Wuthering Heights (1847), the only novel written by Emily Brontë, takes place in the wildest part of England: the windy “moors” of West Yorkshire. The story is both simple – as regards its narrative level made up of a powerful mixture of Romantic ideas and personal visions, primitive feelings and poetical strength – and symmetrical – as regards its plot structured in so unique a form to be easily considered a sort of forerunner, even if instinctive and raw, of the 20th Century novel: old time atmosphere in a very modern building. In so symmetrical a structure everything has its double, the opposite mirror, so that this involves whether characters or buildings, so to say people and things. This perfect plot symmetry is broken by the intrusion of Heathcliff, a stranger who will touch and reshape every other character’s life with such a strength to be the best “human” representation of the landscape itself: rude and wild, passionate and cruel, sensible and stormy.
There are two houses in these moors, only two houses giving shape to the social structure and leaving the external world out so that the reader may only know what happens behind those walls whereas the outside simply becomes mystery: Wuthering Heights, situated on a hill, windy and harsh just like the place, and Thrushcross Grange, down below in the valley, calm and quite just like the place itself. The former inhabited by the Earnshaws, rude and strong farmers, and the latter by the Lintons, the well-off family of a magistrate, weak and cultured people. Going further with the symmetry, every house has its children: Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw, at Wuthering Heights; Isabel and Edgar Linton at Thrushcross Grange. Then, this symmetrical construction is deeply affected by the intruder’s coming: Heathcliff. Mr. Earnshaw, coming back from a three days trip to Liverpool, takes home a little child saying:
See here, wife, I was never so beatenn with anything in my life. but you must e’en take it as a gift of God; though it’s dark almost as if it came from the devil.
As the book proceeds, nothing else will be told about the origins of Heathcliff, but, nonetheless, some critic thinks him to be an illegitimate son of Mr. Earnshaw. He is named Heathcliff (rupe di brughiera in Italian), after the name of an Earnshaws’ dead son and, gradually, substitutes Hindley in the affection of his father and shows a passionate, natural kinship with Catherine who seems to share the same nature: stormy and powerful like the wind, hard and thick like the rocks of Wuthering Heights. Hindley, seven years older than Heathcliff, keeps on beating and mistreating him for every reason, even the most innocent ones, in a sort of sadistic crescendo until he almost kills him throwing him under a horse feet in “the hope he’ll kick out his brain”! When Mr. Earnshaw dies, in 1777, Cathy is 12, Heathcliff is 13 while Hindley, who is 20, becomes the real master of the house, takes Frances, his wife, with him and keeps on beating Heathcliff, worst than before, until he’s forbidden to get in the house. In the same year, Cathy and Heathcliff go to Thrushcross Grange – the first time the two buildings get in contact in the novel – and spy the scene inside from a window, forced to run away the are stopped by the Lintons’ bulldog that seizes Cathy’s ankle so that a servant can catch them but the bulldog lies dead;
throttled off, his huge, purple tongue hanging half a foot out of his mounth, and his pendant lips streaming with bloody sliver
cruelly killed by Heatcliff after a fight with no weapons, a sort of panic struggle deeply fought in nature, far off from men’s society:
I got a stone and thrust it between his jaws, and tried with all my might to cram it down his throat.
Cathy, wounded as she is, is soon recovered in the house where she’ll be for five weeks while Heathcliff is not allowed to come in and goes back to Wuthering Heights remaining an outsider to Thrushcross Grange. After her wound healing, Cathy comes back home very changed at an external sight but her soul always is the same wild and powerful universe of free nature as usual, nonetheless she has seen another kind of world and wants to have a part in it, a part to be somehow shared by Heathcliff too. Later, when Edgar asks her to marry him she accepts and further says to Nelly, her servant and the storyteller herself, telling about a dream she had:
I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heat on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do explain my secret, as well as the other. I have no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heatcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heatcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.
Heathcliff, who, unseen, has been listening to her speech until the part concerning the degradation in marrying him, runs away in the stormy night and comes back to the “moors” three years later, rich of a mysteriously achieved richness, finding Cathy married to Edgar Linton. Anyway he claims his natural links on her over the artificial link of her husband. Cathy dies in 1784, at the age of 19, giving birth to her daughter, also called Catherine. Meanwhile, Isabel Linton, being totally possessed by Heatcliff, runs away with him to Wuthering Heights – whose possession he had won playing cards with Hindley – so that he can easily take an advantage on her and begins his revenge, a sort of Shakespearean revenge which no one escapes from: Hindley drinks himself to death; Hareton, his son, is an easy prey for Heathcliff who degrades him into a rough and ignorant servant of his own; Cathy Linton is now married to Linton, his degenerate and weak son born by his marriage with Isabel. Side by side with his revenge, his obsession with the dead Cathy keeps on growing at such an extent that, finally, he stops eating and sleeping in order to have a sort of deathly reunion with her, while the young Catherine, whose husband had died only two months after the marriage, succeeds in softening and educating Hareton until he marries her in 1803. The circle is finally closed: Cathy Earnshaw after having become Linton marrying Edgar, regains her Earnshaw identity through her homonymous daughter’s marriage with Hareton Earnshaw and is back to Wuthering Heights again.
Cathy and Heathcliff are the main characters of this novel but we may say that the latter is the chief character since we haven’t to forget that Cathy is a character living at Wuthering Heights since her birth and couldn’t have felt that inhuman and powerful passion she felt for anyone but Heatcliff, the intruder come from nowhere – since knowing he has been found in Liverpool, a sea town with an important port, tells us nothing about his real origins – is the one to alter the whole situation thus inducing the story itself. There are different natures and angles in Heathcliff’s personality and figure. He is a sort of natural creature apart from man’s society, his strength and charm are those belonging to nature when seen in its wildest and original shape, he has got no morals without being consequently unmoral since he belongs to a world never touched by the man’s conception of morality or by a sociological ethics so as to make impossible – unlike any other character – a sociological analysis; he is also a sort of Prince of Darkness, moving in the night, dark and gloomy, looking for preys to satisfy his lust for revenge, sucking their lives out – just like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula – in a very vampiristical way until he also finds his rest in the coffin. In this sense, this double figure of his clearly points out the double shape of the novel whether Emily Brontë is concerned in working out the interference of an extremed natural passion with human feelings or in creating an ominous Gothic effect of her own. However, in one way or another, he always behaves as a force acting on the other characters. What happens between him and Catherine is something that really exceeds the mere romance and goes far beyond the conception of vampiristical love by E. A. Poe, since what we we are confronted with is a very strong passion taken to such an extreme point with no way back, a passion which isn’t earthly at all so that Heathcliff kills himself to be finally with her beloved – melted in a single spirit – in the kingdom of death. Charlotte Brontë, Emily’s elder sister, so defines their relation:
a passion such as might boil and glow in the bad essence of some evil genius; a fire that might form the tormented centre – the ever-suffering soul of a magnate of the infernal world: and by its quenchless and ceaseless ravage effect the execution of the decree which dooms him to carry Hell with him wherever he wanders.
So strong a relation that Cathy, considering an eventual separation – without knowing that Heathcliff has just run away in the stormy night – can say :
We separated. (…) Who is to separate us, pray? They’ll meet the fate of Milo! Not as long as I live, Ellen – for no mortal creature. Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff!
If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable.
As we can see in these declarations, Cathy never plays a passive role towards Heathcliff, she also has been endowed with a wild an natural temper so that her personal, inner fusion with him may only be considered as a encounter of two twin souls even at an inhuman extent as such, impossible to be avoided since they are each other but impossible to be fulfilled in a marriage, or something like that, since it can’t have a sort of social recognition just in its being inhuman, in its belonging not to this earth, meant as the place where man’s society lives. Cathy’s marriage to Edgar Linton is a sort of social device to help Heathcliff, even if she splits herself into two levels – one is social, the other one is inhuman – and may love and respect him as her husband always being in love with Heathcliff on the other level. A level that has only been ignited by Heathcliff’s coming so to be definitively external, since it is someway revealed at the very beginning of the narrative when she, still a child, asks her father – when he was leaving to Liverpool; where he would have met the little Heathcliff – for a whip.
The structure of Wuthering Heights, always perfect and plain, shows many modern angles really peculiar and impossible to be found in the whole Victorian novel. First of all its narrative device. There are two tellers and two time levels: Lockwood, the lodger of Thrushcross Grange – in the year 1801, 17 years after Cathy’s death – tells us about the present time while Nelly – Cathy’s maid and Thrushcross Grange housekeeper after her death – tells him about the past. So that the book seen as a whole is the result of an oblique narrative in which the first teller hasn’t seen the reported story, being only told about it. This narrative form is masterly led on by Emily Brontë who really builds up Lockwood as a character knowing nothing about past actions. His first impression of Heathcliff is the most evident misunderstanding we may conceive:
…Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow!
