I had tried to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights at least twice before finally getting through it in January. The novel was never assigned to me, that I can recall. But it’s one of those books so often referenced that not having read it felt like an absence.
What made me give up on it in the past is the same thing I didn’t like about Jane Eyre: The male characters. I found Heathcliff, around whom the plot of Wuthering Heights revolves, so abhorrent that I couldn’t see my way to reading his story. It’s like some voice inside me was scolding, “You are a bad, bad man, and I will NOT have empathy for you.” Ahem. I don’t think I’d gotten 30 pages in before chucking the book aside in disgust.
I’m not sure why I was able to push through this time. Maybe rereading Jane Eyre in December increased my tolerance for unappealing men (on the page, anyway, ha). Maybe it was just the right moment for this book and me. Even though I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it – it can be rough going, friends … rough, rough going – the ending makes it all worth it, in a big, big way.
Since I try to keep these posts as spoiler free as possible, I can’t tell you about the ending, exactly. (Even though I really, really want to because it’s currently occupying a top spot on my list of favorite book endings. Oh, the restraint I’m showing!)
Still, I can give you an idea of the value I found in reading this story.
Wuthering Heights is often referred to as a gothic romance, which I’m pointing out mostly because I want to ask, um, why? I mean, talk about missing the forest for the trees. Sure, the novel features moors, mood-evoking weather, supernatural elements, and thwarted love. But it’s not about hearts and flowers, unless we’re talking a heart stabbed by a jagged dagger and dead roses dyed the color of death.
Wuthering Heights is about one man’s relentless quest for revenge and how the desire for vengeance can become an endless cycle of destruction. And that includes the destruction of the person exacting the revenge.
The story hinges on Heathcliff, an abandoned little boy rescued from the streets of Liverpool by Mr. Earnshaw, head of a manor called Wuthering Heights. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff home and treats him like a favored son, to the consternation of his biological son, Hindley. After Earnshaw’s death, Hindley reneges on his father’s wishes for Heathcliff. Hindley prevents Heathcliff from continuing his education and his relationship with Catherine, Hindley’s sister. In response, Heathcliff conceives an elaborate plan for revenge. We watch that plan unfold across more than 20 years, two generations, and hundreds of pages. This isn’t a spoiler so much as a warning: If you haven’t read it, be prepared to stomach much emotional and physical abuse.
Parts of the story play out like a case study of how monsters are made. Heathcliff has a prickly nature. But even when he puts effort into being amiable and happy, circumstances, called Hindley Earnshaw, conspire against him. His tendency to feel wounded explodes into an unquenchable rage under Hindley’s cruelties. As monstrous as Heathcliff becomes, Bronte never quite lets us forget how his ill-treatment contributed to who he becomes. Wuthering Heights makes for heartbreaking reading, but I can see why people love this book: It shows us how rage fuels more rage, how abuse breeds more abuse. It shows us how terribly tragic cycles perpetuate themselves, and the only way out is through love.
In a telling scene, one character victimized by Heathcliff tries to turn another character who has also been victimized by Heathcliff against him. Only the second character doesn’t realize what Heathcliff has done to him. He stands up for Heathcliff and reprimands the first character for speaking ill of him. In that moment, she sees how her bitterness and desire for vengeance might poison someone else’s innocence with the result being that no one wins, including herself. Heathcliff has forcibly taken from these characters the typical trappings of value in Victorian society—status, wealth, property. Unlike status, wealth, and property, though, these characters’ capacity to love can’t be taken from them by force. It can be relinquished, but only by consent.
Readers who like a tidy, unambiguous – especially morally unambiguous – ending may find Wuthering Heights vaguely unsettling. The key gem I keep returning to, the one I can’t stop thinking about, is what this novel says about love: It is not a zero sum game. It is not meant to be doled out as a reward after a long (metaphorical) night of suffering. It is not meant to be reserved only for the righteous.
Love is an irrational, unconditional force and a core need of every human. It may not be able to *fix* us, but maybe it can save us from ourselves.