One of the first thoughts that came to my mind after reading Wuthering Heights was: “If Emily Brontë were alive today and she wrote this kind of stuff in a school assignment, her teachers would call social services in a heartbeat.”
My first encounter with Wuthering Heights occurred in high-school, when our English literature teacher introduced us to this gloomy classic. Although she started with the best intentions, her efforts were promptly met with vague indifference that shortly turned into outright ridicule. The lesson included some short clips from the 1970 movie, with Cathy screaming “Heathcliiiiiiff” from the top of her lungs while running among the moors: apparently it was hilarious for a class of 16 year olds, it became a catchphrase and Wuthering Heights was exiled to the realm of “WTF, nope”. So much for disclosure.
Essentially it remained filed under the “boring stuff” mental category until quite recently, when I decided it was time to catch up on some reading and chose to explore a few “must read classics” lists. Without fail, I would find that Wuthering Heights was on every and each one of these lists. So here we are talking about it, which can only mean that I have been thoroughly persuaded.
Explaining the plot of this book is no easy task. The timeline spans three generations, children are named after their parents, characters come and go, and to make things even more complicated, the whole story is told years later by a servant who we may suspect is (and was) partial to the events and people involved. You can read the complete plot here, if you wish, but if we were to boil it down to the core, the three decades story all spins around Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship, which poisons and wilts everything around them. They are one, and everything that goes well or most commonly bad in their liaison reverberates in others’ lives. Even death can’t put a full stop neither to the folly nor to the toxic consequences of this unholy union of selfish souls.
Make no mistake, Cathy and Heathcliff are not a lovable pair. Each in their own way, they’re all out for themselves and will stop in front of nothing and nobody to see their goals achieved. The reader grows to despise them although some of their choices are – if not embraceable – at least understandable. The air at Wuthering Heights is thick with all the wrong things: first with jealousy, then with revenge, finally with hate, and the consequences are dire. The inhabitants of the house learn the subtle art of inflicting mental and emotional pain with every step they take and every word they speak. This is where I thought about what would happen if Emily were to live today: descriptions of such a dysfunctional family nucleus would send even the most distracted social worker into a frenzy. It feels all wrong, as you read it: every verbal exchange ends in failure, and the pain emerging from this impossibility to communicate without hurting the other is almost palpable. It’s almost like an ante-litteram example of the hedgehog dilemma.
Wuthering Heights is the emotional equivalent of quicksand. Even actions started with the best intentions end up damaging relationships, and the more effort they put into it, the more the situation deteriorates. In the end, it’s a draining read. It would be unredeemable but for the ending: Heathcliff’s death and young Cathy’s efforts lead to a slow but steady healing of the wounds that had been inflicted for decades. The union of Cathy and Hareton is almost like those small, delicate flowers one can sometimes see growing obstinately in concrete cracks. All the odds are against them, but there they both are, undoing all of Heathcliff’s efforts to sow disagreement and coldness. Looking back to the final part of the book, it’s almost as if their love is the light that kills Heathcliff’s darkness, and him along with it. With no more reason to live, he drifts into madness and finally dies.
The main question for me is: why is Wuthering Heights still so popular? It’s on top of everyone’s must read lists, it was made into a movie at least a dozen times, despite its chilling and anything-but-romantic story. Its influence is so wide that even A England, an indie nail polish brand, has dedicated an entire collection to Emily and Wuthering Heights. The interest around the work and its author is still so strong that in August literary biographer Claire Harman stated that Emily Brontë may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Shortly afterwards, Emily Willingham dismissed the claim by bringing reasonable biographic data into analysis and basically calling bs on Harman’s statement. Not that the catfight in itself matters: the point is, even 168 years after her death, Emily Brontë is still capable of raising questions and, most importantly, stirring powerful, vivid emotions.
I wonder how many of today’s authors will be able to do the same.