by Alex | 1/30/2014
" I first read this book when I was 12, for fun believe it or not. I'm not sure what made me pick up this classic at that moment, but I already knew by that point that literature was going to be a very big part of my life and I wanted to spend some time exploring the greats. To date, this is the only book by a Bronte sister and, unless my memory has mistaken me, the only book written by a 19th century woman that I've read. Of course, despite not having read them, I know the story of Jane Eyre by Emily's older sister, Charlotte Bronte and that of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (written about 30 years prior to Wuthering Heights). I actually picked it up again because Nic had the realization a few months ago that he had never read any 19th century female literature either, so I shoved this at him and he hated it with such a passion that he never finished. I am going to do my best as an historian to delve into what I find the most interesting about Wuthering Heights and the general worldview of Emily Bronte, but for the sakes of both comparative analysis and curiosity I think I will pick up a Jane Austen piece next. Anyway...
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 under the name Ellis Bell. Emily was one of three of her sisters who wrote and published during this time period, each of them choosing a pseudonym for their works with the same last name. This book wears many hats, if you will - some today consider it to be a great romance novel, others consider it to be dreadfully dull and lacking any quality which could describe "good literature." It is so brutish and improper that in Charlotte Bronte's introduction for its second printing (as Currer Bell, her pseudonym), she portrayed Emily (who had since passed) as a quiet and somber girl whose imagination could only encompass the few human interactions she chose to undertake - namely learned from gossip and the like. Wuthering Heights was published when Emily was only 29 years old. She died a year later. What I find the most fascinating about the book is how we can read into what Emily's life was like and how her writing portrayed her worldview in such a unique, almost child-like way.
The most striking aspect of the book is its structure; the entirety of it is from the first person, but who is speaking varies. We begin with a character, Mr. Lockwood, whose sole purpose is to be an observer in the plot. For most of the story, he is listening to the memories of Ellen Dean who, in turn, primarily recounts her observations of the lives of the main characters. Being a servant, Mrs. Dean hardly even plays an active role in her own story. Even within these two distinct dialogues are letters which are read out loud by Mrs. Dean to Mr. Lockwood, bringing us to three separate first person dialogues. Transitions between these voices are jagged and easily missed. To make it more difficult, the style of voice within these three perspectives is exactly the same - every person speaks in the same way, whether it be Mrs. Dean or Mr. Lockwood speaking directly or Mrs. Dean describing the dialogue of another character, there is no unique style which develops between each person. Although, one character does speak with an accent that is spelled out directly. Why the structure is the way it is is hard to tell. Mr. Lockwood seems to only exist to give a reason to tell the story and having it described to him by Mrs. Dean seems to be the most realistic way for him to hear it. To me, the few supernatural elements of the book (which I'll get to further down) are enticing enough for us to hear the story directly from Mrs. Dean as she's living it. I will say that experiencing the story through the eyes of two separate individuals does add value to how Charlotte Bronte describes the social understandings of her sister, the author - an indirect yet observant person who rarely lived for herself.
However, it is clear from how Emily's characters interact and how they try to develop, but can't quite ever make it, that she did not have any elaborate life experiences or any thorough understanding of how human nature works. Not only are all but one of the characters completely stagnant, they also embody particular traits which should be common to almost everyone; Joseph is the voice of religion, Mrs. Dean is the voice of reason, Edgar represents the refined gentry, both Catherine's (there are two, one the offspring of the other) are innocent-though-mischievous children, no matter their age, and Heathcliff is the sheer embodiment of all wrongdoing and evil man can possess... yet, he is the main character and the male counterpart of the romance which dances throughout the book. It is true that Emily was never married and, I believe, lived in less than gracious circumstances for her entire life, and so this love story as she paints it is nonsensical even for its time. I would conjecture that she was imagining what love would look like while playing into her own morose disposition in her creation of this piece, but it seems that even a basic understanding of biology, let alone love, is lacking; characters who are married suddenly have children, even if they hate each other so much that they avoid each other like the plague. It cannot even be said that Heathcliff rapes his wife who he hates because he intentionally shuns her, tells her that he hates her, and avoids her presence... yet they spontaneously reproduce!
Despite lacking any experience to show her how love and true human interaction work, Emily does seem to have a firm grasp of society itself. This is, I think, the one common denominator between the stories that I know of from women of the 19th century - society, its function, hierarchy, and acting as one should seem to be the most emphasized aspects of every work, which is completely logical considering women's role and place within this society. Women were pawns who were left to observe roles and mores as they happened to them rather than women being the ones who made anything happen. Mrs. Dean plays the role of servant and housekeeper well, responding to and interacting with her masters as would be deemed entirely appropriate for her time. The evil of Heathcliff is partially sparked by his greed, motivating him to act with an astute understanding of the system of inheritance to secure all of the property of his enemies for himself. The two families in the book intermarry in a not uncommon way for the early 19th century and marry intentionally for gain rather than love (though some of the characters would try to convince themselves otherwise). These societal norms dominate the plot through the interactions of every character, though I doubt Emily intended to make a statement about them whatsoever - this was the way it was and, so, that is how she portrayed it.
The most interesting thing that I take from Wuthering Heights is the theme of sickness. Everyone is sick all the time and sickness is brought on by any number of things, demonstrating not only how archaic medicine might have been in the 1840s but also how plagued Emily's life was literally. Allusions to sickness are used to foreshadow the deaths of various characters, though illness itself is never directly referenced as a cause. Instead, particular mannerisms or physical attributes which look and act like sickness are sometimes portrayed as character weaknesses implying that in Emily's time bad health was extremely common. Sickness can be brought on intentionally through fits and is sometimes used as leverage or as a threat to get what the character wants. Some who become ill are spared, though most ailments take the lives of the characters they afflict. Death itself can be seen as a character in a way; each transition in plot is brought on by someone's death and each attempt at character development follows: because Mr. Earnshaw died, Heathcliff and Catherine were neglected and abused - because they were abused, they ended up as they did; because Mrs. Earnshaw died, Hindley flew off his rocker and set up his son to become who he must for the development of the plot; because Catherine died, Heathcliff began to seek his revenge and do what he must for the development of the plot; because Edgar died, the other Catherine became a pawn in Heathcliff's game being left without anyone to protect her; because Heathcliff died, the book ends. While I have no doubt that death does spark changes in everyone's character and that it did occur as regularly as the story describes, I think that Emily's constant fight to survive played such a crucial role in her worldview that it unintentionally became the strongest thread through her work.
Finally, as I mentioned before, there are elements of the supernatural in this work which I understand to be fairly common for female authors of this period - perhaps it is particular to single, health stricken women - like Emily's sisters and even Emily Dickenson. Ghosts are used as part of the overarching love story as the spirit of the partner who died first (Catherine) haunts its counterpart (Heathcliff) in the Earthly realm, driving him to madness and his ultimate death. Every motive for Heathcliff's actions can be attributed to his desire to reunite with Catherine, seeking revenge from his enemies then finding himself at peace once everything has been set in place. Both spirits ultimately walk the Earth and haunt the town together, fulfilling their childhood prophesies of perpetual mischief and never being able to ascend into heaven.
Overall, I'd say that the reader has to take Wuthering Heights for what it is, at face value. It was written by a young amateur who perhaps never intended it to become a great piece of literature at all. Once the reader gets over the difficult structure and voice of the narrative, the plot itself is mediocre but nevertheless enjoyable... for me, anyway. Having told Nic what happens at the end, he still holds no curiosity whatsoever which could prompt him to finish it. We'll see how it compares when I have read a book by a similar author. "