This 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.