Contemplating Heights

on

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, Aug 2009.

1st Published under pseudonym Ellis Bell, 1847.

(344 pages).

A synopsis (borrowed from Barnes&Nobles site):

Somber tale of consuming passions and vengeance — played out amid the lonely English moors — recounts the turbulent and tempestuous love story of Cathy and Heathcliff. Poignant and compelling.

Their annotation:

In early nineteenth-century Yorkshire, the passionate attachment between a headstrong young girl and a foundling boy brought up by her father causes disaster for them and many others, even in the next generation.

The copy I now own is one of Penguin Classics new covers (shown above) and has no such synopsis or annotation to cite. Really, it only tells me a bit about the artist who illustrated the cover, and a little about the author; though not the interesting tidbit that this book’s first edition was not well-received and that Emily Bronte died before seeing its more successful 2nd printing (w/ Charlotte’s intro). I could not well abbreviate the story better, or perhaps, as acceptably.

I just finished Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and I want to know how Emily Bronte got me to read Wuthering Heights.  I am only prone to persistence when asked to by professors or those who keep up with whether I finally finished the book in order that we could discuss it. The book was neither an assignment or a conversation. And it did require perseverance.

Is it because she gave me the last chapter first? gave me an ending to work toward; whetted a curiosity for how the characters ended up as they did? I was certainly pushing through to figure out when Catherine would birth Cathy, and how it was Cathy married Heathcliff’s son (especially after we met him in the book).

If you have read the book you may have had a difficult go of it, for one reason or another. The language, maybe. Or the repulsive characters (very well crafted to be so). Or the near incessant whining, or the illnesses, and madness, and highly dramatic exchanges. Or was it the narrative style?

It begins like a tale of horror. There is the inhospitable climate and the equally unwelcoming residents of Wuthering Heights. There is evident mystery in the untangling of the relations between the hostile occupants, or “inmates.” And then there is the ghost Lockwood sees. Framed narratively like many tales of horror/mystery.

How is the novel viewed? gothic romance?

It continues as a tale of horror, to my mind. The characters populating the book are horrifying. This tale is the dark and mad companion to any Jane Austen, certainly any popular romance formula.

Anonymous wrote this 5-star review:

October 22, 2009: To read this novel is to succumb to a world that is strange and beautiful and cruel and mesmerizing. It reads like a dream written in poetry. It is not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort it takes to understand its complex structure, psychologically nuanced characters, and rich language. It’s reputation as a love story is misleading. It is a story of love in all of its complex manifestations but not the romantic love of pulp fiction. The love Bronte refers to is love that is ambivalent, sadistic, obsessive, and, literally, maddening. Wuthering Heights is a true work of art that deserves to be read and re-read.

I agree, though I wouldn’t say “it reads like a dream written in poetry,” unless you are of a sadistic or morbid mind. The structure of the story telling doesn’t lend itself to the dream-like but it does to fancy; and a sharp criticism of fancy at that. The story and its characters read like a criticism of many popular culture’s romantic fancies. Given time (and initiative) it wouldn’t be heard to reassign names to the Emily Bronte’s characters with those of say…one of Jane Austen’s books. Isabella’s response to Heathcliff is so familiar it makes me grit my teeth in agony; and the captured outcome sigh worthy (and not the fluttering sort). Isabella is familiar and unfamiliar. She is familiar to real life, but rarely to fiction. Tragic yes, and used, but its the graphic representation (not a stock characterization) that sets her apart in her role. Wuthering Heights is cast in types, but is not held fast to popular representations.

Wuthering Heights can horrify the reader. I only wished the horror lingered. Or is there horror in the happy end of most (if not, arguably, all) of its characters. So much of the dark required a compassionate end? Or the tragic that needed its redemption. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, comes to mind.

There are many who read the romance in the story-line: the soul-binding love-connection between Catherine and Heathcliff; the devoted and genteel love of Edgar toward Catherine, and in a version of Catherine’s of Edgar. Of the triangle, the argument of whom Catherine should have chosen. Can I raise my hand and offer “neither?” Ah, but what wondrously limited options! How true to times? The story teller does her darnedest to un-romanticize the romantic impulses of the reader. How quick a reader could relate themselves to Isabella–surely there are lovable, redeeming qualities in the heroes or heroines. Are there? The teller repetitively recognizes the impulses of desire, primarily the desire to love despite the risks or stark raving reality.

I am intrigued by the choice of story telling. What is the reason behind the decision? [My ignorance of the times shows in this post, doesn’t it?] In forming a local legend, the oral tradition reigns as the better option, rather than the set down of a first-person account by the subject of the tale. The hyperbole is captured more acceptably through the relation of gossip. Framing the telling of the history of Wuthering Heights by a woman who was a convincing witness fulfills the oral accounting, fleshing out the mystery Lockwood encounters at the start of the book.

The poetry Anonymous mentioned is present; though unconvincing coming from its inventor, Ellen Dean/Nelly, who comes across as a practical sort. Though she reads “unchristian things” and sings songs about the Faerie, she is most reluctant to believe local stories of Heathcliff and Catherine roaming the Moor as ghosts. She would dissuade romantic notions and their subsequent actions. She cannot easily relate to or identify the mystical goings-on or talk of Catherine or Heathcliff. She waxes eloquent on the landscape–there-in the poetry. Does this reinforce (if not support) her position as an ideal observer and pleasing relater of events?

The unchanging voice, to my untrained ear of this elder language, complicated the narrative I read.  When Lockwood moves to the tell a portion of the history as he heard Nelly tell it, but condensed, her voice is ready to follow. Everyone depicts Joseph’s dialect the same way, no matter the narrator, even the letter Nelly reads, relays Joseph’s dialect; it does not attempt to translate him.

The whole of the book holds a consistency in the telling of the history, however manifested: Lockwood’s perceptions/thoughts, Nelly’s recounting, letters read, interactions between characters brought forward through time; this otherwise disputable aspect, lends itself to the easier movement of an otherwise complicated story/time line. The past and present and  knowable future is collapsed into an impetus, the impetus to continue reading, and  the collapse aides in comprehending the complexities interweaving the present and history laid down (a facet that potentially frustrates the reader).

It was the whining, and my complete disgust with Catherine, that had me hostile to the already laborious reading (holiday busyness, and adjusting to the language took time). I think I persevered just to see how Catherine finally died, repulsive chit.

And then: Curiosity and horrified fascination, I am as any purveyor of the kind of gossip this entertained. The thrill of the dangerous and forbidden–romanced–but by differing means; elegant, complex means. Does the tale subvert the romanticizing notions of popular fictional romances, or does it, in its appealing mockery, elicit still the same sighs. Are we all such foolish creatures?–The conflicted and complicated human kind, such as Emily Bronte depicts? Are we Catherine, revealing unflinchingly all of Heathcliff’s faults and yet declaring him the very aspect of our own self–incapable of not loving our own souls, at the very least unable to not obsess with its state or existence.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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