Sunday, September 6, 2015

Book Review: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë
Trade paperback, 416 pages
HarperCollins Children's Books
May 1, 2009 
(first published 1847)
Classics, Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Psychology

Book Synopsis: An intriguing tale of revenge in which the main characters are controlled by consuming passions. This novel was once considered such a risk by its publishers that Emily Brontë had to defray the cost of publication until a sufficient number of copies had been sold.

My Review 

When it was first published, Wuthering Heights elicited strong criticism. Although Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre also received its share of negative criticism, it was not as markedly disliked as her sister's book. As time went by, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and it was Emily's book that eventually came to be hailed as superior to Charlotte's, particularly as the 20th century got under way.

I have read the book three times. It was part of a high school English Lit assignment, and that was the first time I read it, or tried to, rather. To be quite honest, I could barely stomach the book back then. It was too strange, wild, and terrifying to me. The second time I read it, several years ago, I was much older. Thus, I was able to more readily appreciate its masterful prose style and brilliant characterizations. In fact, it was these two factors that kept me reading until the very end. I read it yet again not too long ago. Once more I was hypnotized by this horrible tale of people whose lives went so very wrong. It was one character in particular who exerted a rather puzzling pull on me -- Heathcliff. I read almost against my will, hoping against hope that I would be able to find some good quality in him. Of course, I vaguely remembered the plot from the second reading, so I knew that I would not find any such thing.

This book, in its entirety, is really about Heathclif. It's about how the abuse he suffered at the hands of his benefactor's son, Hindley Earnshaw, twisted him into a demonic caricature of a human being. Therefore, it is definitely not a pleasant read. However, it does serve as a testament to Emily Bront
ë's genius. That such a hideous creature sprang from this young woman's imagination is nearly unbelievable, considering her background. Something dark and cruel stirred in the nether recesses of her mind. M. L. Von Franz, a Jungian analyst writing in Man and His Symbols, edited by Carl Jung, mentions Heathcliff, describing him as Emily Brontë's animus; this is the masculine part of a woman's psyche, according to Jung. The animus can be evil or good. Heathcliff is demonic. The author brings him to life with great vividness, and this undeniably displays her great talent for making a character truly live in a reader's mind.

Therein lies the rub. Heathcliff is so repulsive, so utterly demonic, and so overpowering, that he makes the book sheer torture to read. His influence is strongly felt on every page. The one redeeming quality he possesses -- his love for Cathy -- turns into a sick obsession toward the end of the book.

While I can admire the powerful way the author delineates character, as well as her obvious command of writing style, I simply cannot say that this book is one of my favorites. I find it especially strange to see it referred to as a love story, and tagged as "romance" on Amazon. There is little to none of that in this novel. The supposed "love story" between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw is sketchy at best. They are separated for three years, due to her stubbornness, as well as his pride. When he suddenly reappears, determined to see her, she is already married to another man, one whom Heathcliff despises as a weakling, due to his passionless nature. (At least, this is how Heathcliff sees him.) Yet, it is that very man who treats Catherine with kindness, catering to her every whim. Had she, instead, chosen Heathcliff, things might have been very different. Such a tumultuous relationship could very well have ended in tragedy. Had Bront
ë taken the story in this direction, the book could, indeed, be classified as "a dark romance". As it stands, however, it certainly cannot, nor should it be.

Catherine Earnshaw herself is not a wholly pleasant character, either, although she never descends to the depths of depravity Heathcliff does. She is, however, a very self-centered creature; her sole reason for marrying Linton is so that she won't be brought below her station by marrying Heathcliff. She attempts to rationalize her decision by claiming that she can use Linton's money to "help" Heathcliff, but this is a rather flimsy excuse.

Through Heathcliff, this also becomes a tale of family dysfunction, and of how that dysfunction poisons anyone who comes into contact with that family, whose most disturbed representative, Heathcliff, engages in a very elaborate plan of revenge throughout the latter part of the book.

Although, again, the writing is brilliant, the book does have one major creative flaw, in my honest opinion, and that is the plotting. Characters are killed off when they are no longer necessary. Now, I do agree that a writer has to include sad and unhappy events in a novel, even if he or she is writing within the parameters of the modern romance genre. However, having characters die every few pages or so is just too contrived. 

Some reviewers have objected to the narration-within-a-narration technique Brontë uses, also. Actually, I found this quite intriguing. This is one of the aspects of the book that actually maintained my interest. Nelly Dean turns out to be a very shrewd, highly perceptive observer, with an especially keen eye for nuanced detail, and I enjoyed her narration.

All in all, although I do recognize the greatness of Emily Bront
ë as a writer, I have to say that I consider her sister's novel, Jane Eyre, far superior, with a more polished plot structure.  Furthermore, Charlotte's story is, indeed, a love story.  Although the relationship between Jane and Rochester is just as tumultuous as that between Heathcliff and Cathy, it is satisfactorily resolved as a tale of romance, instead of degenerating into one of twisted, perverted evil. 

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Brian Joseph said...

Outstanding commentary as always Maria.

I have not yet read this. I want to.

I do believe that art must reflect the dark side of existence, at least some time. This book seems like it does just that.

Heathcliff does indeed seem like he reflects darkness and I cab see how he might be difficult to read about. With all that, I sometimes do find such reflections of human cruelty difficult to take.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

As always, I greatly appreciate your kind words!

This book is very different from "Jane Eyre". It is indeed very dark, and should by no means be classified as a love story -- not even a dark one, as the plot revolves mostly around Heathcliff and his revenge on those he feels have wronged him. The worst part of it is, his revenge encompasses innocent people. Of course, revenge is wrong even when exacted on those who are guilty, but is even worse when it's directed at the innocent.

In "Jane Eyre" there is darkness, too, but there's also the possibility of redemption. In contrast, "Wuthering Heights" is unrelentingly dark. The suffering of the main characters is the result of their own misguided choices, too. Instead of recognizing this, though, they prefer to blame others.

Also, I do think that all of the deaths that take place in the book are very contrived, as I mentioned in the review.

I won't say much more, as I don't want to spoil the book for you. I suppose such literary works are indeed necessary in life, but oh, how dreary and depressing it is to read them!

Thanks for the great comment!! : )