Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

14 January 2013
Chapters 1-3
It’s like Inception. Ok, Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t in it, but about an hour into the novel you’re deep into the third layer of narrative and you’ve no idea where you are. Chapters 1-3 are narrated by a complete stranger to the area, a man called Lockwood, who arrives when most of the action is over. He’s an innocent, incapable of understanding that when his host tells him he doesn’t really want him there, he means it. This, of course, is Heathcliff. I’ve no idea what early readers would have made of him, or whether they would have guessed that he’s the brooding presence at the centre of a dark love affair…. What Bronte has him presenting is essence of rude: Heathcliff breaks every rule of civil conduct short of actually assaulting Lockwood – insolent servants, vicious dogs, a generally surly tone – but, for the sake of the story, Bronte has her narrator seeking to shun polite society for a while. For him, the out-of-the-way farmhouse fits some kind of bill, and he blithely decides he’s found a ‘perfect misanthropist’s heaven.’ He’s an idiot, obviously, but this is the first paragraph of the novel and there’s definitely a clue in there.

He makes his way back to Wuthering Heights the day after his first meeting. (He’s renting Heathcliff’s classier place lower down, Thrushcross Grange, and is a bit bored.) Mistake. Everybody is annoyed at his arrival, so you can forget formal introductions… and this is where we begin to go down into the second layer. Lockwood can’t work out who anybody is and makes at least two wrong guesses. I’m sure that whole studies have been written about Lockwood’s role as a kind of surrogate reader, wrong-footed by an author playing all sorts of games. He assumes that the very young and stunningly beautiful Mrs Heathcliff, only slightly less rude than the host, is Heathcliff’s wife. Nope, she’s his daughter-in-law. So her husband must be the man in his 20s, the one who is treated no better than a servant? But can he really be Heathcliff’s son? No, he can’t. He’s Hareton Earnshaw and her husband is dead. (Lockwood doesn’t make any remark about him sharing his name with whoever built Wuthering Heights – his is the name carved over the door next to the date, 1500 – but Bronte will no doubt expect that her readers will have noticed. Maybe, but we know nothing of the connection, can only speculate why he is so reduced now.)

Are you confused yet? If not, you will be by the end of Chapter 3. Snow has been falling since shortly after Lockwood’s arrival and, after some obligatory rudeness from everybody – we realise the young Mrs Heathcliff is only like that because she’s being kept there against her will – Heathcliff grudgingly allows him to stay. He’ll have to share a bed with either Hareton or Joseph, the old serving-man who is at least as unpleasant as anybody else. In fact he stays with neither, having been rescued by the only other servant, Zillah. She puts him in a separate room entirely… which is where the fun really starts. Heathcliff, Zillah says, has ‘an odd notion’ about this room, and fans of the gothic might begin to salivate in anticipation….

Most of Chapter 3 has Lockwood describing the terrible night he spends in the room, and it gives Bronte the chance for some more teasing guessing games. First there are the names endlessly scratched on the wall, Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff and Catherine Linton. Ok. Then there are the books, leather-bound religious treatises that Bronte must have had fun inventing. Reader, someone – it turns out to be Catherine Earnshaw – got bored and used the spaces around the text as a diary, which Lockwood helpfully quotes for us. (Doesn’t Bronte love these different narrators?) It’s from 25 years ago, and it’s our first glimpse of Catherine and Heathcliff when they were young. She complains about a miserable three-hour sermon given in the house by Joseph, delegated to do the job when the weather’s too bad for them to get to church. The one doing the delegating is Catherine’s brother Hindley, now the master of the house following, we gather, the recent death of their father. He doesn’t attend the sermon because he and his new wife Frances are comfortable downstairs ‘like babies… kissing and talking nonsense.’

Are you following all this? I’ve read the novel at least twice before and I never quite keep hold of the details of the family tree. At this point most of them are only ciphers anyway, certainly the new characters like Hindley and his wife. However… the diary carries on to show how Catherine and Heathcliff conspire to do whatever they want in spite of Hindley and the sanctimonious Joseph. They prepare an escape on to the rain-swept heath, where the atmosphere can’t possibly be any less comforting than indoors. Then a later entry has Catherine describing her tears as Hindley calls Heathcliff a vagabond and takes measures to put him in what he calls ‘his right place’. Eh? Again I wonder what Bronte’s first readers would be making of this. Would their curiosity be piqued? Or would they be as exasperated as I remember being the first time?

Lockwood isn’t even asleep yet – but once he is he wishes he wasn’t. His first dream is an almost endless nightmare of sermons, as Joseph escorts him to the chapel run by the writer of one of the religious books, Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy-First. I’m old enough to have been taught the story behind this title: Jesus is asked how many times we should forgive, ‘Seven times?’ Jesus replies ‘Seventy times seven’ – which, I guess, means ‘Who’s counting?’ – except that isn’t what the writer of this treatise has decided. He now inhabits Lockwood’s Inception-like dream-world in which a single dream is long enough to contain 490 sermons. The 491st will be on the sin that no Christian will pardon. Lockwood protests, is set upon by the whole congregation, and wakes up….

The second dream is even worse. He is in the room in Wuthering Heights, hears a tapping on the window, and… and it’s the stuff of the famous Kate Bush song. Lockwood breaks the window and reaches out to have his arm grabbed by a tiny hand. It belongs to Catherine Linton, and she wants to come in. He first tries to free himself by cutting the arm on the glass of the broken window, then tricks the phantom, which has been wandering ‘for twenty years’, into letting go. His scream as he blocks the window wakes Heathcliff, who arrives and forgives both Lockwood for being in the room and Zillah for putting them there. Only joking. You know how he really reacts, and Lockwood leaves him weeping that the phantom that has appeared to a stranger has never appeared to him. And that’s the end, if I remember rightly, of the most gothic episode in the book. Is it explicable as the disturbed dream of a stranger spooked by the scratched names and the diaries? You decide.

Morning eventually comes and Lockwood witnesses more of the fractured relationships in the house. Heathcliff is permanently enraged by the presence of his daughter-in-law, but takes time out to escort his guest, grudgingly, half-way back to Thrushcross Grange. Which is where – I’ve had a peek at Chapter 4 – a new narrator takes over. She is Mrs Dean, a servant of the family ‘for 18 years’ – since the marriage of her master at the Grange, a Mr Linton – and… and it’s time to read on.

19 January
Chapters 4-9
Ok, this is a debut novel, and I should try to be a bit forgiving… but I’m having problems with these chapters. They take us from Heathcliff’s first appearance at Wuthering Heights, through the years of his intensely close relationship with Cathy, to his disappearance after he hears that she is going to marry Edgar Linton. But Bronte has tied herself to a form of narrative that means it’s all exposition. Sure, we get – third-hand by the time we’re reading it – implausibly accurate reports of what different characters actually said all those years ago, but…

…but what? It’s as much about what’s missed out as about what’s included. Often, there are advantages to ellipsis: a novelist can cover a lot of ground, and suggest the passage of many years, by concentrating on a few incidents that a fictional narrator has witnessed. The focus, reasonably enough, is on the memorable highlights. But this leaves the internal lives of the characters either sketchily suggested, or needing to be filled in with conversations recalled, apparently, verbatim. And those highlights, when they come, often stretch credibility to breaking-point. The day that ends with Heathcliff leaving Wuthering Heights and Cathy wandering through a storm searching for him and contracting a fever that almost kills her – I’m not making this up – is a catalogue of melodrama and unlucky coincidence. Ok. But plausibility in novels is something I often get too hooked up on, and I’ll shut up about it and tell you what happens instead.

It’s a series of bad moves and complicated responses. First bad move: Mr Earnshaw, father of Cathy and Hindley, walks to Liverpool and brings back an orphan child of indeterminate ethnicity. Hindley, aged 14, weeps when he sees that the fiddle he’s asked for as a gift has been crushed to pieces after sharing space under Earnshaw’s greatcoat with the boy. Cathy, hearing that the whip she’d been waiting for is lost, spits at him. But – and this is his second bad move – Earnshaw makes Heathcliff his favourite. Hindley, understandably, takes it personally, and constantly hits Heathcliff. Heathcliff, meanwhile, conscious of being the favourite, behaves selfishly, and there’s an episode where he uses the bruises he’s got to blackmail Hindley out of the better of two colts. Their growing mutual hatred seems almost plausible.

It’s all tell, tell, tell as I’ve mentioned enough already, and the picture Nelly gives is of children who aren’t quite in anybody’s control. Cathy has quickly become Heathcliff’s ally and her behaviour doesn’t improve. Nobody’s behaviour improves: Bronte keeps us on Cathy and Heathcliff’s side by making the behaviour of the adults in charge of them even worse than theirs. Earnshaw dies, leaving Hindley, now a grown man, as master. His right-hand man is the loathsome Joseph, whose Calvinistic diatribes are enough to send a saint scurrying off to look for a bit of fun…. And we’ve caught up with the first of the diary entries that Lockwood was reading in Chapter 3. Hindley has been away and he’s brought a wife back with him, and wants an orderly household in order to keep her compliant. When Cathy and Heathcliff escape to the moors once too often, he locks them out in the rain. It’s an evil act that changes everybody’s life – but if there’s one thing Bronte likes, it’s revealing how actions have consequences.

Occasionally, as now, Nelly slips in some information about ages. Cathy is twelve, and the daughter of the house they find their way to, Thrushcross Grange, is eleven. She is Isabella and her older brother is the pleasant but terminally wet Edgar Linton. Ah. And guess what? Cathy – I can’t remember on what pretext – ends up staying there five weeks. Heathcliff, regarded by the Linton family as a gipsy, doesn’t stay there at all, and this is the first crucial separation. When Heathcliff returns to the Heights next morning it’s Hindley’s cue to start taking his revenge properly. Not only does he now treat Heathcliff as a mere labourer, he brutalises him, and the boy quickly regresses into what looks like savagery. He doesn’t wash, takes no care of any aspect of himself… and when Cathy returns, she is dressed like a lady and her hair is in ringlets. The theme of class, begun as soon as Earnshaw decided to raise Heathcliff as an equal to his own children, is suddenly central.

