Review of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
by Emily Brontë
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I previously read Wuthering Heights over 10 years ago, and I might not ever have revisited it until my pal Julie roped me into a re-read. You can read her review here. Our reactions are quite different, although I think we share many observations about the nature of the story and its legacy.
First, as always, a quick plot summary: the year is 1801 and a dandy gentleman named Mr. Lockwood shows up to assume tenancy of Thrushcross Grange, a smaller property near Wuthering Heights. Lockwood’s initial meeting with Heathcliff, the enigmatic owner of both properties, doesn’t go well. Neither do his subsequent meetings! Heathcliff and the other denizens of the Heights, Cathy and Hareton and the grizzled servant Joseph, are cold, unwelcoming, and somewhat off. Lockwood, being the nosy gadabout that he is, presses his housekeeper to spill the tea. Mrs. Ellen Dean does just that, and the majority of the narrative is told in her voice while she traces the intertwined histories of the Grange and Heights and two generations of two families, the Lintons and Earnshaws. Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff (it’s a mononym) had a bit of a thing, but this is not a story of starcrossed lovers. It’s a story of intergenerational trauma, a story of terrible people being terrible to each other as well as other, slightly-less terrible people, the terrible-ness percolating down like the world’s worst drip coffee until it results in DEATH.
Lockwood remains cheery and unaffected throughout.
One thing my review of the previous decade didn’t adequately convey is the sheer lunacy of this book’s events. Lockwood bumbles into Wuthering Heights like the world’s most awkward guest. He literally shows up during one subsequent visit by trudging through a snowstorm to the house, necessitating his stay overnight (which no one seems super excited about). This is one of the difficulties of reading a book like Wuthering Heights. Beyond language and social conventions, sometimes the environments are difficult for us to understand as modern readers. I live in a house in a city; the idea of leaving my house and being stranded at my neighbour’s house because of a snowstorm is a bit difficult for me to grasp. (This is not a criticism of the book—you’ll know when I get to those—it’s an observation of some of the challenges of reading Regency fiction set in rural England.)
It just goes off the rails from there. There is a lot of domestic violence and child abuse in this book—it’s basically an advertisement for children’s aid services. In this way, Emily Brontë explores the major motif of nature vs nurture. So many characters refer to Heathcliff as an inherently dark, rogueish or evil person. Yet Brontë demonstrates that Heathcliff and Hareton’s attitudes are heavily influenced by their mistreatment at the hands of Hindley (uh, what’s with the H names, anyway?). Hindley is an incompetent and spiteful paterfamilias who alienates Heathcliff as well as his sister, Catherine while simultaneously gambling himself so far into debt that he creates the opportunity for Heathcliff to assume control of the estate. Is Heathcliff a villain? Sure. But he is an opportunistic villain in the sense that his actions are always a result of seizing opportunities that present themselves. He seldom goes out of his way to plan anything beyond his reaction to the latest slight.
Catherine Earnshaw, on the other hand, is a piece of work. She isn’t just attracted to the bad boys; she is a bad boy. One might imagine Emily pours into her all the darkest desires she herself experiences growing up in Haworth. Yet as with Heathcliff, Catherine is a product of her environment. If she is petty, if she is vindictive, if she is unwise, it’s only because those who had charge of her education and upbringing failed to instill better values. To an extent, Mrs. Dean recognizes this as she unravels her narrative, and laments the inefficacy of her own interventions while housekeeping for Catherine and Edgar at the Grange. Catherine’s decision to invite Heathcliff back into her life, despite the conflict between him and Edgar, and flaunt Heathcliff’s presence so cruelly, reverberates throughout the novel and influences Heathcliff’s meddling to bring about the marriage between Isabella and his own son.
Although not a very long book, at times Wuthering Heights feels repetitive, and that’s one reason I didn’t enjoy my re-read as much as I wanted to. Lots of dead mothers in this—and death in general. Emily tends to kill off characters who aren’t needed anymore. I was tempted to read this as an inexperienced author’s beginner attempts at plotting. More charitably, though, I’d read this as Emily attempting to create cyclical patterns within her story. The repeated deaths of the mothers, for example, lead to a kind of scene-and-reprise structure that help the reader draw parallels between what happened in each generation that Mrs. Dean recounts. It’s actually a more sophisticated structure than a cursory glance might credit. (That doesn’t mean I like it any better, though.)
Julie’s review discusses the miscategorization of Wuthering Heights as a grand romance. She comments, “It’s melodramatic like an outright telenovela at times, including people being kidnapped and trying to stab each other with knives.” I love this statement! And I agree that we have historically done this novel a disservice. More generally, I’d assert we do a terrible job these days of really explaining what “Gothic” fiction actually is, what it entails, and examples of it in popular literature of the day.
We also don’t talk enough about Wuthering Heights as a feminist work of fiction. The Gothic elements here are inextricably entwined with the lives of the female characters and the constraints in their choices. Each time one of the women gets married, she’s packed off to live at the opposite household and inevitably doesn’t enjoy her new situation. This is some interesting commentary from an author who never married and died fairly young. Emily makes it clear that she isn’t impressed by the repressive options available to women of her station in the 1800s. My most favourite elements of this book, the parts that made me think the most, are the parts where I consider how Emily depicts the plight of her female characters at the hands of the patriarchy. Heathcliff, Hindley, and Hareton are all textbook examples of toxic masculinity, and Brontë is so good at demonstrating how even drive-by toxic masculinity has the worst fallout for the women of a family.
Where I diverge from my esteemed buddy reader and many critics is simply in my enjoyment of Emily’s writing, storytelling, and characterization. Wuthering Heights is a good novel. But there’s a lot more that could be done or told here. Characters just kind of … go away … when not needed anymore. Heathcliff disappears and comes back, and we don’t really know what happened to him beyond Mrs. Dean’s speculation. I can’t help but compare this approach to storytelling styles of Eliot and Hardy and find Emily wanting—is that unfair of me? Maybe. But that’s just my taste for Victoriana: I want these thicc books that telescope into their characters’ lives (that being said, Bleak House excepted, I admit to not being too keen on Dickens). Brontë doesn’t deliver the depth I crave, which is not to say that I think she’s incapable of it. Alas, we didn’t get any other works from her, so who’s to know to what other heights she could have risen? Wuthering Heights is all we have, and it might be all right, but that’s about as far as I go with this book.
That’s why I write these reviews. An astute reader will notice I’ve rated this book 3 stars this time, rather than the original 5. That reflects my enjoyment of the book this time around. But stars can’t convey the depth of what I really experienced—the nuances of the things I liked, didn’t like, and what makes the novel worthwhile (regardless of enjoyment) as a piece of literature. That’s what reviews are for, and Wuthering Heights demonstrates the importance of thinking holistically about what we read.