Wuthering Heights (audio, reread)

wuthering-heightsThis is not a love story! That’s the first thing any potential first-time reader of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë must understand, lest they be as disappointed as I was when I first read this book as part of my English class my senior year of high school. I was expecting an epic romance that would tear my heart to pieces as I worried over the fate of two great lovers. What I got was a story of people doing a lot of wicked things in the name of love, but rarely doing anything actually loving. I was horrified! I couldn’t believe this book had been called a great romance. But I was also fascinated. I didn’t like any of the characters in the book much, but I couldn’t look away from them. And the more I thought about them, the more interesting they became. However, it wasn’t until my second time reading Wuthering Heights, this time for a college class, that I came to truly enjoy the book. This third reading continued the pleasure.

Wuthering Heights focuses on two houses and the connections between the two families within them. The first house, Wuthering Heights, is home to the Earnshaws, specifically Catherine Earnshaw. Early in the book, Catherine’s father brings home a little boy named Heathcliff. His origins are never made clear, but Mr. Earnshaw wants him raised as a member of the family, and Heathcliff and Catherine form a tight bond. After Earnshaw’s death, however, Catherine’s brother Hindley banishes Heathcliff to servitude.

Heathcliff’s new status does not diminish Catherine’s affection for him. They continue to ramble together on the moors. It is on one of these wanderings that their connection with the novel’s other great house, Thrushcross Grange, begins. Thrushcross Grange is home to the more refined Linton family, and Catherine is welcomed into their home and into the heart of Edgar Linton, the son and heir. It is here that the novel takes a drastic turn. Catherine and Heathcliff’s childhood romance does not, perhaps cannot, carry them into adulthood. But the passion remains, and it haunts them for the rest of their lives and threatens to destroy the next generation of Earnshaws and Lintons.

The relationship at the core of the novel, that of Catherine and Heathcliff, is driven by passion. But passion is not the same as love. Heathcliff wants Catherine desperately, but his version of love is about possession. When Heathcliff cannot have Catherine, he reacts with violence and hatred. His actions are not those of a romantic hero; they are the actions of a sociopath. This is a man who set a trap over a bird’s nest, starving the little birds inside, who hangs his wife’s dog, who locks up a woman in a room for five days so he can force another young woman into a marriage of his design. He’s not some bad boy with a heart of gold. As Catherine herself says, “Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior. He’s not a rough diamond—a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.”

Catherine’s character, on the other hand, is less clear. She loves Heathcliff, but she claims also to love Edgar. She tells Nelly, “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary.” She feels the conflict between these two loves for the rest of her life, sometimes despairing in the pain of it, and sometimes revelling in playing the two against each other.

Adding to the lack of clarity is the fact that the story is filtered through the mind of Nelly Dean, who has been housekeeper at both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Nelly herself is part of the action. She seems to be everyone’s confidante, and she has her own shifting loyalties. The question of Nelly’s honesty lies at the back of the narrative. She doesn’t seem to sugar-coat any of the characters’ actions, but it does seem that she might shade the story in ways that reflect well on her and on her status as a trusted servant.

Wuthering Heights may not be a love story, but I am growing to love it more with each reading. It will probably never supplant Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as my favorite Brontë novel, but the complexity of the story and of the characters make the Heights a place worth returning to.

See additional reviews at Of Books and Bicycles, Savidge Reads, Vulpes Libris, and Books I Done Read. See also the recent Wuthering Expectations series on sympathetic characters.

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21 Responses to Wuthering Heights (audio, reread)

  1. Yep, they’re all a bunch of nasties, but like you I like it more every time I read it.

  2. Kay says:

    A wonderful review! Perhaps I should re-read this book myself one of these days.

    The first paragraph describes my experiences with discovering Wuthering Heights almost to the letter :) I imagine that the kids these days, that read the book after being praised by Edward and Bella, will feel the same way too.

  3. litlove says:

    I love Wuthering Heights. (and in a whisper: much more than Jane Eyre….)

