Book review: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë

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This is only known novel by the middle of the three celebrated Brontë sisters, who died at age 30 only a year after it was published in 1847. The rumor that Emily was putting final touches on a second novel adds a tragic mystery to the world of arts and letters, right up beside Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and the lost episodes of Doctor Who. This is especially frustrating since Wuthering Heights has been argued more and more to be the greatest of the seven novels completed by the Brontë sisters, Jane Eyre notwithstanding. It has been the subject of three operas, a graphic novel, and numerous film adaptations, including versions set in Mexico, Japan, and a California high school.

My advice, however, is to accept no substitute for the Yorkshire moors of the original. No other setting could so perfectly embody the haunting, horrifying, operatically tragic destiny of nearly every speaking character in this book. In the opening paragraphs, the author explains the meaning of the word “wuthering” as a reference to the violent atmospheric disturbances among the high, heather-tufted moors, where a dark figure like Heathcliff can well be imagined roaming in the night, tormented by his doomed love for the headstrong Cathy, a torment which finally proves to be the only—and I mean only—redeeming feature of an otherwise scandalously cruel and almost unremittingly vicious monster. It is a setting ripe for a tale of ruined hopes, restless ghosts, perverted passions, fevers that prey on body and mind, and Calvinistically merciless manners and sentiments. It is the only conceivable site for a story in which the near-complete destruction of two generations of a pair of families can arise inevitably from one eavesdropping youth overhearing but the first half of a conversation, before slipping off into the night with unjust bitterness poisoning his heart.

And it is an astonishing work of literary genius, considering that its author was outlived by her masculine pen-name Ellis Bell, so short was her life and career. Despite this, the middle Brontë sister told her tale by way of a daring yet strikingly successful experiment in narrative structure. If, like me, you take in an audio-book edition of this novel, you will immediately understand. The version I listened to required two narrators, one of each sex. This is because the first-person narrative by Mr. Lockwood provides only an introduction, a few transitional passages, and a conclusion. Under this proscenium arch, if I may speak so—and this book is nothing if not an exquisite piece of theater—the main part of the drama unfolds in the words of co-narrator Ellen “Nelly” Dean, who bears a complex relationship to the characters in her tale and even, in her well-meaning way, may have influenced their fates. Be her account as reliable or unreliable as it may, it also encloses passages narrated to her (either orally or in writing) by at least two other characters. Emily B. could have continued this experiment in nesting narrators, like matryoshka dolls, to any number of levels, had she wished. Fussy book-editors may despair of ever getting the number of quotation marks right, but when read aloud (especially by one male and one female actor), it seems altogether clear. And somehow, by howsoever many narrators the events may be removed from us, the whole gut-twisting, hair-pulling, hand-wringing awfulness of the tale seems always to be immediately before the reader, or as close as any drama can be whose actors face us across the gulf of death.

All you need to know about what happens in the book is that rough-and-tumble Heathcliff (that’s his whole name, by the way) conceives a hopeless love for his foster-sister Cathy Earnshaw, of the Wuthering Heights Earnshaws, and runs away when he realizes that she can never marry him even if she loves him back. Instead, Cathy marries nice guy Edgar Linton, the heir of the hard-to-pronounce Thrushcross Grange (you try saying it without pausing to aim the “sh” at the right syllable), who loves her tenderly but lacks half the manliness of, well, his wife. When Heathcliff comes back from wherever he’s been, the bad blood between him and Edgar vexes Cathy so much that she dies of it, leaving both men heartbroken and a baby daughter motherless. Through one fiendish scheme after another—or rather, all of them at once—Heathcliff contrives to: (a) steal the heart of Edgar’s sister Isabella, whom he violently abuses until she runs away; (b) prey on Cathy Sr.’s brother Hindley until Wuthering Heights, complete with Hindley’s heir Hareton, belongs to Heathcliff body and soul; (c) terrorize his delicate, weak-willed son to death; (d) coerce Cathy Jr. into marrying Heathcliff Jr. so that he can gain control of the Linton estate; and (e) rule his household in such a way as to reduce Hareton and Cathy Jr.—the last surviving Earnshaw and Linton, respectively—to a state of inhuman savagery. From Lockwood’s point of view, he isn’t a very genial landlord either.

Whether Heathcliff finally succeeds in all of his grim aims hardly matters, since he succeeds in enough of them to make this book one all-but-ceaseless parade of misery, ruin, and death. One would think it impossible to sympathize with a character like that. Yet, from an early enough page that the narrator’s voice belongs to Lockwood, one is also captivated by the tragic aspect of Heathcliff’s character, expressed in the unforgettable scene where, believing himself unobserved, the gruff villain leans out the window of Cathy’s girlhood bedroom and pleads with her ghost:

“Come in! come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh, do—once more! Oh! My heart’s darling, hear me this time—Catherine, at last!”

Somehow, in spite of all the fear and loathing on the high moors, this story comes across as one of the great love stories—a heartstring-tugging potboiler in which the most potent female presence spends the majority of the book in her grave, while another generation works out what might have been between her and the wicked, doomed, vile, yet ultimately pitiable Heathcliff. That such a story idea could actually work, and even become one of the great works of English literature, seems so improbable that I wouldn’t blame you for doubting my word. Read it to believe it!