Wuthering Heights (Book Review)

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Title: Wuthering Heights
Author: Emily Brontë
Publication Date: 1847
Producer: Audible UK Studios (2017)
Narrated by: Joanne Froggatt
Recording Time: 12 hours, 32 minutes


In the winter of 1801, a man named Lockwood rents a manor house called Thrushcross Grange. The home is located in the moor country of England. His landlord is a man named Heathcliff. Heathcliff lives in a neighboring manor called Wuthering Heights, four miles away. After an initial meeting with Heathcliff, Lockwood asks his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him what she knows about Heathcliff and the people he just met at Wuthering Heights. Nelly obliges.

She tells Lockwood that as a young woman, she worked as a servant at Wuthering Heights for a previous owner of the manor, Mr. Earnshaw. One day, Mr. Earnshaw went to Liverpool and returned home with Heathcliff, an orphan boy, whom he was determined to raise as one of his own children. Earnshaw’s oldest, a boy named Hindley, despised and abused Heathcliff. Earnshaw’s younger daughter, Catherine, who is of an age with Heathcliff, hates him initially but eventually grows to love him. After Mr. Earnshaw’s wife dies, he favors Heathcliff over Hindley. This leads to an increase in cruelty from Hindley toward Heathcliff, so much so that Mr. Earnshaw eventually sends Hindley away to college.

Three years later, Mr. Earnshaw dies. Hindley returns to Wuthering Heights having inherited it. He returns with a wife, Frances, and Hindley takes up torturing Heathcliff mentally and physically soon thereafter. Hindley forces Heathcliff into the life of a laborer for the property. Despite this, Heathcliff continues his close relationship with Catherine. One night they wander to Thrushcross Grange, the neighboring manor about four miles away. While there, Catherine is bitten by a dog and is forced to stay on the property for five weeks while she recovers. While Catherine is there, Mrs. Linton makes efforts to teach Catherine to behave in a manner more suitable for her station. By the time she returns, Catherine has developed feelings for Edgar Linton, Mrs. Linton’s son, and this change puts a strain on her relationship with Heathcliff.

When Hindley’s wife Frances dies after giving birth to a boy named Hareton, Hindley becomes an increasingly cruel and abusive alcoholic – with most of his cruelty directed toward Heathcliff. At the same time Catherine becomes engaged to Edgar Linton despite her greater love for Heathcliff. As a result, Heathcliff runs away from Wuthering Heights. He is gone for three years and returns only a short time after Catherine and Edgar are married.

Heathcliff returns with vast and unexplained wealth. He sets about getting revenge on all who have wronged him – primarily Hindley and Edgar Linton. Heathcliff begins giving loans to the alcoholic Hindley knowing that he will fall into increasingly deeper debt. Eventually Heathcliff takes control over Wuthering Heights outright when Hindley dies. Heathcliff next places himself in line to inherit Thrushcross Grange by marrying Isabella, Edgar Linton’s little sister. After their marriage, Heathcliff is physically and mentally abusive to Isabella. During this time, Catherine becomes sick, gives birth to a daughter, also named Catherin, and then the older Catherine dies.

After the older Catherine dies, Heathcliff begs her spirit to remain on Earth. Isabella soon thereafter leaves Heathcliff and moves to London. She was pregnant when she fled and names the son she gives birth to there, Linton. She and Linton live together in London and he has no knowledge of his father at all.

Thrteen years later, Young Catherine, who has been cared for by her father Edgar and her nursemaid Nelly Dean, wanders through the moors and discovers the Wuthering Heights manor. There she meets Hareton. Not long after, Isabella dies in London and Linton comes to live with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights after a short visit first to the Grange. Heathcliff is more cruel to his sickly son Linton than he was to the boy’s mother Isabella.

