Revisiting Literary Characters: Cathy Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)

I was thirteen when I first read Wuthering Heights. Less than 50 pages in, I fell irreproachably in love with the novel. Something about its romanticism, Gothic conventions and wayward narrative structure drew me in and I can safely say that it’s been one of my favourite books ever since. Undoubtedly, the main reason for my obsession with Wuthering Heights was my penchant for strong Victorian heroines, manifested here in the form of Cathy Earnshaw. For years, I found her to be inspirational; whilst my other literary heroines from this era (Jane Eyre, Emma Woodhouse, Maggie Tulliver etc…) were quietly subversive, gently pushing back gender boundaries with every subdued rejection of marriage and coquettish comment, Cathy was impassioned, frantic and spontaneous, disregarding not only patriarchal notions of subservience but the entire social consensus on what is deemed ‘proper’.

Re-reading Wuthering Heights then, at eighteen, I was saddened by how much my perceptions had changed. Despite not having read the book for a couple of years, Cathy was kept alive in my mind through popular culture: the archetypal image of her looking frenetically ethereal – with her white dress and tousled hair – often made its appearance. The focus on her outward beauty rather than her character whenever she was referred to in the abstract meant that I had began to romanticise her more intensely, warping her negative traits in my own mind so that she could fit my own definition of the ‘perfect’ literary heroine.

My mindset upon returning to the book was not that of a naive thirteen year old who hungered after exaggerated ideas of eternal love and romance, but of a (slightly) less naive eighteen year old, who in preparation for a degree in English Literature had been taught to read books with a critical, almost discerning eye. To me, Cathy was no longer the outspoken, daring heroine that I had always remembered her as: I recalled her selfishness, her treatment of Heathcliff through marrying Linton – motivated by nothing else but preserving her economic and social status, so much for being a character of conviction. Her dialogue grated on me, I felt it to be hyperbolic to the point of untruth. She was passionate, but her passions were directed by way of aggression, not by way of devotion.

Period dramas and popular culture had done their best to erase her bad qualities, perhaps because in Heathcliff and Cathy we are looking for a love story that isn’t there: perhaps the thing which appeals to us most about their love story is its impossibility. The beauty of Emily Brontë’s characterisation is that she creates characters who assimilate traits of both good and evil, characters who are deeply flawed with the potential for redemption – yet the downside of this characterisation is that when it is applied to Heathcliff and Cathy, their complexity of character prevents them from ever being together in a loving, consensual and secure relationship.

The richness and intricacy of Wuthering Heights means that I will probably always be conflicted about Cathy – each time I read the book I am endeared and repelled by her in hundreds of different places. However, I’m glad, because having my illusions shattered is favourable to living under the delusion that one of my favourite literary characters would be so superficial as to be wholly admirable.

Words by Beth Chaplow

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