But, given her background, Cathy doesn’t understand any of that. She only wants to see Heathcliff although, after kissing him ‘seven or eight times’, she mocks him for being so dirty. She explains her remark by reminding him that she’s spent so much time with the Lintons. ‘I shall be as dirty as I please: and I like to be dirty, and I will be dirty,’ says Heathcliff – no surprise there, then – and he flounces out of the room. This comparison between him and Edgar is the first of many.

It’s nearly Christmas, and the Lintons have been invited over because, well, Hindley is ambitious. Nelly manages to flatter Heathcliff into cleaning himself up. Who knows what his parentage might be? Perhaps he is the son of a Chinese emperor… and so on. It works, and he goes down looking as smart as he’s ever been. But ‘ill luck would have it’ – don’t you just hate that phrase? – that Hindley arrives through the opposite door, orders him out, then mocks him. Edgar is there and, innocently enough – Heathcliff is no more than a gipsyish farm-worker to him – he remarks on the length of his hair. Bad move. Heathcliff throws a pot of hot apple sauce at his head. (Bronte almost always makes Heathcliff’s shows of defiance and anger seem both extreme and explicable at the same time….)

Etc. Heathcliff soundly beaten and in disgrace, Cathy, after briefly seeming indifferent, outside, then inside his garret room…. So it’s Heathcliff 1, Edgar Linton nil. Time for some fast-forwarding on Nelly’s part, despite Lockwood telling her to leave nothing out. Frances Earnshaw has a baby boy – Hareton – and dies of the consumption she’s shown signs of all along. And suddenly Catherine is fifteen, and an almost split personality. At Thrushcross Grange she’s the young lady, whilst at the Heights she’s the same old Cathy. Nelly tells us she doesn’t like the way Cathy has turned out, haughty, headstrong and arrogant… but still keeping faith to ‘old attachments’. Such as Nelly herself and – guess who. Ok. But Hindley’s long-term project of reducing Heathcliff to near-savagery has continued, and he resists her signs of affection.

Are you paying attention? Because it’s time for that big day I mentioned at the start. Hindley is out, so Cathy invites Edgar over. But Heathcliff decides he can have the day off – Joseph is busy elsewhere too – and he demands some attention from her. The dilemma she faces, this being the novel it is, is no more than she deserves. She stutters some excuse about how unexpected Edgar’s arrival is, and Heathcliff leaves as Edgar arrives. Nelly – she later tells Lockwood she’s read all the books in the Lintons’ library, so that’s all right – comes out with a highly literary-sounding pair of similes: ‘The contrast resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly, coal country for a beautiful fertile valley.’ Well, yes.

Nelly has been told to act as a chaperone but Cathy, not liking this at all, pinches her hard. When Cathy denies that she’s done it, Nelly shows the bruise to Edgar. Then Cathy violently shakes little Hareton, who’s crying – and hits Edgar when he tries to intervene. So he’s seen what Nelly calls ‘her true nature’ – both her violent streak and her willingness to lie. He decides to leave… but guess what? There’s just something about her that the nice young man can’t resist, and he turns back. In no time they are confessing themselves ‘lovers’. Who’d have thought it?

Hindley comes home drunk and, when Hareton screams to be touched by him – no surprise there – he becomes increasingly violent. He ends up holding the baby over the top banister, and the child squirms out of his hands. He falls, not to his death, but – you couldn’t make it up – into the hands of Heathcliff, who happens to be passing below. (I stopped reading briefly at this point through sheer exasperation. But then I started again.) Heathcliff’s look of blankness expresses ‘the intensest anguish at having made himself the instrument of thwarting his own revenge.’ So it goes, in this universe.

And now Bronte has to manoeuvre things so that Heathcliff can overhear enough of a conversation to make him desperate, but not the part that might have mollified him. Easy: have him fling himself on to a bench behind a settle, unseen. Enter Cathy, to explain to Nelly, her only confidante, what she thinks she’s playing at. ‘It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now,’ she says – and, of course, this is what he overhears. He slips out, so he doesn’t hear the rest: ‘…so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…’ and so on. He also misses her long-term strategy: by marrying Edgar she can bring Heathcliff on, raise him back to the position her father had wanted for him. Nelly can’t convince her that these are the ravings of a madwoman.

That’s when Heathcliff leaves, apparently for good. Much later, when it appears he isn’t coming back, Cathy… well, you know. The fever she contracts makes the doctor warn everybody not to cross her, so they don’t. (Not necessarily the best thing for an arrogant and headstrong girl.) And after Heathcliff has been out of the loop for three years, she marries Edgar. Shortly afterwards she forces Nelly to move from her duties as Hareton’s nanny at the Heights – she’s the only mother the boy knows – and go to live at the Grange. Not one to act selflessly, our Catherine.

