Jamelah Reads The Classics: Wuthering Heights

Just because it’s review week, it doesn’t mean that all those reviews have to be of contemporary work. Right? Right. So, I figured I’d jump in with a 19th century Gothic novel, because that seems fitting. So, let’s do this: Jamelah Reads the Classics: Brontepalooza Part 1: Wuthering Heights.

Before now, I’d read one Bronte-sister novel: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read it for a class, and I loved every second of it. But for one reason or another, this also-very-famous Bronte-sister novel had eluded me before now. Because it is famous, I had some vague idea of what it was going to be like before I started it: sweepingly romantic with dark, brooding Heathcliff brooding darkly on the moors. And I would of course develop a crush on Heathcliff and all of his dark, brooding ways. (What? Like you’ve never had a crush on a fictional character before?) But then I started reading and I realized that, uh, wow. I was wrong.

My Barnes & Noble Classics edition has a critical introduction by Daphne Merkin, and it says, “The first thing you will notice about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights … is that it is like no other novel ever written. It reads like the work of someone who had direct access to her unconscious — or, as the New Agers might put it, was able to ‘channel’ her unconscious. Perhaps the most striking triumph of the novel is that although it is a very particular fever dream concocted by one very specific and overheated imagination, it manages somehow to take over and become your own fever dream (which is, in essence, what happens with all great novels), the exact contents of which are hard to recall once you wake up.” I don’t know about all of that, because I mostly just found it weirdly constructed and hard to imagine why this supposed great love was so great.

It’s like this. Wuthering Heights is not told from the perspective of either of its main characters, nor in a third person omniscient voice. It actually begins with a male tenant meeting a very inhospitable Heathcliff, and then he gets sick, and then he gets the story of why Heathcliff is such a bastard from a servant. So yeah, the entire story is told to an annoying, kind of wimpy guy by a maid. I have issues with novels constructed around people talking too much, I guess. I always find this device false. I probably can’t quote verbatim things I said five minutes ago, so I doubt that I’d be able to pontificate for pages and pages about something that happened years and years ago with detail and exact quotations. I’m just never able to buy stories told this way. And yes, I get that it lends an air of unreliability to the narrative, which might perhaps be intended, but I still think there are better ways to do this, so whatever. I’m not getting the fever dream thing, in any case.

What of the love story? Well, okay, so Heathcliff and Catherine were childhood sweethearts and all, but really, I didn’t like either of them, so I didn’t care if it didn’t work out for them. I thought Catherine was kind of a self-centered bitch, and Heathcliff? Well, yes, he was dark and brooding, but less in a hot way and more in a total asshole way. It’s like, listen dude, I understand that you’re dark and brooding and really busy brooding darkly about your dark pain, or something, but do you really have to be such a dick about it? For fuck’s sake, go have some ice cream and a nap, Sparky. Good lord.

Anyway, I was not all that impressed with this particular Bronte-sister novel, perhaps because I was disappointed about the fact that it was so different from my expectations, but there it is. And seriously? Heathcliff is the most overrated literary hottie of all time.

9 Responses

  1. Dark ShadowsHaving never read
    Dark Shadows

    Having never read Wuthering Heights I have nothing to base this on, but I was surprised and somewhat delighted by your conclusions. Surprised because of the book’s reputation and delighted because you are not afraid to express your opinions.

    Do you think this type of literature is a forerunner to goth or emo music? In my younger days, I fancied myself a brooder along the lines of Quentin Collins from TV’s Dark Shadows. I had to give it up when I noticed a crease developing over one eyebrow.

  2. I Was a Teenaged HeathcliffI
    I Was a Teenaged Heathcliff

    I read Wuthering Heights as part of the prescribed reading list for a twelth grade English Lit. course back in the ’80s. At the time, I was a brooding sort of goth-meets-beatnik (‘gothnik’?), dressing from head to toe in black denim and leather, and listening to a helluva lot of Black Sabbath, Doors, Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen, Cure, Smiths, etc. Needless to say, Wuthering Heights fit in quite nicely with my tastes and lifestyle. I didn’t think I would like the said novel, but I did. It had a nice gothy feel to it, reminiscent of a lengthy old horror story, ‘The Curse of The MacIntyres’, I had read in a House Of Mystery comic over a decade earlier….

  3. “Gothnic” – I like that.Ahh,
    “Gothnic” – I like that.

    Ahh, the Doors. Jim Morrison…

    “Shake dreams from your hair
    My pretty child, my sweet one.
    Choose the day and choose the sign of your day
    The day’s divinity
    First thing you see.
    A vast radiant beach in a cool jeweled moon
    Couples naked race down by it’s quiet side
    And we laugh like soft, mad children
    Smug in the wooly cotton brains of infancy
    The music and voices are all around us.
    Choose they croon the Ancient Ones
    The time has come again
    Choose now, they croon
    Beneath the moon
    Beside an ancient lake
    Enter again the sweet forest
    Enter the hot dream
    Come with us
    Everything is broken up and dances.”

  4. “Do you think this type of
    “Do you think this type of literature is a forerunner to goth or emo music?”

    It absolutely is. The Gothic period began when the English attempted to imitate medievalism. By the late 18th century, everything medieval in England was old and decrepit. So, Gothic writing tended toward the dark and macabre as a reflection of this.

    The interesting thing about Wuthering Heights is that it was written after the first Gothic period fell out of style. Bronte, stuck in the middle of nowhere, had no idea London had moved on to more proper Victorian ideas and was simply imitating the writing of books she had at home. Too bad she didn’t live long enough to find out her work contributed to the Gothic Revival.

