12 February 2011

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Book Cover by Fritz Eichenberg
1943 Random House publication of
Wuthering Heights
Having read Wuthering Heights over 10 years ago, I recently felt a desperate need to return to it after listening to the song of the same title by Josh Pyke, which is actually a cover of Kate Bush's 1978 original. Josh Pyke's rendition is a fresh and very different take on the song, yet equally haunting. The name "Heathcliff" circling my head for days, I decided to try and find my old copy of the book - no luck - and ended up buying a penguin classics copy for $4.95. Sometimes the price you pay just isn't commensurate with the value of what you buy, and it's nice when it's this way around.

Of all the things I can say about Wuthering Heights, and believe me, I have been struggling for weeks if not months to put some structure to my thoughts, I would first of all say is a brilliantly constructed novel. The textual integrity is so great it grips you from the very beginning just like those ghostly hands on Lockwood's window, and demands to be re-read the moment you finish. Lockwood's confusion is the reader's confusion regarding the identities of the various Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliffs and the opening scene at Wuthering Heights is not fully understood until close to the end of the novel - which brings us full circle (but of course). Lockwood's gleeful voyeurism becomes ours too as we delve into the dark and murky depths spanning Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, with Nelly Dean as our competent tour guide. The wild and unforgiving landscape within which the novel is set permeates our every sense, because its effects are not so much described per se, as manifested in the characters. Reading becomes an almost physical experience. It's like going on one of those haunted house theme park rides, without ever having to leave your couch.

And then there is Heathcliff. To me, the single most ambivalent hero/villain of all time. Our sympathy for him might wane considerably, but it never disappears, even as he commits cruelty after cruelty. Perhaps it is because he is bullied by Hindley as a young child. Perhaps it is because he is looked down upon, indeed scorned by the Lintons. Perhaps it is because we are given to understand the depth of his feeling for Catherine. He knows his love is reciprocated, yet she has chosen to marry another man, and he is forever haunted by her, even after her death.

One of my favourite scenes: Heathcliff, banned from Thrushcross Grange, waits outside for another chance to see Catherine, as surely as he knows she's dying: 

'I must go, Cathy,’ said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion’s arms. ‘But if I live, I’ll see you again before you are asleep. I won’t stray five yards from your window.’

And later:

'I shall not refuse to go out of doors,’ he answered; ‘but I shall stay in the garden: and, Nelly, mind you keep your word to-morrow. I shall be under those larch-trees. Mind! or I pay another visit, whether Linton be in or not.’

After Catherine dies Heathcliff descends into villainy and stays there, driven mad by his twin desires for vengeance (upon the Lintons) and to see Catherine again. He tortures and torments his wife Isabella, their son Linton, and young Cathy.

Even so, perhaps part of our sympathy stems from the fact that, despite all his evil deeds and murderous thoughts, he somehow manages to care for his "nephew" Hareton Earnshaw, and we learn that the uncivilised and unruly Hareton is not only sweet and decent at heart (where did that come from?) he also has a somewhat affection for Heathcliff.

Hareton is more of a son to Heathcliff than Linton is; Cathy is of course Catherine's daughter. We read with relief the closing scenes of the book, where through Hareton and Cathy Heathcliff and Catherine are symbolically reunited, but in a much healthier and more enduring way. It is as though the sun finally rises on Wuthering Heights.

It is a pity that Emily Bronte died before she could write any other novels, but more so that she died not knowing the success that her little book would ultimately reach. Charlotte Bronte found success in her literary endeavours before her sisters Emily and Ann, yet to me none in her quartet of works matches up to Emily's solo. In Charlotte's preface to Wuthering Heights written in 1850, she alludes to Emily's immaturity and the work's lack of grounding in reality, although she does ultimately give the book a well-written review. I'm glad the passage of time has demonstrated that when she wrote Wuthering Heights Emily may have been young and she may never have experienced love, but her genius was in her imagination, which was perhaps all the better for not being culled from reality. How else would she have dreamed up Heathcliff?

 Finally, I must say this about Josh Pyke. His version of the song Wuthering Heights is found on the album "No Man's Woman" in which men cover songs originally sung by women. Why Wuthering Heights is such a standout song in the album is because Pyke's rendition turns the entire song around - originally it was done in Catherine's voice, but when Josh Pyke sings it, he sounds like a very haunted Heathcliff. And it is so apt that I now prefer his version to the original. Where others on the album changed lyrics to suit gender, kudos to Pyke for embracing the song, owning it, and taking it to a new level. Best of all, his voice serves to underscore those famous words of Catherine's that she utters even as she prepares to marry Edgar Linton:

I am Heathcliff. He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.


  1. oh whoops, that would be me that stole your old copy of wuthering heights i think! sorry! i am still struggling to find time to read it, but your post makes me want to read it!

  2. Hahaha ok go read!! If you get confused by the names of the characters and their relationships with each other, this is quite helpful: http://www.wuthering-heights.co.uk/genealogy.htm