Reading Challenges

July 14, 2011

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights

A few months ago I decided rather randomly that it was high time I read Wuthering Heights, a book that has popped up in conversation and in cultural references since my childhood. Diving in, I didn't really have any preconceived notions of how I might feel about Wuthering Heights, though early reading proved a bit difficult in that I didn't feel particularly engrossed in the exposition. Plowing onward, Chapter 5 marked a turning point, however, and I'm happy to report that I  fully respect Emily Brontë's brilliance now and what makes Wuthering Heights an enduring classic.






For a lot of readers I've encountered, literary analysis seems to stop at their relationship to the characters and their interest in the plot, both of which would make an appreciation of Wuthering Heights rather difficult. Very few, if any, of the characters in this melodramatic tale are likable and they certainly don't give off that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from rooting for an endearing character. In this vein, some books are masterfully crafted to tell a good story, while others take various approaches, some of which are more impressionistic or packed with ideas that inspire a different appreciation. Wuthering Heights is brimming with great literary devices and possible interpretations that are fascinating, well engineered, and entirely worthy of inspiring a good read. After hearing all the negative criticism from readers that rather shallowly dismiss this book, it is my hope that others will give it a fair try by taking in the story as a whole and not getting bogged down with popularity contests among the characters. The principle players' rather flat dimensions are, after all, intended as symbols and not necessarily to reveal some great aspect of their humanity.

Brontë is excellent at creating an environment of opposing pairs. There are two main households at the center of Wuthering Heights, the book's namesake and Thrushold Grange. The latter is lively and extravagant while Wuthering Heights is somber in its gothic feel and understaffed, enforcing our understanding of the different families, and their subsequent class affiliations. Fair haired Catherine is contrasted with Heathcliff's dark "gypsy" looks, and relationships between the two families with overlapping geneaology are at the heart of this multi-generational story. The blood ties are consistently categorized and referred to by temperature or color, with the Linton family representing the cool milder tones, while Healthcliff's passions and rage confirm his status as red and fiery.

One of the most interesting theories to come to my attention upon completing Wuthering Heights, is the idea that the book, written during the great famine in Ireland, symbolizes the relationship between England (often depicted as the refined colonizer) and Ireland (consistently stereotyped as wild and uncontrolled). Although it never occurred to me while reading, as soon as a fellow blogger (check out his great reviews and comments over at Vapour Trails) raised the idea, it was immediately apparent that there are a lot of examples in the book to give weight to his theory. To begin, Heathcliff was found in Liverpool, which historically and even today, is home to an important Irish community. His dark looks could easily be described as "black Irish" and his fiery passions would make him the untamed subject of his fair-haired colonizers. The two homes could also easily represent the two countries: Ireland being the wild and unrefined Wuthering Heights (rustic, with people doing their own chores in simplistic ways--reminiscent perhaps of the backwards farming methods--due to lack of capital-- that the Irish were forced to use under English land ownership) contrasting strongly with the extravagance and hired help found at the very English gentry home across the way, Thrushold Grange.

Echoing the book's overarching theme of conflict between nature and culture (giving in to passion and personal desires versus following the path of cultivated appearances and cultural institutions--i.e. the Victoran era's growing class consciousness), the passage in which Cathy has her final fit, brings to mind the Irish aisling, a form of poetry in which a woman representing Ireland, pleads for a man to save her from slavery. Here Cathy becomes Ireland. When she sees she will be separated from Heathcliff, who could keep her from a life of English "culture" at the Grange, she pleads with her entire being to be saved. 

There are too many other examples to detail here in support of the Ireland/England pairs, but it's certainly a subject worthy of further research and all the more compelling when we note that Brontë's father was Irish. Perhaps the young writer struggled to find a balance between the two opposing cultures within her, just as the two generations in Wuthering Heights worked to overcome their own microcosmic tragedies. 

Wuthering Heights is a novel that inspires a myriad of interpretations and ideas. There's an interesting page HERE that discusses gothic elements in Wuthering Heights, and an essay further down the page entitled A Feminist Theory of the Gothic and Wuthering Heights is particularly noteworthy. 

It's impressive to realize just how thoroughly Wuthering Heights permeates Western popular culture. Embarassing to admit, but my earliest knowledge of the book came as a child from that prolific series that every child of the 80s read, The Babysitters Club. My memory as an eight year old is a little fuzzy, but I seem to remember that the shy goody-goody babysitter named Maryanne was a fan of Wuthering Heights. This silly reference alone speaks for the strong impact of Emily Brontë's only novel.

Since completing the book, I certainly appreciate Kate Bush's celebrated song better now (I've selected the following version of the video, not for its quirky dance moves, but for its use of the same environment in which the book takes place).
Out on the wiley, windy moors
We'd roll and fall in green
You had a temper, like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me?
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you too



And one final quote, as I'm currently reading Virginia Woolf and randomly came across her commentary on Emily Brontë's novel:
She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel–a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely "I love" or "I hate," but "we, the whole human race" and "you, the eternal powers..." the sentence remains unfinished.

