Saturday, 25 March 2017

Wuthering Heights

Images from Andrea Arnold's 2011 film with Solomon Glave and James Howson as Heathcliff and Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario as Catherine

It’s NOT ONLY about Heathcliff and Cathy….

Having blogged about Emily Brontë’s life (here) and my favourite Emily poem (here) I can’t stop myself blogging a few thoughts on Wuthering Heights. I’ve read it for pleasure three times in my life (so far) and taught it to A Level classes twice. Each time I plummet into its amoral freakery I learn something new, though what struck me when I first read it is that the novel’s heart lies in the character arcs of Hareton and young Cathy and I’ve never changed my mind about that. Most dramatisations fall short by focusing on the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff and diminishing all else; whereas, I think, Emily Brontë has a more profound story to tell about young people yearning to make the world a better place. Heathcliff, Catherine, Hindley, Frances, Edgar and Isabella represent an old-fashioned world of primitive attitudes and Hareton and Cathy are the next generation, redeemed and able to break free from the sins and weaknesses of their parents. Linton is a necessary (and eventually welcome!) sacrifice that enables the promise of peace to reign.
Breaking free from the sins of the previous generation....

Storm and Calm

Some critics interpret the book as portraying the oppositional forces of storm and calm as represented by the two houses of the Earnshaws and Lintons: Wuthering Heights versus Thrushcross Grange. But careful reading reveals an underlying primitive beauty in the descriptions of the physical objects at the remote farm and a disturbingly aggressive tension at the posh house.

Contrasts do riddle the narrative: young and old, children and parents, female and male, powerful and weak, outdoor and indoor, tenderness and savagery, wealth and poverty, education and ignorance, love and hate – all these contrasts play alongside and amongst the calm and storm.
And symbols also play a subconscious role in worming into the reader’s imagination: doors and windows, plants and rocks, the elements (air, earth, fire and water), nature and weather, landscapes and horizons, the flesh and the spirit, the living and the dead, dreams and the supernatural. Like all great novels, no single interpretation is possible because Wuthering Heights has a bottomless pit of variables depending on the reader’s context.

Can it be categorised?

People who have only seen the 1939 William Wyler film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Catherine think the novel is a Romance. Readers know different. The explicit violence and unbearable cruelty are more extreme than you would expect in a conventional romantic novel.
  • Is Wuthering Heights therefore a novel of male revenge?
  • Or a deeply-subversive feminist text about the futility of male revenge?
  • A Marxist novel about the oppression of the rich?
  • A Psychoanalytic novel about the battle between the id (Heathcliff), the ego (Catherine) and the superego (Edgar)?
  • A Formalist novel where everything is taken at face value and everything happens because it happens because that’s how it is (and how it was written)?
  • Or a Structuralist novel where the the patterns of repetition, destruction and resurrection are meant to be taken as a whole so Catherine’s dealings with Heathcliff and Edgar are meant to be seen in relation to young Cathy’s dealings with Linton and Hareton?
  • Or is it all these things? Unique in itself? Like nothing else?
  • Just a story, for heaven’s sake!?

A fop at sixes and sevens

The biggest surprise when reading the novel rather than watching a dramatisation are the two main narrators, both of whom are potentially biased and unreliable. In 1801, the foppish Lockwood arrives from the south to pay a call on his neighbour, Mr Heathcliff. Lockwood is instantly muddled, distressed and befuddled about who and what he finds at the lonely farmhouse on the moors and on a second snow-bound visit, horrifically, has a dream in which he confronts a ghost begging to be let in at a (broken) window.

And a gossiping housekeeper

Lockwood’s misunderstandings start to make sense when Mrs Ellen Dean the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange begins to tell him a tale from about 30 years before when Mr Earnshaw, a previous owner of Wuthering Heights, returned from a trip to Liverpool with a young homeless boy, Heathcliff. Over the next two years (1801–1803) on his return visits to the area, Lockwood recounts more of the story, narrating what he learns from Mrs Dean, or Nelly as we come to know her, and also what he or Nelly learn from Isabella, Heathcliff, Zillah the maid, Dr Kenneth and young Cathy. As a reader we start the story as confused as Lockwood and the questions he asks help us become drawn into the tangled web.

Bold narrative device
It is a story of three generations living in two houses in a small geographical part of Yorkshire. Nelly’s narration eventually dominates our minds almost to the point of forgetting that Lockwood exists and even Nelly sometimes seems to become invisible as the semi-mythic characters take on their own monstrous lives. The narrative structure is audacious, original for its time and, in my opinion, quite quite brilliant.

Questions abound

  • How much of the violence and drunkenness in the novel had Emily Brontë witnessed in life?
  • Was Emily Brontë imagining Tabitha Aykroyd (Tabby), a servant who stayed at the Haworth Parsonage for the best part of 31 years, when she created Nelly Dean?
  • Do we believe everything Lockwood and Nelly tell us?
  • Was Heathcliff based on the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, Lord Byron?
  • Is Heathcliff more sinned against than sinning?
  • Why does Hindley resent Heathcliff so much?
  • Why is Edgar attracted to Catherine, rather than to a more “peaceful” personality?
  • Why does Isabella fall for Heathcliff, given what she knows about him?
  • How much sympathy should the reader have with Catherine?
  • With Heathcliff? Isabella? Edgar? Hindley? Frances?
  • With Linton? Young Cathy? Hareton?
How Byronic is Heathcliff? Devil or Hero? Abuser or victim of abuse?

Shakespeare’s King Lear and Wuthering Heights

Given that Lockwood specifically compares himself to King Lear being imprisoned and maltreated by servants, I’ve wondered how aware Emily Brontë was of the parallels between her novel and Shakespeare’s grim tragedy:
  • the sudden and brutal acts of violence
  • the familial jealousy
  • the accelerating onset of behaviour that could be perceived as insane
  • the suffering of a character named Edgar
  • the wild landscape of the heath/moors
  • the geographical movement between contrasting houses
  • neither Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights nor Edmund in King Lear are accepted as fully-fledged members of their adoptive families and wreak havoc in the stories
Whatever Emily Brontë consciously thought she was creating in writing Wuthering Heights there is no doubt that it has “stood the test of time” and the main characters and their wild setting are imprinted in the common cultural knowledge, not least because of Kate Bush’s famous song. It is 170 years since Wuthering Heights first hit the bookshelves of the UK – and I expect it will be around for a great deal longer.
A text open to interpretation: images from 1939 and 2011 movies