Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

For my Back-to-the-Classics-Challenge Romance selection I chose Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. This is has been floating around in the background of my TBR list forever. For some reason, I thought I knew a little about it just from bits and pieces that I’ve heard, but apparently, having never read an actual review/summary of the book, those bits and pieces were not enough. I thought it was one of the great love stories of all time. Heathcliff, from my understanding of it, was a handsome, dark, brooding figure, desperately in love but fated to be denied. I had an image of Catherine wandering about on the moor yearning for him. I knew their love was doomed in some tragic way. So I settled in for a romantic read.

Wow. Was I wrong.

Wuthering Heights is many things and has much to recommend it as a novel. It’s written in a gorgeous old-fashioned literary style that is both challenging and rewarding. The plot is compelling. It evokes strong emotions (mostly negative, but still, those strong emotions kept me reading!) The characters are complex (nasty, spiteful, hateful things, but complex.) There is an underlying social commentary that puts some of what is going on in perspective, but by no means excuses the horrific behavior. It’s an extraordinary novel. But as a love story? Bleh.

It opens with a self-important, vain, young narrator (Mr. Lockwood) who believes himself to be somewhat of a romantic figure. A failed flirtation has sent him off to the country for the solitude he believes it is his nature to crave. Yet the first thing he does is look up his landlord, the owner of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff.

(Initially, I was so taken aback to find myself with this unexpected narrator I wondered if I was reading the right book. This is the Heathcliff/Catherine tragic love on the moor story? Told by this guy?)

I read on.

The encounter is an unpleasant one. Heathcliff is a grudging and inhospitable host. Lockwood is also introduced to Heathcliff’s pretty but embittered daughter-in-law, Catherine (the second), a half-crazed preacher-in-residence, Joseph, and a rustic, doltish young man who might be a servant of some sort named Hareton Earnshaw. They are the nastiest bunch of people—to each other and to their guest—that you could ever have the misfortune to come across. Lockwood also encounters (thanks to being trapped in the house overnight by a snowstorm) the ghost of Catherine (the first.) Terrified and intrigued, he wants to learn all he can about this odd bunch. (And so does the reader.)

Lockwood retreats to the house he is letting, Thrushcross Grange, where the garrulous housekeeper, Mrs. Dean, who used to be employed by the old family up at Wuthering Heights, is all too happy to fill him in.

From here on, the book is essentially narrated by Mrs. Dean or by Lockwood relating her words in his words. Lockwood puts in a few observations of his own when he interacts briefly with the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights again at the end of the book. This second-hand or third hand telling of the tale is an interesting device. The love story is seen through at least one and sometimes two pairs of judgmental eyes, which necessarily colors the interpretation. The housekeeper is not impartial. At times, her actions influenced outcomes and not always for the better. But I couldn’t convince myself that Mrs. Dean’s bias was so strong it overwhelmed the truth of her observations. The story she told was awful; it was not a beautiful but tragic love story. Heathcliff is no romantic hero. He is a bitter, cruel, obsessive man who didn’t know how to love.

Granted, Heathcliff started out at a marked disadvantage. He was an orphan, taken into the Earnshaw home, raised alongside the Earnshaw children, Catherine and Hindley. Although the father showed Heathcliff marked favoritism, technically he could not inherit and it was known that as soon as the father died, Heathcliff would be left with nothing. He could never be Catherine’s equal. He couldn’t marry her. So, as she reached the age when that became important, she looked to her neighbor, Edgar Linton. Linton was a dull, respectable, wealthy, kind man who loved her and was in the right social class. Catherine recognized that she was supposed to love Edgar. She also knew that she actually loved Heathcliff. Her plan was to marry Edgar and use his resources to raise up Heathcliff. Catherine wanted to eat her cake and have it too.

The housekeeper relating the story emphasizes Catherine’s selfishness. She portrays Catherine as a narcissist who can make herself pleasant as long as everyone does exactly what she wants. She was not entirely mentally stable and eventually died of unreasonableness. The predeath-farewell between Catherine and Heathcliff seemed to me to be primarily recriminations rather than love-talk. And Heathcliff, whose list of mental derangements starts at sociopath and goes on from there, decides to punish everyone in Catherine’s circle, including the next generation of Earnshaw, Linton and Heathcliff(s).

The majority of the book is taken up with the housekeeper relating how Heathcliff endeavored to make life a living hell for the three children born to the mismatched Lintons/Earnshaws and Heathcliff. His cruelty and depravity are related in painful detail.

Wuthering Heights is well worth reading for all its literary merit, for its little societal lessons, and its psychological studies. And I’m glad I read it so I can disabuse myself of the notion that it is a love story. Heathcliff and Catherine can go ahead and wander about on the moor, haunting each other for all eternity. Their world is well rid of them.

The Back-to-the-Classics Challenge is hosted by Sarah at Sarah Reads too Much. Come join the fun!


  1. I had exactly the same reaction when I read it - THIS GUY is supposed to be a romantic hero? :O

    I was also surprised at how much the story covered after the love story had finished.

    This is my least favourite story by a Bronte. Villette and Jane Eyre are both much better, in my opinion.

  2. Thanks for the review, it's a great review for a book that I just can't read. I've tried several times, and haven't been able to. Maybe I'll try again now that I understand a little better! :)

  3. I am so glad that you had the same experience as I did (although it would be better if we both actually liked it). One friend told me that I would "just fall in love with Heathcliff". Um, no. He's horrible. So is Cathy for that matter. The only person I liked was Hareton!

  4. I had to give the opening three tries before I was able to get through it because I was so thrown by Lockwood's narration and then that character who spoke in the awful dialect (that my copy translated at the bottom)-was it Joseph? I don't even remember because I hated this book SO MUCH! Jane Eyre is oodles better!

  5. I'd like to say that I have a love-hate relationship with this book, but then, well, I've never got to loving it. We had to read it in high school - and I absolutely hated it- I have always referred to it as Withering Depths ever since. I don't think I ever finished it then. I did manage to read it as an adult- possibly even twice I think, but then recently tried to read it again, and couldn't get beyond 10 pages. I can't even watch it on the tele. I'm a great one for all those BBC period dramas, except when it's Wuthering Heights. A few years ago I got to read the books of her Bronte sisters- again so much more enjoyable. I've come to the realisation I think that I won't ever appreciate this book as it is meant. I'm very glad that you can though.