross Grange (complete with its own park lands). I get the idea the chap is a bit of a poseur, who’s quite oblivious and gauche when it comes to how he relates to people. Self-absorbed. I missed this in the first read. Kudos to Brontë for having a narrator I’d cheerfully slap. I mean, the fool goes blundering in to visit the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights when it’s perfectly clear to anyone else with half an ounce of common sense that they do not appreciate the intrusion of a stranger.
But Lockwood is our narrator, and it’s clear the mystery presented by the relationships he encounters captivates his imagination to the point where he’s determined to uncover they mystery that has presented itself. (My inner cynic cheerfully comments: “Well, what do you expect? They didn’t have reality TV in those days.)
Not one to take a hint when he’s not wanted, Lockwood plays voyeur, and an ill-timed visit results in him having to spend the night at Wuthering Heights and subject himself to the ghost of Catherine – one of the key scenes.
But the story’s layers get peeled back. Lockwood’s housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange is none other than Ellen (or Nelly, as she’s know by those who’re familiar with her), who grew up with the main participants in this drama. Her narration of past events is then retold by Lockwood, so once again our perceptions as readers are coloured by the lens of yet another viewpoint. We are faced with not only the opinions of Lockwood, but that of Ellen. Unreliable narrators both, but in their opinions, we view our main players with a degree of separation. We vicariously live out the unfolding tragedy from a safe distance while debating on characters’ true motivations.
Most often, Wuthering Heights is pegged as a romance and, to a degree I agree that romance is an underlying theme but I prefer to view it as a tragedy, of characters denying their true natures and being destroyed by the prolonged act of revenge.
We enter a complex interconnecting web of relationships and the intermingling of two families. Always, Heathcliff is the outsider. Brontë suggests that he is dark, perhaps of gypsy stock, and Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw’s father brought the foundling home. The lad was closer in age to Catherine than her brother, and the two were soon inseparable. But when Catherine’s path intersects with that of the wealthy Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, and specifically their son, Edgar, she is soon torn.
The unsophisticated Heathcliff is her dark half, an animus as such, wild and unfettered, yet Edgar represents culture and an artificial, societal construct of what “love” is supposed to be. Catherine is at a quandary, and it is her decision to marry Edgar that sets the wheels in motion for the unfolding drama.
Yes, this is a tale of thwarted love, but it’s also an illustration of how individuals will consciously choose a path that can only lead to damnation. What I found fascinating was comparing my initial response as a teenager to how I felt about the novel now, twenty years later. I recall feeling so sorry for how rotten Catherine’s life turned out. Now? Well, I’d dearly love to shake some sense into the girl. All the characters are unlikable There is nothing romantic about Heathcliff’s all-consuming passion for Catherine. And Catherine is a willful stubborn girl who’s used to bending everyone around her to her whims, unmindful of the damage she is causing to herself and those around her.
This made me think, however, about the relative ages of the characters in the story. They were but teenagers themselves, who behaved as such. The only difference is that in those days, folks getting married as young as eighteen was not unheard of. Now, you sit back and think about how your life would have turned out had you married your first sweetheart (you’re excused if it’s two decades later and you’re still happily married to your first love).
I think about my first love and where we’d be now if we were still together, and probably miserable as all hell to boot. Let’s not go there. I’m glad I never felt obligated to marry someone, and that when I did finally get married (yes I married young at twenty-two) I’m still very much in love with the man but glad I’d had experience with other relationships.
And lastly, Heathcliff. Wuthering Heights is really his story, if you ask me, and he suffers a bit of a dog-in-the-manger syndrome. He cannot have happiness, and has focused his entire existence on ensuring that no one else will have happiness. Heathcliff is ultimately tragic, but I don’t pity him, as he mastered his own fate and has essentially cursed himself. In the end, he cannot bring himself to carry out the final act of his schemes, and loses the taste for revenge. Instead, he turns the sickness inward. The world continues without him, in spite of his machinations, and he consumes his own heart.
Wuthering Heights falls under the category of the Gothic novel, along with the likes of Frankenstein. Supernatural elements are hinted at, and I suspect it’s left up to the reader to decide whether these exist. This is one of the novels that I recommend to all aspiring authors to read. As a study on character development, Wuthering Heights is essential. Yes, the language usage takes a little getting used to but if you can get into the story, you’ll gain an appreciation as to why this is one of those classics that has inspired film and music. (Go check out Kate Bush’s music videos on YouTube.)