  4. Chris says:

    Personally I quite hated the book, but I’ve also only read it once. Perhaps it didn’t help either that I, too, was expecting an epic love story. :)

  5. Nicole says:

    I’m thinking of trying this as a combo audio/book read. I have a copy that looks like I might have read it in high school or college but I really don’t remember it, and when I tried to get into it for my book club a few months ago, I was not bale to get very far. Still, it’s one of those books that I want to have read and remember reading.

  6. savidgereads says:

    Maybe a second read of this would make me love it more? I just so wanted to think it was utterly brilliant and utterly utterly loathed it, and got very very bored. Glad you liked it though and maybe (as I have kept it) I will read it again one day and be charmed by it!

  7. This is a well written review and I enjoyed your take very much. Thank you for sharing it. I really love Wuthering Heights for its complexities and the quote from Catherine about her dueling “loves/emotions” for Heathcliff and Edgar highlights the subject I think Bronte was trying to illuminate for her readers through the use of these harsh characters and antics.

  8. I think the various movie versions are closer to normal love stories – doomed, tragic love, maybe, but more genuinely romantic. Those moveis presumably cause some of the confusion.

    The really curious thing, per Chris and a couple of others: So the book turns out to be different than you expected. Isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we want books to surprise us?

  9. Steph says:

    This is one of those Classics that I *really* don’t like. I read it in grade 12, and just hated it. I found the characters so vile and wretched that every moment I had to spend with them was torture.

    To be honest, I think one of the reasons I dislike this book so much is because so many people find it this grand romance, and that makes me so mad! I realize you don’t find it romantic (phew!), but so many people think there is something enviable about the relationship between Cathy & Heathcliff, and whereas I really just find them both so creepy and awful. Anyone who finds Heathcliff sexy and desirable is automatically suspect in my book, because as you point out, he’s very much a sociopath.

    And I distinctly remember writing an essay about passion and Wuthering Heights for my gr 12 English exam, and… I get what Bronte is doing in terms of examining the consuming nature of passion, but why do Cathy & Heathcliff have to be so wicked? I think if their passion had only served to destroy them, that would have been one thing, but they were purposefully awful to those around them and many others were maimed by their malicious actions. Ugh. Clearly this book still has the power to enrage me!

  10. Rebecca Reid says:

    I have read this twice and didn’t recall loving it. I think I should reread it though just to see what I truly think, though!

  11. Kathleen says:

    Thanks for a great review and a reminder of how much I love Wuthering Heights and that is it overdue for me to re-read it!

  12. Jenny says:

    This is a great review — and the passionate comments speak at least partly to the power of the book, love it or hate it. When I read this, Teresa, you told me not to expect a love story, and I think reading it with that in mind helped me to understand the book better. To be honest, I feel somewhat the same way about Romeo and Juliet, though no one seems to agree with me that that one isn’t a love story!

    To speak to Amateur Reader’s point, of course we want literature to surprise us in some ways. We want it to surprise with quality and insight and even with plot twists. But I don’t actually want my literature to surprise me by being badly written or anti-Semitic or stupidly sentimental. Some surprises are better than others. And knowing what to expect, especially in the way of genre, can help us understand what we’re reading more clearly.

  13. Teresa says:

    Chris @bookarama: It’s amazing how enjoyable it can be to read about a bunch of nasty types like these!

    Kay: As I was reading this, I was wondering what the Twilight fans would make of it. I can only hope they don’t see it as a model!

    litlove: You love this more than Jane Eyre? Sacriledge! Jane Eyre is in my Top Five, mostly because I love Jane herself so much. But if you get me in the right mood, I might confess that I think WH is perhaps a more sophisticated and complex book.

    Chris: Expectations can have a huge impact, both good or bad. I think I’ve liked this more on subsequent readings becuase I knew what I was in for.

    savidgereads: A second read might help if the problem was one of craving romance and getting this. (I seem to recall from your review that that was at least part of the problem.) However, even on my first, disappointed read, I never found the book boring, so maybe not.