28 January
Chapters 10-15…
… and the first sentence of Chapter 16. It’s all happening because, a few months after the marriage, Heathcliff has reappeared. He has morphed, in that way that can happen in novels, into the image of a gentlemanly villain. There’s no use asking how he changed or where he was while it was happening – America? The army? – but he’s now utterly sure of himself, without a trace of the dirty, downtrodden aspect he wore only three or four years previously. And he looks powerfully strong. Ok. Bronte needs to get through a lot of upheavals in these chapters to begin to explain the origin of the situation Lockwood first discovered in Chapter 1. Catherine dies at the beginning of Chapter 16 after giving birth to the younger Catherine met by Lockwood at the start of the novel, and Heathcliff has tempted the hated Hindley into more or less gambling away the deeds to Wuthering Heights. And… there have been enough hints to let us know that Edgar, having nursed Cathy through her final illness, has put himself under so much strain it will probably kill him. And I almost forgot: Isabella, that delicate flower, has run off to marry Heathcliff and now finds herself living in abject misery at the Heights.

Reaching this point has been something of a trial, and I don’t just mean for the characters. I often had to keep forcing myself to carry on reading as Bronte crowbars in another plot device to force the pieces into place. After the third instance of Nelly’s well-meaning interference leading to yet another disaster I lost count… and there’s one of those incidents when, if it had only happened at another time, something might have been salvaged. As it is, there’s nothing but wreckage, with Heathcliff the devil-like spirit surveying it in the best gothic tradition. (I haven’t reached the point yet when he will hear about Cathy’s death. But we know from the early chapters that he isn’t going to be stoical about it.)

What do you need to know about these chapters? After their wedding, Cathy and Edgar get along, but we aren’t given a real taste of their everyday existence before Heathcliff turns up. Cathy is thrilled almost to the point of speechlessness, and lets Edgar know that he can’t treat her old friend as the ‘servant’ he considers him. Bronte, of course, wants Edgar to be a charming lightweight. While Cathy and Heathcliff’s symbiotic dependency carries on from where it left off – both of them, independently, refer to the way their souls are entirely shared – Edgar is simply precluded from any understanding of it.

Following his re-branding, Heathcliff is allowed visiting rights. And Bronte heats things up again through Isabella. Cathy, stung by something or other she doesn’t like about the way Isabella refers to her own feelings for heathcliff, tells him mockingly all about it. He doesn’t care, and has no intention of acting on it. But Nelly tells Edgar – is that the first of her disastrous interventions? – who assumes Heathcliff is after his sister for her money. There is almost a fight, but Edgar calls for reinforcements and Heathcliff leaves. The things he says he would like to do to Edgar, like so many of his speeches, are straight out of melodrama: ‘And that is the slavering, shivering thing you preferred to me! I would not strike him with my fist, but I’d kick him with my foot, and experience considerable satisfaction…’ and so on.

This brings on a crisis between Cathy and Edgar. She is as unpleasant as ever in her mockery of Edgar’s cowardice – I’m beginning to wonder if she’s the least appealing romantic heroine in literature – and she takes to her bed. But she makes the mistake of telling Nelly that she’s going to fake an attack of her nervous trouble…. What can Nelly do but pass the information on to Edgar? So he ignores what he imagines to be her emotional blackmail while she… becomes seriously ill. It comes to a crisis after some days, when Nelly finally realises that something’s up. Cathy tells her of her hallucinations, which took her back to her childhood at Wuthering Heights. The last seven years had been a blank: ‘…supposing at twelve years old I had been wrenched from the Heights, and every early association, and my all in all, as Heathcliff was at that time, and been converted at a stroke into Mrs Linton, the lady of Thrushcross Grange, and the wife of a stranger: an exile, and outcast, thenceforth, from what had been my world.’ For me, her description of her vertiginous confusion is one of the best things in the novel so far.

Edgar is appalled that he had not known of her illness. He sends for the doctor – and wouldn’t you know it? This is the night Isabella disappears. This is the beginning of Heathcliff’s revenge on Edgar – later he tells Nelly that he takes out his feelings about Edgar by being cruel to Isabella – and the beginning of his new wife’s nightmare. We hear later about her first night and day in Wuthering Heights through a letter which Nelly has helpfully kept for 17 or so years. The sheer nastiness of everybody there, right down to the young Hareton who threatens to set his bulldog on her, is one of the things that makes this novel so hard to read.

Bronte needs just one more crisis. Nelly has gone to the Heights to tell Isabella that her brother is severing all links – is there anybody in this bloody novel with a trace of emotional intelligence? – and Heathcliff forces her to take back with her a letter to Cathy. What would you do in Nelly’s place? Cathy has a ‘brain fever’ that means that any disruption to the even flow of existence is likely to bring on another attack, so… you’d give the letter to her and damn the consequences, wouldn’t you? That’s what Nelly does, when Edgar is at church, and Heathcliff appears at her bedside. It’s catastrophic. They are both wound up to an unbearable pitch of emotion, as she accuses him of killing her by leaving all those years ago, and he tells her that if she dies his soul will be buried with her. You should have seen the tears.

