On Rereading “Wuthering Heights”
September 3, 2013
A book read twice already, with distinct displeasure, might not seem to deserve a third attempt. But Juliet Barker’s “Wild Genius on the Moors” and Jude Morgan’s “Charlotte and Emily” stirred my interest in Emily Bronte, not merely as a person, but also as an artist. Better prepared, I am reading her book very differently, with a new appreciation for what is, no question, one of the most singular achievements in 19th-century literature.
It is well to come to “Wuthering Heights” prepared, for it subverts expectation at every turn, starting with Emily Bronte’s conjuring trick of making the narrator disappear. It is striking now; I can only imagine how strange it must have seemed in the middle of the 19th century, that great age of omniscient, chatty, stage-managing narrators.
It starts, of course, with the first-person account of a male narrator (Lockwood) who has come to a rural corner of Yorkshire and rented a house, in search of solitude after some unspecified misadventure in love. The opening chapters point to a comedy of manners, a gentleman having an adventure — probably of the heart, as he meets a promisingly pretty girl in the very first pages — amid the rustic and uncouth, yet intriguing, natives of this northern wildness.
Things that seemed merely random and odd on my first readings now reinforce this impression. For instance, the narrator’s comment, at the start of Chapter 2, that he eats dinner between 12 and 1, because his servant, “a matronly lady taken as a fixture along with the house, could not, or would not, comprehend my request that I might be served at five.” What this means, and why he stops to mention it, I never understood before. But now I get it: this is a shorthand way, in 1801, of notifying the reader that he is an urban sophisticate, surrounded by hicks. Through the latter part of the 18th and early 19th century, dinner — originally the main, noonday, meal — was migrating slowly to later in the day, a trend led by the fashionable and urbanized like Lockwood. And why does he feel the need to pay a visit to his landlord, Mr. Heathcliff (especially if he’s supposedly in search of solitude)? Here again, EB expects her readers, 40 years after the period this story is set, to understand the social customs and expectations. It’s something straight out of Jane Austen: Lockwood calls on Heathcliff out of respect, and because this is what country gentry do. (Of course, later events will call into question to what extent Heathcliff can really be counted as “country gentry,” but Lockwood’s initial impression is positive enough: “in dress and manners a gentleman, that is, as much a gentleman as any country squire: rather slovenly perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure.”)
Lockwood is pleased, or bored, enough to visit again soon after, and it’s with his second visit that the expectations raised so far are brutally upended. There’s a snowstorm and he can’t find his way home safely. Heathcliff and the rest of his household do not behave as gentry should: they mock and insult him, hesitate to serve him tea, refuse to offer either a guide home or (initially) shelter for the night. We are already well out of Jane Austen territory — and then things really get weird.
Put in a disused bedroom, Lockwood finds a collection of mildewy old books whose margins have been written in; on the wall, an iteration of “Catherines” with various last names; a fragment of a diary entry describing ill-treatment of the writer and a longing to escape onto the moors with her fellow sufferer. He falls into an uneasy sleep and has two bizarre dreams, the first inspired by the book of sermons he noticed, the second inspired by his speculation about the identity of the mysterious Catherine, wall-writer and owner of the books.
If you’ve read “Wuthering Heights” and forgotten everything else, the Catherine dream sequence, short enough to quote in full below, sticks with you. The first dream, of being beaten by a churchful of stick-wielding religious fanatics, turns out to have been influenced by an ambient sound:
….Merely the branch of a fir-tree that touched my lattice as the blast wailed by, and rattled its dry cones against the panes! I listened doubtingly an instant; detected the disturber, then turned and dozed, and dreamt again: if possible, still more disagreeably than before.
This time, I remembered I was lying in the oak closet, and I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause: but it annoyed me so much, that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and, I thought, I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple: a circumstance observed by me when awake, but forgotten. ‘I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in – let me in!’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied, shiveringly (why did I think of LINTON? I had read EARNSHAW twenty times for Linton) – ‘I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!’ As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window. Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, ‘Let me in!’ and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear. ‘How can I!’ I said at length. ‘Let ME go, if you want me to let you in!’ The fingers relaxed, I snatched mine through the hole, hurriedly piled the books up in a pyramid against it, and stopped my ears to exclude the lamentable prayer. I seemed to keep them closed above a quarter of an hour; yet, the instant I listened again, there was the doleful cry moaning on! ‘Begone!’ I shouted. ‘I’ll never let you in, not if you beg for twenty years.’ ‘It is twenty years,’ mourned the voice: ‘twenty years. I’ve been a waif for twenty years!’ Thereat began a feeble scratching outside, and the pile of books moved as if thrust forward. I tried to jump up; but could not stir a limb; and so yelled aloud, in a frenzy of fright. To my confusion, I discovered the yell was not ideal: hasty footsteps approached my chamber door; somebody pushed it open, with a vigorous hand, and a light glimmered through the squares at the top of the bed. I sat shuddering yet, and wiping the perspiration from my forehead: the intruder appeared to hesitate, and muttered to himself. At last, he said, in a half-whisper, plainly not expecting an answer, ‘Is any one here?’ I considered it best to confess my presence; for I knew Heathcliff’s accents, and feared he might search further, if I kept quiet. With this intention, I turned and opened the panels. I shall not soon forget the effect my action produced.
