Saturday, March 26, 2011

Wuthering Heights

I first read this book in a high school English class, and I remember having mixed feelings about it then: the story and the characters intrigued me, but I found the reading to be difficult and tedious. Still, the book persisted in my memory for a long time.

So when I was looking for something to read on my new Kindle -- more on that shiny device coming soon in a future blog post -- I realized that a lot of the classics were freely available for download through Project Gutenberg, and Wuthering Heights naturally caught my eye. So I downloaded it and began reading.

The first thing I noticed, to my surprise and delight, was that the text didn't seem difficult or tedious at all. I guess that's what an extra ten years of education and life experience will do for you.

The other thing that really struck me as I made my way through the book was how deliciously, entertainingly evil a character Heathcliff is. I mean, I knew from my previous reading, kind of, but I had forgotten the full extent of it. He's definitely one of those over-the-top, "Angry Man Blows Up Everything" type sociopaths that I tend to enjoy reading about.

But before I continue, a quick synopsis is in order:

First off, Wuthering Heights is told through gossip. The main narrator is Mr. Lockwood, a tenant at the Thrushcross Grange estate, and he gets "the story" through Nelly Dean, a nosy and meddling housekeeper who happened to be hanging around while most of the interesting stuff was going on.

It all got started over twenty years before Lockwood's arrival, when Mr. Earnshaw, master of the Wuthering Heights estate, inexplicably decides to adopt a little gypsy orphan, who he names Heathcliff. His two biological children, Hindley and Catherine, are unhappy about this arrangement at first, but before long Catherine and Heathcliff become the best of friends. Hindley on the other hand continues to resent Heathcliff as an outsider, a usurper of his father's attention.

When Master Earnshaw dies, Hindley inherits Wuthering Heights, and rather than continuing to treat Heathcliff as a member of the family like his father did, Hindley instead turns him into a servant. Heathcliff vows revenge. But in the meantime, his friendship slash romance with Catherine continues.

Or at least, it does until Catherine starts to become close to Edgar and Isabella Linton, the children of Thrushcross Grange. In so doing, she neglects her relationship with Heathcliff, and eventually ends up accepting a marriage proposal from Edgar Linton. She confides to Nelly that, while she loves Heathcliff, it would "degrade her" to marry him because they would both likely end up beggars.

Heathcliff hears only part of this conversation -- the part about the degradation, not the love -- and in reaction he leaves Wuthering Heights. He is not seen or heard from for three years afterward.

He returns a wealthy gentleman, Catherine and Edgar are happily married, and it becomes apparent that Heathcliff is still dead set on revenge. For the latter half of the book, Heathcliff goes about revenging himself not only on everyone that he believes wronged him, but also their children. Some of the more entertaining highlights:

  • Heathcliff marries Isabella, who was attracted to him for some reason, and proceeds to treat her with violence and contempt. Though he seems to feel no remorse or need to justify his actions, he basically says at one point, "Well, it's her own fault. I never lied to her about what a jerk I am."
  • Heathcliff treats Hindley's son, Hareton, exactly the way Hindley treated him years before, making him a servant and denying him an education or even basic literacy. The odd part is how Hareton seems to adore Heathcliff, regarding him as a father, apparently too ignorant and naive to even understand how he's been taken advantage of.
  • Heathcliff kidnaps Edgar and Catherine's daughter, also named Cathy, and forces her to marry his own sickly son Linton (a product of his marriage to Isabella, who has by this point died). Heathcliff's motive in this is to inherit Thrushcross Grange. After the marriage is completed, he loses all interest in his son, refusing to even call a doctor for the sickly boy. Linton dies soon afterward.

So yeah... lots of vengeance, manipulation, and domestic violence going on in this book.

All of which makes it really interesting to me that, by and large, Wuthering Heights seems to be regarded in the cultural mythos as a romance. A dark one maybe, but still primarily a love story. For instance, check out this redesigned cover no doubt intended to cash in on the lucrative Twilight franchise:


(Note: you can check out my review of the Twilight books here.) On this cover, everything from the red rose to the Edward and Bella reference to the "Love Never Dies" tagline seems to imply that Wuthering Heights is first and foremost a romance.

But the love part -- the romantic relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine -- is over by the halfway point, because Catherine dies. And sure, Heathcliff continues to pine after her ghost and dig up her corpse and whatnot, but by that point you're kind of moving away from "romance" and into creepy, demented infatuation territory.

Anyway, one other fun thing I stumbled upon during my surfing of the interwebs in the aftermath of reading this book was an excellent website chock full of information about Wuthering Heights. It has everything -- maps and diagrams of the various locations, family trees, timelines, and reviews of apparently every Wuthering Heights movie ever made. (And there are quite a few.)

One thing I found particularly interesting was this diagram showing all of the actors that have portrayed Heathcliff in the various movie and TV adaptations:


I mostly found it odd that even though Heathcliff is repeatedly referred to as a "dark-skinned gypsy" throughout the book, most of these actors just look like unremarkable white guys, and one of them even looks kind of blond.

But all tangents aside, I really enjoyed my re-reading of this 1847 classic -- more than I expected to, even. I would highly recommend it, especially since the eBook version is freely available for download. Nothing beats great reading for free!

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Bronte
My Rating: 5 out of 5

4 comments:

  1. This book sits on my shelf and I have not yet cracked it open. I know I'm missing out.

    That diagram is great. LOL. Nobody beats Laurence Olivier. Ralph Fiennes comes close in skill, but as Heathcliff? Really? And who are those other creepy guys? Aw, well.

    Anyway, great post.

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  2. Hi! Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately I haven't had the chance to check out any of the Wuthering Heights TV or film adaptations for myself yet, so I'm not really sure how well the various actors do on the screen, or which ones best fit the role. But I am admittedly intrigued, and I may have to add one or two of these to my to-watch list. :)

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  3. I'm sure none of the film adaptations will live up to the book. So I hope you won't be disappointed if you decide to watch them. *dragging my dusty copy off the shelf*

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  4. You're right about films living up to the originals -- they're always going to be a different sort of beast than the books they're based on, mostly due to the challenge of cramming the full depth of a 300-page novel into a few hours of screen time. But still, I think it can be really interesting to see how filmmakers adapt a story and what they choose to focus on, even if it isn't 100% true to the source material.

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