When Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” was published in 1847, the literary community reacted with such outrage that her sister Charlotte had to defend her from accusations of lewdness, callousness and impropriety. Few books have made such a stark break from conventions of the time: Brontë, a single, reclusive woman in her twenties from the English countryside, essentially raised a middle finger to all of Victorian literature, presenting a book that follows its own structure and puts forth a violent, amoral vision of the world.
Emily, along with sisters and fellow authors Charlotte and Anne, lived her life on the harsh Yorkshire moors, and it is upon this landscape that the entirety of the novel is contained. Catherine Earnshaw and her adopted gypsy brother Heathcliff live in Wuthering Heights and share a deep bond as children; however, this connection is tested when Catherine comes in contact with Edgar Linton, the son of the wealthy family of Thrusscross Grange across the moors, and becomes torn between her marital ambitions and her attachment to Heathcliff. Heathcliff sees Cathy’s flirtation with Edgar and runs away, returning after her marriage as a wealthy gentleman full of anger and bitterness. He spends the remainder of the book attempting to destroy the Earnshaw and Linton families and their progeny, as revenge for parting him from Cathy.
While the book concerns the familiar trope of star-crossed lovers, it has no need for the devices of other Victorian novels. There is no blanching, rosy-cheeked heroine, nor an earnest young hero to woo her. Instead, Cathy and Heathcliff are shockingly nasty: physically violent, emotionally unfiltered, without compassion for the weak or needy. As a teenager, in front of the courting Edgar Linton, Cathy slaps a maid with “a stinging blow that filled both eyes with water” and then vents her temper on her young nephew:
“She seized his shoulders, and shook him till the poor child waxed livid, and Edgar thoughtlessly laid hold of her hand to deliver him. In an instant one was wrung free, and the astonished young man felt it applied over his own ear in a way that could not be mistaken for jest.”
Heathcliff is similarly abusive, degrading those around him to little more than objects. When he learns that Edgar’s sister, Isabella, harbors feelings for him he stares at her
“as one might do at a strange repulsive animal, a centipede from the Indies, for instance, which curiosity leads one to examine in spite of the aversion it raises.”
These characters were understandably repellent to readers of the time, and even prove to be a bit difficult for modern readers to swallow, despite the growing culture of antiheroes in literature. Indeed, most readers will likely call their sanity into question.
“Wuthering Heights” presents an animalistic morality, as opposed to the domestic, Christian values of most Victorian novels. For all the talk of the Bible and the Devil, impersonal nature is more powerful than God; the strong dominate over the weak, and when they do die they chose to take their own lives. Self-preservation is valued: even Nelly, the figure of traditional morality and Christian values, conceals important information from her master so she won’t get in trouble, much to the detriment of other characters. At one point, she comments in a frighteningly pragmatic tone,
“We must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering.”
Moreover, Emily Brontë breaks the conventions of Victorian literature by filtering the narrative of the story through two voices: the primary speaker is Lockwood, a womanizer from London renting Thrushcross Grange, who conveys the tale of Wuthering Heights as told to him by Nelly, a witness to all events. If one takes their narration at face value (as Bronte’s first readers no doubt did, unused to such narrative tricks), a modern reader will be transported into a Gothic romance of passion and insanity, and appreciate it as a scandalous ghost-story of the Victorian era.
However, if one delves beneath the literal narration, a deeper story about the power of human bonds revels itself. Brontë places clues throughout the novel alerting the reader that perhaps Nelly’s tale shouldn’t be taken at face value: though she is faithfully relaying the events to which she was privy, it becomes clear that she doesn’t understand them. Not only is she quite gullible (many of the more tragic events of the book occur because characters can so easily pass things over on her), but she seems uncomprehending of passionate, deep-seated emotions. When Cathy explains her bond with Heathcliff to Nelly, revealing that she believes they are literally the same soul – speaking the famous line “I am Heathcliff” – an appalled Nelly wants to hear no more. She likewise is confused by Heathcliff’s torment at losing the one person in the world who understood him.
When readers pay attention to the language Nelly ignores, they see that Cathy and Heathcliff are about far more than crazed lust and possession. Instead, they are trying to return to their inseparable childhood bond obliterated by adulthood and reality by breaking down any barriers that divide them: houses, people, skin, coffin walls, and finally the membrane between life and death.
Despite all these innovations and sly tricks, “Wuthering Heights” cannot escape the archaic language of typical Victorian novels, and this may be a barrier for many modern readers. The proclamations of love are laid on thick – “Oh Cathy! Oh my life!” cries Heathcliff – and people speak in exaggerated detail. However, as with Shakespeare or Austen, most readers will adjust to the language after several pages. Prospective readers are also advised to buy an addition with a mapped out genealogy included, as the family tree becomes very confusing as it moves down to the second generation of Lintons and Earnshaws, and Emily’s penchant for recycling names gives the reader more than one Cathy and Linton.
Emily died just one year after the publication of “Wuthering Heights,” succumbing to tuberculosis and, like her hero and heroine, starving herself to speed up the process of death. Though she lived her life in the shadows, she left behind her a blazing beast of a book that continues to electrify over one-hundred and fifty years later.