Monday 3 February 2014

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

"1801 - I have just returned from a visit to my landlord - the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with."

Read-along posts:  Chapters 1-9 / Chapters 10-17 / Chapters 18-26 / Chapters 27-34

I didn't expect to love this book.  I had been avoiding it for years with just a vague feeling that it wouldn't live up to expectations.  Then Maggie came along with her January Read-Along and I knew it was the impetus I needed to read it.  Honestly, I am glad I did read it but it turned out pretty much as I expected.  It's certainly not a terrible book, far from it …… it has high drama, passion, tension, shock and best of all, it is very well-written.  Yet on the other hand, it is romanticized and highly sentimental with dialogue such as:

"Oh!" he sobbed, "I cannot bear it!  Catherine, Catherine, I'm a traitor, too and I dare not tell you!  But leave me and I shall be killed!  Dear Catherine, my life is in your hands; and you have said you loved me --- and if you did, it wouldn't harm you.  You'll not go, then?  kind, sweet, good Catherine!  And perhaps you will consent ---- and he'll let me die with you!"

Family Tree
(source Wikipedia)

The plot is highly suspect with coincidence after coincidence, happenings such as Nelly giving in to Catherine or Heathcliff's whims, time after time, when there is really no reason to, and in spite of the fact she is often worried about losing her position if she does.  Yet I think its worst defect is the insufficient human depth in many of the characters, as they often acted as if they were automatons with emotional buttons that get pushed whenever the authoress needed that particular emotion to drive the plot along.  Catherine swings wildly from willfulness to thoughtfulness, from vicious teasing, to caring empathy, traits that do not meld together to form a believable character.  Many of the characters suffer the same fate.

Emily Brontë was one of the three Brontë sisters who wrote under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  Wuthering Heights was her only novel, published a year before her death of tuberculosis at the age of thirty.  She would never learn of its success.

Emily Brontë
by Bramwell Brontë
source Wikipedia
While Wuthering Heights is certainly compelling and captures the reader's attention, it does so by using devices such as twisted emotion, shocking circumstances and profoundly dramatized situations, techniques not worthy of a well-composed classic.  The writing is excellent yet the content reflects an immaturity in construction, perhaps the innocence of a sheltered young girl relating what is imagined about life without actually having the experience of living it.  Relatively juvenile plot devices were employed with perhaps a charming innocence.  Heated emotions do not necessarily mean an increase in love; and claims of sentiment which lack corresponding action are meaningless.  Is it an exciting read?  Absolutely!  Do you want to know what happens next?  Of course.  But to compare this novel to Jane Eyre is like comparing a diamond to crudely cut glass.  They are not in the same sphere.

The climb to Top Withens, thought
to have inspired the Earnshaw home
in Wuthering Heights
(source Wikipedia)

Now before I am too hard on poor Emily, I think her sister had brilliant insight into her sibling and the novel's birth.

"I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates.  My sister's disposition  was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home.  Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced.  And yet she knew them; knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she barely exchanged a word.  Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress.  Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine.  Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done.  If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable, of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sheep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell (Emily Brontë) would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation.  Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree; loftier, straighter, wider-spreading, and its matured fruit would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience along could work: to the influence of other intellects, it was not amenable."

Charlotte Brontë says it so well.  Wuthering Heights is a well-written novel, but the components are but mere twigs and undeveloped buds, showing promise of growth, but not yet ready to burst into the splendour of full form.  And sadly, they never would.


  1. This is such an interesting analysis. I loved Wuthering Heights but I also read it when I was young, which may explain it. I loved it then precisely because it was so overwrought! ;-) It would be interesting to see how I feel about it now.

    1. I think because I read it as a classic, I was using different criteria to judge it. For me, it couldn't compare to some of the other greats, in structure and development. However, in another sense, it's obviously a classic because people do love it and it has stood the test of time. Now if I had judged it as a gothic novel, full of Romanticism, it would have held up just fine. I can see why people of Brontë's time would be shocked by it; Heathcliff is really a monster.

      You should read it again! I'd be interested to hear your thoughts the second time round!

      Thanks for stopping by, Cecilia!

