Friday, May 8, 2015

Classic Fiction: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I figured it was time to cover another classic, so I more or less just searched through my bookshelves for a classic written no later than the 18th century that I haven't already covered. Clearly, I landed on Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and will discuss this gothic novel here.

The Situation: Mr. Lockwood, a renter at Thrushcross Grange, visits the landlord of Wuthering Heights, and is forced to stay the night at his farmhouse after becoming snowed in. After having a bad dream in which the dead Catherine Earnshaw tries to enter the room through the window, Heathcliff, the landlord, escorts Lockwood to a different room and keeps watch at the window. In the morning, once he is escorted back to Thrushcross Grange by Heathcliff, Lockwood asks the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, about the people of Wuthering Heights. What Lockwood gets is an intricate and complicated story involving bitter, broken, and often hateful people. Some would call it a love story; some would refer to it as a case study in the inherent messiness of relationships; and still others would say it is the story of selfish and insecure people inflicting their own misery upon others.

The Problem: Heathcliff's adoption by the elder Mr. Earnshaw thirty years earlier makes his son, Hindley, incredibly jealous. It also doesn't help that Hindley's sister Catherine is also quite fond of Heathcliff and the two become close. After the death of his father, Hindley becomes master of Wuthering Heights and allows Heathcliff to stay on only as a servant. While Catherine and Heathcliff are still close friends, she becomes influenced by the good manners and superior appearance of the Linton family, who are the current tenants of Thrushcross Grange, and eventually becomes engaged to the son, Edgar. It is Catherine's confession to Nelly about her engagement, one that is only half-heard by Heathcliff, that causes him to run away and disappear. And although he would eventually return, his relationship with Catherine is never the same, and the rest of the family suffers due to their spiteful and vengeful behavior. Lockwood eventually gets the strange family's entire history from Nelly, catching him up on the events still going on in the present day.

Genre, Themes, History: Wuthering Heights is a British gothic novel set in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As I mentioned before, it could be considered a love story, albeit a tragic one.  And not quite the Romeo and Juliet type of tragic either, even though the body count is actually higher. Catherine and Heathcliff care for each other. But Catherine is essentially a snob and believes Heathcliff isn't good enough for her. Of course that doesn't stop her from becoming incredibly hurt when he runs off to get married. And while Catherine is used to pretty much getting everything she wants, and manipulating and pouting whenever she doesn't, Heathcliff is predisposed to hating everyone and vowing revenge for how he is treated. In short, these two people are making themselves and each other miserable, while everyone around them becomes miserable by proxy. Initial reviews for the book were deeply split, with some believing that the cruelty depicted was unusually severe for the time. And of course, there has been much comparison between this book and Charlotte Bronte's book, Jane Eyre, as the two authors were sisters, and both books were published within the same year. Jane Eyre is longer, but easier to swallow, while Wuthering Heights is often seen as more entertaining.

My Verdict: Writing books where pretty much every character is a terrible person is not a recent trend (The Girl on the Train, I am looking in your direction), and Wuthering Heights is a good example. People are awful, and apparently have been at least since the late 18th century. With that being said, I actually really like this book, even though every other page had me wishing for Catherine's death. The woman is exhausting.  And Heathcliff isn't much better, although for me, he elicits much more sympathy. I can see why reviewers and critics of the time thought the novel's tone was harsh and somewhat shocking. I would say even by today's standards, it still kind of is, especially when it comes to how Heathcliff is treated, and in turn, treats others. If you are looking for a classic with some grit to it, Wuthering Heights is most certainly for you.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Catherine dies. Yeah, I said it.

Favorite Character: Nelly Dean, the housekeeper and narrator for most of the novel, seems to be a completely unbiased bystander, and is able to tell the story just as it happens. Of course, that would mean that the people are just as awful as her story shows them to be. 

Recommended Reading: It's easy to recommend Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre as a companion novel, seeing as the two authors come from the same family. But I will go ahead and also recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, another classic novel that shows the darker side of human beings who are allowed to get away with treating people however they want.

No comments: