A Hierarchy of Victimhood
Two Interesting Notes on Church and Society

Wuthering Heights

(NOTE: this is somewhat spoiler-ish, in a broad way.)

I was travelling for several days over the past week, and of course needed to take some things to read. I'm about halfway through The Brothers Karamazov, and would have liked to have had it on the plane, but it's so bulky that I decided at the last minute to leave it at home and take the family Kindle instead, figuring it had at least a few things on it that I'd want to read. And that's how I ended up reading Wuthering Heights on the plane and in every spare minute.

I had read it when I was in college, partly on the very enthusiastic recommendation of a couple of friends, and been more or less indifferent to it. But this time I was completely captivated. It's a powerful story, vividly realized, and I don't hesitate to count it among the great novels.

But I'm also inclined to think it's toxic. Heathcliff is a monster, however much one may want to allow for the effect of mistreatment upon him. And his love for Catherine ceases to be any sort of love at all, and becomes a more or less satanic force, engendering only pride and malice, which are in the end rewarded. Hers for him is not much better--facing a life without him, she pines away in a manner that must be the envy of any teen-aged girls who read the novel.

I'm especially struck by the significance of the book in cultural history. The Brontë sisters were the daughters of a clergyman, but the religion manifested in this book seems to me several steps removed from Christianity, toward a sort of gnostic transcendentalism which sees the noble spirit as soaring to heights beyond the limits of ordinary people, and ultimately beyond physical reality itself.  It is an open question as to whether, in the end, Heathcliff's path of destruction is justified, because he does in the end get what he wants.

This is just a first reaction, and I haven't read any criticism that might argue for a different conclusion. I'm interested in hearing the reaction of others, especially Catholics. Am I being moralistic? Not looking deeply enough?

Emily Brontë's famous poem, "No Coward Soul Is Mine," seems to support, if not entirely confirm, my view. I keep thinking of another sometime-Christian who was having similar thoughts around the same time: Ralph Waldo Emerson.


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I read it at school when we were about twelve. I found it torture distinguishing the characters with the too similar names. Not that I couldn't remember them for myself - but to write essays and exams on it was a headache. I loved Jane Eyre, but Wuthering Heights never did it for me, for that reason. I reread them all a few years back - my mother had a set of leather bound Brontes. I went to the Bronte parsonage, where they grew up, years ago when I lived near the Lake District.

I can't imagine myself having made much sense of it at age 12. So you didn't take to it when you re-read it recently, then?
It's an awfully strange book. It was, as the cynics say, a good career move for EB to die shortly after writing it. That way it could remain unique and enigmatic.

I found a really nice book of photos of Bronte country in the library. May be as close as I ever get.

In high school I most likely pretended to read it (like most other books I was supposed to read). So the first time I read it was around four years ago I think, and I really did not like it for whatever reason. Then I read Jane Eyre not too long ago (this past year) and enjoyed it a lot. So now I have been wanting to revisit Wuthering Heights to try again with a different attitude towards it as being so wildly different. My initial expectations were for a more straightforward story I suppose. Maybe it will help if I listen to Kate Bush while reading? Sorry I am not answering your question at all, just rambling ...

No problem, a rambling discussion is in order for the subject.

JE and WH really are very different. JE is more conventional, which is not to say it's wimpy. But I'm slightly surprised that you liked it so much, given your lukewarm view of Jane Austen. Not that JE is that much like Austen's work, but it does share the basic romance outline.

I doubt that listening to Kate Bush will help, but I can tell you that if you know that song you're at risk for having it stuck in your head for hours after every reading session.

This, The Landscape of the Brontes, is the book I was talking about. Out of print, apparently, but there are some very cheap used copies, well worth it for anyone interested in the Brontes, I think, especially those who have never seen that country.

There's something of that in it, but I think Heathcliff is quite plainly intended as a monster (captivating but toxic, and perhaps a product of ill treatment but the none the less a bad thing), rather than the Byronic hero he is in so many adaptations of the novel. My reading was that at the end Catherine's ghost drives him to death to save her daughter from his influence, but perhaps I'm reading in.

I grew up on the outskirts of Sheffield - on the edge of the moors. For my money it's one of the most beautiful places on earth.

It certainly looks that way in this book.

I didn't read the end that way, and hadn't thought of it. I don't think there's anything to indicate that that's what it was, but on the other hand there's nothing to gainsay it, either. It's clear that she does return, or at least that he sees her and speaks to her. Considering that he's been begging for her to come back for twenty years or whatever it is, your view is a plausible explanation of why she returns now.

It dawned on me earlier this morning that it can be seen, theme-wise, as fundamentally a study in pride: Heathcliff and Cathy are driven apart and destroyed by it (the former morally destroyed, at least), while Hareton and young Cathy are able to come together by getting past it.

We studied this book with a highly Victorian, moralizing teacher. One of the last of the old school - her fiancée was killed in WWII, and she dedicated herself to teaching. She was terrifying, in a bad way. She moralized over novels, poetry and Shakespeare. We certainly got the impression that Heathcliffe was a Bad Man.

Well, she was right as far as that goes: he was a Very Bad Man Indeed. But there's a good deal more to the book than that. The question is, what exactly is that "more"?

I was surprised by your take, but I read the book with a Victorian lady.

What about my take was surprising? The gnostic-transcendenalist significance? Aside from that, I think the pride motif is where my view has sort of fixed itself for now.

I've warmed up to Austen lately, Mac. S&S, P&P, and Emma are all very good reads, and I'll get to the other 3 at some point. I do want to try WH again, now that I know what I'm in for I can just sit back and try to enjoy. I was most likely struck by how unconventional the story and characters were for that time period - but of course this is a good thing. Adam Bede was another that struck me that way, though it bears almost no relation to WH otherwise.

Stu, the 3 you've read are the ones I enjoyed most. The remaining 3, not so much, but I still enjoyed them.

I just never could get into Wuthering Heights. I decided I would read 60 pages and leave it if I didn't like it by that stage.

How long ago was that? It's not unusual for me to find that a book or piece of music that I didn't like or didn't find interesting when I first encountered it becomes much more interesting after a lapse of some significant number of years.

Re Austen, I have to confess that I've only read P&P. I think the film adaptations of others left me feeling that I knew as much as I need to know of her work, which is surely not true.

Haven't read any George Eliot, either, apart from a faint memory of reading at least some part of Silas Marner in high school, and not liking it. Seems like I've heard Middlemarch recommended as her best.

I think I tried reading WH about 10 years ago. I might try it again in the future.

I seem to recall liking Silas Marner but I can't really remember. Did Eliot also write Daniel Deronda? If so, one of my friends says it's a great book. If the BBC series was faithful then I certainly like the story.

JA is very witty. Lots of subtleties. Emma is probably the one I would recommend next, if you want to have a crack at it.

Yes, Daniel Deronda is Eliot. I've had that BBC series on my Netflix list for a long time but haven't seen it. I liked Pride & Prejudice, just wasn't strongly motivated to read more.

Someone who used to comment here had a tremendous dislike of Wuthering Heights, I wasn't sure why. I've been meaning to email her and ask her to elaborate. I can see why one might dislike it.

JA's books are very domestic really. I can see why many people, both men and women, wouldn't be interested in reading much of her work. But I love all that!

What you miss from the film adaptations of Jane Austen is the delicious humour. You get the story without the narrator. In my recollection, every chapter in
Emma begins with a screamingly funny sentence.

I sort of think there was one funny thing in Wuthering Heights, but it may have been in Charlotte Bronte's preface.

Grumpy, you have convinced me to re-read Emma. I haven't read it in quite a long while and I think I like it even more than P&P.

Emma really is funny.

The Brontes were true Romantics: they had absolutely no sense of humour.

Too true, of both them and the movement. I'd be surprised if Shelley ever said anything funny.

I've read P&P twice, and S&S and Mansfield Park once. Didn't like the latter as much as the other two. Emma is the next Austen on my list. Austen fans would probably like Mrs. Gaskell's 'Cranford.'

I read Middlemarch a few years back. I liked it, but not as much as I'd hoped I would. I do like Silas Marner very much, though. If I read another Eliot it would probably be Adam Bede.

Never had much interest in reading WH for some reason. I enjoyed Jane Eyre.

"Too true, of both them and the movement"

Never really thought of that! As much as I love Wordsworth, he seldom if ever brings anything close to a chuckle; even the smiles he occasionally produces tend to be more of the bittersweet variety.

Maybe I've already said this, but I have to admit that I can see why people credit Emily as having the greater talent. There's a vividness and fire in WH that Jane Eyre doesn't have.

I was very naughty the other day and didn't do the things I should have been doing at the time I should have been doing them because I was re-reading Emma. I blame you, Grumpy!

You can excuse yourself because Literature Is Good For You.

I'm surprised there aren't more people chiming in in support of Northanger Abbey. My introduction to Jane Austen, and one of my favorites.

I haven't read it, of course. Is that the one that's said to be slightly gothic?

It's a spoof of gothic, I think, Maclin. I enjoyed all of JA's novels, but Northanger is not in the top 3 for me.

You can excuse yourself because Literature Is Good For You.

So true.

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