Updated: Jul 30
I am just on fire with so much admiration for Emily Brontë right now. Wuthering Heights is a beautiful, devastating, and profoundly haunting experience that reminded me of what literature is for. I felt this story like an itching beneath the skin and thought about it so often in the past few days there was hardly any space left in my mind for anything else.
Which is to say, I am so mad I didn’ read it sooner.
Since its first publication in 1847, Wuthering Heights generated a lot of controversy. Early reviews dismissed it as an aberration, with one pearl-clutching reviewer wondering “how a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters.” Others, like Sylvia Plath and E.M. Forster, were drawn to the complex, often contradictory open vein of the novel and rejected such easy classifications. Today, Wuthering Heights continues to be one of the most dynamic and generative novels of the 19th century, enabling many difficult and splendidly disputatious stances.
And for good reason, too.
(The following content contains spoilers)
The first element that makes Wuthering Heights so interesting is that it is presented as a series of second, even third, hand accounts, a story rehearsed and sanitized by multiple re-enactors with the reader being the last in a succession of interpreters. Put in a different way, the story changes hands multiple times, often between uncomprehending and hostile narrators, before it makes its way to the reader.
This structure is nuanced in multiple capacities; it is also very, very tricky. By engineering this profound de-centering of view—meaning, by depriving the reader of seeing all the way to the center of its main characters, into what may be kept in interior rooms, and emphasizing the flawed nature of these interpretations—Brontë defies easy readings of her novel and challenges the reader to take nothing at face value. The resulting book is not so much a close-roomed narrative as it is a field of multiplicity and mercurial contexts that invite the reader’s active participation.
The effectiveness of this structure, however, depends entirely on the reader’s degree of willingness to turn to Nelly—the main narrator—to provide an authoritative interpretation of the story. Nelly is not a very sympathetic narrator, and her thinly veiled bias against some of the characters brings into question, on many occasions, the validity of her account. Faced with the possibility that the novel might be the result of a failed interpretation, one can only read Wuthering Heights with a kind of longing, with the desire to get close to something inconsolable, something true, just beyond reach. Therein lies the potential for true understanding: in the underground currents of emotion, the places far beneath the surface of what the reader can see and understand. In other words, it is this frame of reference, however flawed and imperfect, that gives the characters a context in which we can begin to accept, understand, and grapple for their ultimate depths.
This brings us to the second element which makes Wuthering Heights such fodder for interpretation: the characters. In a story that is told at one, two, sometimes three removes, Brontë’s characters are not at all remote. Instead, the author brings a depth of anguish to the characters and engages our compassion no matter how unflattering and biased the gaze through which we see them. Brontë makes you feel deeply both her characters’ humanity and horror at themselves, makes you understand that they are not merely heroes or villains, but flawed people who hurt and were hurt.
This is nowhere as gorgeously epitomized as in the characters of Heathcliff and Catherine, with whom lays the broken heart of Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff’s vehemence, his grief and naked want, Catherine’s selfishness, her strain and struggle against the confines of her life—are rendered so honestly and so rawly in a way that appealed to me despite, sometimes because of, their deep abiding wrongness. This is not just a story about a “toxic” romantic attachment between two deeply broken and detestable characters. In fact, to argue the degree to which Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship was “toxic” or “unhealthily co-dependent” seems less relevant to me than the incontrovertible fact that in a world, a life, that would not let them be whole, Catherine and Heathcliff lent meaning to each other. To me, this is where the simple truth of Catherine and Heathcliff’s story lies: in their longing to be recognized by each other in a way that defies and transcends “separation,” and in the subsequent void and loss they suffer when one is intolerably deprived of the other.
The novel returns over and over to a theme of “identity through the other,” the desire to be defined in terms of an “existence… beyond” our “contained” selves. For Catherine and Heathcliff, their very sense of “self” was sustained through the bond of devotion they forged between them in childhood, back when they were flashing with youth and magic and hunger, and their passion for each other has always illuminated the gap between who they longed to be, and who they actually were. Invoking Heathcliff, Catherine confesses to Nelly at one point that "He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” In this way, Wuthering Heights is so truthful about what it means to be human: to desire to be known by another as intimately, as completely, as one knows their own image in a mirror, to love and despise and long for and tire of each other because it is a much merciful fate than a lifetime of emptiness, silence, and absence.
Under this light, it is easy to understand Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s unraveling, and in understanding, to love and pity them. We understand that in losing Heathcliff, Catherine lost her life, and in losing her, Heathcliff lost himself. All the proofs of passion, all the crawling devotions that sustained him in youth have yielded to nothingness, and somewhere inside Heathcliff a dam has broken, with nothing in its stead to stave off the madness of being alone, or to ward off the unpurged ghosts of a brutal past.
Through Heathcliff’s unraveling, Brontë lays a carefully layered, generational look at the reverberating effects of trauma and what it costs to give others so much power over us. Raised with the stigma of illegitimacy and of deviancy (and potentially of race, but that’s an essay for another day), and subjected to a childhood of casual abuse, name-calling and cruelty, Heathcliff spends the years following Catherine’s death trying to methodically reproduce his traumatic past, his experiences of degradation and loss, in others. Heathcliff, ultimately, does not just preserve the memory of Catherine, which he is bound to, but rather transform it into something else, into a display of his wound in full.
It is impossible not to feel at once entranced and horrified and rocked by the horror of what Heathcliff becomes, but however much I ached with sympathy for a younger Heathcliff, I found myself hurting more for Cathy, Hareton, and Linton, and the complex, many-generationed hatreds that twisted between them. Through Heathcliff’s deliberate and calculating attempts to recreate past circumstances in the second generation, the novel paints one of the clearest portraits of generational trauma that I’ve ever read. The fact that Wuthering Heights was conceived and published before the advent of psychology is proof that Brontë was truly ahead of her time. Even more impressive is the way Brontë gets that point across through utilizing intimate domestic spaces as prison and disfiguring family as a site for violence, evil, and struggle. The result is a novel that understands so thoroughly, so completely, and with bone-deep care that the scars inflicted by childhood abuse, by trauma, by the generational inheritance of atrocious memory do not just fade away; they stay and linger and fester until we all become a casualty of each other.
In short, I'm going to let this story haunt me for a very, very long time.
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