Friday, November 18, 2011

Wuthering Heights

I’d like to open this discussion with a wonderful excerpt from Sebastian Faulks’s book Faulks on Fiction which pretty much encapsulates where most of us, as adults, find ourselves when we re-visit Wuthering Heights.
“We … read it as an extracurricular book in our teens without having been taught it; then, on returning in middle age, found that it was not at all the ‘love’ story we remembered.” 
I myself did, in fact, study the book in English class of grade 11. We were learning about the “gothic” genre. I will admit, though, that I got barely anything out of the deconstruction sessions. My memories total thus three: watching Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” hit song and marveling at how much of a bangin’ banshee she was; reading a passage out loud in front of class and accidentally saying “cock” instead of “clock”, and wanting to die from embarrassment; watching the film version and seeing a strand of saliva stretch out, caught in the sunlight, between Cathy’s to Heathcliff’s mouths and the whole class pissing themselves laughing.

I suspect these memories reflect, to some extent at least, the experience that most of us share when studying the ‘classic’ texts in high school. I always loved reading, but I found it loathsome to have to tear apart the things that brought me joy. To unlock every motivation and symbol was to dissolve my ability to suspend disbelief and become lost in the text. I think a part of me chose not to consider the novel as such a mechanical contraption - it had to remain miraculous. Either that, or I was just a lazy student.

My point is, that when I first encountered this incredible story, I also thought the love between Heathcliff and Cathy (you know, the first Catherine) to be ultimate. I could, of course, see that there was a lot of darkness in the affection, and I learnt that their location was as much of an internal landscape as it was a setting. There was undoubtedly something wrong – the whole time – but in this first reading, I put it down to the normal sorrows which are born of the usual money and class differences which seem to plague the romantic genre in British period-piece-history.

The only hint I could see that Heathcliff was possibly a monster of sorts, was when Cathy had first left for The Grange, and he covered a nest of baby birds so the mother could not feed them and they died. I can remember so vividly, how utterly repulsed I was. To me, this action was the lowest point to which Heathcliff ever dropped, and it remains the only action I cannot forgive him for. I remember being so in love with his love for Cathy that I forgave him all the injustices he committed to other characters after Cathy’s death. But the birds… It was apparently the only inconsistency in his otherwise understandable nature.

Nowadays though… well, I have to admit that I was pretty shocked when I revisited the story. I read the Chapter on Heathcliff in Faulks on Fiction and it spurred this absolute re-interest in the story. Then I watched the 1992 movie adaption with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, then I skulked around on the internet and found a place where I could read most of the book online. Its insane! The whole thing is totally insane! I have no idea how anyone could create, from the ground up, a narrative and characters and mood such as those found in Wuthering Heights.

I used to think that the “classics” were only labeled as such because of an incidental placement on a particular shelf some long time ago. When I began to learn about such texts, and this special set of plays and books and poetry that were deserved of deconstruction in school, I was never actually told what makes them ‘classic’. What elements do Austen and the Bronte sisters and Shakespeare and Dickens and Tolstoy and Keats and blah and whatshisface and blah and blah actually share? Why does Penguin print them as a series in special jackets? Why is it a sign of education to have these particular prints on your bookshelf?

Well, without a teacher around to give me the “real” answer, I’m going to go with originality. Possibly because Wuthering Heights is the catalyst for this present train of thought, originality seems to be to be the only thing of importance that can be identified in works which span times and genres and modes. Now that I think of it though, I think the ability to evoke is second to originality, or maybe even paramount. Actually I’ve changed my mind. Yes. The most important thing in a work is to evoke emotions within the receiver, and the second most important thing is originality. In my attributing value to a text of any kind, even modern movies and music, if the work can spurn emotion within me, then I think it a great success. The first element celebrates the text itself, and the second element celebrates the author/creator. Yes. That’s it.

So, in my opinion, Wuthering Heights does both of these things very well indeed. I don’t think the originality of the text needs to be debated here. What I want to talk about is what it evoked. As I have said, in my youth I thought most about the love between the two principles. I felt the totally expected, but no less intense, responses of sadness and horror at the scene of Cathy’s death and Heathcliff’s subsequent breakdown. I felt panic when Cathy felt the panic of Heathcliff galloping from The Heights because of her own words. I felt betrayal and yet sympathy when Cathy and Linton married. It was all there. All totally textbook.

Now, having revisited the whole thing, I am shocked that I didn’t see so much of the greatness of the book when I first read it. Like Faulks, the whole thing is not quite the “love story” that I remembered. What I gain from the book now comes from its incredible dealing with the subjects of death and spirit and life. I mean, come on, Catherine says that she dreams she goes to heaven, but is then thrown back down to Wuthering Heights because she cannot life without Heathcliff because he is her spirit. Heathcliff tells Cathy he will forgive his murderer, but not hers, which is her, because she is his soul and she killed him. AGH! Apart from being an intense mindfuck, re-reading that whole deathbed scene over and over really made me realise what kind of ideas Bronte was tapping into. The fact that Heathcliff would rather Cathy haunt him on the moors, rather than to pass on and go to “the one place he cannot follow”. Well, the whole thing is just seriously intense.