Three more years pass and Young Catherine meets Heathcliff on the moors after which she visits Wuthering Heights to see her cousin Linton. She and Linton soon after begin a secret correspondence through letters that turns into a secret romance. Eventually Nelly discovers Youn Catherin’s letters from Linton and destroys the letters. Young Catherin’s father, Edgar, forbids her from further contact with her cousin Linton. She soon then begins sneaking out at night to spend time with Linton. Nelly discovers this and attempts to put a stop to it. However, it soon becomes clear that Linton does not really love Catherine – he is is pursuing her because Heathcliff is forcing him to do so. Heathcliff wants Catherine to marry Linton so that Heathcliff’s own legal claim upon Thrushcross Grange becomes complete. He views this as his final act of revenge on Edgar Linton for marrying Older Catherine.

Edgar Linton begins to grow ill. While he is ill, and while Nelly and Catherine are out on a ride in the moors, Heathcliff kidnaps Nelly and Catherine. He vows to hold them both prisoner until Catherine marries Linton. Catherine agrees primarily to facilitate a return to Thrushcross Grange to see and care for her father who is on his deathbed. Soon after the marriage, Edgar dies. Soon after, Linton also dies. Heathcliff now controls both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliffe forces Catherine to live at Wuthering Heights and act as a servant. He rents the Grange to Lockwood at this time.

In the present, Nelly’s story to Lockwood is concluded. He ends his tenancy at Thrushcross Grange and returns to London. Six months later, though, when his travels brought him close by, he pays a visit to Nelly. She then updates him on what has transpired since he went to London .

Young Catherine was initially cruel to Hareton while living in Wuthering Heights. However, after Lockwood left for London, Nelly was compelled by Heathcliff to move to Wuthering Heights. After some chiding from Nelly for her cruelty, Young Catherine begins trying to make amends, apologizing, genuinely befriending him, and going so far as to teach him to read. Catherine and Hareton fall in love. Heathcliff, meanwhile, begins speaking to the Older Catherine’s ghost, forsaking both sleep and food. Heathcliff dies. Hareton and young Catherine inherit Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. After hearing the end of the story, before returning to London, Lockwood visits the graves of Catherine and Heathcliff.

My Review

After finishing this novel I had to sit and think for a long time as to what it was actually about. In some sense, it felt while reading it that I was immersed in a soap opera. The drama is primarily painful which in turn made caring for the characters challenging. However, after a day to think on this novel, I have decided it is primarily a story about the transitive property of cruelty. Hindley was monstrous to Heathcliff. This, in turn, created a monstrous revenge-seeking Heathcliff. Heathcliff passed Hindley’s cruelty on to Edgar, Isabella, Hareton, Linton, and Young Catherine. Even with the younger generation, we see the cruelty continuing branch out as Hareton, Linton, and Young Catherine all grow to project echoes of Hindley’s original malice on each other.

Brontë’s novel uses the word “degradation” repeatedly. We see that in the characters. Heathcliff was the pampered and favored adopted son of Mr. Earnshaw. When Hindley gets control of Wuthering Heights, though, he sets out to destroy Heathcliff and largely succeeds. Older Catherine is the spirited daughter of the late Mr. Earnshaw. She chooses initially to have wealth over love. Then later she tries to have both her husband’s wealth and Heathcliff’s love. As a result, she inflicts cruelty upon both men and herself – leading ultimately to her own mental breakdown and untimely death. Older Catherine is also cruel to her sister-in-law Isabella. She tells the young woman that Heathcliff could never love her while simultaneously telling Heathcliff of the younger woman’s feelings – and thereby planting the idea in his head to marry her. This leads to Isabella’s downfall, her own downfall, and eventually the birth of what feels very much like a doomed Linton. Isabella, as mentioned, degrades through her association with the cruel Heathcliff. Her son Linton eventually does the same. Even the good-hearted Young Catherine becomes vicious and cruel after being forced to live in the Wuthering Heights manor house for a while.

If the novel were nothing but degradation, it would have been impossible to get through it. The other major theme of the book is the nature and complexities of love. Mr. Earnshaw – for reasons unstated – showed love to Heathcliff by adopting him as an orphan and showed love to him further by treating him as one of his own children.

