Friday, September 11, 2020

"Wuthering Heights," by Emily Bronte--Fiction Review

Let’s be romantic this Friday, my beloved obscure readers, with Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” a book about love, hate, and occasionally ghosts—for some reason. 

Emily Bronte

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I love a good ghost story, and even though that aspect of the story isn’t the main focus of the tale, it’s still a major component. This book begins and ends on this note, though, which speaks to my love of horror. The supernatural element is one of the reasons I like this era of novelists from time to time—for example, and more famously, Charles Dickens was known to throw in ghosts into his stories, and he lived at the same time as Emily Bronte. It was often treated as mental furniture in the background, like today we’re talking about interwoven love stories, set amongst a generational family drama—and oh yeah, ghosts are totally real and about, but don’t focus on that.    

Unlike many romances set in Victorian or Victorianesque times and places, where the protagonists usually fall in and out of love because of simple misunderstandings but in the end are typically good people at heart—“Wuthering Heights” doesn’t do that. They’re certainly complex characters, and I found myself even sympathizing with all of them at various points. Most of them share one defining character trait, though—they’re all miserable bastards. It’s hard to say why I love this about them, but there’s just some morbid, ephemeral quality about Bronte’s characters that I like. They’re like passionate shooting stars, and that passion could be love, or more often than not, bitter hate.   

What I don’t love about this book:

Emily Bronte died young, and this is her only novel, which is upsetting because, as far as first novels go, “Wuthering Heights” promises a grand career for Bronte, which sadly never came to pass. It isn’t that it’s set up for a sequel or anything. Her writing is just so compelling that I would have wanted to see what she would have done next in novel-length. 

On to the weakest character of this novel, Lockwood, who is the principal protagonist we’re viewing events through at the beginning of the book and the end of the novel, isn’t really a character. He’s a story device—specifically, his function is to be told the story of the various inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. This makes him feel vestigial at best. We learn a few things about his character in the beginning, but ultimately since he isn’t in most of the narrative, it’s easy to forget he exists.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

At the beginning of the novel, we’re following a man named Lockwood, who is renting one of the properties owned by a man named Heathcliff. When he goes to introduce himself and meet his new landlord at his estate, Wuthering Heights, Lockwood gets snowed in and has to spend the night. There he meets the rest of the household. Everyone present is a variety of shades of inhospitable or downright hostile. That evening Lockwood, in his own room, finds a diary written by a woman named Catherine Earnshaw—later, Lockwood sees her ghost outside his window, and she begs him to let her in.

The next day, after escaping Wuthering Heights to take up his residence at the property he’s rented, Lockwood’s housekeeper Nelly, who has been employed by this family for decades, tells him their story.

Originally, the Earnshaws lived at Wuthering Heights with their children. One day the patriarch of the family returns home from a trip with an orphan boy in toe, who he names Heathcliff. Everything is not great—for the father of the family favors Heathcliff over his two natural-born children Hindley and Catherine. Heathcliff manages to form a tight friendship with Catherine, but he and Hindley steadfastly hate each other for the rest of their lives.

After Hindley and Catherine’s father dies, life becomes markedly worse for Heathcliff. He gets to continue to live at Wuthering Heights, now that Hindley is the master of the household, but only as a servant. Then Catherine, who loves Heathcliff, but isn’t about to marry him because of his low station in life, gets engaged to the neighbor Edgar. 

Heathcliff soon after flees the property, to find his fortune out in the wide world. Find it he does, and he eventually returns to Wuthering Heights three years later. When he does, Catherine has married Edgar, and Hindley is a widower and single father, not a particularly good one at that. Heathcliff again haunts the family, and as a sort of revenge, becomes involved with Edgar’s sister Isabella and the two elope. Heathcliff, of course, isn’t in love with Isabella and only married her to spite Catherine, with whom he is still in love with, and Edgar, her husband. They soon separate because Heathcliff reveals to Isabella that he doesn’t even especially like her and is just using her for his own ends.

Edgar bars Heathcliff from seeing Catherine, who is also still in love with Heathcliff in return, and she doesn’t take being cut off from him well. She shuts herself away in her room and refuses food, which is supremely distressing to Edgar because Catherine is pregnant with his child. Catherine does end up giving birth to their daughter but soon dies after one final visit from Heathcliff.

Heathcliff, now adrift, passes his time gambling with Hindley, who is apparently a notoriously bad gambler because he ends up losing Wuthering Heights to his hated adopted brother. 

