Two posts in one day, you can tell I have nothing better to do with my bank holiday than read books and watch films – the perfect weekend if you ask me! Anyway, onto business. If you asked people to list their favourite great classic works of literature, Wuthering Heights would often be included. It’s often been hailed as one of the greatest love stories, and is one of those books that is generally well-loved and re-read although, at the time of its publication, it was actually rather shocking due to various acts of brutality and mental and physical abuse.
It’s hard for me to summarise the complex plot of Wuthering Heights, and as a two-generational story it can get a little confusing, but I’ll do my best to keep it brief and simple. Wuthering Heights is the home of the Earnshaws and Heathcliff, whom Mr Earnshaw brings home as a vagrant gypsy boy and raises alongside his own children Catherine and Hindley. Catherine and Heathcliff become very close, although the rest of the family think he’s too wild and roguish and disapprove of their closeness. But although she claims to be in love with Heathcliff, Catherine marries Edgar Linton instead and then dies after giving birth to her daughter, Cathy. Heathcliff never got over Catherine, and before her death he married Edgar Linton’s sister, Isabella, to spite both Catherine and Edgar. Isabella flees from his cruelty, and he later discovers that he has a sickly son by her named Linton. When Isabella dies, Heathcliff takes custody of Linton and manipulates Cathy to marry him so that, when Linton inevitably dies young, Heathcliff will inherit Edgar Linton’s property, Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff keeps Cathy imprisoned at Wuthering Heights and seems to gradually go mad, until he dies of exposure after wandering about on the moors at night, possibly in search of Catherine’s spirit. That’s the very basic gist of the story, but it all gets a bit complicated and interwoven, especially as the majority of it is told second-hand by a gossiping servant, Nelly Dean, to a visitor to the village, Mr Lockwood.
I have a few issues with Wuthering Heights, the first of which is this:
It’s extremely distracting trying to read a book when you can’t even turn the cover without instantly hearing Kate Bush warbling in your head, especially when you’re trying to get into the mood of what is really a rather grim and serious story. But actually, if you ignore the weirdly hypnotic dancing and rather see-through dress and instead focus on the lyrics, good old Kate has actually summed up the whole story pretty well! The only problem I have with the song, other than its ability to get stuck in my head for quite literally hours on end, is the fact that she’s singing about Cathy instead of Catherine. Take note Miss Brontë, these are exactly the kinds of problems that occur when you give two characters incredibly similar names, and which became a source of some confusion for me throughout the whole book. Budding novelists, be kind enough to think of future generations of story-telling song warblers, and use a bit more variety and originality when naming your characters.
The second issue I have with Wuthering Heights is its tendency to fall into the bracket of “one of the greatest love stories”, as I said earlier. Now, I’m not disputing the fact that it is a wonderful work of literature and, due to being quite an affecting read that definitely stays with the reader, I would surely count it as one of the ‘greats’. But a love story? It might just be me, but I don’t see this as a love story at all. Heathcliff has often been held up as a great romantic figure who pines for his love for the majority of his life before wasting away because of a broken heart, but, frankly, I just don’t see it. I don’t think he’s in love with Catherine at all, I think he’s obsessed with her and that is by no means the same thing. If he was in love with her he wouldn’t be so disrespectful as to dig up her corpse for his own kinky shenanigans. If he was in love with her he wouldn’t treat her family so abominably and go out of his way to destroy them both mentally and financially. His behaviour towards Catherine is almost possessive. He gets jealous of people who she favours and tries to get revenge on them for taking her away from him, but I don’t think his actions can be seen to be induced by love. Even if he did really love her, she became an obsession of his and that obsession, not his love for her, motivated all of his behaviour (in my opinion). I don’t see anything at all romantic in his character or his behaviour, I see him as a sinister, brutal and generally uncaring character, with no redeeming qualities. There’s no doubt that this is a wonderfully gothic and powerful story, but to me it is simply not a love story.
The third issue I have is with the characters themselves, and the lack of sympathy they induce in me. Put simply, they’re all completely unbearable and I’ve never come across a book where I’ve disliked practically every character so intensely. Heathcliff is a monster, there’s no getting away from it. He’s a complete brute who takes delight in ruining other people’s lives. Catherine was a selfish, spoilt and stroppy little madam who is completely undeserving of love from anyone as far as I’m concerned. She manipulates people for her own selfish gains, and throws a tantrum if she can’t have her own way. Her daughter Cathy has a few redeeming qualities and seems to have a great deal of affection for her father, Nelly and Linton, but she’s so completely spineless and happy to be walked all over that I found her nothing short of infuriating. Linton is the most abhorrent, manipulative character in the whole book in my opinion, worse even than Heathcliff, because he stoops so low as to use his illnesses against those like Cathy who genuinely care for him (goodness knows why, but she does), although he’s probably also the most abused character which may explain why he’s such a snivelling brat. Nelly acts like she means well, but she’s often the meddler exacerbating the situation and driving everyone up the wrong way. Hareton’s the only character that actually appealed to me in any way. He seems like such a (comparatively) honest character, he works hard to try to gain the affections of Cathy (who frequently scorns him and throws it back in his face), and there’s the sense that he is exactly as he appears to be, and in that way he’s quite reassuring. I actually found myself getting rather fond of him, and it’s probably Cathy’s actions towards him that caused me to dislike her so much. He’s such a put-upon and downtrodden character, and yet he carries on plodding away at life and quietly trying to improve things for himself by learning to read and trying to better himself. There’s something really rather endearing about him under his rough, brutish appearance, and for that reason he very rapidly became my favourite of a very bad lot.
It really is a compelling and arresting book, and I can easily understand why it’s a favourite of so many. All I will say to those who have never read it is that firstly, you absolutely must give it a go, and secondly, prepare to be frustrated and infuriated and aggravated, prepare to absolutely loathe some of the characters, and prepare to be completely sucked into their world and their suffering and their grievances. Yes it’s grim and it’s miserable and it’s incredibly gothic but, as far as I’m concerned, any book that can provoke such strong feelings and reactions must be a good book, so this really must be one of the greats.
See also My Culture Mission or read previous Book Review, featuring Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.