Mr Lockwood, who has let Thrushcross Grange from the brooding Mr Heathcliff, decides that his landlord will trouble him, and that is to some extent true, but it’s really Heathcliff who is troubled, by the ghost of Catherine who stalks him long after her death. Ironically, it is Lockwood who sees Catherine at the window in a dream after he is installed into her old room for the night when he is caught at Wuthering Heights in poor weather. Already suspicious of Heathcliff’s nature, Lockwood observes him as he gets onto his bed and “wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. ‘Come in! come in!’ he sobbed. ‘Cathy, do come.’” Lockwood can’t give up the question of what has caused Heathcliff’s heaving sobs and investigates by discussing the history of the relationship of troubled Heathcliff and the imperious Catherine with the Grange’s housekeeper, Nelly Dean. Nelly takes over the narration of the story for much of the rest of the book, and is a fascinating player in her own right, given the way her actions (and inactions) affect those of the main characters. It all hinges on the moment Heathcliff overhears Catherine’s obtuse dismissal of him as a potential mate. Says Catherine, (p80):
I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone though and through me, like win through water, and altered the colour of my mind.
She then goes onto tell Nelly that she couldn’t take Heathcliff:
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; … because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.
Heathcliff overheard the start of her speech, up until the point she says it would degrade her, after which he stole off. So begins the thrust of much of the story, a revenge tale in which Heathcliff seeks retribution against Catherine, against the Linton family she marries into, as well as the Earnshaw family that raised him as an orphan alongside Catherine, but in which after old Earnshaw’s death, he is treated as more a servant than a member of the family. Nelly tries to make her see that all her reasons for marrying Linton are weak. By way of reply Catherine says:
… my great thought in living is [Heathcliff]. … My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff.
But Heathcliff has gone, disappeared, run off into the wild night, not to return for some years. And when he does make it back he is rich and appears every inch the gentleman, save his boorish behaviour. And what about those bleak Yorkshire moors! They are so evocative of the wildness in the hearts of those who populate the story… (p4):
… one may guess at 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.
The amount of conflict that exists between the characters is really something. The engine of the story’s drama, it’s present on every page. Never have I seen so many tears, so many exclamation marks! There are aspects of writing craft that might be frowned on today by some, such as the redundant use of adverbs when describing the manner in which a character is speaking, and the overt northern dialect of Joseph, which is hard for the reader to get through. All those exclamation marks would be trimmed no doubt as well.
What would survive is that quintessential Brontë drama, the desire, the love, the oh-so-poor choices, the suspicions and regrets, and Heathcliff’s scheming and abiding drive to have his revenge. To think of the appalling choices that people make! There is Catherine’s choice of Edgar. Isabella’s choice of Heathcliff. Oh, how my heart was wrung by Isabella’s letter to Nelly asking her (p136), “Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil? … I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married…”
There is Miss Cathy’s (Catherine’s daughter) choice of Linton – what a damp squib of a man he is! How could anyone in their right mind want to marry him? (Not that Heathcliff would have given her much choice!)
Then there are the malicious, calculating choices made by Heathcliff, his scheming to gain control of Wuthering Heights and the Grange, his snaring of poor Isabella and diabolical treatment of her, the way he takes Miss Cathy back to Wuthering Heights after Isabella gives birth to her in London, and his later jailing of her and Nelly.
It is the next generation after Heathcliff and Catherine that seek a way out of the mess created by him. Will they be similarly poisoned or will they escape from the strictures of the past? The resolution suggests a rebalancing of the Heathcliff-Catherine generation’s tumult, though there is enough violence exhibited by all the characters to indicate that all might not be settled even when we turn the last page.
I think one of the great aspects of Wuthering Heights is this sense that the story is not over, that we could read it many times and see a different angle on things. It’s part of what makes a novel a classic. The way the world is so cut off, almost like a fantasy, means it is, for all the moors’ open wildness, a very claustrophobic setting. In part this allows Brontë to sail as close-to-the-wind on thematic taboos as an author of that time might dare, such as incest and the borderline necrophilia of Heathcliff’s desire for Catherine’s dead body. There’s no overt incest of course, and the love between Catherine and Heathcliff is never consummated, but it’s all very inbred.
There are plenty of other interesting elements of story design I could muse over for longer, such as the similarity of the names: Heathcliff and Hareton and Hindley – and how this makes it difficult for any outsider, be they reader or Mr Lockwood to make quick judgements on the characters. But the above is enough for this reading of a worthy classic.
You can see a layout of Thrushcross Grange here (along with some other famous houses in classic literature).
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Penguin Classics 1847
Source: the bookshelf rainbow