    Serena: Thanks! Catherine’s conflicted nature really struck me on this reading. I know she loved Heathcliff, but there’s just enough of the pragmatist in her to know that sort of passion can’t exist in the real world. The love that does show potential to last in this book seems to mesh those two tendencies–for wildness and for domesticity.

    Amateur Reader: I think you’re right about the movies setting people on the wrong track. As far as the surprise goes, I’m all for being surprised by a book, but when I go in craving one thing and get something else entirely, I’m just not as likely to be satisfied. I’m not going to read Hardy when I’m in the mood for Austen, even though both are wonderful. Someone in the mood for a love story might be better laying this aside and coming back to it when they’re reading for something more dark and disturbing.

    Steph: Yes, I get annoyed at the book’s reputation as a great romance (and the cynic in me wonders about the people who’ve read it and see it that way). But I was fascinated by how Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship was such a destructive force. It is enraging! It’s enraging when people act like this in life. But for me, the rage is directed toward the characters, not toward the book.

    Rebecca: I didn’t love it at all on my first read, but I’m now pretty well convinced of its brilliance (although I can see how some wouldn’t find it pleasant reading).

    Kathleen: You’re welcome! It’s always nice to go back to old favorites.

    Jenny: Yes, a book that arouses this much passion so many years later must be doing something right. On R&J, I do see it as a love story, but an adolescent one. I’m not convinced their love would have lasted, but it was as much a love as I would expect people that young to feel after so short a time. And it never had the chance to turn as dark as Heathcliff and Catherine’s did.

  14. Nicola says:

    Good review. I love the novel while simultaneously thinking Cathy and Heathcliff are a couple of weirdos! I particularly like the younger Cathy. The nove’s final paragraph ‘under the heath and harebells …’ is truly poetic.

    • Teresa says:

      Nicola: I didn’t like younger Catherine initally, but once she grew up a little, I liked her better. I think growing up is exactly what Healthcliff and the older Catherine never did!

  15. Dorothy W. says:

    Expectations really do matter, don’t they? Expecting a love story and not finding one would make it difficult to like this book. As Amateur Reader says, surprises are good, but sometimes they are difficult to get over. I love the book as it is, wild and crazy characters and all.

  16. JaneGS says:

    >the complexity of the story and of the characters make the Heights a place worth returning to.

    Absolutely. I think WH is one of the best books ever written–it was strikingly innovative when Emily Bronte wrote it, and it has been striking chords and clanging bells ever since. It has been debated, analyzed, and fretted over. It is powerful.

    >The question of Nelly’s honesty lies at the back of the narrative.

    I love this aspect of it :)

  17. novelinsights says:

    Brilliant review. You’ve really put your finger on something here. Someone out there must have perpetuated the myth that this is a love story so it is quite a shock to discover it’s nothing of the sort. I really enjoyed it though very wild and much darker novel than I expected. There’s a film version coming out in 2010 which I’m quite excited about as it has the bad-boy from Gossip Girl playing Heathcliff which seems a perfect combination.

  18. Teresa says:

    Dorothy W: I agree. Now that I know what this book is, I can love it for what it is.

    JaneGS: I think this was the book that first introduced me to the unreliable narrator concept. It never occurred to me that a first-person narrator who claimed to be honest might be twisting the facts, obvious though that might seem.

    novelinsights: I hope the new movie version doesn’t keep to the love story angle. I’ll be interested to see what approach it does take. (I don’t watch Gossip Girl, so I don’t know that actor.) I did think the recent BBC version was on the right track, but the novel is almost too big for the screen.

  19. Wow, thanks for the insightful review. I must admit that having read the book along time ago I would have been one of the people that classified it as a love story, but reading your description and insights reminded me of the dark and twisted aspects of the book. Won’t make that mistake again!

  20. Teresa says:

    Megan: Thanks! I wonder how many people do just forget all that dark stuff. Heathcliff and Catherine’s passion ends up overshadowing everything, even the story itself.

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