“My greatest thought in living is Heathcliff. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be…Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure…but as my own being.” Wuthering Heights is the only novel of Emily Bronte, who died a year after its publication, at the age of thirty. A brooding Yorkshire tale of a love that is stronger than death, it is also a fierce vision of metaphysical passion, in which heaven and hell, nature and society, are powerfully juxtaposed. Unique, mystical, with a timeless appeal, it has become a classic of English literature.
Welcome back to the classic novel recommendation of the month. My selection for you this time is “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë.
I’ve always been particularly fascinated by this book, by the impossible and visceral love story between Catherine and Heathcliff, the two characters whom the entire plot revolves around.
I’ve read “Wuthering Heights” multiple times and every time I do, I find myself lingering on bits that I had previously overlooked and I think this is one of the fascinating aspects of classic novels. No matter how many times we read them, there’s always something new we can discover. I think “Wuthering Heights” is one of those books we understand better if we read between the lines. No wonder it’s been long debated among critics, especially because of its ambiguity and complex characters. It’s difficult to tell whether Emily Brontë wants us to condemn a passionate love such as the one between Catherine and Heathcliff, a love that can bring destruction of the self, or whether she wants to throw light on a kind of love which trascends all boundaries, including death itself.
To say that Catherine and Heathcliff go through a tumultuous relationship is an understatement. They meet when they are children, after Catherine and Hindley’s father Mr. Earnshaw returns home from Liverpool with an orphan, who is no other than Heathcliff. Catherine soon grows very fond of him and they develop a special relationship. Things begin to change when Catherine, after being bitten by the Linton’s guard dog, remains five weeks at Thrushcross Grange, the Linton’s residence, in order to heal and recuperate. Here she turns into an elegant lady by acquiring the finest manners. In the meantime she gets to know the gentle and refined Edgar Linton and they both get very close to one another. Catherine can’ t help but notice the sharp difference between the rough Heathcliff and the well-bred Edgar, and when the latter proposes to her she accepts. But Catherine’s whole heart has always belong to Heathcliff.
In one of the most famous passages Catherine confesses to Nelly, the housekeeper, her love for Heathcliff saying:
” I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, 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.”
I find myself rereading this passage often and, in my opinion, it’s one of those parts of the book where Emily Brontë shows her astounding ability as a prosaist. We feel as if Catherine is describing the love she has for Heathcliff to us readers, it’s as if we are Nelly and we can witness and almost feel the torment in Catherine’s words.
That being said, I admit that I was never able to quite sympathize with Catherine. Probably because I am a “follow -your-heart- and- don’t- care- about- what- other- people- say” kind of person. I never understood how she could marry Edgar while feeling so attached to Heathcliff. Yes, she did it in order not to lose her social position, but does this justify her actions? That’s just me, of course. I’d like to hear you opinion in the comments.
What we get from the book though is that despite all the times Heathcliff and Catherine hurt each other (and there are many) their love can’ t be lessened. It’s almost as if they’re united by an invisible wire that in the end always brings them together, in spite of everything.
The character that has divided readers the most is, of course, Heathcliff. Some absolutely despise him and refuse to see him as a sort of romantic hero. Others see his cruelty as the inevitable result of his hurt feelings. True thing is that in the 2nd half of the book he turns into a villain of sorts. We see him as a man capable of unspeakable cruelties, he abuses his wife Isabella for solely sadistic reasons, for example, and afterwards he keeps throwing his frustration against young Catherine and Hareton, feeding only on revenge.
Most of the time he is a terrifying character, though at other times the reader can’t help but sympathize with him. For example when he’s ill-treated as a child by Catherine’s brother Hindley, or when he’s only seen as a lout, because of his rough appearance and lack of any cultural background. He’s a rather complex figure, as are our feelings towards him. As far as I’m concerned, I have a love/ hate relationship with Heathcliff. I can’t love him wholeheartedly, but at the same time I can’t bring myself to fully hate him.
Of course “Wuthering Heights” isn’t just a story about visceral love, but it is set up by multiple layers that make it the wonderful novel that it is. Emily Brontë’s prose is filled with powerful imagery, mysterious events, dark settings, ghosts, all elements that make “Wuthering Heights” one of the greatest examples of Gothic fiction.
And now some of my favourite passages:
“If he loved you with all the power of his soul for a whole lifetime, he couldn’t love you as much as I do in a single day.”
“You teach me now how cruel you’ve been-cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you-they’ll damn you. You loved me-what right had you to leave me? What right-answer me-for the pure fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will did it. I have no broken your heart- you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you-Oh, God! Would you like to lie with your soul in the grave?
“It was not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn.”
“I wish you had sincerity enough to tell me whether Catherine would suffer greatly from his loss: the fear that she would restrains me. And there you see the distinction between our feelings: had he been in my place and I in his, though I hated him with a hatred that turned my life to gall, I never would have raised a hand against him. You may look incredulous, if you please! I never would have banished him from her society as long as she desired his. The moment her regard ceased, I could have torn his heart out, and drunk his blood! But, till then-if you don’t believe m, you don’t know me-till then, I would have died by inches before I touched a single hair of his head!
“I pray every night that I may live after him; because I would rather be miserable than that he should be – that proves I love him better than myself. “
“It is for God to punish wicked people; we should learn to forgive.”
“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!
Powerful quotes, aren’t they?
I look forward to hearing your opinion about this book in the comments and to those who haven’t read it I highly recommend it 🙂
A recommendation of another classic novel will be back next month.