“I know he has a bad nature,” said Catherine; “he’s your son. But I’m glad I’ve a better, to forgive it; and I know he loves me and for that reason I love him. Mr. Heathcliff, you have nobody to love you; and, however miserable you make us, we shall still have the revenge of thinking that your cruelty rises from your greater misery! You are miserable, aren’t you? Lonely, like the devil, and envious like him? Nobody loves you–nobody will cry for you, when you die! I wouldn’t be you!”
I said that Wuthering Heights was near the top of my list of books to reread on my sabbatical, with my eye on refreshing the titles in regular rotation in my 19th-Century Fiction classes. Because I have never enjoyed reading it, I started it this time a bit reluctantly, and for the most part it gave me no more pleasure than it has before. I still don’t like it. But while liking or not liking a book may be, as Henry James put it, “that primitive, that ultimate, test” for us as readers, it really can’t be the ultimate test for those of us who are also scholars, teachers, or students! So as I reread the novel, I tried not just to keep an open mind about it but to imagine as actively as I could what it would be like to teach it, including both its individual features and how it might shake up discussions of other books on the reading list. And guess what: I think I’m going to try it!
One reason is that it is impossible to deny the novel’s emotional power. Its unrelenting, highly compressed intensity really does make it qualitatively unlike any of the other books I assign, and that difference alone is thought-provoking. Not only, as the introduction to my edition rightly notes, does “Emily Brontë [have] no interest in the moral response as a reason to soften her narrative,” but the effects she is interested in are discomfiting, even disturbing. Passion, hatred, violence, revenge: these are the novel’s animating forces, and while they are repellent, they are also grimly fascinating, with thematic (and, yes, moral) implications that are well worth discussing.
Another is that while Emily Brontë may have had no “interest in shaping her story morally,” Wuthering Heights is a very complexly structured novel, with its multiple nested and embedded narratives. The many hours I’ve spent on other novels with multiple or unreliable narrators, such as The Moonstone or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, have shown me what fun the interpretive work can be as you sort through who is saying what in particular, to whom and why and with what consequences for our reading of their words. I hadn’t paid that much attention to this aspect of Wuthering Heights before, though I knew it was the subject of a lot of the critical discussion. This time I was more attuned to it and felt some genuine enthusiasm at the prospect of working on it with my students, even if most of the voices we’ll be attending to are as unpleasant as young Catherine’s spiteful words to Heathcliff in my epigraph to this post.
Yet another reason: the mental exercise will be good for me! Yes, I still don’t like the novel: as I said on Twitter, it may be a masterpiece, but I can’t imagine it becoming a personal favorite. That’s exactly why I should work on it: learning to appreciate it will stretch and challenge me, intellectually and aesthetically. I will have to consider why it does the things I don’t like, for instance, and how that instinctive dislike might be inhibiting my critical sensibility–what my taste keeps me from appreciating. I will also, quite simply, have to learn new things, and that is always beneficial to me as a teacher: it keeps me both alert and humble. What do I need to know to teach Wuthering Heights effectively? I am sure that I will enjoy figuring that out more than I enjoyed rereading the novel. At the end of the process, I will probably like Wuthering Heights better, too, but if I don’t, that’s OK.
The one reason I’m still hesitating: Perhaps wrongly, I’ve been assuming that the Brontë portion of my reading list is a zero sum game, that if I assign Wuthering Heights I can’t also assign Jane Eyre or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and that makes me sad, because those are known pleasures. But the only person making up this rule is me, so maybe I can break it! Would it be so bad if two out of five novels were Brontë novels, especially given how different they are from each other? As I was finishing up Wuthering Heights I kept thinking how great it would be to read Tenant right after: then Heathcliff and Hindley and Hareton could face off against Huntingdon, Hattersley, and Hargrave. What if Wuthering Heights were crowding out Scott or Thackeray instead of Charlotte or Anne? Would that be so bad? (I mean, yes, it would, in a way, because I also love teaching Waverley and Vanity Fair, but you can’t do everything, at least not all at once.)
Another possibility that occurred to me is that Wuthering Heights might be a good option for the 19th-century novel I assign in my Brit Lit survey, rather than (or as well as) a good selection for 19th-Century Fiction. One theme I’ve been kicking around for the survey course is “belonging,” which seems like a concept that could work at the level of the course itself (for discussions about what’s included and what isn’t and what story you tell by deciding what belongs and what’s excluded) as well as at the level of particular texts (who do they implicitly or explicitly include or invite or leave out? what idea of community or nation or fellowship is at stake? etc.). I was having a hard time identifying a Victorian novel that really fit this theme, but clearly Wuthering Heights would, especially but not only because Heathcliff is the ultimate outsider. “But where did he come from,” wonders Nelly, “the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?”