Wuthering Heights has been dividing audiences for nearly two centuries. You will be either consumed utterly upon first reading, or hate this book with the fire of a thousand suns. There is no middle ground.
Dark and brooding anti-hero Heathcliff is often the subject of passionate debate: tormented romantic, handsome rogue, or psychopathic brute? Either way Heathcliff will produce a strong reaction. Dark Heathcliff is motivated relentlessly by both love and hatred, yet this is where opinions usually collide. Despite his capacity for brutality and cruelty, I paint Heathcliff with a sympathetic brush and see Catherine as the real villain. Melodramatic, tantrum throwing, hunger striking Catherine. Heathcliff is merely her play toy, she strings him along whilst inspiring his absolute loyalty and affection, but when Catherine discovers a world outside of Wuthering Heights, she soon disposes of Heathcliff to make room for her more refined and wealthy neighbour.
Despite all of the gloom and death, Wuthering Heights ignited a passion within me. I found myself captivated by the malevolent rage that was bore from the unsatisfied desire of a lover scorned. Romance offers no comfort in Wuthering Heights – love is a force of pure destruction. Heathcliff must possess Catherine. When he is unable to have her, he summons up every volt of fury within him and unleashes absolute hell on earth, exacting revenge on anybody who has slighted him.
I do love dainty little fairy tale romances with perfectly manicured happy endings, but the nightmarish essence of Wuthering Heights follows you around. Emily Brontë taps into a dark force that lurks dormant inside all of us, which gradually develops into a storm that detonates in full force. It is only in the ashes of incinerated lovers Heathcliff and Catherine that love is reincarnated and restored at Wuthering Heights for the second generation version of Catherine and Heathcliff that is embodied in Cathy Junior and Hareton.
Wuthering Heights will sweep you away to the weathered landscape of the Yorkshire Moors to witness the destruction of Catherine and Heathcliff. Turbulent and wild terrain like the lovers themselves, the eerie moors linger, infiltrate your dreams, and haunt you during and after reading. I wandered around in a daze for weeks, totally intoxicated by the vividness of Brontë’s world. I found myself reading everywhere, but despite where I was geographically, imaginatively I was at Wuthering Heights. The Yorkshire Moors become a moveable haven, just open the book at any page and you are wholeheartedly absorbed. Like the richness of the landscape, Wuthering Heights is an electrical storm, traumatic and enchanting to witness, the melodramatic environment, heightened emotion, and staged theatrics give the impression of a twisted gothic romance, infused with the makings of a modern psychological thriller: malice, revenge, wrath, passion and desire.
Star-crossed lovers Catherine and Heathcliff are a distorted doubling of Romeo and Juliet relocated from fair Verona to the hellish moors. Both loves are marred by external turmoil and fated for death. Brontë explores the corrupting forces that taint a seemingly natural love and the reverberating aftermath much like the Shakespearian tragedy. The plot tracks Catherine and Heathcliff from childhood to adolescence. Under the wing of his adoptive father Mr Earnshaw, young Heathcliff demonstrates a great capacity to love, but when his protector Mr Earnshaw dies, the violent and abusive treatment Heathcliff experiences at the hand of stepbrother, Hindley Earnshaw, is the catalyst that transforms Heathcliff from innocent child to bitter adult. Brontë’s authorial voice is kept at a distance, but there is an embedded suggestion that people are born inherently good with a great capacity to love, hatred is something we are taught. Heathcliff is portrayed sympathetically as a product of his environment. Heathcliff was not born wicked, but corrupted by cruelty.
Emily Brontë delivers some of the most famous romantic monologues ever written, and thankfully so because there is absolutely no sex in this book. I like to imagine that all of the hot and heavy stuff was happening in between the lines. Nelly Dean’s narration is limited to what she witnessed and I’m sure any canoodling in secluded nooks on the moors would have been done discreetly and away from omnipresence of Nelly’s watchful eye. I have seen Wuthering Heights branded “the most romantic story of all time” and I shake my fist and disagree wholeheartedly. Catherine and Heathcliff spend most of the novel trying to spite each other and although they both poetically express how life without their other half is pure agony, they are both too proud and too stubborn to surrender to their own vulnerability for one another. The wicked games that transpire between these two are supposed to indirectly articulate their ardent love for one another, but their constant ambivalence continually tears them apart. Both Catherine and Heathcliff seem to thrive on the turbulence in their relationship. Catherine can mentally will herself into near-death malady merely to spite the men in her life. Catherine is prone to regular tantrums, foot stamping and hunger strikes, but her final vindictive act of self imposed death leaves Heathcliff a broken man. Check mate.
Tearful confessions of undying love ensue, but rather than plunging a dagger into his heart, Heathcliff decides to carry out the elaborate revenge plot he originally set in motion. Heathcliff has nothing to live for, except the perverse gratification of avenging the happiness he was denied.
And so, I stand forth, supporting my controversial stance that Wuthering Heights is not a romance. The psychological destruction of Heathcliff’s capacity to love is much more prominent. Disorder and vengeance govern the plot, not romance. Heathcliff and Catherine are a disaster, they say their lives and souls are intertwined, yet they remain separated by merely superficial social boundaries that surely their love could have overstepped. Heathcliff and Catherine thrive on the torturous heartache of being separated.
Could you imagine such an explosive duo living in marital bliss? Pragmatic Catherine was wholly aware of the hopelessness of marriage to Heathcliff. Realistically if Catherine ran away with unpredictable Heathcliff, she knew she would lose everything – money, property, stability, and her reputation. Isabella Linton naïvely gave up all of those things willingly to marry Heathcliff, so why couldn’t Cathy do the same? She could have married Heathcliff at any time, but she refused to sacrifice the material world she was assured if she married Edgar Linton. I do despise Cathy, but I also understand her hesitancy. Heathcliff is already half insane, he is a loose canon and hell bent on revenge. The only time Cathy could have really changed her destiny was at the crossroads when she makes her infamous “I am Heathcliff” speech. If Cathy had turned down Edgar Linton’s marriage proposal and given up everything for Heathcliff in that moment, I think perhaps they could have frolicked in the moors forevermore. Heathcliff was waiting for an all or nothing grand gesture, he wanted to watch Cathy throw away everything for him, so that he could fully possess her.
I love the tragedy of Wuthering Heights, the heartbreak lies in the alternative scenario of what would have happened if she chose Heathcliff? I think we are positioned to see Catherine’s rejection of Heathcliff as the wrong choice – material possessions are worth nothing without a natural love. If her choice between Heathcliff and Edgar was correct, then surely Cathy should have been calling out Edgar Linton’s name at Thrushcross Grange, instead of haunting Wuthering Heights for all eternity. Cathy and Heathcliff, the tragic love that haunts from beyond the grave and transcends the mortal world.