Great Novel No. 11: “Wuthering Heights”

Wuthering Heights: A Novel

by Emily Brontë

***

Emily Brontë’s only novel was published in 1847, the same year as her sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. Like all of the Brontës’ work it was published under a pseudonym since female novelists were generally frowned upon in early Victorian society (both Pride And Prejudice and Frankenstein, though pre-Victorian, were originally published anonymously).

Wuthering Heights shares a great deal of atmosphere with Jane Eyre. Wild northern moorlands and imposing country houses dominate the landscape conjured up in our imaginations. Byronic male leads epitomize the Romantic era in both novels. I have often heard Wuthering Heights described as one of the greatest love stories in the English language (the hyperbole is not mine). But I found to my surprise that it’s nothing of the kind. Not that it isn’t a good novel. It’s just that I find myself hard-pressed to think of it as a love story.

That plot ends halfway through, and it becomes apparent that the real focus of the story was not the couple of Heathcliff and Catherine but Heathcliff alone. As he coldly takes his revenge one by one on those who have mistreated him, the book becomes more about how people hurt each other than how they love each other.

The other striking element of the novel is the structure. Emily Brontë weaves a carefully choreographed dance of stories-within-stories so that narrators change and yet don’t change. Other servants and the younger Cathy fill in the scenes which the housekeeper Mrs. Dean didn’t witness so that she can narrate the bulk of the story to the tenant Mr. Lockwood — who of course narrates it all to us. Wuthering Heights is, in the structural sense, a story about people telling stories.

I wish I had more to say about the book. But it seems that the Brontë sisters have a curious effect on me. My initial reaction to Wuthering Heights has been the same as my initial reaction to Jane Eyre: somewhat blank. I was never bored with the novel, but at the same time found no real fondness for it. Perhaps like the other Brontë book, a future re-read will open up my eyes to its depths. But for now I will leave it be.

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