  5. narrationI remember being

    I remember being really impressed with the way Bronte handled the narrative. (I read the book on my own at 15 and then again in a college lit course.) The technical way the story was told interested me more than the story, which I did like because of what seemed subtle and intricate relationships of the characters. I think for me, Nelly Dean was really the key to the story; in her own way, she instigates a lot more of it than you’d expect from the way she presents herself, as an observer. I also thought Edgar Linton was the most interesting character and the most tragic: he loses his wife, sister and daughter through his emotional cluelessness.

    But then I’m the kind of reader who thought Jaggers the lawyer was really the most important character in “Great Expectations.”

  6. you are sooo wrongTo start
    you are sooo wrong

    To start with, I’ll confess to a bias: I hate “Jane Eyre.” Hate, hate, hate, hate “Jayne Eyre.” Hate it with a passion that almost scares me. Hate it so much that I’m actually gritting my teeth as I write this. Hate it so much that I could never begin to formulate a coherent argument against it. Hate it so much that “Wuthering Heights” perhaps gains excessive stature by comparison.

    But that said, I do think “Wuthering Heights” is a great book. And a misunderstood one.

    Okay, so the framing around the narration is a little awkward, yes, but I always just took it as one of those 19th century quirks that you just have to get over. Much like the way the elaborate, repeated epithets in epic poetry sound a little silly to modern ears. Although it does have its moments of proto-surrealism – I love the dead puppies scene at the beginning, which is about as weird, and as dark, as Victorian humor gets.

    But on the whole, you’re right about Heathcliff not being a very good literary hottie – I don’t think he was intended that way. Blame Laurence Olivier, I suppose, for being a hottie and playing Heathcliff. And blame that movie for casting “Wuthering Heights” as a love story – I don’t think it was intended that way either.

    The movie, for those that are unaware, decided to wrap things up at the exact halfway point of the book, right before things start to get interesting. The first half of the book is the doomed romance, fairly predictable, though with a more erratic leading man than would be expected. A tragedy. The second half is the next generation of this doomed romance – most of the new characters even have the same names as the old ones, only they’re far more ordinary, more pathetic, and their story replays the first one without any of the passion or the sense of free will. A farce. I think this two-part structure is the point, rather than the epic love affair between Heathcliff and Catherine, which I don’t think we’re supposed to take too seriously.

    I adore Emily Bronte’s style. “WH” is one of the most deeply claustrophobic novels I’ve read, and the sentence structure somehow mirrors this, with phrases that keep circling back over themselves. Not to mention the absurdist flourishes and wild juxtapositions she throws in – there’s one chapter that ends with Cathy’s mouth filling up with blood, and the very next chapter begins with Linton sucking on candy. It’s some creepy shit.

    All in all, I think Heathcliff is a magnificent character IN the novel, but he’s been warped by the movies, where’s he’s been played by Olivier, Timothy Dalton and Ralph Fiennes. All totally wrong. Heathcliff is Mickey Rourke all the way.

  7. Here’s what the back cover of
    Here’s what the back cover of my book says:

    Wuthering Heights — Emily Bronte’s only novel — remains one of literature’s most disturbing explorations into the dark side of romantic passion.

    “An unpolished and devastating epic of childhood playmates who grow into soul mates, Wuthering Heights revolves around the willfully childish Catherine and the dark Heathcliff, who, in the words of Charlotte Bronte, ‘exemplifies the effects which a life of continued injustice and hard usage may produce on a naturally perverse, vindictive, and inexorable disposition.’ Heathcliff and Cathy believe they’re destined to love each other forever. But when cruelty and snobbery separate them, their untamed emotions literally consume them.

    “Set amid the wild and stormy Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights is widely regarded as the most original tale of thwarted desire and heartbreak in the English language.”

    So there you go. Sounds like a romance novel to me, albeit a dark, depressing one. I’ve never seen any of the film versions, and while I was reading, I didn’t picture Olivier in my head at all. I really really wanted to like it. Perhaps my reaction comes from the fact that I am a slave to marketing. And I worked really hard through the first third or so to convince myself that I was loving every word, but after awhile, I just had to admit that I wasn’t actually digging it, which left me free to read it, which I guess contradicts my previous sentence, but I’m like that sometimes.

    You are soooo wrong about Jane Eyre, however. My goodness, that book is fucking brilliant. Ahem.

  8. you and meI love this story.
    you and me

    I love this story. I read it more than four years ago and i have loved it since. And i am only twenty years old might i add. First of all the novel is not meant to be a cheesy romantic novel like so many. It is a unique love. The kind that most people cannot even dream of. The setting i think is beautiful. Wuthering Heights set in a place far away in a time even further. It is set in a place that almost seems unreal. With characters that are filled with mystery and yet they are so intriguing. It speaks of a deeply spiritual connection between two people that love one another. It was most of all a love that was forbidden. It wasn’t passionate in a physical or emotional way but in a spiritual way it was. In the novel Catherine exclaims, “I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than i am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being….” The emotions of the character they are cold and they are hot. Heathcliff with his dark complexion, muscular built, reserved nature… dangerous ways. He whom only catherine could love and he whom only loves catherine. They are both dark, unsympathetic, passionate creatures. Where else did you expect the setting to be… The rawness of emotion and the sheer intensity with which the pages of wuthering heights is written fits well with the yorkshire moors where the story takes place. As for the point of view that the story is told from it only serves to intensify the lenght of the this “love affair”. One hand stretching back into the past and the other to the future. Ms. Bronte wrote a wonderful novel of which i cannot find fault.

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