Wuthering Heights is so full of violent passions that it is hard to imagine a nineteenth-century young woman as its author. Emily Bronte died in 1848 at the age of 30. She was a shy and reclusive woman without any friends. Yet she created two of the most ruthlessly passionate characters in the whole literature ever: Heathcliff and Catherine.
Wuthering Heights is a novel with a difference and should be read just for that one reason alone. Literary critic Elizabeth Drew describes Catherine and Heathcliff as “creatures of the wild moorland existence beside which conventional standards are meaningless.” Their untameable passion spills out of the book darkening the entire moorland of their existence.
Catherine is the daughter of Earnshaw, a squire in the eighteenth-century Yorkshire. Earnshaw has a son too: Hindley. Heathcliff comes into the family as a foundling and supplants Hindley in the affections of both the bland squire and his energetic daughter. The squire does not live long enough to mould the characters of these children who grow up in the wild landscape of Wuthering Heights.
There is no love lost between Hindley and Heathcliff. Though Catherine loves Heathcliff, she marries Edgar of Thrushcross Grange keeping her social status in mind. Thrushcross Grange is down in the valley and is the antithesis of the violently passionate hill of Wuthering Heights. Both Edgar and his sister Isabella are far too refined to survive in the proximity of the ruthlessness that thrives in Wuthering Heights. Marriages destroy all the weaker characters in this menagerie.
Isabella marries Heathcliff out of a silly romantic attachment and she is ruined by his incapacity for any refinement. Far from appreciating the tenderness of Isabella, Heathcliff holds her in utter contempt. He married her for the sake of her family wealth as well as for taking revenge on her family. Hindley is ruined by Heathcliff’s sinister designs. Heathcliff’s marriage shocks and disappoints Catherine though she is married to Edgar. She dies giving birth to the younger Catherine. Her death drives Heathcliff crazy and Isabella leaves him though they have a son, Linton, who will in the course of time marry Catherine the younger. That marriage won’t last long as Linton does not live long. Edgar is driven to death with Heathcliff’s copious assistance.
Sixteen years after Catherine’s death, her ghost presents itself to a visitor who was put up for the night in her room in Wuthering Heights. Coming to know about Catherine’s ghost, Heathcliff becomes restless to join her. “I am within sight of my heaven,” he declares. He pines for his beloved’s ghost. He wastes himself. Nelly, the maid who knew him from his childhood, advises him to repent his countless sins and transgressions. “I’ve done no injustice,” he replies, “and I repent of nothing – I’m too happy, and yet I’m not happy enough. My soul’s bliss kills my body, but does not satisfy itself.”
Heathcliff will leave the dark and mysterious Wuthering Heights to meet his otherworldly love through death. The moorland and its mansion as well as the valley of Thrushcross Grange are now left to Hareton (Hindley’s son) and Catherine the younger. They are very different from the harsh, ruthless, wild and violent people who have all passed into memory now. The long storm that ravaged the moors for decades has abated. Can the calm now prevail?
Emily Bronte does not seem interested in the calm. Wuthering Heights is about the storm, the dark passions that drive particularly Heathcliff and Catherine. Both these characters are narcissists and both perceive each other as counterparts. Catherine says, for example, that Heathcliff is “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 and Catherine are the lightning and the fire. The novel is full of that untameable energy which refuses to go down with the death of these protagonists. Their ghosts haunt the moorland of Wuthering Heights terrifying the simple folk surviving on the hill.
Heathcliff and Catherine are drawn to each other throughout their life, right from childhood. They love each other with an immeasurable intensity, if that can indeed be called love. Yet there is no sexual intimacy between them, not even a longing for that. But when Heathcliff is told by a visitor to Wuthering Heights about the appearance of Catherine’s ghost sixteen years after her death, he is driven mad enough to wrench open the lattice and sob hysterically, “Come in! come in! Cathy, do come. Oh… my heart’s darling!”
What kind of love was it that grew between Heathcliff and Catherine if they were never sexually drawn to each other? This is precisely what makes Bronte’s novel immensely fascinating and at the same time different from other novels in good literature. Catherine once told Nelly the maid that even if she were in heaven she wouldn’t be happy because she belonged essentially to the wild landscapes of the Wuthering Heights. These landscapes pervade the very marrow of our bones with their creepy verve and pristine savagery (if savagery can be pristine) and linger on long after we have read the last line of the novel.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle
14. No Exit
16. The Plague
18. The Rebel
Tomorrow: X, Malcolm
For those who are interested, my memoir, Autumn Shadows is available at Amazon as eBook. Click here for a copy.