When someone asks me what my favorite novel is, the answer is always the same– has been for the last twenty-seven years when I first read it in my British Literature class at college: Wuthering Heights. I must have read this novel twenty times since, never tiring of it, for it’s one of the most complex and satisfying novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Emily Bronte is masterful at creating a gothic, love story that is so undeniably embedded in the setting where she was born and raised. She’s been called by her sister, Charlotte, “a product of the moors” as is her (questionable) heroine, Catherine. I say questionable because both “protagonists”– Catherine and Heathcliff– are also viewed as antagonists. I’ve been teaching this book for eleven years, now, and what I love so much about teaching it are the different reactions it elicits. I love Catherine and Heathcliff, but not everyone does, some actually feel contempt for one or both of them.
Emily Bronte sets up such a complex narrative that it becomes arguable over whether these two characters are the protagonists of the novel. Told from the outermost perspective of a traveler who happens upon the settings of this novel, Thrushcross Grange (a regal and lush estate) and Wuthering Heights (a “misanthropist’s heaven), Lockwood becomes a tenant to Mr. Heathcliff, who upon our first meeting with him is a dark, brooding, bitter character. Eventually, Lockwood comes into contact with Nelly Dean, the keeper of Heathcliff’s property, the Grange, where Lockwood will be lodging for a time– she takes Lockwood back to the beginning, as an observant/ 1st person participant narrator. We trust her objectivity, mostly; though she’s sympathetic to Heathcliff, she favors Catherine’s character (just a few years her senior and her primary care taker and confidant since the early death of Catherine’s mother).This is not unlike Emily’s experience in that she lost her mother and was looked after by her aunt and father for most of her childhood.
Inherent in this novel is the life and mind of Emily Bronte. The second youngest of six children (3 of them would publish novels within a year of one another that would go on to become classics: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Anne’s Agnes Grey, all published under pseudonyms), she spent most of her life in Haworth, a small village, on the edge of the moors. I had the opportunity to visit her home, the parish, walk the moors and see two of the buildings she’d fashioned her primary settings after. I can only liken that opportunity to a religious experience of sorts; I felt part of the landscape she so accurately depicts in her novel. While rustic, it is overwhelmingly majestic. Emily never strayed far from her home, leaving only twice to become terribly homesick, so her novel is as much a part of the landscape as it is the representation of what lived in her mind.
She also never experienced a love, which has been recorded, so strong as Catherine’s for Heathcliff and vice versa. She’s an anomaly really– that she could be so strong and independent (having the gall to publish under a man’s name) yet so innocent in never straying far from the vicinity of her upbringing, but instead, creating worlds of people in her mind. There is evidence of the wooden figurines it is said that the Bronte children played with, creating collaborative stories (“The Gondal Chronicles”) which they would then scribe in teeny, tiny notebooks. That Emily would have such insight into love and human nature is incredibly fortuitous. The spirituality of the novel does not surprise in that her father was curate of the parish, adjacent to their home. Likewise, his religious rantings appear in one of her characters in the heights, Joseph, as does the erratic behavior of her brother, Branwell in the character of Catherine’s brother, Hindley. She draws upon what she knows and fills in the many gaps of experience by what she creates which marks her as an incredible visionary.
Human nature in Wuthering Heights is portrayed in polarities: love & hate, storm & calm, high class & low class, right & wrong, inside & outside. Through her themes and motifs, Bronte begs us to question all that we know and realize we can’t know one polarity without having had experienced the other.
Bronte sets up a love triangle where Catherine is made to choose between the man she loves and the one society has taught her would be the better choice. In making her choice to marry Edgar, while Heathcliff believes she is denouncing their love, she is instead choosing the life that would help her advance Heathcliff. Though naive, Catherine believes she is making the only choice she can– a selfless choice. However, through, Bronte’s masterful storytelling, she allows the reader to judge Catherine’s decision as selfLESS or selfISH.
Through Catherine and Heathcliff’s love, which transcends not only generations but earthly and heavenly existence, we are called upon to question our own beliefs about the differences between loving and being in love, about the eternal idea of soulmates, about spiritual love extending beyond corporeal existence, as we know it, (regardless of the decisions we make) into the FORever-after.