Wow! I did not think when I picked up Wuthering Heights that it would be so brutal.
The entire book was filled with unrelenting cruelty and violence, both physical and verbal. Wuthering Heights would make Jane Austen fans go rushing back to Pride & Prejudice for equilibrium. Abuse was what literally shaped and reshaped the characters as they grew, mated and had offspring. The introduction into the Earnshaw household of the “gipsy brat,” as Mrs. Earnshaw called the young homeless boy brought home by Mr. Earnshaw; given only the name of Heathcliff, and whom Nelly Dean, obedient employee, would cast as the primary reason for the wretched misery within the family, did not add any new behaviors to the already wretched family dynamic; rather this random act cracked open what was already teaming with miserly misery. They turned Heathcliff into a brut and then blamed him for their own ugliness. Mr. Lockwood, the primary narrator sums it up by describing his behavior in a dream: “Terror made me cruel” (27). That’s what fear does. It makes us cruel.
And yet, Emily Brontë, who died a year after Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, managed to write a novel nuanced enough to generate my empathy for Heathcliff and Catherine; to have me fantasizing that there would be a happy ending, and in the end to take the end, and the suggestion of their ghostly union, as a happy one; As something that finally pushed through the cracks.
As I read, I wondered what made Brontë so different from Jane Austen? Austen too could see the landed gentry as pretentious snobs who thought they could control everything, and she outs them in her novels, with a linguistic style that demonstrates her command of language. Language overflows in Austen, and everyone gets enough time to say something. Emily Brontë, writes exquisitely, but she does not work the room like Austen. Brontë scandalously crushes those pretentious snobs, and with that she loses the big Hollywood and British film appeal. For who wants to see pretentious snobs behaving cruelly to one another and self-righteously othering an outsider without at least one dance to attend or one gorgeous sentence that maintains its grace and dignity while cutting someone to pieces? Brontë is less concerned with dialogue that is imbued with graceful intonation while it cuts, but rather presents the reader with the force of cruelty without adornments. This is not to say that Wuthering Heights is without style or grace. It is beautiful written.
But, Brontë is not just about cussing and revenge. I think underneath it all, Emily Brontë was following the path of love. Not the romantic, here’s-my-big-house-for-you-to-live-in-you -woman-of-moderate-wealth love, but something that is locked in and cannot be explained, a mystery. A life force. A weed that breaks through the cement in a sidewalk kind of love. The will to live love. Brontë equally crushes in love. As Catherine tells Nelly Dean, who is one of the narrators — and the most annoying narrator who every lived in a book:
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that not because he is handsome, Nelly, but 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” (86).
“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Once Catherine makes that statement it doesn’t matter that she marries Linton and has his child, she’s Heathcliff’s and that’s that.
Catherine continues to elaborate to Nelly Dean about her love for Heathcliff, just in case Nelly is not getting it:
“My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being” (87).
I am blown away by this love that Brontë describes. It has nothing to do with mere pleasure; it is of the earth. Nelly calls it “folly” and simply does not get it. Oddly, it might have been the first time I was angry at a narrator(s), the primary, Mr. Lockwood, whose curiosity always bordered on gossip, and the secondary, Nelly Dean, who worked for both generations of Earnshaws and Lintons, and who had internalized the patriarchy so thoroughly she could never see Heathcliff for anything more than a dark gypsy who was an intruder in the Earnshaw household. Nelly Dean was a dutiful employee with no heart or soul for love that did not abide by the cultural norm of the property owner. Oh, I know I fantasize!, wishing that Nelly would embrace the wildness of Heathcliff; perhaps see herself in him and even delight in the fierceness of this lovescape, but she fights for a false peace where everything is in its place, which means she has a place too, even if it’s a little one.
So I loved this book by Emily Brontë and was shocked to see the trauma inflicted on everyone just because a dark gypsy boy with no name, no family, and no home was offered refuge. Emily Brontë what would you write today if you lived in our world?