Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Like my review of Jane Eyre, I give everything away because I assume most of you have read the book.  However, if you like surprises, read no further.  I would point out that the story of Heathcliff and Katherine is much more complicated than what any of the movies show.  They simply don’t do justice to the many sides and colors of the characters in this novel.

Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite novels, one that I’ve read many times and just recently read again.

It wasn’t always my favorite. The first time I read it I was in high school.  I didn’t enjoy reading it; I was only waiting for Katherine and Heathcliff to die so they could burn in hell as they so richly deserved.  Why does evil always seem to overpower good in so many books?  I thought.  Why can’t goodness put up a fight?

Later in my twenties I picked the book up again and skimmed through some of the passages.  I came across certain parts that I saw in a new light.  I saw that the people who seemed so weak and ineffectual at my first read were not quite so helpless after all. In fact, good does win out and it does in a way that is less obvious but closer to real life than is portrayed in many Victorian novels.

The events in Wuthering Heights start during the American Revolutionary War, even though this contemporary historical event is never alluded to.  It ends thirty years later in 1801.  Part of this lack of any reference to important historical events may or may not have been intentional on Ms. Bronte’s part but it certainly reinforces the sense of isolation that surrounded the Moorish wilderness and the people who inhabited it.

Katherine Earnshaw and her brother, Hareton are young children waiting for their father to return from a distant town.  They are eagerly awaiting the presents their father has promised them.  Their father finally returns, but instead of receiving presents, they are presented with a little foreigner, an abandoned gypsy child. 

The orphan is named Heathcliff and the name serves as both his first and last name for the rest of the story.  The father dotes on Heathcliff, Hareton develops a maniacal hatred for him and Katherine, after her first angry outburst (she spits on him) over the loss of her presents, develops with Heathcliff a close friendship.

While the father is alive, Hareton barely tolerates Heathcliff and physically abuses him as much as he is able to get away with.  Unfortunately for Heathcliff the father dies and Hareton, who is now a young man, is head of Wuthering Heights (which is the name of the estate).

Heathcliff and Katherine endure a living hell at the hands of her brother.  Heathcliff loses his place as a member of the family and is made to work as a servant.  Hareton leaves both Heathcliff and Katherine’s upbringing to the oppressive Joseph, an old servant who is as harsh and merciless a Pharisee that ever blighted the earth.  When he wasn’t boring them with long sermons, he was pouring venomous proclamations over their head, informing them of what horrible sinners they were that ever blazoned a trail to hell.

Hareton had a flighty little wife whom he adored and who kept him preoccupied.  She tragically dies of tuberculosis while still a young woman.  Tragically for Heathcliff and Katherine that is.  Hareton never recovers from his grief and sinks into a life of alcoholism, depravity and abuse.  If he was cruel to Heathcliff before, he works at outdoing himself now.

All Heathcliff and Katherine have are each other.  They escape to the Moors where they spend most of their days rambling about. Their common experience of abuse and neglect bond them tightly together. This is how they spend their childhood and adolesence.

Then a circumstance happens that changes everything. Katherine becomes friends with the children from a neighboring estate.  Edgar and Isabella Linton are introduced into Katherine’s life and for the first time she learns to become a lady and relatively civilized.  Linton falls in love with Katherine, who is by this time a teenager and extremely beautiful.  He proposes and Katherine agrees to marry him.

Nellie, the housekeeper of Wuthering Heights, and incidentally the narrator of the story, chides Katherine for so blithely abandoning Heathcliff.  Katherine explains to Nellie that she is marrying Edgar for Heathcliff’s sake.  She insists the money and status she will acquire through marrying Edgar will be used to elevate Heathcliff from his degraded state.

This is a naive, if not outright dimwitted, attitude on Katherine’s part.  Edgar and Isabella have shown nothing but disdain and contempt for Heathcliff.  They cannot look beyond his slovenly appearance, coarse manners, or the fact that he belongs to a different and what was considered back then to be an inferior race.

When Katherine confides her plans to Nellie, she doesn’t realize that Heathcliff has overheard her.  He runs away and disappears for three years.

When he returns, Katherine is married to Edgar and living at Thrushcross Grange, the Linton’s estate.  The Lintons’ parents have died by this time, leaving a group of very young and inexperienced people living by themselves.  Woe to them.

