Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights is arguably the greatest Gothic novel of all time. It contains all the elements that define its genre – a derelict manor, a dark and desolate landscape, a tall man shrouded in mystery, and several strange supernatural encounters – as well as a sweeping array of human emotion, symbolism, and cultural references. The latter qualities are what set this novel apart as a true classic.
Brontё would certainly have read and been influenced by the works of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Byron became famous for his passionate, reckless, and immoral lifestyle. He created what is now termed the “Byronic hero,” a tall, dark and handsome character archetype partly inspired by Bryon’s own persona. Despite its portrayal as a romantic antihero by many Gothic novels and some modern books and films, the “Byronic hero” is anything but heroic. As Brontё suggests in Wuthering Heights, this kind of character is fundamentally selfish and often cruel.
Brontё’s protagonist Heathcliff is passionate, brooding and mysterious – a “Byronic hero” to the core. He seeks to revenge himself upon those who have mistreated him or prevented him from being with Catherine, the woman he loves almost obsessively. But his love for Catherine only focuses on himself; his desperate search for revenge never brings him contentment. Rather than glorifying his Byronic tendencies, Brontё may have created Heathcliff to criticize this kind of “hero.”
Passion and emotion also play a major role in Wuthering Heights, forming an almost supernatural force that dictates the actions of the majority of the major characters. Their significance is most clearly seen in the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff. Every decision they make is motivated by an unhealthy obsession with one another, an obsession that nearly drives Catherine mad and haunts Heathcliff for years after her death. They are both ruled by emotions which destroy their own relationship, and their relationships with those surrounding them.
However, Brontё’s work does not praise Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship, or even suggest that such a connection can actually exist. Wuthering Heights is partly a cautionary tale which warns against allowing oneself to be ruled exclusively by passion and emotion.
Writers have access to a wide range of tools with which to craft their prose. Literary devices such as alliteration, symbolism, simile, and setting add color to an author’s work, while challenging their readers to think about the topics they discuss in a new or unconventional way. In Wuthering Heights, Brontё relies heavily on setting and symbolism to convey her ideas to her audience. She uses the isolated, tempestuous setting of her novel to symbolize Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship, suggesting that a selfish love such as theirs will ultimately lead to a life as desolate as the moors themselves.
At the story’s beginning, Brontё likens the hostile, windswept landscape in which Heathcliff lives to several of his personal attributes. She hints that Heathcliff is as solitary and hostile as his surroundings and draws comparisons between the environment and his relationship with Catherine. The tale of Catherine and Heathcliff is deeply entrenched in their wild, windswept home; Brontё ensures that this setting never fails to draw the reader’s attention to her point of view.
Brontё also suggests that, despite the strength of their bond, Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is fundamentally selfish and unhappy. In one scene, Catherine says that she can’t be happy without Heathcliff, but cares little for his own suffering. Moments like these illustrate the wild, tempestuous nature of Catherine and Heathcliff’s love, while simultaneously revealing its selfishness – they only desire to own one another, despite the misery this attitude creates. Although they seek happiness together, their self-centered behavior prevents them from ever achieving it.
However, Brontё’s story is not as entirely dark as Catherine and Heathcliff’s twisted love story might suggest. Cathy Linton Jr. (Catherine’s daughter) and Hareton Earnshaw (Heathcliff’s ward) choose a different path than their predecessors by striving to demonstrate selfless love to one another. Their initial relationship is not passionate or even amicable. In fact, they despise one another. Cathy’s obvious disdain for Hareton embarrasses him, resulting in hostility on both sides. They eventually realize they are equally flawed and try to treat one another kindly.
Again, Brontё highlights their relationship through setting. Near the book’s conclusion, Hareton helps Cathy transplant flowers from Thrushcross Grange to Wuthering Heights. The Grange has served as a constant source of warmth and love throughout the book; these flowers are symbolic of the genuine love which now permeates throughout Wuthering Heights. In this way, Brontё offers her readers a hopeful antidote to the darkness she explores within Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship, lest they become disillusioned with love altogether.
Photo credits: © 2012 – Oscilloscope Pictures