As time goes on, Heathcliff eventually climbs his way up to become the patriarch of this bizarre blended family because every one of his generation Catherine, Hindley, Edgar, and Isabella all die off. Heathcliff gains custody of his son with Isabella, Catherine’s daughter with Edgar, and Hindley’s son. At this point, he takes the time to break the cycle and becomes a warm and loving father figure to all of them—just kidding he does no such thing and makes their lives a perpetual living nightmare.

It’s only in the epilogue when Heathcliff dies and goes on to haunt the property alongside his beloved Catherine that things start to get better. Heathcliff’s son does die because he was a sickly young man, but he was also kind of awful in his own cloying way. Catherine’s daughter and Hindley’s son fall in love though and intend to marry, which is nice, in the icky sense that they’re absolutely first cousins but—you know—different times the 19th century.        


So my shorthand description for this novel is Victorian assholes in love. I’m aware that technically the events described in “Wuthering Heights” predate the Victorian era, but a Victorian woman wrote the book, so I feel it counts. Besides, proto-victorian assholes in love doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well. Nearly none of the characters in this novel aren’t at one point or another, god awful. Now I don’t mean this in the sense that they’re wooden or uninteresting. Far from it, Bronte’s characters are always interesting, even at the heights of their dickishness. 

I’m moved to sympathize the most with Heathcliff over the course of this novel, and I believe that may have been Bronte’s intention. She set it up this way for you to feel bad for Heathcliff—he did often get beat on by Hindley when they were children—so that she could also sneak in the knife thrust of all of the truly terrible things Heathcliff does. It’s this oscillation between being in Heathcliff’s corner, hoping he will succeed in his love for Catherine—also no picnic as a person—and then being alienated by him after he marries poor Isabella. Isabella, of all people in this story, only has one negative quality—at first—she’s na├»ve. 

From a more supernatural perspective, one could make the argument that Heathcliff is a sort of malevolent demon figure infesting these people’s lives. The troubles for the Earnshaws only begin after the father brings home this orphan boy who doesn’t even have a name—a generous act indeed. Heathcliff, however, repays the man’s memory by destroying his children’s lives and makes an honest go at the grandchildren as well.     

Parting thoughts:

So “Wuthering Heights” wasn’t well-received for its day. The Victorians are known for their incredibly rigid society, and Bronte’s book challenges just about every single social custom of the time. An obsession for that era in the United Kingdom was to be proper, above all else. Clearly, Heathcliff—and the Earnshaws themselves—were rarely “proper.” More often than not, they were barely contained wealthy savages whose primary pastime is to make each other miserable.

The world Bronte presents us with was stark and often bleak, which was probably far more accurate to the times then the popular zeitgeist at the time wanted to admit. A lot of authors have careers like this, though mercifully often not as short as Bronte’s. It’s a quality they sometimes share with great painters, the genius of their work isn’t appreciated until after their death. One of my favorite authors I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog, H.P. Lovecraft, mostly wrote in obscurity, see what I did there, for his entire life, and like Bronte died fairly young. 

The problem with this posthumous appreciation is that without robust feedback from an audience, these authors don’t grow to their fullest potential. Lovecraft in his day was a prolific letter writer—the volume of his written correspondence outstripped his fiction many times over—so in a way, he did get plenty of feedback in his time. This feedback, though, was all from either talented aspiring amateurs or professionals in the craft. Valuable to be sure, but feedback from fellow artists all working at the same time have the effect of directing growth along a single vector, pushing for greater-and-greater heights of novelty and experimentation. 

This is where esoteric books come from, where, after reading them, an ordinary reader can only scratch their head confused if they liked it or not. One of my favorite books right on the edge of this event horizon is “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer. Read that book, then watch the movie that came out with Natalie Portman. You’ll quickly realize that the filmmakers, while making something that looked like the book, were utterly baffled by the source material, and it shows by the conventional story they tell. Really off-topic—but—the rest of the “Southern Reach Trilogy” that “Annihilation” belongs to, by the way, disappears right down the black hole of cryptic obtuseness.     

When we write, all writers—or most at least—strive to not only impress their peers but a general audience as well.

My final thought is: it’s also possible to go too much in the other direction and only get feedback from the general audience. The problem with this is mirrored; a writer grows only in refinement of what will work for a broad audience, and experimentation is less likely. Authors who stray too far this way write book-after-book that feel the same.

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