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Emily Brontë’s novel of passion and cruelty, published in 1847, was the only novel she ever wrote and one of which many, including her sister Charlotte, disapproved, regarding it as fundamentally immoral, especially in the creation of the central character, the brutal Heathcliff. However, viewed at a distance of some 150 years, the novel can be seen for what it truly is, a work of flawed genius which continues to attract strongly despite its age.
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Emily set what was to be her sole novel in and around her beloved moors creating, in Cathy, a character as wilful as herself. However the reader acquainted but not familiar with the narrative, is often surprised by how little actual description of the natural environment is extant within its pages though ‘metaphors drawn from nature provide much of the book’s descriptive language’. Simply expressed, it is the author’s own vicarious resonance with the land, expressed via her frequent use of what Ruskin termed ‘pathetic fallacy’ that gives the intensity of the connective between the central protagonists and the land in which they are imbedded, even beyond life itself.
The plot concerns the family of the Earnshaws, owners of the eponymous ‘Wuthering Heights’, where the surly urchin, Heathcliff, is brought by the father of the household who has found him abandoned in Liverpool, and who describes him ‘as dark almost as if it came from the devil’ for ‘when Mr. Earnshaw first brings the child home, the child is an “it” not a “he”’. From the first, he is Cathy, the daughter’s favourite, as he is her father’s, and the thorn in the flesh of the heir, Hindley. Both boys, indeed, loathe each other with a passion partly born of ‘sibling rivalry’, even though they are not blood relatives (at least such is not openly stated even if critics have inferred more than an act of philanthropy in Mr. Earnshaw’s rescuing the boy and his wife’s attendant animosity). When Earnshaw dies, Hindley wastes no time in correcting the usurpation from which he believes he has suffered by consigning Heathcliff to the level of a servant. Meanwhile, Cathy and Heathcliff have formed a bond which nothing will ever break, even Cathy’s marriage to the wealthy Edgar Linton.
The tale is told by means of an extremely complex narrative structure, wherein part is related by the ‘outsider’, Lockwood, a tenant at the former home of the Linton’s, now owned by Heathcliff, and the intimate history of the family is told by the faithful servant, Nelly Dean. This technique, involving many time-shifts, allows the author to achieve the personal imperative of an ‘insider’, Nelly, with the abstract curiosity, perhaps similar to that of the reader, supplied by Lockwood, the ‘intruder’. Though effective, Emily’s inexperience as a writer is shown in the often ragged structure of the novel which frequently obscures rather than illuminates the series of challenges which the novel sets up.
Given Emily’s background as the daughter of a parson, it is perhaps surprising that one of the greatest challenges that the novel establishes is the provocative rendering of religious sensibility. A scene which demonstrates this clearly is when Cathy reveals her ‘dream’ to Nelly, prior to declaring the nature of her feelings for Heathcliff, wherein she states her ideas about the after life:
‘[…] heaven did not seem to be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy.’
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The idea that the girl’s literal ‘spiritual home’ is not Heaven but the moors is, it appears, very close to how Emily felt herself when away from them on earth and her wilfulness in literally willing herself to death, as Cathy does, also invites the supposition that they were in fact very similar. Moreover, after Cathy declares ‘I am Heathcliff’, the reader realises that this is not a mere love story but two halves of one soul, the parting of which, as Cathy herself declares, ‘impracticable’.
Cathy does marry Linton, however, after Heathcliff has run away believing that she does not love him having heard her say merely that ‘it would degrade her to marry him’ and returns after an unexplained absence, having prospered sufficiently to accomplish the ruin of Hindley and the purchase of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Indeed, he comes to own all the property, via various schemes, and even marries Edgar’s sister, Isabella, from overwhelming spite. The one thing he can never control, however, is his love for Cathy and when she dies, he pines for her for the rest of his life, until they are united as ghosts. As Lockwood observes, ‘Together they would brave Satan and all his legions’. Oddly, the intruder Lockwood has come to see the appropriateness of this as the reader does and this forms one of the novels many ‘closures’ which are perceptible by its end, even to the obtuse.
Though most adaptations of the novel centre upon the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff, in fact over half of the novel is concerned with the repetition of familial tensions via their children: Catherine, the daughter of the elder Cathy and Edgar, the orphaned son of Hindley whom despite his abuse of him forms a strong attachment to Heathcliff and eventually the younger Catherine, and Linton, the sickly, peevish son of Heathcliff and Isabella, whom Heathcliff contrives to marry to Catherine simply to gain her property. Through this complex repetition, Emily works out the frustrations and hatreds across generations to achieve a kind of fulfilment and completion by the novel’s conclusion. The fact that Charlotte completely failed to understand Emily’s genius, or perhaps was merely envious of it, is perhaps indicative of the disparity between their gifts. The enduring romance of Wuthering Heights, which continues to appeal across the generations, is the antithesis of control and therefore the ultimate realisation of Emily’s poetic and timeless soul.
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