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Read This Book: Wuthering Heights

Back when I posted about Pride & Prejudice, I mentioned that Anna had also added Wuthering Heights to my list for 2016. I’m glad she did. It’s excellent. If you have not yet read it, you should. The copy to which I’ve linked here is one that I put together when I was learning how to format books for Kindle and how to design a suitable book cover. There are dozens of fine, free copies available on Amazon as well.

A Few Thoughts:

One of our friends divides the world into two groups: Jane Eyre people or Wuthering Heights people. I knew going into this book that I am definitely not a Jane Eyre person. The recent film adaptation was excellent, but when I read the book back in college, I was irritated with the characters, the voice, the plot, etc. I mean, seriously. A crazy woman in the attic? An idiot missionary? She still marries the dude?

Anyhow, it irritated me. So, given my friend’s opinion, and given Anna’s description of the book as “excellent and dark and broody,” I was keen to check it out.

It’s great. Seriously great.

There’s a fun stack of narrative voices. The book opens with the primary narrator, Lockwood. It then jumps into housekeeper Nelly’s history of the families of Wuthering Heights. And throughout her tale, several other narrators recount their own experiences to her, which she is then recounting to Lockwood, who is then recounting them to us. This is more than mere experimentation, however. The layers of narrative bring layers of reliability, of judgment, of interpretation, etc. And Brontë uses all of this to great effect. By the end, I was convinced that Nelly is responsible in some way for a great number of the ills suffered by the various participants in this tragic tale. She basically admits as much at one point, stating:

“I seated myself in a chair, and rocked to and fro, passing harsh judgment on my many derelictions of duty; from which, it struck me then, all the misfortunes of my employers sprang.”

Yep. She’s not wrong.

This reminds me. The relationships are confusing. It took me several tries to understand who was cousin or sibling or otherwise connected to whom. Finally, I had to resort to Wikipedia’s “relationships map” to figure it out. I think I kind of understand it, but if you were to ask me to explain it, I’d be in trouble.

Additionally, the book deals with the selfishness of human evil in a way that few books do. I lost count of how many times a character declared their willingness to suffer eternal condemnation if only they could have some measure of vengeance on another, or if only they could avoid some unpleasant outcome. I’m not entirely sure, but I think Heathcliff digs up a grave twice. And at least twice, characters hang dogs for sport or pleasure. Anna wasn’t joking when she said it was “dark and broody.”

Brontë does something interesting in her treatment of human depravity, however. It’s there, on full display, but it’s also clear just how unsatisfying it really is. For example, when Heathcliff could have his final revenge, he states that he no longer has the will to see it through. He simply can’t find joy in destroying his enemies, so he refrains from doing so. Not because he has repented, but because he can no longer be bothered. There’s a quote from this section below. It’s an impressive turn. Most authors would either have the villain see his villainy through, or the protagonists accomplish some escape. Brontë makes the unusual but gratifying choice to have Heathcliff simply wander away from the conflict in disinterest. Given the supreme selfishness of his life, it’s a fitting resolution.

Oh, and I could hardly understand a word he said, but Joseph is by far the most amusing character.

A Few Quotes:

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling.  ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.

“Joseph, the servant: you saw him, I daresay, up yonder.  He was, and is yet most likely, the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours.”

“You have been compelled to cultivate your reflective faculties for want of occasions for frittering your life away in silly trifles.”

Joseph remained to hector over tenants and labourers; and because it was his vocation to be where he had plenty of wickedness to reprove.

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

“I believe I may assert that they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness. It ended.  Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering; and it ended when circumstances caused each to feel that the one’s interest was not the chief consideration in the other’s thoughts.”

“I wish you had sincerity enough to tell me whether Catherine would suffer greatly from his loss: the fear that she would restrains me.  And there you see the distinction between our feelings: had he been in my place, and I in his, though I hated him with a hatred that turned my life to gall, I never would have raised a hand against him.  You may look incredulous, if you please!  I never would have banished him from her society as long as she desired his.  The moment her regard ceased, I would have torn his heart out, and drunk his blood!  But, till then—if you don’t believe me, you don’t know me—till then, I would have died by inches before I touched a single hair of his head!”

“I’d be glad of a retaliation that wouldn’t recoil on myself; but treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends; they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies.”

” In my flight through the kitchen I bid Joseph speed to his master; I knocked over Hareton, who was hanging a litter of puppies from a chair-back in the doorway; and, blessed as a soul escaped from purgatory, I bounded, leaped, and flew down the steep road; then, quitting its windings, shot direct across the moor, rolling over banks, and wading through marshes: precipitating myself, in fact, towards the beacon-light of the Grange.  And far rather would I be condemned to a perpetual dwelling in the infernal regions than, even for one night, abide beneath the roof of Wuthering Heights again.”

“It is a poor conclusion, is it not?’ he observed, having brooded awhile on the scene he had just witnessed: “an absurd termination to my violent exertions?  I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished!  My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me.  But where is the use?  I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand!  That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity.  It is far from being the case: I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.”

So, that’s that. Read Wuthering Heights.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.

Published inBook Reviews

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