13 June 2006

Summer Reading Challenge update: Wuthering Heights

When I was a teenager, my friends were mad for Keats, Shelley, "Dark Shadows," and Wuthering Heights. I shared the first three passions - in fact, I wrote a dissertation on "Dark Shadows" for one of my undergraduate English courses - but Wuthering Heights just never caught my interest. The Romantic poetry stoked my love for tragic, passionate poets who died young. I read biographies of Mary Shelley and imagined myself in that room with her husband and Polidori. But two lovers on the moors? No. I'll stick to the doomed Angelique, the doomed love between Carolyn and Jebbas, and the doomed Collinwood.

(You see, it's not that I wasn't into doom.)

I finished Wuthering Heights over the weekend, and I've been discussing it on a couple of boards. I came up with my own backstory for Heathcliff (Earnshaw's illigitimate child), I enjoyed reading about the wild landscape and wild weather, and I admired Emily's brilliance -- but I came up against one huge problem: There is not one character whom I like. Usually, if that happens, I can not and will not read the whole book. I have to like or admire someone, or someone's aspirations.

This quirk of mine has never stopped me from reading works like Crime and Punishment, or other dark, dark books. The most murderous of the characters search their souls and understand that they are not the same as others. They see their guilt, or they don't see their guilt, but they understand their actions in the context of a real world.

All of the characters are personifications of various ways of being corrupted, or of being corruptors. Even Mrs. Dean, the closest to a caring, compassionate character - actually, the closest to an actual human being - allows tragedies to happen because she allows one or the other of the Catherines to manipulate her. Allows, mind you - she knows she's acting against common sense and principle, but she allows.

Having Mrs. Dean as the primary narrator prevents the reader from knowing whether the monstrous Heathcliff knows that his behavior would not fit into a world that was less isolated. In fact, it prevents the reader from seeing any evidence of love that isn't tinged with cruelty. The Romantics may have wept and yearned for their loves, but they didn't lock their loves (or their loves' daughters) into barred rooms, force them to marry mewling invalids, or hang their dogs.

And yet, despite the lack of tolerable characters , despite the overwhelming cruelty and corruption, I loved the book. This puzzled me until I realized that I was reading the land itself - the moors, the bracken, the weather - as a character, and I loved that character. The moors were what they were, are what they are, and will endure despite the disgraceful actions of the humans who enact their nasty lives upon it.

Maybe that was Emily's genius: showing us that humans may come and go, enact decent or indecent acts, or love or hate, but the land - her beloved, beautiful moor - is eternal, and worthy of gratitude. We can look beyond the nastiness of her humans and pity them for shrinking into cruel trolls instead of expanding their hearts in the beauty of the heather.


Stephanie said...

I think I sort of read the characters as human manifestations of the environment. They were all abandoned children who grew up on the moors - almost as if they were parented by nature. So their actions seen in that light were just the inevitable harshness of nature - not something they gad a choice in.

chittavrtti said...

I'm looking forward to reading this post - after I finish the book. *sigh* I didn't know about Heathcliffs illegitamcy yet (suspect, yes, after all what self respecting melodrama has a man returning from London with a child who is not out of wedlock born?)***CV

Jennifer said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm not sure what I think about Heathcliff's origins. I have been shocked at the amount of violence in the book. I don't remember all of the violence when I first read it about (gulp) 20 years ago.

KSD said...

Ah, Angelique. . . I always fancied Quentin myself. And I much prefer Crime and Punishment to Wuthering Heights. (It looks like the voting is going toward another British story for July. Ugh.)

Marji said...

oh my, Dark Shadows. I remember everyone running home from school to be on time to watch Dark Shadows at 4:00. I never really got into it though.
I totally agree with you about the moor coming to life in WH. and about just not being able to like the characters.

Katrina said...

Great reflections on Wuthering Heights! Where was your blog when I was in high school and needed to write a paper on this book?

jennhx said...

What about the younger Catherine Linton? She is innocent, born into a troubled existence, and I find in her a free spirit. Ok, she is brought up with an extremely limited view of the world, confined as she is to one tiny locale, but considering that she is frank and caring. (I haven't quite finished the book yet though -- Heathcliff has just locked the doors on her at WH).