Enter Edgar, and… what can he do but look after Cathy as Heathcliff leaves him literally holding her up? He forgets Heathcliff in his alarm for her, and Nelly tells Heathcliff there’s no point waiting for the serious chat he’s looking to have. He tells her he’ll carry on haunting the grounds, as he already has for days. He’s told Cathy he’ll be back later that day… but the opening sentence of Chapter 16 lets us know that he’ll have a long wait.

(Sigh.) One of the problems for me is that I don’t believe any of it. Heathcliff and Cathy talk endlessly about their need for one another, and the reader simply has to accept this as a given. The novel’s mode of narration, through the voices of onlookers, contributes no insights: there’s no authorial voice offering a view of these planet-sized egos beyond what they say and do. Their unappealing behaviour – at best tactless and at worst sadistic – is another given, and Bronte always has them reverting to type under stress.

I wonder what we’re going to get now there’s only one ego stomping around.

30 January
Chapter 16 to part-way through Chapter 21
Not stomping, in fact, but stamping. Here we are, only a couple of pages after Cathy’s death: ‘“May she wake in torment!” he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion.’ What was I saying about reverting to type under stress?

Plenty of things happen in these chapters, but no surprises. Sixteen years have passed by the beginning of Chapter 21, so we must have reached the summer one and a half years before Lockwood’s visit. The young Catherine has been brought up at Thrushcross Grange, and Heathcliff’s son, named Linton by Isabella somewhere in the south of England – we didn’t know she was pregnant until after Cathy’s death – has lived at the Heights since Isabella’s own death when he was about twelve. These two have only met once, when Linton – aka Linton Heathcliff – was brought to the Grange before Heathcliff insisted on his moving in with him immediately. And they’ve just met again. We know that by the winter of the year after next Catherine will be a widow, and that Heathcliff will own both properties. And I suppose we begin to wonder what will happen after Nelly’s story brings us up to date, which can’t be too far away now. There are two more premature deaths to come, to go with the four we’ve already had: Bronte has made it easy on herself with Linton by making him a ‘pale, delicate, effeminate boy’ who haunts the fireside while others of his age would be out on the moors. No doubt the snuffing out of poor Edgar will be a more traumatic affair.

What do I need to mention? Soon after Catherine’s death, Isabella gives Nelly her version of life at the Heights in general and Heathcliff’s spitefulness in particular. She’s on her way out of there – only Nelly’s brief mention of her ‘condition’ hints at the pregnancy – and we never see her again. (We never hear how she is able to afford a gentleman’s education for her son, having cut herself off from both her husband and brother. Something else in this novel that we just have to accept.) And… Nelly briefly describes the next twelve years as ‘the happiest of my life’. She and Edgar spoil the young Catherine, but never let her go unaccompanied out of the park surrounding the Grange. We aren’t a bit surprised when the high and alluring rocks she’s often seen and talked about become too much for her. One thing leads to another and… she ends up at the Heights, where she is told that the clownish Hareton is her cousin and that Heathcliff is her uncle. She lets it slip that she has a real cousin, one she’s never met. (Is Edgar on his way to collect the boy, which is why she knows about him? Does it matter?)

And so on. During the next four years she doesn’t know that Linton is being brought up only a few miles away… and then she does. Nelly knows a lot more. Heathcliff is grooming the boy as a prospective husband for Catherine, knowing full well that he is unlikely to survive long into adulthood. It’s all part of his wicked plan for total domination over the Linton family – he dreams of their heirs working on his land – going back to Edgar’s marriage to Catherine and the row that followed his own re-entry into their lives. It’s another of those givens concerning his character, presented to us in Nelly’s third-hand narrative like all the rest. He reminds me of both Frankenstein and the Creature in Mary Shelley’s archetypal gothic novel, and we simply have to accept his obsessive hunger for revenge as a sufficient motive for a character in a novel supposedly written for adults. Following the death of Hindley he has continued to bring up Hareton to be the clown we recognise from the early chapters simply to avenge himself for the bad treatment he received from Hindley decades before… and so on. Take it or leave it.

By Chapter 21 Heathcliff has become a kind of puppet-master, helped along by convenient plot developments. When Catherine contrives to bring about another visit to the Heights on her sixteenth birthday, he is all affability. He is spoiling Linton simply to keep him alive long enough for his plan to reach fruition. He sees the two together, lets slip one of those crafty smiles that Nelly is so good at noticing, then ‘cast a look of singular aversion on the flippant pair’. They haven’t a chance.

3 February
Chapters 21 (cont.) to 30…
… and we’re back to where things stood at the beginning of the novel. I don’t know why it takes Bronte so many chapters for Heathcliff to force Linton and Catherine into marriage, because he has to resort to kidnapping anyway. We have more of those plot contrivances along the way, like the moment when Heathcliff happens to be riding by as Catherine finds herself on the wrong side of a locked gate, giving him just enough time to renew the acquaintance while Nelly struggles with the lock. And the moment it begins to look difficult for Catherine to visit the Heights, Nelly falls ill for three weeks and doesn’t suspect for a moment what the girl is up to every evening.

