The first time I read Wuthering Heights was when I was still at school and although I read it from cover to cover it was a superficial read. I didn’t think much about it until I read it again recently. I found it a bit ‘dark’ and even found it oddly disturbing. Two facts that stared me in the face were:
- How interwoven the class system was, in the social tapestry of the 19th century and how accepting people were of this hierarchical set up.
- How dark emotions can take over people and make them justify self destruction and tyrannical behaviour towards innocent people
Wuthering Heights is a story of revenge – caused by intense love and betrayal. It follows the life of Heathcliff, a mysterious gypsy-like person, from childhood (about seven years old) to his death in his late thirties. Heathcliff rises in his adopted family, the family of the Earnshaw’s. Mr Earnshaw has two children of his own – Hindley and Catherine. Heathcliff is reduced to the status of a servant because of the jealousy, envy and intense hatred of Hindley who feels his father loves Heathcliff more than himself. Heathcliff bears this torment because he finds solace in Catherine who he loves with all his heart. He runs away when he finds that his love Catherine Earnshaw has decided to marry another man Edgar Linton. He returns later, rich and educated and sets about gaining his revenge on the two families that he believed ruined his life until he finds solace in death
There are some bits in this novel that totally amaze me …
Catherine Earnshaw explains to her housekeeper Nellie her reasons for marrying Edgar Linton:
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”
When Nellie accuses Catherine of marrying for the wrong reasons, Catherine explains her reasons:
“My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable; – “
I really don’t understand and I find this inexplicable!! Why the hell would someone ruin three lives because of ‘status’, despite realising the intensity of her feelings for Heathcliff?? It was this one action that causes the misery of almost every other person in the drama! I try to get into Catherine’s head and the only explanation I can come up with is that she must have been a victim of the era that she lived in – and she could just not have coped with the social stigma attached to marrying beneath her class in a rather partisan society.
The above part talks of the cause – which is betrayal. The repercussions amaze me even more. Yes, I understand how hurt, betrayed and worthless Heathcliff must have felt at being rejected. I can understand his need to exact revenge on Catherine or Hindley who caused him this feeling of low self worth in his childhood. I cannot comprehend how this could justify tormenting his own child and the Children of Catherine and Hindley. Find this behaviour inexplicable again!!
I did feel sorry for him when he met Catherine just before her death. Here are the sections just before her death. Heathcliff says to Catherine:
‘You teach me now how cruel you’ve been—cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you—they’ll damn you. You loved me—then what right had you to leave me? What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?’
‘Let me alone. Let me alone,’ sobbed Catherine. ‘If I’ve done wrong, I’m dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won’t upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!’
‘It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,’ he answered. ‘Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?’
After Catherine dies, he spends the rest of his life exacting revenge until he realises that even revenge does not give him pleasure because he sees in the faces of the suppresses the face of Cathy. He says:
“… for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree—filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day—I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women—my own features—mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!”
He spends the last few days of his life haunted by Cathy’s ghost.
I have always been fascinated by the dark anti hero types – so it would have been natural to assume that I would be fascinated by Heathcliff. No … there is something odd about his characterisation that I just cannot relate to. He does redeem himself when he realises revenge is just not worth it and starts talking to Cathy’s ghost. That to me is more normal than torturing poor helpless people!!! 🙂