He begins to show an interest about the past after reading some notes by Catherine and having a dream, deeply rooted in the gothic side of Wuthering Heights:
—He dreams of a branch beating through a broken window-pane— “I must stop it, nevertheless!” I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch: instead of which, my finger closed on the fingers of a little ice-cold hand!
The intense horror of nightmare came over me; I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed:
“Let me in – let me in!”
“Who are you?” I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself.
“Catherine Linton”, it replied shiveringly, “I’m come home, I’d lost my way on the moor!”
As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window – terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear.
His search of a teller, first addressed to Heathcliff, is unsuccessful until, in the 4th chapter, he finds a well willing teller in Nelly, who starts telling him about the story from its very beginnings. As a teller she represents both the common sense arid the common ethics exposing, in her telling about the events, the relative ideas and judgements of her own thus revealing to be a sort of simple and common background against the extremed relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy.
The use of language also is very modern in Wuthering Heights, since every character uses a language of its own in according to its culture and school education, thus giving the verbal interaction system a very vivid shape that recalls us to a more solid and tangible reality. The best specimen of such a linguistical operation is Joseph, the old servant at Wuthering Heights, as religious at sight as sadistic when in action:
T’ maister’s dahn i’ t’ fowld. Goa rahned by th’ end ut’ laith, if yah went tuh spake tull him.
Und hah isn’t that nowt comed in frough th’ field, be this time? What is he abaht? qirt eedle seeght!
We may close this short analysis of such a complex narrative quoting a passage from the 1850 preface by Charlotte Brontë:
Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor: gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited the head, savage, swart, sinister; a form moulded with at least one element of grandeur – power. He wrought with a rude chisel, and form no model but the vision of his meditations. With time and labour, the crag took human shape; and there it stands colossal, dark and frowning, half statue, half rock; in the former sense, terrible and goblin like; in the latter, almost beautiful, for its colouring is of mellow grey, and moorland moss clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows faithfully close to the giant’s foot.
“I Am Heathcliff” from Wuthering Heights – Director: David Skynner. Actors: Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady. British and American, 1998. TV.
Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights from The Kick Inside, 1978
The Reader’s Guide to Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” at www.wuthering-heights.co.uk
Emily Brontë at www.academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu
Joyce Carol Oates, The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights at www.sparknotes.com
Wuthering Heights at www.gradesavers.com
Wuthering Heights at www.bookrags.com
Film Versions of Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights – Director: A. V. Bramble. Actors: Milton Rosmer, Colette Brettel, Warwick Ward, and Anne Trevor. British, 1920. Film.
Wuthering Heights – Director: William Wyler. Actors: Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. American, 1939. Film.
Wuthering Heights – Director: Paul Nickell. Actors: Charlton Heston and Richard Waring. American, 1950. Live TV broadcast.
Abismos de Pasion – Director: Luis Buñuel. Actors: Jorge Mistral and Iraseme Dilian. Mexican, 1954. Film.
Wuthering Heights – Director: Peter Sasdy. Actors: Ian McShane and Angela Scoular. British, 1967. TV series.
Wuthering Heights – Director: Robert Fuest. Actors: Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall. American, 1970. Film.
Wuthering Heights – Director: Peter Hammond. Actors: Ken Hutchison and Kay Adshead. British, 1978. TV series.
Hurlevent – Director: Jacques Rivette. Actors: Lucas Belvaux and Fabienne Babe. French, 1985. Movie.
Arashi ga oka – Director: Yoshishige Yoshida. Actors: Yusaku Matsuda and Yuko Tanaka. Japanese, 1988. Film.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – Director: Peter Kosminsky. Actors: Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. British, 1992. Film.
Wuthering Heights – Director: David Skynner. Actors: Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady. British and American, 1998. TV.
Wuthering Heights CA – Director: Suri Krishnamma. Actors: Erika Christensen and Mike Vogel. American, 2003. TV.
Wuthering Heights – MTV musical, 2003.