Great Books: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

I read this book in high school, and have seen various movie versions. My memories were not very complete. I remembered the great passion Heathcliff and Catherine have for each other; the latter part of the story, taking place after her death, seemed like a mere coda. In fact, it makes up the bulk of the narrative and is where the real action happens.

Lockwood, the narrator has rented a house from Heathcliff, and is told the family history by a servant, Nelly Dean, after a puzzling encounter with the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. This double-narration, and the jumps in narration over time (from the past to the present, then back, etc.) give the reader a uniquely long perspective on events - at the beginning of the book you know, for example, that Catherine will die young.

Catherine Earnshaw was the daughter of a well-to-do family owning the titular house, Wuthering Heights, placed on barren and forbidding moors. Heathcliff is a foundling her father brings home from a trip; they are twin spirits, linked by their wild ways and their love of nature.

When Catherine's older brother Hindley becomes head of the family, they are separated. Heathcliff is relegated to a servant's status. Catherine grows into a beautiful young woman, and develops a friendship (soon romance) with the scion of the other prominent family in the district, Edgar Linton. She confesses to Nellie that her love and loyalty for Heathcliff is unchanged, but that he is degraded and beneath her in his current condition. Heathcliff overhears this conversation, and disappears.

Catherine falls seriously ill, but recovers and after a long engagement marries Edgar. They are happy until Heathcliff returns, wealthy and educated. Heathcliff proceeds to destroy Catherine's older brother Hindley, encouraging him in his drunkenness and gambing with him until everything he owns, even the home they both grew up in, belongs to Heathcliff. Hareton, Hindley's son, is now penniless, and grows up in the same state of servitude and squalor to which Hindley had condemned Heathcliff.

He and Catherine cannot stay apart - but Edgar objects to the presence of his rival. They quarrle, and Catherine's basic instability comes to the fore. Her illness returns. Meanwhile Edgar's sister Isabella elopes with Heathcliff, who marries her to punish Edgar and to gain the property she owns.

Catherine dies after giving birth to a daughter, also named Catherine; Isabella escapes from Heathcliff, later giving birth to a boy named Linton who is raised elsewhere.

The second generation grows up under Heathcliff's long shadow. Hareton grows up strong and handsome, but ignorant and rude. Linton, Heathcliff's son, has delicate health. He is first raised with excessive indulgance by his mother and then, after her death, treated brutally by his father, who despises his weakness. Catherine the younger is raised with love by Edgar and Nellie Dean; she grows up headstrong but kind-hearted.

Heathcliff's plans for revenge dictate their lives. Catherine is tricked into marrying Linton, her ill cousin, so Heathcliff can gain control of her property. Catherine originally had developed some love for Lynton during surreptitious correspondence and visits; this love is soon extinguished as his true character is revealed. Far from protecting her from Heathcliff, he colludes in keeping her from her dying father. Linton's illness worsens, and Catherine is given the task of caring for him alone. He dies within months of their marriage.

When Lockwood takes possession of his rental house, young Catherine strikes him as a beautiful shrew. She ridicules Hareton, her cousin, for attempting to learn to read. Heathcliff hates her for being Edgar Lynton's daughter, and hates Hareton for being Hindley's son. He is waiting for death, so he can rejoin Catherine. They are presided over by the vulture-ish Joseph, and fanatically religious old man who constantly berates them for their sins.

Quite a menage! It's no wonder Lockwood lights out of the neighborhood after hearing the bulk of the story. When he comes back, at the end of a long summer, he finds the situation has changed; young Catherine and Hareton have fallen in love. Hareton is being taught by Catherine how to read and comport himself. Joseph is relegated to the fireside. And Heathcliff is dead, lying in the churchyard next to his beloved Cathy.

Ah, the drama! Windswept moors....gypsy boys....stolen inheritances.... There's no better gothic than this. Heathcliff is the original tall, dark, and handsome - totally obsessed with the woman who gives meaning to his life, totally without scruples or pity. Nelly even wonders if he's a devil set on earth. No, it's just that his moral compass points straight at one person, and halfway through his life that person is laid underground.

What struck me most, in this re-reading, was Catherine's wild emotional state. She's firmly loyal to Heathcliff, but not to the point of insanity like his love her her. She loves him, but her wildness is internal. She cannot be controlled by others, nor can she control herself. The happiest times in her life are in childhood, when she has free reign, and in adulthood, before Heathcliff's return, when Edgar and all around her make a point of appeasing her and going to any extent to avoid provoking her wrath. Once that wrath is provoked she is undone. Emotionally and physically, she is devastated by the effects of her uncontrolled passions. Any opposition merely provokes her emotions to more violence.

I know how that feels. I know what it is like to feel rage. When Bronte writes that Catherine felt such rage that she dashed her head against the couch, that Nelly Dean felt that she decided to act madly - I know what that feels like.

It's a problem I've struggled with for a long time. Better over the past three years. I made a deliberate effort to deal with my out-of-control emotions in various ways. I do a lot of yoga now, among other things. I am luckier than Catherine.

Notes on this audio edition: I have decided, after listening to this and Jane Eyre, that Flo Gibson's old lady voice annoys the heck out of me. Not recommended.

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