30 Day Book Challenge: Day Four

Book that makes you cry: Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

“Cry” is a touch excessive, but this book is definitely heartbreaking. Like The English Patient, Wuthering Heights has been misconstrued as a love story exclusively thanks to their film adaptations (I swear there’s a new adaptation of Wuthering Heights every five goddamn years). Emily Bronte’s one and only novel may be hyped as the great romance of Heathcliff and Catherine, but I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I tell you they never actually consummate their love, but it’s not because it’s a prudish, English tale about monogamy, faithful dealings, and blue balls (it’s actually a challenge to try and keep up with all the children these rabbits end up producing); it’s because Wuthering Heights is a book about torture in all its malevolent forms: repression, social/cultural norms and discourses, class struggle, unrequited love, human cruelty, animal cruelty, just to name a few. Hell, even the weather beats the shit out of people in this book (as a Newfoundlander, it’s probably why I identify with it so much). On top of that, this novel must have the highest body count of main characters since Hamlet. Check out this relationship map from Wikipedia – it even has a special green line to show which characters are linked by hate!

Ugh, where to begin? I won’t get into the complex narrative structure and the deferral of voice, but now I’ll try and focus on the meat of the plot. A rich landowner, Mr. Earnshaw, is traveling Liverpool and finds a poor, gypsy boy named Heathcliff and brings him back to his estate, Wuthering Heights, located in the most depressing landscape God ever wrought, the moorland of England. Heathcliff and Earnshaw’s daughter, Catherine, become inseparable, but his son, Hindley, despises Heathcliff and a lifelong feud is quickly engendered. Fastforward a few years and Mr. Earnshaw dies, leaving Hindley in charge, and his first decision is to demote Heathcliff from family status to slave. But that doesn’t stop Catherine from loving him. Nonetheless, some richboy from an adjacent house, Edgar, asks Catherine to marry her. She tells Ellen, their maid, that she loves Heathcliff but is embarrassed by his lack of social capital and will marry Edgar in the hopes she can raise his status. Heathcliff is eavesdropping but only hears the first part, so he leaves to become a rich, dashing Man About Town. He returns a few years later in full Byronic Hero form and has his revenge on Catherine, Hindley, Edgar, Wuthering Heights, England, and God.

But that’s just the plot. The Gothic style and existentialist tone are what imbues this novel with some much vitality. At one point, Heathcliff describes how he dug up Catherine’s casket and cut a hole in the side because he intends to be buried next to her with an adjacent hole in his casket so they mingle together in earth as they decompose: “‘And I pray one prayer–I repeat it till my tongue stiffens–Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you–haunt me, then! The murdered DO haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts HAVE wandered on earth. 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!'”

(Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff wearing a cape and a face full of scowl)

The tragic story of Wuthering Heights mirrors Bronte’s own tragic life. I, along with countless others, would argue this is one of the greatest works of Literature in the English language, and, along with Dostoevsky, was an early precursor for the Modernist style to come post-WWI, yet the novel and its author were misunderstood and dismissed when it was first published. Firstly, Emily, along with her sisters (how the hell did one family produce some many geniuses?), famously had to publish under male pseudonyms in order to get their books out. However, while Charlotte and Anne enjoyed mainstream success, Emily’s superior novel was largely ignored. Readers were turned off by all the things I and other contemporary readers love so much. On top of that, Emily died shortly after the novel was released, so we have virtually nothing from her regarding her own work. Secondly, when Charlotte published a second edition of the book a few years later, she basically cut the guts out of it with her misguided editing. Not even Emily’s own sister understood or appreciated her vision. Words fail me.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on June 17, 2011.

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