  2. I "read" Wuthering Heights by listening to it on tape, and so perhaps the actor's voice was able to add to the atmosphere. However, though it has been a while, I do remember being unsatisfied with the characters - their development and believability. I've read Jane Eyre twice, and like it SO much more.
    (Charlotte's insights do provide a fuller picture of Emily's situation, though - it is so useful to look at the lives and histories of the authors while they wrote their books!)

    Agnes Grey (by Anne Bronte) is on my Classics Club list, so once I've read it, I'll be able to compare all three sisters.

    1. I love Jane Eyre too ….. one of my favourites!

      There were subtleties missing in the characters in Wuthering Heights that come with development. However the lack of life experience for the author could certainly be a factor in this. I'll have to try listening to it on audio one day and see if it changes my experience of it!

      Your post has reminded me that I need to read Charlotte Brontë's other novels. I loved Jane Eyre so much that I can't believe I've neglected the others. Yes, so many books, so little time! :-)

      Great to hear from you, Sophia!

  3. I also preferred Jane Eyre. It's more mature and has more depth than Wuthering Heights. On the other hand, I liked WH much more than I thought I would, because I had this weird idea that the novel was about an extremely passionate ill-fated love story. Which it is, up to a certain extent, but I consider it an unhealthy obsessive love story and not a romantic love story every teenager should look up to. So many reviews had led me to believe otherwise!

    1. Yes, Masanobu, I agree. I think it would have liked it a little more if I didn't have the expectation of it being a classic and instead, expected a romance. I really don't understand how it could have been portrayed as a love story. If Brontë had given Heathcliff some humanity and mercy, perhaps, but he is really quite a terrible character. (spoilers ahead!) Even though he knows his actions may affect Cathy's health negatively, he still insists on doing what he wants. And the way he kept beating up women throughout the book …. Isabella …… Cathy ……. I could only assume Brontë meant him to be wholly bad. Actually it was the end of the book that really firmed up my opinion: the first three-quarters of the book weren't too bad but in the last quarter, with Catherine all of a sudden marrying Linton, her father dies, Linton dies, Catherine is all of a sudden in love with Hareton and marries him ……. aaargh! It was all too much and I couldn't really take it too seriously after that.

      Thanks so much for visiting my blog!

  4. I loved WH when I read it, but it's been a few years. I do think it's important to judge it as a product of its time, as a very romantic, Gothic novel--and it's far and away better than any other Gothic novel I've read (except for Jane Eyre). Interesting thoughts.

    1. Yes, I honestly did try to come at it from a Gothic perspective and that did help. I didn't dislike it, I just didn't think it was polished enough to be considered a high-level classic in my mind. I don't mind melodrama; one of my favourite books is "The Vicar of Wakefield" and it has its fair share. Even "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" had melodrama, but both also had well-developed characters and plotline, and the melodrama was believable because of these.

      I'm interested in reading "The Mysteries of Udolpho" to see how it compares to WH. It's long though, so it probably won't be soon …..

    2. I've read The Mysteries of Udolpho! :-) I love Wuthering Heights because it was written by a woman in an aggressive, unapologetic fashion, in an era when women were expected to be demure and tidy.

      I think Emily wrote a thunderous masterpiece about how closely hate and violence are seated beside love -- how they are cousins under the surname "passion." There are all sorts of twists and Gothic turns in the tale, but no more so than in the work of Dickens. Wuthering Heights is a classic because it's a product of its era that has remained beloved. It has lasted, and it was written by a girl who barely colored her moment before she faded away. It was controversial and challenged the idea that women were quiet little automatons. It stood toe to toe with some of the violent works of male writers, and it unapologetically offered no moral in an era when women's fiction in particular tried to tidy up a novel with a pleasant denouement.

      This was an age when people still had faith in a sort of order, hierarchy, and goodness in life. Emily Bronte spits in the face of that and gives us Heathcliff and Catherine and says, "Look at them. They're full of ugliness, and thunder, and they're surrounded by people who view them through their own filters, and we're going to circle them, and spend a whole novel with them, and we still won't understand them, and they won't feel cozy. And I'll give you your pleasant little ending (the love story in the next generation.) But it will be built on the graves of the prior generation. As ours is."