I used to think that the scene where Heathcliff overhears Nelly and Cathy talking and so leaves was the climax. If you look at it through young eyes it makes sense, that moment marks the end of any possible romance between them. Their youth is lost on that evening as he gallops away, because it is the last time they see each other as young people in love. No matter what happens upon Heathcliff returning, you just know that it’s too late. The love they had was ruined. It was the last straw for Heathcliff, and of course the fact that he leaves cements the proposal between Cathy and Linton. I think I was even bored with the book for most of the post-Heathcliff-leaving pages.

Now, I see no real climax scene in the story at all. If there was, it would certainly not happen on that night or any time before it. I think that yes, the scene of Cathy’s death is very important, and the things they say to each other are horribly incredible, but if anything, Heathcliff’s monologue out on the moor just after her death is far more saddening. In (most of) the movie adaptations, the scene showing Heathcliff with Cathy’s dead body is super duper intense. That’s understandable too, I suppose.  

When I read this whole story now, and thinking of Heathcliff as the central point, there is no other conclusion to draw about the climax, other than a night years and years after Cathy’s death when he sees Catherine (the first Catherine’s daughter) and Hareton together and admits to Nelly that he senses a change coming:
“Nelly, there is a strange change approaching; I’m in its shadow at present. I take so little interest in my daily like, that I hardly remember to eat and drink. Those two, who have left the room, are the only objects which retain a distinct material appearance to me; and that her appearance causes me pain, amounting to agony. About her I won’t speak, and I don’t desire to think; but I earnestly wish she were invisible- her presence invokes only maddening sensations. He moves me differently; and yet if I could do it without seeming insane, I’d never see him again! You’ll perhaps think me rather inclined to become so,” he added, making an effort to smile, “if I try to describe the thousand forms of a past associations and ideas he awakens or embodies. But you’ll not talk of what I tell you, and my mind is so eternally secluded in itself, it is tempting at last to turn it out to another… That, however, which you may suppose the most potent to arrest my imagination is actually the least; for what is not connected with her to me? And what does not recall her? I can not look down to this floor but her features are shaped on the flags! In every could, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day – I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women – my own features mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her! … I ought to, and probably shall remain above ground, till there is scarcely a black hair on my head. And yet I can not continue in this condition! I have to remind myself to breathe – almost to remind my heart to beat! … I have a single wish, and my whole being and faculties are yearning to attain it. they have yearned toward it so long and so unwaveringly, that I’m convinced it will be reached – and soon – because it has devoured my existence. I am swallowed in the anticipation of it’s fulfillment. My confessions have not relieved me – but, they may account for some otherwise unaccountable phases of humor which I show. Oh, God! It is a long fight, I wish it were over!”
Heathcliff suffers like I have never read a character to suffer before. He is completely lost. He knows nothing any more, other than the Cathy he loved and who is long dead. I think, and it worries me, that no matter what Heathcliff did prior to this speech, I would forgive him all. After this talk with Nelly, he begins to see the ghost of that which he most wants. He continues to incidentally abstain from eating, and is quite clearly on the path to death. Faulks is totally right in his understanding of the roles of Healthcliff or Cathy (Catherine the first) as lead:
“Catherine has most of the best lines, but Heathcliff has the curse that rings in our heads as long and terribly as an howl of Lear or Macbeth.”
Following Cathy’s death, Heathcliff seems to eternally walk on the edge of reality. He sees her everywhere because he longs to. He forbids her from leaving the moors even after death, he insists on her haunting him. He sadly claims he is too well and healthy to die, and yet appears to be so happy at the prospect his life might soon be over that he frightens Nelly with his smiling. In front of Heathcliff is a new love story unfolding, of Catherine and Hareton, bearing an uncanny resemblance to that of his own with Cathy, and he cannot bring himself to stop it because of Cathy’s memory. It is an incredible symbol of the eternal cycle of life, and he might see it if he just looked in front of him, but all he sees is his dead love. He wants it so bad, that he makes it so.

He dies shortly after making that ‘change’ speech to Nelly, and the novel is finished shortly after that.

If you haven’t in a while – I really recommend reading Wuthering Heights. Yeah, I know, its kinda heavy on the words sometimes. I also know that its hard to follow sometimes. I also think that its pretty damn boring sometimes. But read it however you want to! Just skip some bits! or doodle a family tree on the cover so that you know what the hell is going on! Or find it in an audiobook read by an anonymous sexy voice! I don’t mind how, and neither does Bronte anymore, so just try it. Please. Thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Would love to chat and see if you'd like to write book recommendations for The Lit Pub. Let me know if you're interested. (I looked for an email address for you but couldn't find one, which is why I'm leaving this in a comment here.)


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