A few years ago, I decided that I needed to reacquaint myself with the classics, so after an unsuccessful attempt at Don Quixote due to sheer boredom (I would still like to finish this one day), I picked up a copy of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and delved in. First published by Thomas Cautley Newby in London in 1847 under the name Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights tells the tragic tale of Catherine and Heathcliff. Not a favorite among early critics because of its dark themes of jealousy and vengefulness, and how the effects of which can destroy lives, it struck a chord with readers, and still does, because it is so much more than that. Yes, jealousy and revenge play a huge part and are central themes to the novel, but it is where they come from that is even more powerful: love ignored.
The novel opens with Mr Lockwood, a man who is renting the house Thrushcross Grange as a means of relaxation. He goes to visit Heathcliff, the landlord who lives in a house called Wuthering Heights, and notices that the household seems a bit strange. Upon his return to Thrushcross Grange – he had been detained to stay with Heathcliff in his home due to inclement weather – he asks the housekeeper, Nelly, to tell him the story of Heathcliff and Catherine, of who seemed to be the prior occupant of the room he had slept in while staying at Wuthering Heights, and of whom seemed to be of a particular interest to Heathcliff. At first unwilling, Nelly relents and, going back thirty years into the past, she tells Mr Lockwood the complicated story of Heathcliff and Catherine, their upbringings, their mutual love for each other, and how they ultimately were torn apart – both by each other, and by those surrounding them.
Wuthering Heights was once the home of Mr Earnshaw and his kids Hindley and Catherine. While on a trip, Mr Earnshaw adopts a homeless boy, names him Heathcliff and brings him back home. This is the start of two things, the first being Hindley and Heathcliff’s mutual dislike for one another because Hindley felt that Mr Earnshaw favored Heathcliff over him. Hindley was sent away to school, only to return a few years later after his father’s death, as head of the household, reducing Heathcliff from adopted son to servant. The second thing was that Catherine and Heathcliff became inseparable, spending as much time as they could together. A little after Hindley returned with a wife in tow, Catherine and Heathcliff went to Thrushcross Grange to spy/make fun of the Lintons. After being attacked by their dog, Catherine was forced to stay with the Lintons and started to like their mannerisms and the way that they lived. She started to like Edgar Linton as well, whom she eventually marries. Catherine’s time at Thrushcross Grange changed her forever, and she confesses her feelings to Nelly, who was her confidant.
“I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now so he shall never know how I love him and that’s 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 here is where the tragedy that is Catherine and Heathcliff begins. They both loved each other, but Catherine, not wanting to feel dejected, and under societal influences, married Edgar Linton instead. It is a decision which, for the rest of their lives, she and Heathcliff regret. Even Edgar Linton was aware of the love between Catherine and Heathcliff, although that didn’t stop him from marrying her. Heathcliff disappears for a time, comes back extremely wealthy, and seeks revenge on Hindley and Edgar Linton. After all, they are the reasons as to why he and Catherine weren’t together. Heathcliff and Catherine reunite just before she dies, where she confesses this:
“The thing that irks me most is this shattered prison, after all. I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there; not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it, and in it.”
The rest of the novel is all about Heathcliff’s revenge, and how he treats everyone in his life. The nice boy that he had been exists only in the past, and the present Heathcliff is a terrible man. He encourages alcoholism, he kidnaps people and makes life seem like hell. To him, that’s what it was. Not to condone his bad behavior, or even to excuse it, but this was Heathcliff’s way of dealing with the fact that, not only had he loved Catherine and lost her to someone else, she never stopped loving him, and I think that that makes it all the more tragic. To her dying day (and on it), Catherine admitted to loving Heathcliff, so, if she loved him so much, why did she choose Edgar over him? Was the pressure of being valued in society that great that it was valued over being happy and being with the person that she actually loved? In this case, it was – a true-to-life story about how status is often chosen over love. Maybe not as often anymore, but it is definitely not uncommon for someone to marry a person whom they do not love. For the dark tale that Wuthering Heights is, would Catherine and Heathcliff have faired any better if they had married? Would they have been happy? Maybe, but since happiness itself is void in the novel, it’s hard to tell. Yes, they both had this connection to each other, this soul-to-soul connection that was clearly powerful and affected the ways they lived their lives once separated, but I’m not sure that that would have been enough for them. Perhaps their love for each other grew because they were apart, and maybe, if Catherine had chosen Heathcliff, they may still have been unhappy, although I would like to imagine that they would be. In a novel of revenge and despair spawned from love, tragedy is inevitable, but Heathcliff and Catherine were together in the end, even though neither of them lived to see it.
Wuthering Heights is dark, and for most of the novel it depicts Heathcliff as this horrible man, but under all that Heathcliff had become (or hadn’t become), on the inside, he was just that young helpless boy, crying for his Catherine. That’s why I love this story so much. If you get passed the darkness of it, you come to see it more as a tragedy of a love that was never given the chance to mature, as opposed to a man filled with hate and a desire for revenge.
I leave you with probably my favorite quote from the novel. It’s Heathcliff just after Catherine’s death. I think that it really conveys just how much they were in fact connected, and the love that they shared The power of it breaks my heart every time I read it:
“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”