      That's insanely mature, insanely relevant, I reckon. And she did it before World War I slapped those Victorians in the jaw. She was already challenging their complacency in the 1800s, and she was A WOMAN. And I think she followed the Victorian frame of story-telling purposely, to mock it. She wasn't necessarily supporting it -- she was using it as a frame in which to beat against it.

      That's why Wuthering Heights is a classic. (I believe.) :-)

    3. Great comments, A Reader. In fact, they are so good that I need time to process them and I'll be back. :-)

    4. I loved your response, A Reader. Sorry for taking so long to respond but I wanted to take time to process it and then time got away from me. But here I am again!

      I can understand and appreciate everything you said …… if you look at it from a modern standpoint, it's all those things. Yet I question at the time that Emily knew she was challenging the status quo and going against the grain, so to speak. I more feel that out of her sheltered and limited experience, the story welled up in her and needed to be written. And while I do think that she poured her soul into it, I still feel that the immaturity of her years and her lack of experience came through in the story and affected its development. I get this also from Charlotte's quote about it, but I admit I know little of the Brontë's personal lives other than the basics, so perhaps my perception isn't entirely accurate.

      In any case, it's wonderful when a book can spur so much discussion. I really, really, appreciate that you posted your thoughts, A Reader. In fact, your comment was so beautifully written that I hope you are a writer, yourself. Thanks so much for stopping by.

    5. I definitely hear what you're saying. I didn't find Emily's writing or skill at all immature when I read it, but it was one of my first classics, so perhaps I just didn't recognize a shoddy craft. :)

      I've been reading The Madwoman in the Attic (excellent), & there's a whole section on Wuthering Heights which I hope to read sooner rather than later. Maybe it will shed more light on this novel, for me.

      My feeling though, is that many writers write from a place beyond themselves -- if that makes any sense? For example, Charlotte Bronte often described her writing (what Jo March called "a writing vortex") as a sort of trance. I think it's why so many enjoy reading literature through a psychoanalytical lens: what is there in a work of literature that the writer didn't realize she'd written? How can a knowledge of it transform our reception of the work?

      Yet I read the novels of Anne Bronte (quite lucid, quite assuredly feminist, quite straightforward & blunt), the novels of Charlotte Bronte (there is a decided feminist message in Jane Eyre -- even a whole passage on the plight (anger) of Victorian women), & I wonder how anyone could doubt that there dwelt a similar perspicuity in Emily Bronte, who lived toe to toe with these brilliant, clear-sighted women, and must certainly have had her own voice on the matter. -- & I think she was actually very close in age to both sisters.

      I don't read Charlotte's quote as particularly representative of her sister. (I think) she was doing a form of dress-up on Emily's memory, since Wuthering Heights was such a controversial novel, & her sister had been revealed as the author. Charlotte also doesn't represent her sister Anne particularly realistically, as I understand it -- though I am certainly not well-read on the lives of the sisters. I do remember reading that Charlotte refused to have The Tenant of Wildfell Hall reprinted after her sister's death, and it wasn't until the feminist movement of the 1960s/70s that Anne began to emerge from the shadow of Charlotte and Emily and be dealt a little more respect on her own words. I don't personally believe this was anything but Charlotte's attempt to keep her family's reputation tidy, the same way Austen was suited up to be a sweet-tempered demure woman by her nephew and elder brother, even though she was the author of Emma & Elizabeth Bennet. (& no judgment on my part, of course. I didn't live in an era which would require that sort of fictionalizing of women's lives, & Charlotte lost all of her siblings. The weight on her must have been horrendous. I don't mean to list all of the above as a crime, but rather to suggest simply that it may have clouded our impression of the Bronte sisters.)

      Yes, I am a writer, actually. I just wrote a story yesterday. Thanks. :-)

      - Marianne ("a reader")

    6. You make further really good points, Marianne. I completely agree that writers can write stories that come from outside themselves; that is what I feel that Emily wrote and it's part of what I can respect about WH. I sometimes think that age plays into the amount of enjoyment the reader gets out of the novel; I've noticed that younger women tend to love it, whereas "more mature" (I'd rather say that, than "older" ;-) ) women tend not to like it as much and find more elements to criticize. If I'd read it even 10 years ago, I think I would have enjoyed it much more and had more "grace" for her writing. That said, after I'd finished it, I said I wouldn't read it again, but your arguments have convinced me I need to re-read it at some point, perhaps with a different mindset.

