When one thinks of books of the past, one typically thinks that today’s novels and entertainments are far more violent and vicious. There is a tendency to think of our own generation (or the one or two immediately preceding ours) as having invented sexual perversions, brutal literature, and genre bending and mixing. No one truly believes this intently, but it is a kind of humming substratum to our lives. That previous ages were “simpler” and “more innocent” and “better” and “more pure and wholesome” is not only a nostalgic commonplace, but it also one of the traditional props to conservatism. “Back when I was a kid” is a statement denoting how old you’ve become and is either followed with “things were a lot more etc.” or “we never etc.”
The first few pages of Wuthering Heights
must surely disabuse of anyone of this notion of the good old days. We are introduced to Mr. Lockwood, a young man in retirement from some private sorrow, who ends up at Thrushcross Grange. Upon visiting the home of his landlord, the famed Mr. Heathcliff, he is set upon by a dog, Heathcliff abuses both him and all of his servants, Joseph, Hareton Earnshaw (who is also Heathcliff’s nephew), and his own daughter-in-law. What unfolds is a tale of madness, revenge, rage, and abuse that puts many a melodramatic serial killer novel of today to shame for the sheer vituperrious spite.
And as the book progresses, Emily Brontë shows herself no slouch in putting plain savagery and abomination on the page. Catherine, the young sister of the adopted Heathcliff, with whom he falls in love, as just a teenage girl slaps a servant, beats a small baby, then turns on her cousin Edgar Linton and boxes his ear. Her older brother, Hindley, gets drunk and attacks everyone, plays with his rifle, abuses his child, and tries to shove a carving knife down his servant’s throat. Isabelle Linton, the sister of Edgar (and Heathcliff’s later wife), on being held by Catherine, sinks her fingernails into the woman’s arm. After her departure, Catherine tells Heathcliff that such nails would dart for his eyes; to this he promises he’d wrench them off her fingers should she even try. When a boy, Hareton throws a rock at his nurse and damns her when he first sees her after many years.
All in all, the book is a primer on the vicious circle that is revenge and hatred. One can easily imagine, while reading this book, all the characters in a circle, everyone beating the person first in front of him or her and being beaten by the one behind in turn. And so it turns, on and on. If literature of that time was generally expected to demonstrate some kind of moral, Wuthering Heights demonstrates it in the inverse.
What sets everything in motion is the maltreatment of the found orphan, Heathcliff which starts from the very beginning with everyone calling him an “it.” His ferocious revenge is, while truly awful in all senses of the word, such a profound manifestation of hatred against everything, against the entire world, himself included, that he rises (or is it sinks) to the level of supreme tragic hero. He is like a Samson destroying the temple with his own soul within it. Emily Brontë is remarkably less sympathetic to Catherine, with whom she deals rather sternly whereas Heathcliff gets the backlit, shadowy, windswept fen romanticism. She is Frankenstein, while he is Shelley’s monster, a tortured agent of vengeance.
What is amusing about this kind of novel, amusing for literally dozens of novels of the nineteenth century, is the level of suspension of disbelief the mechanics of the book require. Firstly, there is the narrator himself, Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s tenant, who tells the story of being told the tale by Ellen Dean, the nurse who witnessed most events and tells it in a pastiche of letters, personal recollections, gossip told to her, and other such secondary type narrative devices. It is a story about a story about various stories. And we are to accept Ellen having such a detailed memory as well as Mr. Lockwood.
This is something we simply overlook after a certain point; that we disregard that we overlook it is rather interesting and a stirring testimonial to Emily Brontë’s skill as a novelist. That this should be her only novel is a powerful statement to its lasting fame and a melancholy fact: that such writing should be confined solely between two covers and no more. I never finish Wuthering Heights
but wish there were a second Emily Brontë novel to read. Alas for the tuberculosis that ravished the family (at least three of the sisters died from it, and there is conflicting evidence that it killed the remaining sister and the only brother). That Emily had two sisters who were also novelists is scant consolation, no matter how enjoyable their novels may be. That she died at just thirty is as tragic as Keats death at twenty five. That the Oxford English Dictionary to this day doesn’t recognize and define “wuthering” is a shame in and of itself.