Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wuthering Heights, or Heathcliff is Such a Bastard, Amirite?

So this week I read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) and watched the Masterpiece Theater version from 2009. First off, there's literally only one worthwhile person in the whole book, and that's Nelly, our narrator. Every other character is either incredibly evil (Heathcliff) or spoiled (Cathy, Linton, Edgar, Isabella Cathy II...). And it becomes incredibly difficult to understand why Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship is so romanticized. I mean, she dies halfway through the book! It's hardly about her. And Heathcliff is such a terrible person that he can hardly be termed a Byronic hero at all. I mean, the Byronic hero is meant to earn redemption through his or his lovers actions, right? If we take Rochester as our quintessential Byronic hero (which he is) then Heathcliff doesn't count.

Which leads me to my next question: who is supposed to be the protagonist of this novel? Nelly? Lockwood? Don't get me started. They're the perfect narrators. And every other major character is only around for half the novel, or is Heathcliff. And while Heathcliff certainly creates conflict and makes the story unfold, those are hardly the actions of a protagonist, really. Villains act, while heroes react. But there's nobody to react against Heathcliff.

So Cathy, meanwhile, is a madwoman in the attic character. Even disregarding the fact that she literally goes mad, her obsession with Heathcliff--they're sharing a soul especially--is incredibly off-kilter. Furthermore, she is constantly being contained by the Grange or the Heights, both as a child and as an adult. Her daughter's cloistering amounts to almost the same treatment.

I think one of the major themes that runs through the novel is that evil begets evil. Everything that Heathcliff does (that anybody else does) is a reaction to the wrongs done to them by others. And given this theme, the very abhuman-human nature of Heathcliff should be examined in detail. More than once we have him described as a fiend or demon--his actions certainly correspond. The other abhuman-humans we've encountered (I'm thinking specifically of the vampiric Tulkinghorn from Bleak House) have corresponded to their Gothic roles even without the need of the supernatural.

All and all, though, this is a fabulous book. So long as you don't bring the baggage that Twilight would saddle you with. Next week, we'll talk Oscar Wilde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

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