Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brönte

(Possibly my favourite book… ever written.)

“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 – then what right had you to leave me?”

Excuse me for a moment (or, actually, several months) while I ugly cry into my pillow. When I found my 11-year old copy of Wuthering Heights, I was eager to dive back into it. I couldn’t remember much of the story at first; just that it had broken my heart all those years ago, for reasons I had forgotten over time. Reading it as an adult has made me appreciate so much about it that I had missed as a child – the beauty of the prose, the complexity of its characters, and the dark, pervasive themes of wasted love and unjustifiable suffering.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a romance novel. Yes, it centers heavily around the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw – but their love is one that is toxic to the core. Their treatment of each other, despite the evident way they feel, gives their love a wild and uncontrollable quality. This is a novel full of lost dreams, words unsaid, and selfish individuals frightened by the potency of their own emotions. It does not shy away from the portrayal of love not as something sweet and tender, but something terrible – love that leaves those it touches with lifelong scars, contaminating them with bitter resentment and hatred.

Love, in most of the media we are exposed to today, is often thought of as something that nurtures and provides comfort to those in it. In Wuthering Heights, however, love is disfigured into a monstrous shadow that looms continually over its victims. There’s nothing serene or gentle about this feeling – it’s all-consuming, a hurricane that burns the world away. It’s a feeling untouched by reason or rationality, and indeed the entire novel seems haunted by it.

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

Yet while Cathy and Heathcliff’s love for each other is ultimately the downfall of every single character in the book, there is something, to me at least, inexplicably beautiful about it. This might just be because I have always been drawn to stories where we see love not as some Platonic ideal capable of saving the wretched, but rather a devastating force that can change people for the worse. In Wuthering Heights, the conventional notions of love are entirely disregarded. Cathy and Heathcliff’s feelings for each other are evident within the first few chapters, though interestingly we don’t actually see much of it explicitly expressed. Cathy’s dialogue with Heathcliff is often very
bruising; his own responses heated and vengeful. Instead, their love remains an undercurrent lying just beneath the story’s surface for the most part. Still, as readers we are constantly aware of their intimate connection with each other. We don’t need for it to be expressed directly in order to feel its raw influence.

“If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave.”

Some of the most moving and heartbreaking paragraphs in the novel are in the final conversation that Cathy and Heathcliffe share, where the two of them finally reunite for a painfully fleeting moment before she dies. Heathcliff’s pain is almost a tangible thing that leaps out from the novel and rips your heart right out. I found myself in tears reading those few chapters, then again as I reread them over and over, unwaveringly astonished by their caustic effects on my emotions. I can truly say that I have never read anything that has hit me as hard as those pages did, especially in a book whose intensity far exceeded that of its contemporaries at the time.

“May she wake in torment!” he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. “Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? Oh! You said you cared nothing for my sufferings. And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you – 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!”

Wuthering Heights is a very complicated story. Not only for its portrayal of broken, ruinous love, but also its exploration of the effects of abuse. Heathcliff is a character that is immediately despised by most around him. His strange appearance and mannerisms are viewed as wild and uncivilized. He is tormented all his life, and his only happiness is found in Cathy, who proves to be just as chaotic and unhinged as him. Cathy is a heroine distinct from other heroines through her vast imperfections. She is not the docile, gentle-natured love interest commonly represented in books; she is a wildfire, stubborn and conceited and selfish. Her defiant and ruthless nature – abhorred by others – is to Heathcliff what makes her most beautiful. They are bound forever in each other’s orbits because of how much they mirror each other, how different they are to the vapid individuals surrounding them. This ardent, primal connection, in stark contrast to the cruelty Heathcliff experiences at the hands of everyone else, is what makes their relationship feel so touching. It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to see that Heathcliff’s devotion to Cathy is a corollary to her being the only person in the world who showed him true kindness.

That such a simple thing could birth the destructive passion that tears them both to pieces in the end is a homage to Emily Bronte’s keen insights into Victorian society. In the book, those who occupy the highest social class and are thought of as extremely refined, often prove to be the most cruel and savage individuals. Their treatment of Heathcliff spurns a self-sustaining cycle of abuse and violence that he returns in kind to their children, even his own son. I think it is a really transparent representation of the way we react to those who are different to us, the suspicion and fear that can be seen even in today’s world. There are definitely elements of racism in the story, the dangers of which are clearly unveiled throughout the rest of the book. Bronte teaches us an important lesson here, about the perils of bigotry and the everlasting effects of kindness on its recipients.

Other things to love about this book: its setting, a perfect example of pathetic fallacy with its moody, stormy atmosphere. I loved the methodical writing style, lyrical at times but tense and jarring at others. Mostly I adored the entire characterization of Heathcliff, who is the novel’s most interesting character. We are told multiple times, and then shown multiple times, that he is a monster -yet we are still compelled to empathize with him. Heathcliff is only evil because of the abuse he suffered as a child, a side of him that grows dominant when Cathy leaves him alone in the world. Honestly – I could probably write a novel as long as Wuthering Heights if I were to ramble on about everything I enjoyed about it. I think, for now, that I will have to content myself by continuing to cry into my pillow.

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