It made me wonder about this narrator again. The unreliable narrator is a well-known feature of novels, but what about the stupid narrator? Nelly is the one who consistently stands by and lets disasters happen. If the ever more ailing Edgar can’t persuade his daughter to beware, well, don’t expect Nelly to help. If she’d told Catherine half of what she’s told Lockwood about Heathcliff and his behaviour at the Heights, she’d never have gone near the place. And when they’re locked up there in Chapter 28, don’t expect Nelly to shout for help when people arrive looking for them. Heathcliff gloats afterwards – gloating being one of the things that marks him out as a particular type of villain – ‘You should have opened a lattice and called out.’ As Nelly has already told us, ‘he had his wits about him; we had not.’ Well, duh. (I’ve just found an essay, via Wikipedia, not on Nelly’s stupidity but her unreliability. For James Hafley she is ‘The Villain of Wuthering Heights’. I can see what he means, but I don’t believe a word of it. Bronte needs Nelly to move things along, and if her behaviour is often inconsistent or apparently thoughtless, it looks to me as though the problem arises from the inexperience of a début novelist.)

So how do we get from chance meetings between Catherine and the loathsome little worm Linton to their marriage a year or so later? Whether we care or not, we follow the progress of the sad little non-romance from its inauspicious beginnings. I don’t know why Bronte makes Linton quite so unattractive a character; perhaps it’s to make Catherine seem more deserving of our admiration for sticking with him. Bronte seeks to make her toleration of his self-pitying ways more plausible by establishing her as a carer: Edgar is becoming more and more ill, and when Nelly is laid up for three weeks it’s Catherine who looks after both of them. Ok. When Nelly eventually discovers that she has been visiting Linton she tells Edgar, who vetoes the visits…. But Bronte is as determined as Catherine that the friendship won’t stop there, and she contrives some way – I forget the details – of re-starting it.

Meanwhile Hareton continues as a minor character. Nelly seeks to explain to Catherine why he isn’t a dunce, a name that she and Linton like to taunt him with, but the product of Heathcliff’s deliberate policy of non-education. We see Hareton’s first attempts to learn to read, showing Catherine that he now recognises his own name over the door at the Heights. She isn’t impressed: I guess that Bronte needs to convince us that the purgatory she puts Catherine through is to cleanse her of some bad character traits.

These chapters, from the death of the older Catherine to the deaths of Edgar and, off-stage, Linton, make for relentlessly dour reading. Hareton’s response to being teased is to withdraw into boorishness. Joseph is a constant presence, pronouncing on how they will all be going to hell. And the last three or four chapters of Nelly’s narration are a ghoulish race against time for Heathcliff: he needs to get his hands on Edgar’s estate by forcing Catherine and Linton into marriage before Edgar dies. He succeeds – and he also succeeds in keeping the attorney away from Edgar just long enough for him to be unable to change his will. Considering it’s such a long-term project of Heathcliff’s, Bronte is determined to take it right up to the wire. Ho-hum.

Anyway, the deed is done, and Catherine – now Mrs Linton Heathcliff – escapes just long enough to be present at her father’s death. So it goes. Heathcliff is in a rage that Linton has conspired with her in the escape – possibly the only thing he does that isn’t self-serving – and we get a long riff on his vindictiveness. ‘I was embarrassed how to punish him when I discovered his part in the business: he’s such a cobweb, a pinch would annihilate him; but you’ll see by his look that he has received his due!’ What he describes is a kind of mental torture, throwing Linton into perpetual terror, and now he looks forward to Catherine’s life being a torture as well: ‘you shall get the full benefit of the torment, as long as it lasts.’ Linton, outraged by her ‘desertion’ of him, will make her life a misery.

But before all this we get the first glimpse since just after Catherine’s death of Heathcliff’s core obsession. He describes not only how, shortly after her burial, he dug down to the coffin to hold the cold body again – but left off when he was convinced that he could feel her presence with him, just out of sight. After Edgar’s death he bribes the sexton not only to open the side of her coffin on the opposite side from her husband, but to let him see Catherine’s body. Cue the kind of stuff he always comes out with, the kind of thing we recognise from his desperate outpourings after Lockwood’s night in her old room. ‘Disturbed her? No! she has disturbed me, night and day, through eighteen years—incessantly—remorselessly—till yesternight; and yesternight I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper, with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.’

You got that? With four chapters to go there’s only one thing he wants. Bring it on.

4 February
Chapters 31-34 – to the end
When Heathcliff was in the ascendancy, with the deeds to Wuthering heights in his pocket and Linton in his power, I described him as a puppet-master. Hah. He clearly didn’t recognise the power of the one I’ve been referring to all through this novel, the one who needs to have things happen in this way or that: Emily Bronte herself. Poor Heathcliff doesn’t even realise he’s in a novel, and that the woman in charge is as fond as he is of pushing people around.

