Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wuthering Heights (Or, Extremely Unlikeable People Doing Ridiculously Detestable Things) - by Emily Bronte

From Hark, A Vagrant.

I have a deep suspicion Wuthering Heights is not entirely serious.

The characters are all so incredibly unlikeable, it reads at times like a satire of upper class country folly. There isn't a single character that won't pique your frustration, or make your fingers itch to slap them all the way back to the middle of the renaissance.

Wuthering Heights is a test of your compassion and charitable nature. Does mistreatment as a child justify abuse on part of the adult? Is this a tragic story of unlucky lives and star-crossed lovers, or idiots too selfish to see past their own desire? I consider myself compassionate to a fault, and even I am inclined towards the latter.
Allow me to demonstrate:

Heathcliffe (depression, domestic abuse and disgust).

I fell into Wuthering Heights after watching the Tom Hardy mini-series. I had heard about Heathcliffe's raw animal magnetism before, but until I watched this series failed to understand how such a character could be attractive to anyone. The mini series changed all that. I was drawn to the director's sympathetic narrative and Hardy's masculine charisma. Heathcliffe wasn't vile at all, he was a pinnacle of brute strength, the epitome of masculinity. A nineteenth century Stanley Kowalski.

Let me just state: it's an absolute crime that we equate attractive masculinity with force, emotional unavailability and intimidation. It worries me that Heathcliffe has evolved into a guilty pleasure infesting our society's artistic psyche. I doubt that Bronte ever intended Heathcliffe to permeate the fabric of our wet dreams. Make no mistake, the written Heathcliffe is an utter monster. The worst of domestic abusers.

Sure, he had a rough upbringing, but so did Ted Bundy. Abuse is awful in and of itself, and what happened to Boy Heathcliffe is no exception. But his revenge escalates to the point of mania, and its circle widens to destroy the lives of the innocent (if unlikeable). Get one of the pamphlets on Domestic Abuse. Flip to the checklist. Heathcliffe exhibits every one of those traits. He embarks on such a journey of bullying, violence, and exploitation, any sympathetic portrayal of his character begins to look like collusion.

However, the narrative book-ends Heathcliffe in sympathy. His upbringing is unenviable and his end tragic. Bronte describes to the letter the symptoms of  clinical depression, making Heathcliffe's end a reassurance to the fellow sufferer that depression is a deeply human, and very ancient disease. In the end, Heathcliffe's journey is so deeply fucked up, his ending is a relief. He is a product of torture and mental illness, deserving of both compassion and condemnation.

Nelly Dean

I realise I am probably deeply underestimating the power and autonomy granted to a nurse of the children born to a large estate in the 1800's, but it is Nelly Dean that felled the death blow on my charitable mind. Throughout the novel, I couldn't help but feel that she just needed to harden the fuck up. Nelly Dean has raised both Heathcliffe and Catherine the elder, as well as the issuing generation. It is through her voice we hear the tale of Catherine and Heathcliffe, and by the end I had begun to wonder if she wasn't partly responsible for the tragedy. This is a harsh judgement, but there are so many cries of "I am but a simple serving girl", you begin to suspect she is either incredibly simple, or she just does not give a shit. A stronger, more forthright woman would have taken her charges in hand and at least attempted to talk some sense into them. Lifted a finger to try and prevent the trainwreck heading to its inevitable conclusion.  Instead, it seems she is simply content to watch as the painfully obvious unfolds in front of her. Any postulation of regret on her behalf appears disingenuine, because if she really cared that much, surely she would have tried to do something.

The Catherines

Catherine the Elder is young and makes mistakes (at the beginning of the novel). She is passionate and impulsive and insensitive. Many children are. As she ages, she retains all of her girlhood folly, her insensitivity, and her obnoxious entitlement. Her daughter is equally as silly. But let's face it, Catherine and Heathcliffe are why we are reading Wuthering Heights to start with. The moments between them are as endearing as two children caught in the rigid rules of their own fantasy's ecology. There is something very moving about their thoughtless, destructive, blind, ill-fated love.

We are long past the era that once demanded just punishments for the wicked, and rewards for the honest, in fiction. However, it appears we haven't matured past the point of demanding sympathetic characters in our narratives. I wish my first exposure to Wuthering Heights had been through an exploration of human cruelty, rather than a focus on the unreasonable love story. The stunning aspect of the novel is that it demands sympathy for the cold and pity for the pitiless. It's a gym for your compassion muscles. It's a brutal, stark narrative that is gripping despite its despair. And in an age that romanticises the Rochesters and Darcys of the world, Heathcliffes are welcome, if only for their honesty. Wuthering Heights offers no excuses for its characters, but offers them up to the reader with all their darkness unobscured. And despite this, you struggle, through some long trained narrative reflex, to find their light.

1 comment:

  1. You're right when you say Nelly is responsible. What we have in Wuthering Heights is a very clever bit of narrative framing. You have Nelly, who is telling the story to traveller, and the traveller (i forget his name, but he's a ponce) to us. They are BOTH unreliable narrators, Ponce boy because he exaggerates and is sensational, and Nelly because she is trying to negate her role in the whole debacle. While Cathy and Heathcliff are both monstrous in their love, I think what Bronte is trying to present to us is 'love' in its basest, most animal form, and the ways in which it can make us monstrous. Catherine the Elder likes Linton, in the same way you might have a crush on someone, but she loves Heathcliff in a way that scares her because she cannot control herself around him. This, as well as the setting of the wild moors, makes the work a Gothic Masterpiece. It is also interesting to note that the Bronte sisters were raised by (i think) a very strict religious father and kept largely away from society. At such a distance were they able to critique and parody it. It is an infinitely fascinating book to deconstruct, and one of my favourites. Lovely post!