Many things are notable about this passage. One is that is among the last time, early though we are in the book, that Lockwood actually does anything — soon after, he will become merely a listener, to various stories and stories within stories. But more about that later. What’s also weird about this is that it is not entirely clear whether it really is a dream: its function in the book is some scary, liminal, David Lynch-y place between dream and reality. Certainly Heathcliff’s reaction (he goes to the window and yells for her to come back) suggests he doesn’t think Lockwood was dreaming. Even if Heathcliff, as we will learn later, is not entirely sane. And then is there is this: “Why did I think of LINTON? I had read EARNSHAW twenty times for Linton.” Why indeed? Lockwood doesn’t know this, but the first Catherine, born Earnshaw, is Catherine Linton by marriage, the name she had upon her death. Leaving aside the oddity of a ghost giving her first and last name, why, would in fact, Lockwood dream this, unless she really were there to give her name? But if it’s the ghost of Catherine, why does she come back not as the young adult she was at death, but as a dead child? If she comes back transformed into the child she was, before being corrupted by the luxuries of Thrushcross Grange, then why does she give her married name? If she is a ghost, how can she have a corporal being such that Lockwood can be grabbed by her, and then cut her wrist on the broken glass? But if he can cut her wrist, doesn’t that suggest she isn’t a ghost, but a real child? So in that case, why is he even more terrified than before? The illogic of this dream, the way it seems to point both ways at once, is very important, for it sets us up for all the doubling and ambiguity to come.
Lockwood manages to leave Wuthering Heights, returns to his rented home at Thrushcross Grange, where he questions his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, about Mr. Heathcliff, and Wuthering Heights. To his surprise (and the reader’s) she knows all about it, was present for many of the dramatic moments of this decades-long, two-generation tragic tale of rivalry, obsession and revenge, which she requires little coaxing to begin telling to Lockwood. So we have, in effect, swapped one first-person narrator for another, or nestled one inside another. This also goes further, for at certain points — Isabella’s letter, a long account of the younger Catherine’s visit to Wuthering Heights — we have a third first-person narrator taking over for Nelly Dean. Additionally, a startling amount of what the various narrators relate is in the form of dialogue: long chunks of it in which characters make arguments, defend positions, explain how they’ve been wronged: yet more first-person narration.
What is the effect of all of this, and why did EB choose to tell the story in such a complicated, third-hand manner? We are seeing people from a distance, that’s one thing. We are told what happened but not why: kept from us are their motivations, their thoughts, their secret fears. The narrative has the flatness of fairy tale or allegory or Bible story, interspersed with outbreaks of monologue. It’s worth recalling that EB was first a poet, and she shows a poet’s economy with language here. It’s also true that the events related are so bizarre, so cruel and so improbable that telling them as a simple narrative (imagine Heathcliff, for instance, as the first-person narrator) would simply not work. A narrator telling the story in a normal way would feel the need to explain. But “Wuthering Heights” is on some level simply not explainable, the way a dream or fairy tale is not. It just is what it is. In choosing this seemingly perverse narrative structure, EB has in fact found a perfect marriage of form and content.
Another thing that drove me crazy about “Wuthering Heights” the first two times I read it was the challenge of keeping everyone straight, a task EB seems to deliberately make harder than it needs to be and one that I must admit I failed at miserably (until this time). Two houses, two generations, two sets of siblings, three cousins… And why must so many people’s names start with the same letter (as every beginner’s guide to fiction writing tells you not to do): Hindley, Hareton and Heathcliff? Why does Edgar Linton insist on naming his daughter after his wife? Couldn’t she have at least been Katherine with a K? Why does his sister, Isabella, give her son as a first name her own original last name, Linton?
In fact, as I know now, re-use of names was common among English gentry of the period (witness the mother/daughter team of Cassandra Austens, and the fact that the extended Austen family tree has numerous other Janes). And a prestigious last name in the family showing up as someone’s given name happens to this day — in America, particularly in the South, the region where old ways die last. So in part, EB was simply reflecting reality with her name choices. But I have little doubt it was also a deliberate artistic choice: the confusion it engenders creates a sense of doubleness, of eternal return, thesis and antithesis, repetitive motion within small circles that is so important to the strangeness of this book.
Already past 2,000 words and I haven’t even touched on nature vs. civilization, the role of the weather, the imagery of fire, and the way sex in “Wuthering Heights” is the elephant in the room to a degree remarkable even by Victorian standards. All topics worth keeping in mind in the event that you, too, are inspired to revisit this remarkable work, largely wasted on high school students, which is mostly, unfortunately, the age people read it.
Kate Bush, though, only 17 when she wrote this song, clearly got it. Still amazing 36 years later, a song as singular and uncompromising as the book that inspired it. Thanks, Kate!