“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?”

Wuthering Heights Named Greatest Love Story

From The Guardian:

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, recounting the doomed affair between sweet Cathy Earnshaw and the brutal outsider Heathcliff, has seen off Shakespeare, Gone With the Wind and everything by Barbara Cartland in a survey which shows the lasting power of classic works.

Almost all the entries in the top 20 choices of 2,000 readers are major works of English literature, with Jane Austen pipping Shakespeare as runner-up and Emily’s sister Charlotte coming in fourth with Jane Eyre.”It’s really heartening to see how these stories, written so long ago, retain the power to captivate 21st century audiences,” said Richard Kingsbury, channel head of UKTV Drama, which commissioned the study. (read the rest here)

“Sweet” Cathy Earnshaw? Hmmm. Maybe these 2000 people (and the article’s author) read a different version of Wuthering Heights than the one I know or Jane Smiley compared unfavorably to Justine. John Sutherland and Martin Kettle are also skeptical.

The more I think about this poll the odder the results seem. It seems as if, at least as far as Wuthering Heightsis concerned, we have three options: either most of these people have not read Emily Bronte’s novel at all and are voting on the basis of some received idea about it; or they have read it and (dismal thought) really find its version of love (obsessive, possessive, selfish, destructive) romantic; or they have read it and completely misinterpreted it. Occasions like this (as the responses from Sutherland and Kettle already make clear) can certainly highlight the gap between “common” and expert readers (though in this case I’d like to think it does not take professional training to find Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship and behaviour at least somewhat troubling), but what’s particularly interesting here is it’s not a contest of values (it’s not, for instance, more about Harry Potter vs “the classics”) but a problem of misreading and thus misrepresenting a particular text. As Kingsbury says, it is “heartening” that readers still find these “long ago” stories compelling, but it’s less heartening that they don’t seem very clear on their content.
It makes me think again about the question of readers’ responsibilities–if not to the author, then to their reading (as I recall, Wayne Booth spends a fair amount of time on this issue in The Company We Keep; I’ll have to go back and take another look).

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

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.