Sunday, 8 January 2017

No. 902: Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

A novel that is known to many but read by a lot less. Many people would recognise the characters of Cathy and Heathcliff or would be able to picture the wild Yorkshire moors which act as the backdrop of Wuthering Heights, or perhaps they may even recognise some of the famous quotes. Rereading the novel at the age of twenty-four, recently turned twenty-five, has enlightened and engaged me in a way that reading throughout my teenage years did not quite manage.

Brontë's style is quite like the subject matter of her story. The narrative tracks the lives of Heathcliff and Catherine, who is essence, were fated to be inextricably connected, but due to the pomp and circumstance of social status during the Brontë era, their fated life together became a muddled mess. This transgression from “what could, and should have been” is fundamentally what distances this novel from being the quintessential marriage plot text.

Renowned as a love story, Brontë's tale challenges the thematic structure of the love story. She undermines this tradition, by creating protagonists that, while you may route for them to have whatever happy ending they may be capable of, they are denied this in light of their status as anti-heroes. Everything in the manner of Brontë's writing style is targeted to distance the reader from endorsing a utopian conclusion for Cathy and Heathcliff.

The story begins with a framing narrative where a Mr Lockwood has rented Thrushcross Grange, situated in a remote area of Yorkshire, amidst the evocative moors prevalent throughout the tale. upon visiting with his landlord, Mr Heathcliff, Mr Lockwood establishes a rather poor first impression of Heathcliff. At the conclusion of this first acquaintance, Brontë begins in her denigrative and regressive beastly descriptions used in regard to Heathcliff throughout the course of the text. Consistently Heathcliff is distanced from humanity: animalised both physically and metaphysically. The nature of animalistic language metaphorically illustrates Heathcliff's moral deficiency during the entire narrative, and this all begins with a rather simple characterisation of Heathcliff's as similar to the 'misbehaviour of a pack of curs' (p. 12).

Within this very devolution of Heathcliff's humanity, Brontë establishes the very literal question mark the hovers over Heathcliff throughout the entire novel. His immediate description by Mr Lockwood follows as:

'He is a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman - that is, as much as gentleman as many a country squire, rather slovenly perhaps yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure - and rather morose. Possibly some people might suspect him of a degree of under-bred pride - I have a sympathetic chord within that tells me it is nothing of the sort; I know, by instinct, his reserve springs from an aversion to shoes displays of feeling - to manifestations of mutual kindliness.' (p. 10-11)

Mr Lockwood as the driver of the secondary framing narrative, provides the perspective of Heathcliff for the reader. As readers, we are innately required to trust in Mr Lockwood and his viewpoint of the world, which slowly unfolds as we read on. This places the reader upon unstable terrain similar to the likes of The Great Gatsby and Lolita. Unreliable narrators offer a capricious narrative climate due to a number of reasons, similarly to The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway and Lolita's Humbert Humbert, Mr Lockwood is a character within the story and therefore will always be somewhat biased based upon his personal interactions with the character, his own agenda and inherent ideological status. Furthermore, once Brontë establishes the tertiary narrative level prevalent throughout the crux of the novel, that of Nelly Dean's reported narrative to Mr Lockwood, the narrative destablishes further. As Nelly Dean is an actively involved character throughout each stage of the reported tale involving the lives, and deaths, of Heathcliff, Cathy and Linton, she provides highly biased narrative and clearly shows favouritism for specific “heroes” within the course of her own associations with them.

One cannot imagine the world of Wuthering Heights without picturing those evocative
moors. The Yorkshire Moors are a famous example of the implementation of pathetic fallacy such as 'a violent wind, as well as thunder' (p. 67). Pathetic fallacy is effective in the case of Wuthering Heights (which in fact is another case of pathetic fallacy), as the backdrop to the novel is mirrored in the landscape. The aggression and anarchy of the natural environment echo the narrative and character progression, or perhaps more appropriately, denigration. For instance, the former 'violent wind' followed scene where Cathy has received a marriage proposal from Edgar Linton and is discussing with Nelly Dean whether to accept him despite her love for Heathcliff. As she weighs this choice, Heathcliff overhears that she will never be able to marry him as '"would degrade [her] to marry Heathcliff"' and that if "'Heathcliff and [Cathy] married, [they] should be beggars?"' Overhearing this rejection from Cathy based upon his lowly social status, essentially torments Heathcliff, and this is thus echoed in the burgeoning storm surrounding them.

Whilst the novel is ingrained in romantic phrases and declarations, Brontë in a highly intellectual move, establishes the text as a direct antithesis to the fulfilling nature of quintessential Romantic tradition. Where customary Romantic texts will permit unions between the two leads, and conclude with an emotionally satisfying conclusion, such as exemplified within the works of Jane Austen, where all characters are paired off or in some way reach a moralistic conclusion, the nature of Wuthering Heights denies that ultimate satisfaction. Cathy's dilemma is the fundamental crux of the novel, and this unfulfilled relationship has a resultant ripple impact on each and every character featured within the text.

One cannot escape the devastatingly romantic language used by Cathy and Heathcliff when describing their feelings for one another. Whilst they are both abhorrent human beings, often cruel, manipulative and in essence self-serving to a vindictive degree, they were destined to be together and are victims of the machinations of class hierarchy entrenched in their time. Heart-wrenching language such as the following examples quite literally indicates the painful nature of the deep love shared between Heathcliff and Cathy:

'"Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same..."' (p. 64).

'"If all else perished and he reminded,  I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a might stranger."' (p. 65).

'"I have not broken my heart - you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine."' (p. 125).

'"Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! Only do no 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!"' (p.129).

In summary, Brontë's novel juxtaposes elements in a manner that is both intellectually and aesthetically beautiful. Whilst the story may not contain the epic and satisfying endings of which we as a reader have become accustomed to through the likes of reading Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen, the text elevates the typical romantic plot line to a status of new reality. Love in this story, is not a case where soul mates that are destined always end up together. Emily Brontë presents her readership with a Black Mirror-esque view of the typical Romantic period text, unflinchingly looking into the roots of a romance and the impact of social expectations and hierarchal discourse upon those connections. In a world where a romantic gesture has been denigrated to a swipe right or wolf whistle, this text permits the reader to venture into a world of heartbreak and epic adoration, and in spite of the irredeemable nature of Cathy and Heathcliff's characters, the reader can experience long lost love amidst a truly remarkable landscape. With elements of the supernatural juxtaposed to the paradigmatic realism any reader of Wuthering Heights is in for an exciting depiction of a different time. I would thoroughly recommend this text to anyone, not only because it is a book on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, or because it depicts a metamorphisis of the typical marriage plot and this mutated creature lays beyond the reader captivating any seeking a new and emboldening experience.


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