Here the tale turns into what could be titled, “The Revenge of Heathcliff.”  Heathcliff presents himself to Katherine and the Lintons and a pretty formidable picture he makes.  No longer the ragamuffin servant, Heathcliff is dressed and talking like a cultivated gentleman.  His accent is slightly foreign, maybe American, which leaves Nellie and the reader to wonder where he has spent his time, maybe fighting in the American wars?

Katherine immediately renews her friendship with Heathcliff and doesn’t bother hiding not only her affection but her passionate love for him, much to Edgar’s consternation.  This leads to a final confrontation between the two men that ends with Heathcliff being banished from Thrushcross Grange.

How does Heathcliff spend this time?  By gambling with the by now, permanently drunk and half-crazed Hareton.  Heathcliff eventually wins all of the Earnshaw property and wealth and perhaps even helps quickens Hareton’s death, although Hareton carved a pretty brilliant path to self-destruction and hardly needed anyone’s help.  This leaves Hareton’s son, also named Hareton, a pauper and ward of Heathcliff.  Although Heathcliff keeps young Hareton illiterate and works him as servant (as he was treated by the father) he nevertheless develops an affection for him, perhaps because Hareton, who also suffered abuse and neglect from his father had developed a similar fierce fearlessness as Heathcliff did. 

Possessing Wuthering Heights is not enough for Heathcliff and he determines also to possess Thrushcross Grange.  He does this by wooing Isabella.  He manages to persuade the innocent and very, very naive Isabella to run away with him.  She soon learns to regret her decision.  If Wuthering Heights was written today I’ve no doubt the readers would be treated to more graphic descriptions of just how badly Isabella was treated a la Fifty Shades of Gray.  Being a Victorian writer, Bronte kept things subtle so as to clearly convey to the reader that Isabella’s plight was a grim one without robbing us of our imaginations.

Katherine cannot cope with the conflict between her husband and Heathcliff.  She throws herself into a passion which leads to a brain fever and eventual death.  Before she dies she gives birth to a baby girl, also called Katherine.  Bronte doesn’t inform us of Katherine’s pregnancy until after she has died.

Katherine dies half way through the novel.  The rest of the novel involves Heathcliff as a cruel and tyrannical overlord to the people at Wuthering Heights and eventually at Thrushcross Grange which comes into his possession after Isabella bears him a son.

Isabella and Edgar both die young which leaves Heathcliff with everyone’s children.

Again, this is where the story begins to turn around again.  At first when I read this book I could not see it, but now I clearly see how Emily Bronte created wheels inside of wheels. 

Heathcliff has wreaked revenge on everyone.  So he should be satisfied, right? 

Actually, no.  With the exception of his own son, called Linton, the children of Hareton, and Katherine and Edgar show that they have strength of character after all.  They just needed trial and tribulation to bring it out.  Interestingly, Heathcliff’s own son is sick and weakly but just as hateful and spiteful as Heathcliff is.  He is selfish and peevish to the point where Heathcliff can’t bear to be around him.

I must confess I also enjoyed Isabella and the way she learned to enrage Heathcliff with her tongue.  He could degrade her, imprison her, verbally and physically abuse her, but the one thing he couldn’t do was shut her up.  She made herself such a thorn in his side that when she eventually ran away, he didn’t pursue her.

The other children, young Hareton and Katherine, overcome their initial degradation at the hands of Heathcliff and rise to surpass him, even though they are still in his power. 

Heathcliff, in the end, realizes that even though he can take away their money, wealth and names, he can’t conquer their spirit. 

More than that, he realizes that all he ever wanted was Katherine.  For the twenty years following her death, Heathcliff believes that her ghost has been haunting him.  In the end he dies in the prime of health and still young but no cause of death can be found.

The story ends with Nellie affirming to her listener (a young man who only comes into the novel at the beginning and the end and serves no purpose other than to be the audience who listens to Nellie’s story) that many people have witnessed the ghosts of Heathcliff and Katherine wandering the Moors together.

I take that back.  The man does serve a purpose because he offers another first person narrator in addition to Nellie, who really provides more of a third person narrative even though we know it is she who is telling the story.  This man presents the characters to us from his own point of view, having met Heathcliff, young Hareton and Katherine at the beginning of the book when they are having a rough time of it, and at the very end, after Heathcliff’s death. 

And, come to think of it, he provides another purpose because he is a typical 19th century dandy.  His cultivated, aristocratic person throws into sharp relief the remoteness of the characters in the story as well as the desolateness of their surroundings.  Next to him, Heathcliff and the rest seem even more strange.

