Wuthering Heights – A brief exploration of consuming passion and human frailty

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I first read Emily Bronte’s masterpiece as a class assignment during my Junior year in High School. I was an avid reader, and I found Gothic novels particularly fascinating due to their ghostly apparitions and dark settings. I found myself recently flipping through the pages of this timeless classic, which I had not touched in years, and nostalgia took over as I read some of my favorite excerpts.

Wuthering Heights combines the Gothic genre with Romanticism, and has been regarded by critics as an attempt to introduce feminist themes within male-dominated 19th century literature. The female protagonist, Catherine Earnshaw, is in fact much ahead of her times: as a young adult coming to terms with her position within the English upper-class, she tries to subvert its patriarchal structure, but fails to follow her desires due to society’s constraints.

Considering the conservative times during which it was published, the author, writing under the male pseudonym of Ellis Bell, received reproachful critiques. The majority of reviews acknowledged the novel’s originality, yet were baffled by its sinister plot and ardent romances. A lady magazine of the time wrote: “How a human being could have attempted such a book without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors”. Another journal defined the novel “a perfect misanthropist’s heaven”.

Wuthering Heights follows the intricate and consuming relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, the orphan whom Catherine’s father adopts. Their inseparable childhood friendship develops into a love that is made impossible by fear, avarice and pride. As expected, social considerations also play an important role in pushing Catherine and Heathcliff apart. Catherine cannot marry Heathcliff because of his low social status and lack of education, and therefore marries Edgar Linton, her wealthy neighbor. Devastated by Catherine’s selfish decision, Heathcliff runs away from home, only to return years later as a rich gentleman. From then on, burdened by remorse and anger, he leads a miserable and bitter life as master of the Wuthering Heights estate, which he has inherited. He finds a remedy to his empty existence by looking after Cathy, Catherine’s daughter, to whom he demonstrates a strange but sincere affection. Despite the novel’s turmoil, the ending provides closure and moral insight.

Wuthering Heights is concerned, above all, with the problems inherent in a social structure in which women could gain prestige and respect only through marriage. However, human flaws play a fundamental role in shaping the story-line. Catherine is torn between two men, yet will ultimately be too weak to choose what her heart commands: “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, so he shall never know how I love him […] Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Edgar’s is as different [from mine] as moonbeam from lightening, or frost from fire”.

With its emphasis on emotions, Wuthering Heights is an accurate reading of the fallible and contradictory aspects of human nature which lead Catherine to choose a good reputation over a lifetime of contentment. If there is one lesson to be learnt in Catherine’s lost chance with Heathcliff, it is the foolishness of denying one’s greatest desires.

The question that spontaneously comes to mind is if Catherine is to be blamed for the novel’s course of events, or rather if her decision to marry Edgar stems from social considerations over which women at the time had no control. Catherine’s break-down and fatal illness are the result of her guiltiness toward Heathcliff, her humiliation in being dependent on men, and the prospect of a joyless future ahead. But can one convincingly argue that she alone brought all this upon herself?

Emily Bronte certainly wanted to single out her characters’ most dangerous traits, those that would somehow determine their path to self-destruction. At the same time, she wanted to transmit a powerful social message, namely the irreversible consequences deriving from a society which stifles liberty and autonomy. It is ultimately up to the reader to determine whether the story’s tragedies are the result of human frailty, the indirect consequences of a repressive social order, or even a combination of personal fault and lack of freedom.

It is perhaps this aspect, more than any other symbolism or theme, that holds the key to the author’s literary genius. Emily Bronte’s analysis of the principles that govern the heart is a journey into old and present-day society, and her subtle yet clever criticism of English society has made her stand out since the early days of the novel’s publication. Intense and beautifully narrated, Wuthering Heights deservingly ranks as one of the most moving and spectacular British dramas.

Maria Elena Sandalli

Con amicizia letto da Federica Avagnano

References:

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Collins Classics, 2010. (Original: 1847).

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