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March 01, 2005

Review: Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights

It's hard to know where to start when discussing a classic; I'm going to talk a little bit about the form of Wuthering Heights, because I'm not really certain why it takes the form it does -- perhaps someone out there in the ether can answer my question or at least propose some theories. This was the first time I had 'read' Wuthering Heights.

At the beginning of Wuthering Heights, our narrator Mr. Lockwood describes his first encounter with that rascal (and perennial winner of Male Romantic Lead with Most Troubles¹), Heathcliff -- and it's a rough one, leaving Lockwood very curious to know more about this tough individual. This and, as far as I can tell, all of the book occurs through Lockwood's journal, leaving us at least one remove from the action that takes place later on.

Soon, Lockwood is back at the home he is renting from Heathcliff, Thrushcross Grange, with a cold due to some ill weather on his return. He seeks out the background story of Heathcliff from Ellen Dean, a maid at the estate, and she tells it over the course of a few sessions. So, now, we have the story at a second remove -- and often, at a third, as characters relate events that happened to them.

I'm a bit puzzled by all this withdrawal from the actual story. The story is a good one, and perhaps a bit shocking in its day. Heathcliff is a perfect blackguard, perfectly drawn: he is the way he is because he was treated badly by his adopted brother, and sought to have more control over his life. He turns even blacker due to the marriage of his love to a man he feels vastly inferior, Edgar Linton; Linton lacks the fiery passion that Heathcliff believes characterizes himself and his love, Catherine. This is all set against a background of propriety -- the Victorian era, where there was a definitive code of moral behavior. You need to at least keep that in mind while you read; today, Cathy might have simply divorced Edgar Linton and run off with Heathcliff and his money to America, without even worrying about the pre-nup.

So Heathcliff does all the bad things we know about him -- marries Linton's sister so as to get an heir to the Linton fortune by her, marries that son off to Catherine Linton (Edgar and Cathy's daughter), and sets about making a mess of everyone's lives, which he accomplishes, drawing some comparisons with The Count of Monte Cristo.

In the end, Lockwood has departed Thrushcross Grange for London for a time, and returned to discover that Heathcliff is dead and how he died. The portrait of Heathcliff wasting away, possibly mad, is less compelling for, once again, we have the story by two removes. And in the end, Heathcliff has made his mark and it is slowly being eroded -- Edgar and Cathy's daughter Catherine (nice confusion there) is going to marry Hindley Earnshaw, despite Heathcliff's efforts to destroy their respective happinesses utterly.

So, someone out there, tell me. What's with the form? Why all the removes? Was the idea of treating this a bit more up-close-and-personal simply something that wasn't done in the Victorian era? At the beginning, Lockwood's approach to the story is similar to ours -- and we share his curiosity, so the form there makes a lot of sense. Is everything else simply an extension of that? We hear so much from the perspective of Ellen Dean that we begin to suspect that she's not telling us everything, necessarily, and always putting herself in the best possible light. Is this what Bronte's trying to achieve, this questioning of the motives of the storytellers? Anyone think that Wuthering Heights might have been more compelling from different viewpoints, or an omniscient narrator? Discuss; and enlighten.

¹cf. Thursday Next.

Posted by Brett Douville at March 1, 2005 06:03 AM