This has led some to wonder if Emily Bronte was making it questionable if Nellie was telling the truth.  After all, she’s just a maid, whiling away the time by spinning yarns and sharing gossip about the people she works for to a bored visitor who is laid up with the flu.  We only have her word for it.

 Personally, I don’t think so.  I think it was simply a narrating device that Emily chose.  She wanted to tell the story in the first person so she needed a first account witness and she wanted an audience member who is marginally a part of the story so Nellie could tell the story to him rather then speaking directly to the reader.  It also allows her to give two different “camera angles,” if you will, of her main characters.

Another attribute of this novel is the psychology involved.  I suppose one could explain Katherine’s wildness and Heathcliff’s almost psychotic behavior to the unprincipled and abusive lives they lead under Hareton Earnshaw. But why isn’t the same true for the young Hareton when he was raised the same way under Heathcliff?

That is another aspect of the novel that I found thought-provoking.  There were those, such as Heathcliff and Katherine, and to a lesser extent Isabella, who became hardened, strong willed and selfish due to their treatment.  Then there were Edgar Linton, young Hareton and young Katherine whose trials caused them to rise to the occasion and become better people than they were when their lives were easy (even though Hareton’s life didn’t become easy until after Heathcliff’s death.).  Why is that?  What was Emily Bronte trying to say?

She gives some clues in her descriptions of each of her characters before bad things happen to them.  Emily conveys each person’s attributes and how they blossom to their full potential when they undergo hardship.  One has to read the book to fully appreciate this. Bronte would have made a great behavioral scientist.

Later, after Heathcliff’s death, Hareton’s property returns to him as does young Katherine’s to her.  I’ve told you everything else.  Should I also tell you that Hareton and young Katherine fall in love?  Their relationship starts out stormy but turns to devoted friendship-while still under Heathcliff’s iron fist, mind you-and eventual marriage which finally  returns and unites Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange under their rightful owners.

Really what makes this such a great novel?  Is it the story line?  Maybe.  To me what makes the story enduring are the vividly drawn characters and their richly constructed dialogue, something I can’t recreate in this review. Bronte uses beautiful vocabulary and a delicious style of speech that doesn’t exist today. I enjoy reading certain passages over and over again just to let the words roll around in my mouth.  I relish her tart wit and dry humor. It sparks my imagination. Our language has devolved over time.  Compared to then, today we talk like a bunch of monkeys.

I could go on but this story really supplies the reader with so many different angles and topics to consider that I think I could continue to read it every year and still discover some other nugget that Emily Bronte was trying to show through her one and only novel.  It was published a year before her death at the age of thirty-one. Wuthering Heights is credited with being the first Gothic novel and introducing the concept of the “anti-hero.”

My copy is an old 1943 hardback that is illustrated with the original woodcut drawings.  It is part of a boxed set with my Jane Eyre copy.  It has an introduction by Emily’s sister, Charlotte, that offers insight into her sister as well as her own clearly expressed opinions of Emily’s masterpiece.  (Hint:  she didn’t think it should have been written.)

I hope my review has encouraged its readers to get a copy (or dust off your old copy) and read one of the most brilliant books written in the English language.

.99 on Kindle


  1. Superb post Sharon. I have actually never read this but I have seen the movie.

    Very insightful point about subtle and quiet resistance to evil. I think that as one gets older it becomes easier to understand this. This aspect of the book is one of many reasons that I want to read this one.

    The drawings that you posted from your addition of the book look fantastic.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I hope you will be able to find the time to read it. I like my editions of the book better than any other I've seen. Take care!

  2. Very good account. Honestly, the book terrified me when I read it the first time. Maybe I should give it another go...

    1. RamblingMother: It is a crazy story with wild characters. But it definitely deserves a second go. Hope you'll be able to read it again. Take care.

  3. This is a fantastic review! It helped me follow the progression of the novel and see its development. When I read it, I really did not like it at all and have been looking for someone to change my mind, so here's a start! I will probably read it again, sooner rather than later. I just need to recover from my Villette experience first! ;-)

    1. Cleopatra: I'm glad to have helped. Sometimes a book just isn't our cup of tea, even if it is good literature. Nevertheless, I hope that one day you'll be able to pick up the novel and enjoy all the subtleties and appreciate her writing method. I'm amazed someone so young could write such a novel.
      I suppose I should give Villette another try as well (sigh). :)

  4. Wonderful review, Sharon! Even though I hated the book, I do see its value as a character study. And I can understand your view and why you love the book, even if I don't share that view and that love. Thank you for sharing how the book affected you. And those illustrations are wonderful!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.