20 Books of Summer 2019: Book 5
The last time I read Wuthering Heights was probably in high school. One scene burned itself into my memory: The moment a grieving Heathcliff calls to the ghost of his beloved Catherine:
He got on to the bed, and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. “Come in! come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh, do—once more! Oh! my heart’s darling! hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice: it gave no sign of being, but the snow and wind whirled wildly through, even reaching my station, and blowing out the light. (19)
I was smitten by “my heart’s darling!” Who knows why certain lines leave such an impression. So with this memory, I sat down for a reread and found Wuthering Heights so, so, so not romantic.
The book begins with Mr. Lockwood traveling to Wuthering Heights to meet his new landlord, Heathcliff. He takes ill after returning home in poor weather and recuperates while his housekeeper, Nelly, tells him about the families who lived in his current home, Thrushcross Grange, and at the nearby Wuthering Heights. Framing devices are always cumbersome, but Nelly’s a wonderful narrator. She’s well-acquainted with all persons in her story and has an eye for detail and hidden motives.
Nelly’s recounting begins when Catherine and Heathcliff were childhood friends. Cathy’s father found Heathcliff wandering alone and brought him home to live with the family. Cathy and Heathcliff have special affection for one another, but a rift forms between them after Cathy spends a few weeks at Thrushcross Grange and comes home with fancy clothes and fancier manners. Eventually, a miscommunication splits them apart and Heathcliff runs away, believing that Cathy would marry him if he were wealthy. When he comes home three years later with enough cash to live at Wuthering Heights, he learns that Cathy has married Edgar Linton and moved to the Grange a few miles away.
When I read this book in high school, I thought the chief conflict was caused by Cathy’s marriage: If she had waited for Heathcliff (even though she didn’t know if/when he’d be back) or if he’d admitted his intentions (even though he’s too proud), then they could have been together and things would have been fine. But now? It’s clear that there would have been conflict whether Cathy and Heathcliff were together or not. They share a selfish, petty, and vindictive nature that makes collateral damage inevitable. Though if they’d been together, at least they would have primarily tormented each other.
What makes Nelly a good narrator is that she doesn’t try to convince anyone that Cathy is a decent person. If she sided with Cathy too often, or helped trap Linton into a bad marriage, then this book would be overfull with noxious characters. In the days of their courtship, Cathy slaps Linton (not playfully). Nelly tells him to get out while he can, but he only has enough awareness to recognize his situation while remaining powerless in the face of Cathy’s tearful manipulations:
“Can I stay after you have struck me?” asked Linton.
Catherine was mute.
“You’ve made me afraid and ashamed of you,” he continued, “I’ll not come here again!”
Her eyes began to glisten and her lids to twinkle. (48)
Even as children, Linton and Heathcliff despised each other as rivals. As adults, it’s 10x worse because Cathy has married one while clearly having feelings for the other. Additional drama ensues when Linton’s younger sister fancies Heathcliff. Filled with jealousy, Cathy humiliates her in front of Heathcliff, which leads to this:
“[…] I wished to punish her sauciness, that’s all. I like her too well, my dear Heathcliff, to let you absolutely seize and devour her up.”
“And I like her too ill to attempt it,” said he, “except in a very ghoulish fashion. You’d hear of odd things if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face: the most ordinary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two: they detestably resemble Linton’s.” (73)
Yuck, some romantic hero. Things slide farther off course once Heathcliff remembers that she’s Linton’s heir…
It’s a quick read, but it’s a different book than I expected from my fragmented recollections and from hearing it touted as a “romance.” The characters who would describe themselves as “in love” go about it in a possessive, jealous way. Because Cathy and Heathcliff are incapable of empathy, their decisions favor their own desires. Reading this book is less like watching characters interact and more like watching cars smash into each other on the highway.
Once Lockwood moves out of the way and Nelly’s story takes over, it’s a tough book to put down as much as I loathed the main characters. Heathcliff’s violent impulses are terrible, but Cathy tugs at hearts and minds just as viciously. In a sick way, they are evenly matched, but I wouldn’t want to be near either one of them.
Overall: 4.1 (out of 5.0) The characters are flat since they’re so defined by their negative qualities, but it is hard to look away once the story starts rolling. I can see why it’s a classic.
- March by Geraldine Brooks
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
- You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem