By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in Critical Inquiry, Winter 1983. Reprinted in The Profane Art

Once upon a time, it seems, an English clergyman born Brunty or Branty, self-baptized the more romantic Brontë, brought home to his four children a box of twelve wooden soldiers. The children lived in isolation in a parsonage high on the Yorkshire moors, which is to say, at the edge of the world; each was possessed of an extraordinarily fecund imagination; the wooden soldiers soon acquired life and identities (among them the Duke of Wellington and Bonaparte). The way by which a masterpiece as unanticipated as Wuthering Heights comes to be written, involving, as it did, the gradual evolution from such early childish games to more complex games of written language (serial stories transcribed by the children in minute italic handwriting meant to resemble print; secret plays, or “bed plays,” written at bedtime; the transcribing of the ambitious Gondal and Angria sagas, which were to be viable for nearly fifteen years) is so compelling a tale, so irresistible a legend, one is tempted to see in it a miniature history of the imagination’s triumph, in the most socially restricted of environments. No poet or novelist would wish to reduce his mature works to the status of mere games, or even to acknowledge an explicit kinship with the prodigies of the child’s dreaming mind; but it is clear that the play of the imagination has much to do with childish origins, and may, in truth, be inseparable from it. As Henry James has observed, in a somewhat peevish aside regarding the “romantic tradition” and the “public ecstasies” surrounding the Brontë sisters, “Literature is an objective, a projected result; it is life that is the unconscious, the agitated, the struggling, floundering cause.” Certainly this is true, but its dogma is too blunt, too assured, to inspire absolute confidence. The unconscious energies feed the objective project; life fuels art, in disguised forms, though art is, of course, a highly conscious activity. Literature is far more than a game of words, a game ingeniously constructed of words, but the imagination is expansive enough to accommodate both the child’s fantasies and the stratagems of the adult. Out of that long-lost box of wooden soldiers, or its forgotten equivalent, we have all sprung.

The Profane ArtIt is not simply in contrast to its origins that Wuthering Heights strikes us as so unique, so unanticipated. This great novel, though not inordinately long, and, contrary to general assumption, not inordinately complicated, manages to be a number of things: a romance that brilliantly challenges the basic presumptions of the “romantic”; a “gothic” that evolves—with an absolutely inevitable grace—into its temperamental opposite; a parable of innocence and loss, and childhood’s necessary defeat; and a work of consummate skill on its primary level, that is, the level of language. Above all, it is a history: its first statement is the date 1801; and one of its final statements involves New Year’s Day (of 1803). It seeks both to dramatize and to explain how the ancient stock of the Earnshaws are restored to their rights (the somber house of Wuthering Heights, built in 1500), and, at the same time, how and why the last of the Earnshaws, Hareton, will be leaving the Heights to live, with his cousin-bride, at Thrushcross Grange. One generation has given way to the next: the primitive energies of childhood have given way to the intelligent compromises of adulthood. The history of the Earnshaws and the Lintons begins to seem a history, writ small, albeit with exquisite detail, of civilization itself.

As a historical novel, published in 1847, “narrated” by Lockwood in 1801-1802, and encompassing an interior story that begins in the late summer of 1771, Wuthering Heights is expansive enough to present two overlapping and starkly contrasting tales: the first, and more famous, a somewhat lurid tragedy of betrayal erected upon a fantasy of childhood (or incestuous) romance”; the second, a story of education, maturing, and accommodation to the exigencies of time. Both stories partake of the slightly fabulous, especially the first (in which, with fairy-tale inevitability, a “gypsy” foundling, named for a dead son, usurps a father’s love); both seem to progress less as a consequence of individual and personal desire than of the abstract (and predetermined) evolution of “Nature” into “Society.” The great theme of Wuthering Heights, perversely overlooked by many of its admiring critics, as well as by its detractors, is precisely this inevitability: how present-day harmony, in September of 1802, has come about. Far from being a rhapsodical ode to primitive dark energies, populated by savages (whether noble or otherwise), the novel is, in fact, as its elaborate structure makes clear, an assured demonstration of the finite and tragically self-consuming nature of “passion.” Romantic and gothic elements cannot survive in the sunlit world of sanity (as Lockwood jealously observes, the second Catherine and her fiancee Hareton look as if, together, “they would brave Satan and all his legions”); the new generation will settle in the more commodious Thrushcross Grange, opening, as it does, in symbolic and literal terms, onto the rest of the world. The curious spell or curse has lifted from the principals of the drama, and will continue to hold sway—so local rumor will have it, doubtless for centuries—only on the moors, where the redoubtable Heathcliff and a woman yet walk, on every rainy night. (“Idle tales,” says Mrs. Dean, “and so say I.” The citybred Lockwood concurs, and we are invited, however ambiguously, to concur, in the history’s closing remark, as Lockwood wonders how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”)

A novel’s strategy reveals itself in structure and process, not in isolated passages or speeches, however striking. Any complex work that aspires to a statement about something larger than the experiences it depicts must be understood as a proposition on two levels: that of the immediate, or present time (the shared fiction of the “immediate” as it is evidently experienced by both participant and reader, simultaneously), and that of the historical (in which the fiction of the simultaneous experience of participant and reader is dissolved, and the reader emerges, ideally, at least, with a god’s-eye view of the novelist’s design). The playful braiding of narrators and magisterial creator that is so pronounced a characteristic of Nabokov’s novels is perhaps more willfully ingenious than the “Chinese box” narration of Emily Brontë (which, one should hasten to say, she chose to employ, as a felicitous convention, and did not invent), but scarcely more effective. As much as any Modernist work, Wuthering Heightsdemands to be reread: the first three chapters (charting the disingenuous Lockwood’s introduction to the surly enigmatic inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, both living and dead) yield the author’s intention only upon a second reading. And this has not only to do with the time-honored device of withheld information, but with the reader’s literal interpretation of Lockwood’s experience: for Lockwood is himself a “reader,” albeit a most confused one, in these initial chapters.

It is on the level of visceral immediacy, as a fictional “world” is evoked through the employment of language, that a novel lives or dies, or struggles along in a sort of twilit sleep; it is on this higher level, where structure and design are grasped, and all novels make claim to be “histories” (the eager demands of how and why, as well as what, accommodated), that it acquires a more cultural or generalized value. Emily Brontë’s sense of the parable residing beneath her melodramatic tale guides us throughout: for we are allowed to know, despite the passionate and painfully convincing nostalgia for the Heights, the moors, and childhood, evinced by Catherine and Heathcliff, that their values, and hence their world (the Heights) are doomed. We acquiesce rather to the lyricism of the text, than to its actual claims: the triumph of the second Catherine and Hareton (the “second” Heathcliff), not only in their union but in their proposed move away from the ancient home of the Earnshaws, is a triumph that quite refutes traditional readings of the novel that dwell upon its dark, brooding, unconscious, and even savage energies. Meaning in literature cannot of course reside solely in the apprehension of design, for one might argue that “meaning” is present in every paragraph, every sentence, every word; but for the novelist such elements as scenes of a dramatic nature, description, historical background, summary of action, etc., are subordinate to the larger, grander, more spacious structure. If Wuthering Heights is the title of this phase of “our” collective history, ending on New Year’s Day of 1803, Thrushcross Grange will be the title of the next.

Who will inherit the earth’s riches? Who will inherit a stable, rather than a self-consuming, love? What endures, for mankind’s sake, is not the violent and narcissistic love of Catherine and Heathcliff (who identify with each other, as fatal twins, rather than individuals), but the easier, more friendly, and altogether more plausible love of the second Catherine and Hareton Earnshaw. How ironic, then, that Brontë’s brilliantly imagined dialectic, arguing for the inevitable exorcism of the old demons of childhood, and professing an attitude toward time and change that might even be called optimistic, should have been, and continues to be, misread. That professional critics identify subject matter in process with an ambitious novel’s design is one of the curiosities of literary history, and bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the myopic activities of the self-appointed censor, who judges a book by a certain word, on page 58 or 339, and has no need to trouble himself with the rest. Wuthering Heights is no less orderly and ritualistic a work than a representative Greek tragedy, or a novel of Jane Austen’s, though its author’s concerns are with disorderly and even chaotic elements. One of the wonders of the novel is its astonishing magnanimity, for all the cliches of Emily Brontë’s “narrowness.” Where else might we find a tough-minded lyricism evoking the mystical value of Nature, contiguous with a vision of the possibilities of erotic experience very like that of the Decadents, or of Sade himself? Where else might we find passionate soliloquies and self-lacerations, of a Dostoyevskian quality, housed in utterly homely, and fastidiously rendered, surroundings? Both Brontë and Melville draw upon Shakespeare for the speeches of certain of their principals (Heathcliff being, in the remarkable concluding pages of the novel, as succinctly eloquent as Edmund, Iago, Macbeth), but it is Brontë’s novel that avoids the unnatural strain of allegory, and gives a local habitation to outsized passions.

Wuthering Heights is erected upon not only the accumulated tensions and part-formed characters of adolescent fantasy (adumbrated in the Gondal sagas) but upon the very theme of adolescent, or even childish, or infantile, fantasy. In the famous and unfailingly moving early scene in which Catherine Earnshaw tries to get into Lockwood’s chamber (more specifically her old oak-paneled bed, in which, nearly a quarter of a century earlier, she and the child Heathcliff customarily slept together), it is significant that she identifies herself as Catherine Linton though she is in fact a child; and that she informs Lockwood that she had lost her way on the moor, for twenty years. As Catherine Linton, married, and even pregnant, she has never been anything other than a child: this is the pathos of her situation, and not the fact that she wrongly, or even rightly, chose to marry Edgar Linton over Heathcliff. Brontë’s emotions are clearly caught up with these child’s predilections, as the evidence of her poetry reveals, but the greatness of her genius as a novelist allows her a magnanimity, an imaginative elasticity, that challenges the very premises (which aspire to philosophical detachment) of the Romantic exaltation of the child and childhood’s innocence.

The highly passionate relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, forged in their embittered and savage childhood, has been variously interpreted: it is a doomed “gothic” romance, whose depth of feeling makes the inane Lockwood and his narrative-mate Mrs. Dean appear all the more shallow; it is curiously chaste, for all its emotional outpourings, and as finally “innocent” as any love between sister and brother; then again, it is rude, lurid, unwholesome, intensely erotic, and suggestive of an incestuous bond—indeed. Heathcliff is named for a dead brother of Catherine’s, and he, Hindley, and Catherine have slept together as children. (The reasons for Mr. Earnshaw’s adoption of the gypsy waif, the goblin, the parentless demon, the dark-skinned “cuckoo,” are never made plausible within the story; but it is perhaps instructive to learn that Emily Brontë’s great-great-grandfather Hugh Brunty had adopted a blackhaired foundling from Liverpool—who in turn adopted their own grandfather, the younger Hugh. So the vertiginous interrelations and mirror-selves of the novel’s central household have, for all their fairy-tale implausibility, an ancestral authenticity.)

So famous are certain speeches in Wuthering Heights proclaiming Catherine’s bond with Heathcliff (“Nelly, I amHeathcliff—he’s always, always in my mind”),1 and Heathcliff’s with Catherine (Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannotlive without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”)2 that they scarcely require reference, at any length: the peculiarity in the lovers’ feeling for each other being their intense and unshakable identification, which is an identification with the moors, and with Nature itself, that seems to preclude any human, let alone sexual” bond. They do not behave like adulterous lovers, but speak freely of their relationship before Catherine’s husband, Edgar; and they embrace, desperately and fatally, in the presence of the ubiquitous and somewhat voyeuristic Mrs. Dean. (Mrs. Dean is even present, in a sense, when, many years later, Heathcliff bribes the sexton to unearth Catherine’s coffin, so that he can embrace her mummified corpse, and dream of dissolving with her, and being more happy still.) So intense an identification between lover and beloved has nothing to do with the dramatic relationship of opposites, who yearn to come together in order to be complete: it is the at-one-ness of the mystic with his God, the peaceful solitude of the unborn babe in the womb. That Heathcliff’s prolonged love for the dead Catherine shades by degrees into actual madness is signaled by his breakdown at the novel’s conclusion, when the “monomania” for his idol becomes a monomania for death. She, the beloved, implored to return to haunt him, has returned in a terrifying and malevolent way, and will not give him peace. “. . . For what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, 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.”3 So Heathcliff tries to explain the frightening “change” that is upon him, when he sees that he and Catherine have been duplicated, in a sense, and supplanted, by the second Catherine and young Hareton. The old energies of the child’s untrammeled life have passed over into the ghoulish energies of death, to which Heathcliff succumbs by degrees. “I have to remind myself to breathe—almost to remind my heart to beat!” Heathcliff, that most physical of beings, declares. “And it is like bending back a stiff spring; it is by compulsion that I do the slightest act not prompted by one thought, and by compulsion, that I notice anything alive, or dead, which is not associated with one universal idea…. I am swallowed up in the anticipation of its fulfillment.”4

So far as the romantic plot is concerned, it is Catherine’s decision to enter into a misguided engagement with Edgar Linton that precipitates the tragedy: more specifically, a melodramatic accident by which Heathcliff overhears part of Catherine’s declaration to Mrs. Dean, but creeps away in shame before he can hear her avowal of abiding love for him. In truth, however, the “tragedy” has very little to do with Catherine’s conscious will, but seems to have sprung from a phenomenon so impersonal as the passage of time itself. How exquisite, because irremediable, the anguish of “growing up”! Brontë’s first-generation lovers would share a kingdom on the moors as timeless, and as phantasmal, as any imagined by Poe. In place of Poe’s androgynous male lovers we have the immature Heathcliff (only twenty years old when Catherine dies); in place of the vampire Ligeia, or the amenorrheic Lady Madeleine, is the tomboyish Catherine, whose life has become a terrifying “blank” since the onset of puberty. No more poignant words have been written on the baffled anguish of the child-self, propelled into an unwanted maturity, and accursed by a centripetal force as pitiless as the north wind that blows upon the Heights. Catherine, though pregnant, and soon to give birth, has absolutely no consciousness of the life in her womb, which belongs to the unimagined future and will become, in fact, the “second” Catherine: she is all self, only self, so arrested in childhood that she cannot recognize her own altered face in the mirror. Brontë’s genius consists in giving an unforgettable voice to this seductive and deathly centripetal force we all carry within us:

I thought . . . that I was enclosed in the oak-panelled bed at home; and my heart ached with some great grief which, just waking, I could not recollect. I pondered, and worried myself to discover what it could be, and, most strangely, the whole past seven years of my life grew a blank! I did not recall that they had been at all. I was a child; my father was just buried, and my misery arose from the separation that Hindley had ordered between me and Heathcliff. I was laid alone, for the first time, and, rousing from a dismal doze after a night of weeping, I lifted my hand to push the panels aside…. I cannot say why I felt so wildly wretched … I wish I were a girl again, half savage, and hardy, and free; and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed? Why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words? I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills.5

Why the presumably robust Catherine Earnshaw’s life should end, in a sense, at the age of twelve; why, as a married woman of nineteen, she should know herself irrevocably “changed”—the novel does not presume to explain. This is the substance of tragedy, the hell of tumult that is character and fate combined. Her passion for Heathcliff notwithstanding, Catherine’s identification is with the frozen and peopleless void of an irrecoverable past, and not with anything human. The feathers she pulls out of her pillow are of course the feathers of dead, wild birds, moorcocks and lapwings: they compel her to think not of the exuberance of childhood, but of death, and even premature death, which is associated with her companion Heathcliff. (Since Heathcliff had set a trap over the lapwing’s nest, the mother dared not return, and “we saw its nest in the winter, full of little skeletons.”)

This bleak, somber, deathly wisdom is as memorably expressed by Sylvia Plath in her poem “Wuthering Heights,” with its characteristic images of a dissolving landscape opening upon the void. Plath, like the fictitious Catherine, suffered a stubborn and irrevocable loss in childhood, and her recognition of the precise nature of this loss is expressed in a depersonalized vocabulary. How seductive, how chill, how terrifying Brontë’s beloved moor!

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.6

It is to the roots of the heather that Catherine has paid her fiercest attention.

The novel’s second movement, less dramatically focused, but no less rich in observed and often witty detail, transcribes the gradual metamorphosis of the “gothic romance” into its approximate opposite. The abandoned and brutish child Hareton, once discovered in the act of hanging puppies from a chair-back, matures into a goodhearted youth who aids the second Catherine in planting flowers in a forbidden “garden”—and becomes her protector at the Heights. Where all marriages were blighted, and two most perversely (the marriages between Heathcliff and Isabella, and the second Catherine and Heathcliff’s son Linton), a marriage of emblematic significance will be celebrated. Everyone will leave the Heights, save the comically embittered old Joseph, the very spirit of sour, gnarled, uncharitable Christianity, who presumably cannot die.

How this miraculous transformation comes about, why it must be grasped as inevitable, has to do with the novelist’s grasp of a cyclical timelessness beneath the melodramatic action. The rhythm of the narrative is systaltic, by which I mean not only the strophe and antistrophe of the sudden cuts back to Lockwood in Mrs. Dean’s presence, and alone (musing in his diary) but also the subtle counterpoint between the poetic and theatrical speeches of the principal characters, and the life of the Heights with its harvests and apple-pickings and hearths that must be swept clean, its tenant farmers, its vividly observed and felt reality. The canny physicality of Wuthering Heightsdistinguishes it at once from the “gothic,” and from Shakespeare’s tragedies as well, where we are presented with an exorcism of evil and an implied (but often ritualistic) survival of good, but never really convinced that this survival is a genuine and not merely a thematic possibility.

Heathcliff, who is said never to read books, comments scornfully on the fact that his young bride Isabella had pictured in him a hero of romance. So wildly deluded was this sheltered daughter of Thrushcross Grange, she expected chivalrous devotion to her, and “unlimited indulgences.” Heathcliff’s mockery makes us aware of our own bookish expectations of him, for he is defiantly not a hero, and we are warned to avoid Isabella’s error in “forming a fabulous notion of my character.” Brontë’s wit in this passage is supreme, for she allows her “hero” to define himself in opposition to a gothic-romantic stereotype she suspects her readers (well into the twentieth century) cherish; and she allows him, by way of ridiculing poor masochistic Isabella, to ridicule such readers as well.

Are you sure you hate me? If I let you alone for half a day, won’t you come sighing and wheedling to me again? . . . The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury! Now, was it not the depth of absurdity—of genuine idiocy—for that pitiful, slavish, mean-minded brach to dream that I could love her? . . . I never, in all my life, met with such an abject thing as she is. She even disgraces the name of Linton; and I’ve sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention, in my experiments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing back!7

This, in Isabella’s presence; and naturally Isabella is pregnant. But then Heathcliff observes, in an aside, that he, too, is caught up in this relentless “moral teething,” and seems incapable of feeling pity for his victims or for himself. “The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails!” he says. ” . . . And I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.”8 He observes elsewhere that the mere sight of cowering, weak, fearful persons awakens the desire in him to hurt; and an evening’s “slow vivisection” of his own son and his child-bride Catherine would amuse him. Even the elder Catherine, who recognizes her kinship with him, calls him a cruel, wolfish man; and she, of all the persons who know him, understands that he is beyond redemption—precisely because he is not a character in a romantic novel, or, indeed, answerable to any “fabulous notions” at all. (If he weakens at the novel’s end, it is only physically. His forthright judgment on his actions is: ” . . . As to repenting of my injustices, I’ve done no injustice, and I repent of nothing—I’m too happy, and yet I’m not happy enough.”)

Heathcliff’s enduring appeal is approximately that of Edmund, Iago, Richard III, the intermittent Macbeth: the villain who impresses by way of his energy, his cleverness, his peculiar sort of courage; and by his asides, inviting, as they do, the audience’s or reader’s collaboration in wickedness. Brontë is perfectly accurate in having her villain tell us, by way of Mrs. Dean and Lockwood, that brutality does not always disgust; and that there are those persons— often of weak, cringing, undeveloped character—who “innately admire” it, provided they themselves are not injured. (Though, in Isabella’s case, it would seem that she has enjoyed, and even provoked, her husband’s “experimental” sadism.) Heathcliff presides over a veritable cornucopia of darksome episodes: he beats and kicks the fallen Hindley, he throws a knife at Isabella, he savagely slaps young Catherine, he doesn’t trouble to summon a doctor for his dying son, as he no longer has any use for him. Unfailingly cruel, yet sly enough to appear exasperated with his victims’ testing of his cruelty, Heathcliff arouses the reader to this peculiar collaborative bond by the sheer force of his language, and his wit: for is he not, with his beloved gone, the lifeforce gone wild? He has no opposition worthy of him; he has no natural mate remaining; he is characterless and depersonalized will—a masklike grimace that can never relax into a smile. (Significantly, Heathcliff is grinning as a corpse—”grinning at death” as old Joseph notes.) Very few readers of Wuthering Heights have cared to observe that there is no necessary or even probable connection between the devoted lover of Catherine, and the devoted hater of all the remaining world (including—and this most improbably—Catherine’s own daughter Catherine, who resembles her): for certain stereotypes persist so stubbornly they may very well be archetypes, evoking, as they do, an involuntary identification with energy, evil, will, action. The mass murderer who is really tenderhearted, the rapist whose victims provoke him, the Fuhrer who is a vegetarian and in any case loves dogs…. Our anxieties, which may well spring from childhood experiences, have much to do with denying the actual physicality of the outrages, whether those of Heathcliff or any villain, literary or historic, and supplanting for them, however magically, however pitiably, “spiritual” values. If Heathcliff grinds his victims beneath his feet like worms, is it not natural to imagine that they are worms, and deserve their suffering, is it not natural to imagine that they are not us? We feel only contempt for the potential sadist Linton, who sucks on sugar candy, and whose relationship with his child-wife parodies a normal love relationship (he asks her not to kiss him, because it makes him breathless). Consequently our temptation is to align ourselves with Heathcliff, as Brontë shrewdly understands. Heathcliff pricks the reader’s Linton-like imagination in such passages:

I was embarrassed how to punish him, when I discovered his part in the business—he’s such a cobweb, a pinch would annihilate him, but you’ll see by his look that he has received his due! I brought him down one evening . . . and just set him in a chair, and never touched him afterwards. I sent Hareton out, and we had the room to ourselves. In two hours, I called Joseph to carry him up again; and, since then, my presence is as potent on his nerves as a ghost; and I fancy he sees me often, though I am not near. Hareton says he wakes and shrieks in the night by the hour together….9

Yet the novel is saturated with gothic episodes and images, as many critics have noted, and the tone of motiveless cruelty that prevails, in the opening chapters, clearly has nothing to do with the mature Heathcliff’s “plan for revenge.” The presumably goodhearted and maternal Mrs. Dean tells Heathcliff that since he is taller than Edgar Linton, and twice as broad across the shoulders, he could “knock him down in a twinkling”—whereupon the boy’s face brightens for a moment. The presumably genteel Lintons of Thrushcross Grange are not upset that their bulldog Skulker has caught a little girl by the ankle, and that she is bleeding badly; they evince alarmed surprise only when they learn that the child is Miss Earnshaw, of Wuthering Heights. (As for the child Heathcliff: “. . . The villain scowls so plainly in his face: would it not be a kindness to the country to hang him at once, before he shows his nature in acts, as well as features?”)10 One of the most puzzling revelations in the early section is that, after Mr. Earnshaw has gone to the trouble of bringing the foundling home, his own wife’s wish is to “fling it out of doors”; and Mrs. Dean places “it” on the landing with the hope that “it might be gone on the morrow”—though where the luckless creature might go in this wild landscape, one would be hard pressed to say. Clearly we are in a gothic world contiguous with Lear’s, where daughters turn their fathers out into the storm, and blinded men are invited to sniff their way to safety.

This combative atmosphere is the natural and unspoiled Eden for which the dying Catherine yearns, however inhuman it is. For, like Heathcliff, she is an “exile” and “outcast” elsewhere: only the primitive and amoral child’s world can accommodate her stunted character, until she is reborn and transmogrified in a Catherine part Earnshaw and part-Linton.

As for Heathcliff, with his diabolical brow and basilisk eyes, his cannibal teeth, his desperate passion for revenge, is he not a “romantic” incarnation of Iago or Vendice (of The Revenger’s Tragedy), another Edmund fired to destroy an Edgar, a revenge-motive imposed upon a fairy tale of love and betrayal? He does not require Hindley to flog and beat him, in order to turn stoically wicked, since he has possessed an implacable will from the very first, having demonstrated no affection or gratitude for the elder Mr. Earnshaw, who had not only saved his life in Liverpool but (for reasons not at all clear in realistic terms) had loved him above his own children. Near the end of the novel Mrs. Dean wonders aloud if her master might be a ghoul or a vampire, since he has begun to prowl the moor at night, and she has read of “such hideous, incarnate demons.” Her characteristic common sense wavers; she sinks into sleep, taxing herself with the rhetorical question: “But where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?”—a question that is presumably ours as well. From where does “evil” spring, after all, if not from “good”? And is it sired by “good”? And “harboured” by it? This particular demon is Heathcliff only: Heathcliff Heathcliff, possessing no other name: sired, it would seem, by himself, and never legally adopted by Mr. Earnshaw. (His headstone reads only “Heathcliff” and the date of his death: no one can think of an appropriate inscription for his monument.)