Lockwood has heard Nelly’s story and he’s had enough of Yorkshire. It’s now mid-January – Bronte is keen on keeping track of time in these final chapters – and he goes to the Heights to tell Heathcliff. While he’s there he sees Catherine behaving even more badly towards Hareton than before: for a time she is the prototype of Estella in Dickens’ Great Expectations, mercilessly mocking his attempts to improve himself. Lockwood considers what a silly idea it had been that he might ever take her away from the place by marrying her: she’s clearly incorrigible. However…

…he’s visiting a friend for the shooting in September, and realises he’s only fifteen miles away. He visits the Heights again, and the place is almost unrecognisable. There’s a flower-garden, a big fire, open gates and doors – and, most surprising of all, Hareton looking like a gent being given a reading lesson by a relaxed and ringleted Catherine. (Nobody ever seems to notice they’re being watched in this novel. But hey.) Nelly is the housekeeper there now, and she tells him in a sentence that Heathcliff is dead. Then she does what Bronte always makes her do: she tells the detailed story of how the transformations came about. Why Bronte always presents us with outcomes, then backtracks in this way, I’ve no idea.

It’s Bronte making things happen, of course. The repulsive, spoilt Catherine seen by Lockwood in January becomes kindly, thoughtful Catherine some time around Easter. Hareton, wounded to the marrow by her sneering tone, doesn’t speak to her now… but she inveigles her way into getting him to accept her apologies. It isn’t difficult because, as we know, he’s always loved her. Suddenly they’re an item, with only the immovable obstacle of Heathcliff to come between them and their future happiness. He has been planning to demolish both the Heights and the Grange – he’s bought the tools and built up enough muscle-power in himself to be able to do it – but he only tells Nelly all this as he also tells her that (sigh) he just can’t be bothered with it any more. ‘I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.’ Nelly asks him if he’s ill, but he isn’t, just suffering from some kind of nameless emotional malaise. Ok. But, he says, that isn’t going to kill him. He’ll outlive them all.

What’s a novelist to do? Eighteen years – or is it nineteen by now? – he’s been subject to the destructive monomania Nelly refers to at this point. Bronte does her best to make the change to apathy seem plausible by having him see Catherine and Hareton together, and… ‘They lifted their eyes together, to encounter Mr. Heathcliff: perhaps you have never remarked that their eyes are precisely similar, and they are those of Catherine Earnshaw.’ The significance of this becomes clearer when he tells Nelly that he’s spent his life imagining her everywhere: ‘what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree—filling the air at night…’ and so on. This is the third time he’s opened up to Nelly about his obsession with Catherine – I’ve mentioned the others, which came in Chapters 16 and 29 – but now…

…Bronte needs to move it on, because she needs Heathcliff dead. She has him move into another mental state, one that makes him imagine both that Catherine is there in the room with him, and that her presence prevents him from eating. We know that there is always as much cruelty in this relationship as anything else and, because Nelly told us at the beginning, that this is going to be the final crisis. After four days she finds him dead, in the same room that Lockwood stayed in all those months previously. The doctor is ‘perplexed to pronounce of what disorder the master died.’ You bet.

I re-read the blurb just now. ‘Emily Bronte records the progress of their love with … truth, imagination and emotional intensity….’ That’s what people remember about this novel, despite the fact that Catherine is dead shortly after the half-way point and Heathcliff only refers to his obsession three times after that. Even while Catherine is alive there’s little to explain the causes of the mutually destructive attachment, and once she’s dead it gets lost in the thickets of Nelly’s interminable narrative. Whatever. In the final paragraph, as Lockwood contemplates the graves of all three of them, he wonders ‘how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’ For all Bronte’s dark hints that their ghosts haunt the moors, I’m happy as she appears to be to leave them six feet under.

8 Responses to Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

  1. Lizzie says:

    Why don’t you believe in Hafley’s article?

  2. Lizzie says:

    He made very good points

    • wecanreadit says:

      I’m replying both to your question and your further comment. You must understand that I’m a subjective reader relying on my gut responses, and I write this reading log as I go along. I mention somewhere that I have read the novel before; in fact, decades ago, I studied it in some detail. Neither then, nor during this re-read, did the possibility of Nelly as evil presiding genius occur to me, and I’m usually quite quick on the uptake in these matters. I explain my disbelief in the log: ‘Bronte needs Nelly to move things along, and if her behaviour is often inconsistent or apparently thoughtless, it looks to me as though the problem arises from the inexperience of a début novelist.’ I still go with this, however ingenious Hafley’s case might be. (I nowhere deny that he makes some good points. I write that ‘I can see what he means’.) If literally millions of readers can be taken in by Nelly, and it takes an academic writing over a century after the novel’s publication to notice her villainy, then there is not enough evidence for a rational reader to believe that Bronte intended Nelly to be seen as villainous. There isn’t even enough evidence to suggest that we should even ask the question, ‘Did Nelly intend things to turn out like this?’ There is nothing in the labyrinthine structure of the novel to point the reader in this direction. Cases that seem watertight can be made against the consensus view of any literary character, and Hafley’s is a plausible one. It doesn’t make it right.

      • Lizzie says:

        The thing is 19th century readers were more than willing to agree with Nelly Dean’s view of Heathcliff, that he is an imp of Satan who just wants to make these (rich and white) people unhappy and they weren’t so familiar with unreliable narrator concept. I haven’t got an idea about what Emily Bronte tried achieve with this book but I believe in the death of the author and I think there’s enough material for us to think that Nelly is unreliable . Of course Hafley went a little bit too far with his idea . Heathcliff is the villian of the piece and no Marxist can change that. I haven’t got an education about English literature actually and it’s not my native language so you might be right. But I still suggest you read Graeme Tytler’s articles about the book, The Disease and Dispossession in Wuthering H and The Psychology of Loneliness in WH are pretty good too. They might change your perspective. But of course you’ve got the right to hate the book 🙂 sorry for my english

  3. Lizzie says:

    I’m kind of ashamed of my comments from 3 years ago.

    You’re one of the more reasonable defectors of the novel.

    That being said, there are a few things that I have to ask:

    1- This is a Romantic novel written in 1847, aren’t plot contrivances a given? Do you have the same disdain for, say, The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

    2- Isn’t Nelly’s narration necessary for balancing the melodramatic characters with a calmer perspective? Could a character like Heathcliff ever work with a third person narration?

    3- Isn’t their neglectful and lonely childhood enough for explaining Cathy and Heathcliff’s devotion?

    4- Why do you think this book is celebrated by academia?

    I’m curious about your opinions since you make some reasonable criticisms.

  4. Lizzie says:

    Rereading your piece, I’m less impressed. You cite the scene where Heathcliff saves his foster brother’s son as the height of melodrama. The said part is actually quite humourous. Here’s the quote:

    “Heathcliff arrived underneath just at the critical moment; by a natural impulse, he arrested his descent, and setting him on his feet, looked up to discover the author of the accident. A miser who has parted with a lucky lottery ticket for five shillings, and finds next day he has lost in the bargain five thousand pounds, could not show a blanker countenance than he did on beholding the figure of Mr. Earnshaw above. It expressed, plainer than words could do, the intensest anguish at having made himself the instrument of thwarting his own revenge. Had it been dark, I dare say, he would have tried to remedy the mistake by smashing Hareton’s skull on the steps (…) (Chap.9,WH)

    Rather tongue in cheek. And it’s achieved by the servant’s narration.

    After reading some of your comments on reddit, I think this is an issue of genre. This isn’t Middlemarch, and it doesn’t try to be. Bronte’s aim is to create a memorable Gothic monster with a more humble and human origin story than most. She achieved this I think.

    Here’s how you are expected to view the characters in this book, especially Heathcliff:

    “And he stared hard at the object of discourse, as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, which curiosity leads one to examine in spite of the aversion it raises.”

    (This is how Heathcliff views the girl he eventually marries. It clearly parallels a previous scene in which her own family viewed him as an animal.)

    So, it’s rather self-aware about its melodrama and many of its aspects are more subtle than you give it credit for.

    I’m sorry for my previous ignorant and self-absorbed comments, in my defence I was young. I hope you’ll reply to this (though I doubt it).

  5. wecanreadit says:

    Thanks for your highly detailed comments, and for your earlier questions – which I did, and do, intend to answer when I have the time.

    As I said in a (much) earlier response, mine is a reading journal. I read quite a long section of a book, then write about it. It is a diary of my own responses, written in order to remind me of what I thought as I was reading.

    Nothing you write concerning the somewhat broad humour of the scene in Chapter 9 changes my mind about it being melodramatic. Heathcliff, by way of an almost impossible bit of authorial stage business, finds himself accidentally catching, and therefore saving, the falling child of the man he considers his enemy. His reaction is just like that of a stage villain, showing through his expressions how, basically, he would like to murder the child. For me that’s the essence of melodrama.

    However. Bear in mind that it’s almost four years since I read this novel. In order to answer your points in detail, I would need to re-read sections again, and I’m not going to do that. But I’ll come back to your other points eventually!

  6. Lizzie says:

    Thanks for your reply!

    So it’s melodramatic. I can understand that you may find it difficult to take the book seriously when Heathcliff hits his head against a tree. I really can understand. That being said, Wuthering Heights is hardly unique in this regard. And nobody in WH finds his long lost father or gets his eyesight magically cured. Not to mention it’s far more self-aware in this regard than most, precisely because of its much maligned narrative style.

    And I struggle to understand how the ending is deus ex machina. Cathy’s ghost and her haunting of Heathcliff was introduced in Chapter 3, and the children’s likeness to Cathy was also mentioned, so was Heathcliff’s conflicting views on Hareton. Furthermore, this was the point of the book.

    I can assure you none of my points above require you to reread sections of the book. These are just points that I’ve forgotten to adress yesterday. You can answer them while answering above questions.

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