No. 902: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
A novel known to many but read less.
Many recognise the names Cathy and Heathcliff or can conjure images of the tumultuous Pennine moors which reflect the volatility of the narrative, or they may even recall some of the stunning quotes.
However, in my experience, less people have attempted to read the works of any of the Brontë sisters. Addicted to books as I have been my entire life, I first read this text a decade ago and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. However, upon rereading the novel at the age of twenty-five, the narrative experience has reignited my passion for literature all over again. It enlightened and engaged me in a way that reading throughout my teenage years did not quite manage.
Emily Brontë's style reflects the subject matter. Bronte's disobedience of normative linear story-telling fragments the narrative. The interspersed flashbacks with contemporary progression creates an emotional fluctuation in the sensations of reading the text. The multi-layering of the narrative perspectives, alongside the movement of time, help to build and maintain tension and narrative drama. With the changing perception laid before the reader, there is a constant string of cliff-hangers create which foster greater narrative impact.
The narrative of Wuthering Heights tracks the lives of Cathy and Heathcliff. Characters who are inextricably connected and fated to be together. However, due to the pomp and circumstance of social status during the Brontë era, their lives together became a muddled mess. This transgression from “what could and should have been” is the main point of tragedy and pathos within the novel.
Renowned as a love story, Brontë's tale challenges the typical structure of the love story. Utilising protagonist anti-heroes enables Brontë to undermine the archetypal marriage plot tradition. Everything in Brontë's writing style is targeted to prevent a utopic conclusion for Cathy and Heathcliff.
The story begins with a framing narrative with Mr Lockwood in the rented Thrushcross Grange, situated in a remote area of Yorkshire, amidst the evocative moors. Upon visiting with his landlord, Mr Heathcliff, Mr Lockwood fosters a poor first impression of Heathcliff.
Throughout the narrative, Brontë invokes an animalistic vocabulary to describe Heathcliff. Within this terminology, Heathcliff is distanced from humanity: animalised both physically and metaphysically. The nature of the beastly language metaphorically illustrates Heathcliff's moral deficiency during the entire narrative, and this all begins with a rather simple characterisation of Heathcliff's as similar to the 'misbehaviour of a pack of curs' (p. 12).
The invocation of animalistic terms demonstrates a devolution of Heathcliff's humanity. Brontë institutes a question mark over Heathcliff's human status throughout the entire novel. His immediate description by Mr Lockwood follows as:
Mr Lockwood is the driver of the framing narrative and provides the contemporary evaluation of Heathcliff for the reader. The audience is required to innately trust in Mr Lockwood and his viewpoint of the world, which slowly unfolds as we read on. This places the reader upon unstable terrain similar to the likes of The Great Gatsby and Lolita. Unreliable narrators offer a capricious narrative climate due to a number of reasons, similarly to The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway and Lolita's Humbert Humbert. In the same vein as those narrators, Mr Lockwood is both narrator and character. This privileged state suggests an implicit bias. As a character, Mr Lockwood partakes in personal interactions with other characters, has an implicit agenda and an inherent ideological status.
Furthermore, once Brontë establishes the tertiary narrative level prevalent throughout the crux of the novel, that of Nelly Dean's reported narrative to Mr Lockwood, the narrative destablishes further. As Nelly Dean is an actively involved character throughout each stage of the reported tale involving the lives, and deaths, of Heathcliff, Cathy and Linton, she provides highly biased narrative and clearly shows favouritism for specific “heroes” within the course of her own associations with them.
In addition to Cathy and Heathcliff, the other prevalent "voice" within the narrative, is the evocative setting. One cannot imagine the world of Wuthering Heights without picturing those evocative moors. The Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights are a famous example of pathetic fallacy such as 'a violent wind, as well as thunder' (p. 67). This essentially means the temperature of the narrative story is reflected in the setting and vice versa. The aggression and anarchy of the natural environment echo the narrative and character progression, or perhaps, more appropriately, denigration.
For instance, the former 'violent wind' followed scene where Cathy has received a marriage proposal from Edgar Linton and is discussing with Nelly Dean whether to accept him despite her love for Heathcliff. As she weighs this choice, Heathcliff overhears that she will never be able to marry him as '"would degrade [her] to marry Heathcliff"' and that if "'Heathcliff and [Cathy] married, [they] should be beggars?"' Overhearing this rejection from Cathy due to his low social status, torments Heathcliff, and this anguish is echoed in the burgeoning storm encompassing them.
Brontë invokes a romantic language throughout the novel. However, she denies the fulfilling conclusion of quintessential Romantic tradition. Where customary Romantic texts enable unions concluding with an emotionally satisfying conclusion, such as exemplified within the works of Jane Austen, where all characters are paired off or in some way reach a moralistic conclusion - the nature of Wuthering Heights withholds that ultimate satisfaction. Cathy's dilemma is at the crux of the novel, and this unfulfilled relationship has a resultant ripple impact on each and every character featured within the text.
One cannot escape the devastatingly romantic language used by Cathy and Heathcliff when describing their feelings for one another. Whilst they are both abhorrent human beings, often cruel, manipulative and in essence self-serving to a vindictive degree; and yet they are destined for one another. Perfect halves to a a whole. Heart-wrenching language such as the following examples quite literally indicates the painful nature of the deep love shared between Heathcliff and Cathy:
In summary, Brontë's novel is both intellectually, narratively and aesthetically stunning. Whilst the story may not contain the typical satisfaction of marriage plot fictions that we as a reader have become accustomed to, the text circumvents the typical romantic plot line to a status of "ultimate reality". Love is not necessarily fulfilled in all cases and that has the primal sting of reality more than many other narratives.
Emily Brontë presents her readership with a Black Mirror-esque view of the typical Romantic period text, unflinchingly looking into the roots of a romance and the impact of social expectations and hierarchal discourse upon those connections. In a world where a romantic gesture has been denigrated to a swipe right or wolf whistle, this text permits the reader to venture into a world of heartbreak and epic adoration.
In spite of the irredeemable nature of Cathy and Heathcliff's characters, the reader can experience long lost love amidst a truly remarkable landscape. With elements of the supernatural juxtaposed to the paradigmatic realism, any reader of Wuthering Heights is in for an exciting depiction of a different time.
I would thoroughly recommend this text to anyone, not only because it is a book on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, or because it depicts a metamorphisis of the typical marriage plot. But, because reading this novel is akin to witnessing the unveiling of true beauty. The experience is captivating and emboldening. Brontë is truly a goddess and it would be a crying shame for anyone to miss the beauty of her writing.
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