Yet if Heathcliff must enact the depersonalized role of a damned spirit, the “romantic” motif of the novel necessitates his having been a victim himself—not of Hindley or of the “ruling classes,” but of his soul-mate Catherine. He is unkillable but may die from within, willing his own extinction, as his “soul’s bliss kills his body, but does not satisfy itself.” Just as the narcissistic self-laceration of the childlovers cannot yield to so social and communal a ritual as marriage, so, too, does the “romantic-gothic” mode consume itself, and retreat into history: for the fiction of Wuthering Heights must be that we have had Lockwood’s diary put into our hands, many years after his transcription of events belonging to another century. We read his “reading” of Mrs. Dean’s tale, parts of which seem remote and even legendary. Ghosts are by popular tradition trapped on an earthly plane, cursed by the need, which any compulsive-obsessive neurotic might understand, to cross and recross the same unyielding terrain, never advancing, never progressing, never attaining the freedom of adulthood. Even Edgar, the wronged husband, the master of Thrushcross Grange, soliloquizes:

I’ve prayed often . . . for the approach of what is coming: and now I begin to shrink, and fear it. I thought the memory of the hour I came down that glen a bridegroom would be less sweet than the anticipation that I was soon, in a few months, or, possibly, weeks, to be carried up, and laid in its lonely hollow! Ellen, I’ve been very happy with my little Cathy…. But I’ve been as happy musing by myself among those stones, under that old church, lying, through the long June evenings, on the green mound of her mother’s grave, and wishing—yearning for the time when I might lie beneath it.11

Considering his late wife’s vehement rejection of him, this is an extraordinary statement, and Edgar goes on to say that, to prevent Heathcliff’s victimization of his daughter, he would “rather resign her to God, and lay her in the earth before me.” Nothing is learned in the older generation; the ease of death is preferred to the combat of life. The wonder is that so strong-willed a personality as young Catherine can have sprung from such debilitated soil.

So with the perpetual childhood of myths, fairy tales, legends, and gothic romances, which, occupying a timeless “present,” relate to no time at all. Being outsized and exemplary of passions, their characters cannot be human: they are frozen in a single attitude, they are an attitude, and can never develop. Only young Catherine undergoes a change of personality, and, in willfully altering her own fate, transforms the Heights itself. She alone resists Heathcliff; she nurses her invalid husband in his final sickness, and nearly succumbs to death herself. When Heathcliff somewhat uncharacteristically asks her how she feels, after Linton has died, she says: “He’s safe, and I’m free…. I should feel well—but … you have left me so long to struggle against death alone, that I feel and see only death! I feel like death!”12—a speech that allows us to see how very far Catherine has come, within a remarkably brief span of time.

In another sort of novel Heathcliff would assuredly have been drawn to his widowed daughter-in-law, if only for sexual, or exploitative purposes: but Wuthering Heights is fiercely chaste, and none of its characters gives any impression of being violated by a sexual idea. (The fact that Catherine is pregnant, and that her pregnancy is advanced, during the final tempestuous love scene between her and Heathcliff, is never commented upon by anyone: not even by the unequivocal Mrs. Dean, whose domain is the physical world and whose eye is presumably undimmed by romance. One must be forgiven for wondering if the pregnancy—the incontestably huge belly of Catherine Linton—is not acknowledged because it is so blatant a fact of physical life, so absolute a fact of her wifehood, which excludes Heathcliff; or because, given the Victorian strictures governing author as well as characters, it cannot be acknowledged. Perhaps there is simply no vocabulary to enclose it.)

Young Catherine, however, has not inherited her mother’s predilection for the grave. She soon exhibits an altogether welcome instinct for self-knowledge and compromise—for the subtle stratagems of adult life—that have been, all along, absent in her elders. Where Heathcliff by his nature remains fixed and two-dimensional, a character in a bygone drama, until his final “change” draws him so unresistingly to death, Catherine’s nature is bound up with, and enforced by, the cyclical motion of the seasons: her triumph over him is therefore inevitable. Once or twice she lapses to the self-absorbed manner of the elder Catherine, in seeking (futilely) to provoke two men into fighting over her; but she is too clever to persist. That she learns to accommodate Hareton’s filial affection for his monstrous “father” indicates the scope and range of her new maturity—an attribute, it must be said, that genuinely surprises the reader. For suddenly it becomes possible at Wuthering Heights, as if for the first time in human history, that one generation will not be doomed to repeat the tragic errors of its parents. Suddenly, childhood is past; it retreats to a darkly romantic and altogether poignant legend, a “fiction” of surpassing beauty but belonging to a remote time.

