I thought it was about time I re-read Wuthering Heights, not least because I am a little tired of teaching Jane Eyre in my 19th-century novels course and wanted to consider the obvious alternative. What a grim, unpleasant novel it is, though. The people in it are almost universally awful, and those that are not, like Edgar Linton, are weak and ineffectual, as if soft feelings just make you vulnerable. I remember at one time finding the passions of Heathcliff and Cathy romantic, but on this reading I found it impossible to associate either of them with any positive or sentimental feelings. The teacher (and critic) in me sees all kinds of stories to tell about the novel’s structure and themes, but I wonder how much enthusiasm I could muster for lecturing on it without something (or somebody) in it to root for. I have often made the argument to my students that the disappointments we are left with in George Eliot’s novels stimulate us to action: we wish for a realistic ending that is more satisfactory, for Maggie Tulliver, say, or Dorothea, and thus turn a critical eye on the real world that let them (and us) down. I can’t see taking this approach to Wuthering Heights, though, because the novel’s characters don’t really seem to deserve better than they get. Still, there’s no denying the raw power of the book, and its gloomy gravestones would certainly provide a contrast to the more conventional ‘marriage plot’ endings.
How much of the inability to “root for the characters” only comes from knowledge of the book’s completed elements? Isn’t it true that your opinions now might be different from your opinions upon the first read, which I would say may better characterize your students’ experience? There is something in that first read that compels us to hope. We hope for good to come…even to the frozen, windswept Earth. We hope for Heathcliffe to be something other than diabolical. We hope for Catherine to choose him over Edgar, even if she’s chasing a devil. I would say that there is even a small hint of a hope that we will see a sick boy stand up to his father, or if we are honest with our selves, the hope that Heathcliffe will go completely utterly mad, Hamlet-mad or Hannibal Lecter-mad, (trying to come up with another appropriately alliterative madman…maybe you can help). A second read of some novels brings about further clarity or hidden intelligences. In my opinion, a second read here is wasted on the very thing in which it moves us through the first time…hope. Simple plot intelligence seems to deflate it immediately especially when the book opens with Lockwood wondering about that girl…for us what was once suspenseful comedy become somewhat slapstick. That said, many of your readers might just be first-time readers in which case class discussion on Wuthering Heights is always lively.