“Your Greater Misery”: Rereading Wuthering Heights

wuthering-oup“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.

penguin-wutheringAnother 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.

OUPTenantThe 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?”

10 thoughts on ““Your Greater Misery”: Rereading Wuthering Heights

  1. Teresa January 22, 2019 / 8:55 pm

    For what it’s worth, back when I took the Victorian novel in college, we read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Looking back, I wish we had lost one of those in favor of something by Wilkie Collins, but, at the time, I was not sorry to read them both. They felt sufficiently different, and I think Tenant would be an even better contrast. It was studying the novel in college that made me appreciate it, and I grew to love it on a third read. I hated it when I first read it in high school.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 22, 2019 / 10:13 pm

      Interesting! I have two different courses, an earlier and a later one; when I include Collins, he’s in the later one, while the Brontes would be in the earlier one—although now that I think of it, I did start the later one with Villette once, which was actually great, speaking of unreliable narrators.

  2. bbenzon January 23, 2019 / 9:27 am

    Belonging, eh? Consider how WH opens. Lockwood arrives at the house on a wild and stormy night (greeted by a dog) and, once inside, tries to interpret the people gathered there as a family. Which it is and isn’t. Who’s the husband and who’s the wife? He makes several guesses before things are finally sorted out. So now we’re faced with a mystery: How did these people come to be living under the same roof? That’s what most of the rest of the novel is about.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 23, 2019 / 10:11 am

      Yes, exactly, and class and race and religious ideas all play out in relevant ways too.

  3. Scott Bailey January 23, 2019 / 5:20 pm

    I agree that structurally and thematically, WH might be interesting to think about, but it’s so perverse and unpleasant that I can’t dream of reading it again. What an awful and insane book. Though, gosh, at the same time, what an enduring work. Readers must see something, but I am baffled as to what that is.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 24, 2019 / 8:40 am

      “Perverse and unpleasant” is exactly right, though I take Tom’s point about the ways it is also kind of marvelous. It has a strange integrity, if that is the right word: it is such an unapologetically punishing novel, for the characters and for us. The biggest disincentive for me to teach it to this point has always been that I would have to spend so much more time in its world. Maybe, though, the exercise of prepping it for teaching will soften its harshness by forcing me to focus on its constructedness rather than reacting to its emotional aspects.

      • Scott Bailey January 24, 2019 / 1:13 pm

        It occurred to me that, as the world of the novel is so unrelentingly awful, it might be possible to read it primarily as a horror story, embracing the idea that it’s about evil and suffering. At that point, the literary artistry might come more into focus and the whole thing might cohere into a sort of terrible beauty. Now I sort of do want to read it again.

      • Amateur Reader (Tom) January 24, 2019 / 2:28 pm

        Michael Moorcock includes Wuthering Heights in his 1988 Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. I believe, and vaguely remember, that it was included in that spirit.

  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) January 23, 2019 / 6:00 pm

    “I could not bear the employment. I took my dingy volume by the scroop, and hurled it into the dog kennel, vowing I hated a good book.

    Heathcliff kicked his to the same place.

    Then there was a hubbub!” (Ch. 3)

    Perverse and inspirational. Marvelous and insane. Readers see kittens turn into rabbits – it is like a magic trick. That is one of the many things they get to see in this novel.

    I think having two Brontë books in the same class is a great idea.

    • Scott Bailey January 23, 2019 / 7:01 pm

      You’re a much more generous reader than I am!

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