As the stylized gothic romance yields to something approaching “realism,” the artfully fractured chronology begins to sort itself out, as if we are waking rapidly from a dream, and the present time of September 1802 is the authentic present, for both the diarist Lockwood and the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. Mysteries are gradually dispelled; we have gained a more certain footing; as Lockwood makes his way to the Heights, he notes that “all that remained of day was a beamless, amber light along the west; but I could see every pebble on the path, and every blade of grass by that splendid moon.” The shift from the gothic sensibility has been prepared from the very first, by Brontë’s systematically detailed settings, which are rendered in careful prose by the narrators Lockwood and Mrs. Dean—the only characters we might reasonably expect to see the Heights, the Grange, and the moors. The romantic lovers consume themselves in feeling; they feel deeply enough but their feeling relates only to themselves, and excludes the rest of the world. But the narrators, and, through them, the reader, are privileged to see. (It is significant that the ghost-lovers of the older generation walk the moors on rainy nights, and that the lovers of the new generation walk by moonlight.)

For all that she has been demeaned as ordinary, unimaginative, and incapable of comprehending a “grand passion” of the operatic scale of Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s, the novel’s central narrator, Ellen Dean, in her solitary fashion, remains unshakably faithful to the actual world in which romance burns itself out: the workaday world of “splendidly reflected” light and heat, and smooth white paving stone, and high-backed chairs, and immense pewter vessels and tankards, and kitchens cheerful with great fires. Never has the physical world been rendered with more precision, and more obvious sympathy, whether it is the primitive outer world of the moors, or the interiors of the houses; that curious and endlessly fascinating oak paneled bed, with “squares cut out near the top, resembling coach windows”; Miss Catherine Earnshaw’s silken costume, when she returns from five weeks at the Grange; the pipes old Joseph smokes, with evident pleasure. “I smelt the rich scent of the heating spices,” Mrs. Dean reports, “and admired the shining kitchen utensils, the polished clock, decked in holly, the silver mugs ranged on a tray ready to be filled with mule ale for supper; and, above all, the speckless purity of my particular care—the scoured and well-swept floor. I gave due inward applause to every object….”13

It is this fidelity to the observed physical world, and Brontë’s own inward applause, that makes the metamorphosis of the dark tale into its opposite so plausible, as well as so ceremonially appropriate. Though the grave is misjudged by certain persons as a place of fulfillment, the world is not after all phantasmal: it is by daylight that love survives. Long misread as a poetic and metaphysical work given a sort of sickly, fevered radiance by way of the “narrowness” of Emily Brontë’s imagination, Wuthering Heights can be more accurately be seen as a work of mature and astonishing magnitude. The poetic and the “prosaic” are in exquisite harmony; the metaphysical is balanced by the physical. An anomaly, a sport, a freak in its own time, it can be seen by us, in ours, as brilliantly of that time—and contemporaneous with our own.


    1. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), p.94.
    2. Ibid., p. 194.
    3. Ibid., p. 374.
    4. Ibid., p. 375.
    5. Ibid., p. 145.
    6. Sylvia Plath, “Wuthering Heights,” from Crossing the Water (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
    7. Wuthering Heights, pp. 174-175.
    8. Ibid., p. 176.
    9. Ibid., p. 331.
    10. Ibid., p. 56.
    11. Ibid., p. 296.
    12. Ibid., p. 339.
    13. Ibid., p. 62.

Image: Ikley Moor by Rick Harrison



  1. I have just lately read the novel about three or four times, and then read a lot of critical essays on it. This is far and away the most insightful I have read. Thanks very much for writing it.


  2. the only thing wrong is that it was Hareton who resembled his Aunt, and constantly reminded Heathcliff of her, NOT Catherine, and not improbably, but probably did hate her because she looked like her Father, so Bronte got that right


Leave a Reply to Dan O'Neill Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s