“Heathcliff// it’s me Cathy, I’ve come home // I’m so // cold, won’t you let me in your // window”. We all know the lyrics to the Kate Bush song, the mournful masterpiece taking its name and inspiration from a masterpiece of literature, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I recently read the book for the first time, prompted by a natural curiosity and by my love for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which was part of my university reading list last semester. I found Wuthering Heights, however, to be very unlike Jane Eyre in very many ways, the most prominent being ambiguity. For Jane Eyre, there are good people – the eponymous heroine, Rochester, Helen Burns – and bad people, such as Brocklehurst, Aunt Reed, John Reed, and so on. In the world of Wuthering Heights, however, the line between good and bad, merit and malice, action and intention is far, far more blurred. The overriding thought I had when I came to the conclusion was – “did Heathcliff get away with it?”
Before I explain this, I’ll need to set the scene. This will contain spoilers, so if you want to go into Wuthering Heights without foreknowledge, stop reading this and pick the book up. So, let’s summarise the plot of Wuthering Heights. Mr Earnshaw, a wealthy man with two children, Hindley and Catherine, finds an abandoned child in Liverpool and brings him back home to the Yorkshire moors. The child is named Heathcliff, and soon clashes with Hindley for Earnshaw’s affection, forming a close bond with Catherine. Earnshaw falls ill and dies, leaving Hindley to inherit Wuthering Heights, the family home. Heathcliff flees the wrath of Hindley, disappearing. In the meantime, Catherine marries Edgar Linton, a wealthy man, while Hindley marries Frances, who dies after giving birth to Hareton Earnshaw. Hindley falls into alcoholism. Heathcliff returns as a young man, furious at Catherine for marrying Edgar. Unable to see past his own wants, Heathcliff ends up indirectly killing Catherine, but not before she gives birth to Cathy Linton. Meanwhile, Heathcliff has fathered a child with Isabella, Edgar’s sister, who promptly leaves him with the child Linton. Hindley, a ruined man, dies penniless, in thrall to Heathcliff.
Cathy Linton grows up unaware of her uncle Heathcliff, who has exploited the broken Hindley and now controls Wuthering Heights, and has cheated Hareton out of an education and his rightful inheritance. Edgar adopts Linton Heathcliff after Isabella dies, but his father insists Linton stays with him, despite his hatred of his own son. Heathcliff uses the sickly, dying Linton to court Cathy, mimicking his own love for Catherine. After his plan fails initially, Heathcliff locks up Cathy until she agrees to marry Linton, keeping her from her dying father Edgar. Edgar dies, Linton soon follows, and Heathcliff controls both Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw.
Heathcliff is abusive, manipulative, selfish and cruel. Blinded by his own loathing for Edgar Linton and Hindley Earnshaw, he commits atrocities. He is a cold man, who lacks remorse for his actions – indeed, after the death of his only love, Catherine Earnshaw, he calls out “You said I killed you – haunt me then!”. Ironically, this is what happens – Heathcliff is plagued by the ghost of Catherine, abandoning her old room as he is driven mad by her ghost. This is what’s described in Kate Bush’s song, albeit a little inaccurately (‘Cathy’ in the book is Catherine’s daughter, Cathy Linton, not Catherine Earnshaw). Heathcliff fails to care for his own dying son, drives his wife away with his cruelty, purposefully turns Hareton into an uneducated “brute”, as he calls him, in order to sully Hindley’s memory, and in general is a cruel, cold man.
You would think that this would lead into a conclusion of a grisly death for Heathcliff, or an arrest, or some form of comeuppance. The actual end is far stranger. Heathcliff suddenly begins behaving strangely, refusing food and roaming the moors around Wuthering Heights. After days of this, he dies and is buried in the churchyard beside Catherine and Edgar Linton. There is, however, an implication that Heathcliff’s ghost walks the lonely moors, meeting with Catherine as they did when they were young. The narrator, Lockwood, doubts the shepherd boy who claims this, and closes the novel with the poignant words: “(I) wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth”.
Despite this, my first thoughts upon finishing Wuthering Heights were that Heathcliff had got off easily with his crimes, and now was in a better place than he was when alive. After all, he and Catherine could finally be together, which was what Heathcliff ultimately always wanted. He saw Catherine’s marriage to Edgar as a betrayal, which is why, as well as his feelings of being an outsider, he was driven to such bitterness against the Lintons and Earnshaws. Even if Lockwood is right and Heathcliff is quiet in his grave, he has found rest that he could never find in real life, where he was tormented by his guilt and his hatred. Heathcliff is ultimately thwarted when Hareton is educated by, and falls in love with, Cathy Linton, uniting the houses after he strove so hard to drive them apart. Yet is that really enough? Can we really say that the balance has been restored, that all wrongs are righted in the end?
But perhaps that’s the point. Wuthering Heights is special because it’s not like Jane Eyre or Great Expectations or a lot of other books from its time, where the good people always win outright and get their happiness that they’ve earned through suffering. It’s realistic, pessimistic to the point of almost being mean-spirited. There is ambiguity, as mentioned above, throughout the book around many things, mostly orbiting Heathcliff: where did he come from? Is he an illegitimate son of Earnshaw? Is he an orphaned beggar? How does Heathcliff get the money with which he overwhelms the grieving Hindley and disinherits Hareton? Where does Heathcliff go when he vanishes after Earnshaw’s death? The ambiguity of Heathcliff’s fate is fitting giving his origins, making and cause of death is as well. Upon publication, many reviews attacked the book for being too downbeat and depressing. The Atlas magazine said, according to Wikipedia: “We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity. There is not in the entire dramatis persona, a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible”. Graham’s Lady Magazine somehow went even further with: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he” (Emily Bronte wrote under the pseudonym Ellis Bell) “had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors”.
Wuthering Heights, I’ve come to realise, can’t finish happily because it wouldn’t fit the novel. Emily Bronte wasn’t afraid to look at the worst side of humanity and our lives – as Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short. This truth disgusted the Victorian, frilled sensibilities of the magazine critics and provoked a visceral reaction from them. Heathcliff might get away with it in the end, because that’s how life is sometimes. Bittersweet above all, a tale of sadness, love, passion, loneliness and hatred.
by Gabriel Rutherford