      I also think that your insight into Charlotte feeling she had to keep a "tidy" reputation for her family was probably accurate and, from the little I've read, I could believe it. Don't you wish you could go back in time and be able to view these authors' lives or, at least, ask them about their experiences? It would be so interesting to see how accurate our perceptions are.

      You've made me want to read some biographies on the Brontës. I know Elizabeth Gaskell wrote one, so I may start with that one first and go from there, but I'll probably start after summer because my summer booklist is already unwieldy. :-Z

      I've very glad to hear that you're a writer. Perhaps we'll be reading your works one day! :-)

    7. Oh, yes! There are so many writers I want to go back in time and meet! :) I am planning on reading Gaskell's biography on Charlotte Bronte, but I have heard that because she was so close to Charlotte & the family (and because it was written in the Victorian era), her biography tends to sanitize Bronte's life a bit. A few friends have highly recommend The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan as a very good fictional bio on the sisters. (I think that's the British title, and that in America it's referred to as Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës.) Also, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon, The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller, & The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters by Juliet Barker -- none of which I've read yet, but three of which I own. :) Not to turn you off the Gaskell book! I love Gaskell & like the idea that she knew Charlotte so well. But some other more objective books might be good accompaniments.

      I'm really excited I may have encouraged you to reread one day! I do hear what you're saying on the age of the reader. I didn't read Wuthering Heights as many have -- a passionate love story. Maybe I'd have read it that way as a teenager. I read it as the demolition of a man by passion. But I don't think that's a proper read either, because I entirely overlooked Catherine when I read it. To me she was just the impetus of Heathcliff's downfall. I feel like there's this big message about Catherine I am supposed to pick up on that I didn't the first time I read it: a woman entrapped by her role and denied true passion, dead, killed even, because of a love she can never realize, which is so enormous it shudders through generations & still shudders from the grave. I think that's the soul of the work which I didn't notice the first time I read it. I love that Emily tells it through revolving perspectives generations deep, so we never actually know who Catherine was. We only know her as a banshee who took a course that denied a man what he wanted, and the repercussions of it tore her family apart.

      Ha! See, I need to reread it too. I think, actually, I'll appreciate it more on reread.)

      Great conversation, Cleo! Cheers! :)

    8. I've heard that Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life and the Juliet Barker biography are good. I tend to like to start with biographies that are written close to the time when the person was alive and go out chronologically from there. I must admit I'm a little distrustful of modern authors because I feel that they are always looking for something shocking or have some "new information" to sell their books, but often it is simply speculative. However one must read to make this determination. One of my favourite modern biographers is David McCullough. I think he does a wonderful job of using primary resources and I always feel that I can trust his writing, as he seems to employ lots of good old-fashioned common sense! :-)

      Your thoughts about how you read the book made me think about how I read it. I think I concentrated more on Heathcliff's love for Catherine and completely rejected it (obsession was a more accurate word) but I didn't really concentrate on her love for him. Was it really love? Was there an unhealthy dose of pity mixed in? I'll have to focus more on that aspect on my next read.

      Yes, indeed a fantastic conversation, Marianne! Thanks so much for it! :-)

    9. Ah, thanks for your views on reading closer to the author's life, & the bias of modern authors. I hadn't thought of that, but you're right! There is as much potential bias in distance as in nearness, I guess. Only Gaskell can say what she thought of Bronte, in her own era. No modern author can do that, except by quoting Gaskell or other sources from the period. Thanks for the feedback! David McCullough is my favorite biographer. I love John Adams :-)

  5. So many people love Wuthering Heights, I am glad to find someone not absolutely in love with it. I too think it was superbly written, but unbelievable at points. Thanks for the feed back on my review.

    1. I think I struggled most with it being labelled a classic on the level of other classics. If I had viewed it as an older Gothic novel, I probably would have thought it was awesome. But when you say "classic" I use different criteria to judge, and it just didn't live up to a close analysis. That said, I would like to read it again one day, and I do have intentions of reading some Brontë biographies. Now to figure out how to create more time in the day!