18 comments:

  1. This is on my list for the Gothic Reading Challenge! Glad I found your site.

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  2. Thanks for visiting, TBM. Initially, I didn't have Wuthering Heights picked out with the Gothic challenge in mind, so it's really wonderful gothic elements were a pleasant surprise! Happy reading!

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  3. Thanks! I'm looking forward to it. Can't believe that I haven't read this book yet.

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  4. I feel that way about so many books I have yet to read, it's almost depressing...but sigh, so many books, so little time.

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  5. I feel the same way. I have to stay healthy so I can enjoy a long life of reading!

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  6. Marisa,

    This is easily the best review I've read of Wuthering Heights in a seriously long time.

    I'm always shocked when people hate this novel and Madame Bovary. The writers weren't trying to make anyone fall in love with their heroines. They were trying to tell a truth in the most artistic way possible. They must have succeeded, if we're still talking about these novels hundreds of years after they've been written.

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  7. Thanks so much Jennifer! I totally agree about Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary. The authors must've done something right to create such a long-lasting influence that has moved not just within literary circles, but into popular culture as well. I just can't imagine reading only works whose characters I can relate to, that is not the point at all and I wouldn't get much out of my reading if I only looked for some kind of mirror to my own likes and comfort zone. Wuthering Heights is one of those great finds that I had no idea would leave me thinking so much days after I'd finished it. It's always a great surprise to discover a book with that kind of power. It's been two or three years since I read Madame Bovary, but Flaubert was similar in that the novel has really stayed with me and I that i continue to think about it.

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  8. I've read Wuthering Heights a few years ago and I liked it though I wasn't able to see the similarities between the conflict between England and Ireland.
    I have to re-read the book soon with this in mind.

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  9. Thanks for your kind attribution and comments, Marisa. Love the review. You have expounded 'my' theory wonderfully.
    It's worth emphasising that in an aisling Ireland is usually represented by a woman whose name is a variant of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, so Cathy fits perfectly.
    By the way I haven't reviewed Wuthering Heights on my site (yet) but I have reviewed Madame Bovary recently -
    Interesting to see them paired in the comments.
    Another interesting comparison is Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie, in which the key character is Myrtle, who like Heathcliff is a foundling from the streets of Liverpool who knows nothing about her identity. Possible Irish identity is suggested.

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  10. I may suggest this one for our next book club read. Interesting comparison with the England/Ireland conflict.
    Ann

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  11. @theeclecticreader--let me know if you do reread it and have new ideas!

    @Jet Phantom--thanks for the precision regarding Cathleen Ni Houlihan in aisling poetry, it's an important reference. I wasn't familiar with Master Georgie, but looks like something I'd appreciate. You guys are killing me with new book finds, and while I pretend to be disgusted with a TBR the size of a house, I really am secretly delighted to hear about so many great new-to-me titles!

    @Cozy in Texas--it does seem to be a good book for generating discussion, so I imagine it'd be a great choice for a book club read. Let me know in the future if you get any interesting or heated debate in response to it!

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  12. The first time I read WH, I was in high school and loved these characters who refused to try to fit in, in any way, shape or form. Heathcliffe was of course the Byronic Hero of many a teenager's dreams,but even then I knew that Bronte wasn't promoting H and C's relationship at all. It 's funny how young girls (I'm thinking of Twilight) see this novel primarily as a love story. Especially since C dies halfway through the novel and Heathcliffe's vindictiveness takes up the second half of the novel...

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  13. Yes, makes me wonder if Stephanie Meyer (Twilight author) actually read Wuthering Heights. I had always heard it described as nothing more than a tragic love story, which is bizarre. I think people have been investing too much time in reading that book "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Actually Read" or some such nonsense instead of actually reading important works of fiction.

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  14. A little bit of useless information for you: Kate Bush hadn't actually read Wuthering Heights when she wrote the song.
    Her knowledge of the story and what it was about was second hand. As you said, it's a far reaching book that many know about, but haven't read.
    I myself took a while to really get into the book as I went into it with preconceived ideas of what it was about. As soon as I let those go I began to enjoy it immensely.
    The whole Heathcliff is an abusive boyfriend Interesting theory about Ireland/England. Can't say it ever struck me before, and I'm Irish.

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  15. Hi "Anonymous",
    People love to talk about how Bush hadn't read the book when she wrote "Wuthering Heights" the song, but it was inspired by a film version she saw, which in turn, inspired her to read the book (or so she said in an interview). Regardless, I think the film had a profound impact because she captures the sentiment of duality so well in the song.

    I think the Irish/English pairs in the book aren't something that necessarily stand out as one is reading, but something that can be theorized after completing the book and looking at it as a whole when exploring different overarching themes or symbolism in the novel. The Ireland/England idea didn't occur to me initially either (and I don't think being Irish is necessarily the reason one might notice as long as one has a decent amount of world knowledge), but once suggested, it was interesting to see how well the theory fits and can be supported). :)

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  16. And to put to rest the claims that Kate Bush had never read "Wuthering Heights" prior to writing her hit song, here is a link to an interview in which she explains that after being inspired by a moment in the film, she decided to read the book before writing the song:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgLUqxZc7mk

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  17. LOL...Glad she read the book!

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