Wuthering Heights can be described as a tragic love story along the lines of the great tragedies that have been written on the theme. What sets it apart from other works in this genre; however, is the description of pure depravity, which is propounded through its central character, the ever famous Heathcliff. He seems too unearthly, someone who is conceived only to draw hatred and disgust. There is; however, a meek justification proffered in his defense. He is brought to Wuthering Heights with a handicap of not belonging to the society, a world full of etiquettes, refinement, and conventions that come with civilization, a world which eventually abandons him as an outcast. What follows is an unchecked wrath and contempt that propel him to inflict pain and helplessness on everything he comes across. This unadulterated scorn for humanity and all of its good qualities makes him look illogical, more like an idea instead of a person, something that would look almost ridiculous if placed out of the frame of the story and it’s setting. The ability to transcend logic while writing fiction and yet make it acceptable, as a form of pure thought and imagination is characteristic of poetry. It is the poetic element in Emily Bronte’s writing that impresses you as you start on the journey towards the Wuthering Heights.
‘one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.’ – Chapter I
Poetry comes with its uncertainties, with a requirement for interpretation that is human and individualistic, one that doesn’t get bounded by logic and reasoning. There is no universal truth that is presented, but a bare thought, almost whimsical because it doesn’t come fortified with reason. The omniscient narrators in fiction; however, cannot afford to stray, cannot be seen as manipulative while presenting the story. To compensate for the poetic nature of the theme and the unnatural behavior of the characters, we have not one but two narrators who are themselves part of the story. Mr Lockwood is the primary narrator but his version is derived, or possibly reproduced as it was from the narration of another character in the story, Ellen Dean. She is a narrator who has been a participant in most of the scenes, but throughout the book she seems to be wavering between romanticism, honesty, loyalty and redemption, something that induces doubt on the veracity of her words. These choices; of having layers of narration and adding some dubiousness to it, seem like a conscious decision taken by the author, most likely to make the readers question each event. Maybe it is an invitation to the discerning reader to look beyond the surface of the story as it is perused.
‘but I have undergone sharp discipline, which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy, Mr. Lockwood. You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also’ – Ellen Dean
The story commences from the childhood of Heathcliff and Catherine when love gradually takes root as the kids go exploring the heaths and the moors away from the eyes of adults and their ways. It is in the conflict between their innocence and the moral and appropriate behavior as professed by the adults, that this love grows offshoots; those which reach beyond the realms where it could have been destroyed. This story can be seen in the light of this conflict. Society adds a lot of constraints and restraints, keeping innocence and individuality in check for its sustenance. It is eternally in opposition to the free, childlike spirit of the individual which has an inherent tendency to oppose any restraint, in the process even going to the extent of appearing irrational. But it is the same children that grow into the convention abiding adults, once they concede defeat to the forces of society and its rules, that is. Even in such a person, the spirit of the kid doesn’t die. It manifests itself in the moments of extreme emotions or extreme abandon when one loses one’s guard. Catherine, when faced with the forces and the lure of society concedes to it, she chooses the worldly beau who is refined, rich and sensitive. Heathcliff, on the other hand is not offered any such option, he is left alone in the heath of his bare existence. He is no different from a child who has been shown the pudding, given a taste of it and then denied any further access to it. So like a child he goes about, for the rest of his life, not just hating the cruel world but wrecking havoc on it. Never graduating to become a conformist, he has no regard for the forces of conscience, pity or a definition of good and bad. He knows he has been wronged, for no apparent transgression on his part and therefore the world he is against is evil. His actions are not only justified since he is acting against the wickedness, but they also make him the righteous one. We see no remorse in the man as his deeds keep ruining the lives of people around him, making him a villain who deserves all the hatred of society, if only because instead of giving a speech for his redemption at the end he offers sarcasm and a sneer.
It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’ – Heathcliff.
The poetics employed in the book also take us to the domain of romanticism. The gothic background and the delineation of characters conjures up images that elicit strong emotions from the reader. The disconnect between the world outside Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, and the world inside guides the reader to go on the path of fantasy. The flaws in all the characters makes us question the flaws within us. Romanticism makes the world seem fantastic but it comes with a side effect, a consciousness of what is lacking, a question to what is real. These thoughts invariably take a turn towards the cardinal conundrum of existence. Love once stripped down of romanticism can be construed as an undertaking to further one’s existence. Existence of self is the most beautiful and profound concept for the individual, it’s so palpable that everything else starts to seem trivial. However, this solitary nature of its realization forces us to find an extension of our existence beyond the self, as a proof that it’s not an illusion we hold within us. The acknowledgement of our existence, to its very minute details, in another person is more satisfying than life itself, and more liberating than death. We therefore tend to efface our ego when we are truly in love, the loved one becomes the only person that exists in our world. Most of the love stories resist in bringing about a union of the lovers, it’s in death and failure to consummate that this proof of existence, and therefore life, is strengthened. Catherine, in her quavering speech justifying her decision to marry Linton ends up saying that she herself is Heathcliff, there is just no distinction.
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?’ – Heathcliff.
The later part of the book seems like an effort to exonerate the author for being too bleak in her outlook towards life. The older generation consisted of Heathcliff, amply described above as the rebel against goodness, Catherine who is just like Heathcliff but betrays her freedom from the norms and switches to the other side, the side of Linton who represents the civilized world. It is in retrospect that we see how the world, with its ultimate intention to survive, embraces the renegades. Linton goes to the extreme in this act, almost losing his respect and identity. This leniency is contradicted by his stern decision in matters of his rebel sister, symbolic of the way how the rational world is unforgiving and shuns the ones who stray. The younger generation is, and is presented to be treading the boundaries between these worlds. Young Cathy maybe saucy but she has a balance in her mental faculties and physical endurance that was lacking in her father or her mother. Young Linton is shown as weak, and almost immoral, for he is the child born from a union of the rational world who erred into the unwilling and disinterested arms of the rebel. Mirrored as the new Heathcliff, a cheerful Hareton contradicts the former’s image in his ignorance and his endeavors to gain favors from the seemingly unkind yet beautiful lady, his sense of righteousness and concern awakening amidst the almost animal identity tells us how life, and reason eventually finds its way.
In spite of all the possible ways you may choose to read and interpret the events and the people of Wuthering Heights, you will still be left enchanted and searching for meaning, searching for a better explanation of the feeling it leaves you with. It’s a feeling of being haunted by the place, by the moors, and the possibility of a love, so violent that it would destroy yourself along with everyone around you. Just like the horror movie actor who finds himself in a haunted house and to your exasperation, walks into the red room defying all logic, you will be drawn to this book again, for another reread.
‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth. The end.’