Fascinating, smouldering, dark gypsy, orphaned, Heathcliff who only has Cathy to love him. From the second he is brought to Wuthering Heights, the audience gives him their complete and total sympathy.
Well. At least I did.
Heathcliff arrives at Wuthering Heights as the adopted stray of Mr. Earnshaw, and immediately he is singled out as unmanageable, resentful, foreign (which is a bad thing…in 19th century England), and, what the 21rst century might call, ‘in need of anti-psychotic drugs.’
Alas, Heathcliff does not have the access to the meds he might have had had he been born 160 years later, so he goes along, getting more and more unruly and wild. Of course, he is very badly treated by the son of the house, who sees him as a threat. (I always rage silently at Hindley for being a little jerk in general and feel secretly glad when Heathcliff gets revenge on him later.)
The story begins with the new tenant, Lockwood, who’s living at Thrushcross Grange – great names for houses in this here book – wandering over to Wuthering Heights for a friendly chat with his new landlord. What he finds is a very, very dysfunctional and unhappy family living there and nobody seems at all enthused over his visit. The ruling master of the house is Mr. Heathcliff; all scary anger and disdain and a tad crazy. He scares our new tenant, but, trapped by a snowstorm, poor Lockwood has to spend the night.
This part always creeps me out completely and I can’t read it if it’s nighttime. Shudder. I can barely write about it right now, cause it’s dark. So Mr. Lockwood falls asleep in this old, dusty room and in the middle of the night he hears tapping on the window. Thinking its a branch, he opens the window and finds his hand grasped by an icy cold hand. He hears a woman crying and pleading to let her in and, terrified, he drags the hand across some broken glass to get free of it. It lets go and right then Heathcliff rushes in and demands to know what Mr. Lockwood is doing in that room.
(Shudder, shudder. I can’t handle it. But that says something about a novel doesn’t it? I mean, if a passage like that can scare the bejeezus out of you 160 years after it was written…that’s some damn good writing. Ugh…ok…disembodied hands aside.)
Lockwood stumbles home and the housekeeper, who used to be the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, tells him the story of Cathy and Heathcliff, which turns out to be one of the greatest love stories you will ever read.
Heathcliff loves Cathy, and the two grow up together. Then Cathy becomes a teenager and starts feeling a little snobbish about Heathcliff being the adopted boy, and a little resistant to the fact that he’s so into her. Woman-like, she can’t decide if she wants to carry on as she is, wild and childish, or grow up and become a lady.
In this mood, she gets carried away by the neighbor boy’s attention. Edgar Linton is all well-mannered and refined and everything Cathy envies. Her home is disorderly and chaotic, while his is peaceful and respectable. She flirts with him, and when he proposes, she accepts.
But she still feels like it isn’t quite right – and the best scene in the whole book happens- where she talks about how her love for Linton is like “the foliage in the woods; time will change it” and her love for Heathcliff is like “the eternal rocks beneath; a source of little visible delight, but necessary.’
Heathcliff, who is eavesdropping, only hears her say she could never marry him; that to marry him would degrade her even though, “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is a different as moonbeam from lightning,or frost from fire.” (He doesn’t hear this last bit, even she says it right after the degrading part…like, without a pause for breath…and I always picture Heathcliff plugging his ears and running away…even though he just gets up and calmly leaves the room.)
He takes off for new horizons. Cathy is horrified that she drove him away, but she marries Linton anyway and moves to Thrushcross Grange. The years roll by and Heathcliff comes back. He’s now wealthy, educated, well-traveled, and bound and determined to get revenge on everyone who was ever nasty to him – including Cathy – even though he’s still mad about her.
He marries Linton’s sister, then basically ruins her life by being horrible to her. He tortures his old enemy, Hindley, who’s now a drunk and a gambler. He lurks round Cathy’s house and marriage and does his best to disrupt them both.
But for all this, you can’t help but admire him. I mean, it’s revenge in its most enraged and vicious form.
Then Cathy dies – of some unknown cause – which always bothered me slightly…I think she’s supposed to be dying of a broken heart because Heathcliff married her sister-in-law, but maybe it’s consumption.
When Heathcliff finds out she’s dead he gives the best speech ever written in any love story ever.
“And I pray one prayer – and I repeat it ’til my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you – haunt me then! Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh God, it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
Then he bangs his head on a tree until he bleeds.
It’s wicked awesome.
So we have our tale. Heathcliff grows older and gets more bitter and nuts while Cathy lurks around as a ghost…just like he told her to do.
This novel is the perfect gothic horror novel; all dark and windy, lonely moors and passion and ghosts and drama all over the place. It’s startling when you think that it was written by 29 yr old Emily Bronte, who had had so little exposure to the outside world. She and her sisters were reclusive (putting it mildly) and essentially they only knew anything about the world through their reading. Emily died before her only novel was fully credited for the genius work it is.
“Stronger than a man,” wrote her sister Charlotte, “simpler than a child. Her nature stood alone.”
Sort of like Heathcliff.