Older Catherine – despite having a sibling relationship with Heathcliff – grows to love him deeply. Heathcliff returns her feelings in equal measure. Their love is more than romantic, though. Their love extends beyond the natural realm into the supernatural. We see this plainly through Heathcliff’s belief in the presence of Older Catherine’s ghost in the later portion of the novel. The love of Heathcliff and Older Catherine is never expressed within the text as something sexual. Instead, their bond seems to stem from some shared rebellious connection of their souls. That said, Heathcliff and Older Catherine both betray one another, too. She marries Edgar Linton despite loving Heathcliff more. Heathcliff leaves her for three years, causing Older Catherine nearly to go mad in his absence, and marries Isabella upon his return. He marries Isabella despite loving the now married Catherine more.

We see also in the novel a flighty and ungrounded love between Young Catherine and Linton. This is a love of youth and inexperience and a desire for exploration. It’s not deep or even entirely sincere on Linton’s part. We also see Young Catherine and Hareton with a more well grounded love arc. She hates him initially – primarily because of the circumstances of her capture by Heathcliff. Hareton in turn loves her but is also fearful of her. He wants to make her happy but is both unable to do so and fearful of her reproach for making the attempt. Ultimately though with a little assistance from Nelly, Young Catherine sees beyond her own circumstances and makes an ally of Hareton before falling in love with him.

There are a lot of Wuthering Heights readers who view Heathcliff as a tragic romantic figure. I can accept that he is a tragic character. He is an orphan boy who underwent tremendous abuse throughout the latter years of his childhood. We see that he is bright, cunning, strong, and resourceful. We are left to wonder what heights he might have scaled were he brought up in a house filled with love. However, I do disagree with the interpretation of this character as ultimately a romantic one. The latter half of the novel is filled with almost nothing but violence and cruelty from Heathcliff. I feel a great amount of sympathy for the boy Heathcliff but ultimately the man is responsible for his evil actions. Unlike the malevolent Hindley, Heathcliff’s cruelty does not seem to be born out of some innate characteristic he was born with. Heathcliff’s meanness is intentional and purposeful. He can and often does reign himself in when doing so suits his greater designs.

While I do not agree with Heathcliff as a romantic figure (tragic or otherwise), we do meet a romantic figure in Hareton. Hindley’s son is treated abusively by Heathcliff. However, in contrast with his abuser Heathcliff, the cruelty does not snuff out Hareton’s goodness. He wants to be better and like Heathcliff, ultimately sets out to raise himself up from his circumstances and his own ignorance. Heathcliff’s motivation for self-elevation is revenge. Hareton’s motivation is love. Even as his abuser dies, Hareton is the primary person grieving him – and it seems genuine. Hareton’s indomitable love is his primary characteristic.

Themes aside, the novel is well-written, grounded in a refreshing, albeit brutal, Victorian realism, and focuses heavily on a topic (the transitive nature of cruelty) that I believe is actually important. Being able to see and understand cycles of abuse are necessary before one can set a course of action to break those same cycles. Hareton’s love – in spite of everything – ultimately played the biggest role in breaking the cycle of abuse that begins with Hindley, his father.

The novel also overlays its own realism with a spooky ethereal quality that makes everything around it more suspenseful while also not subtracting from its realism. Is Heathcliff mad? Is Older Catherine really visiting him from beyond the grave? Did they eventually meet up as ghosts? We never really find out for sure. I think hinting at that outcome while not letting the reader know for certain is a good compromise for the mixed feelings Heathcliff creates throughout the novel prior to his death.

I listened to the audio recording done by Joanne Frogatt. She is brilliant. Her performance greatly aided me in getting through the hard to endure portions of the book. If you want to tackle this book, I definitely recommend her audio recording.

Do I recommend the novel? My answer after finishing is yes. In fact, I will now tell you that I enjoyed it and I almost wish to re-read it to see what I missed the first time through. Wuthering Heights feels like a novel that likely becomes more enjoyable as one re-reads often. If you had asked me my opinion on the book with five chapters to go, my answer would have been no, I do not recommend it, and I am not enjoying it. The book for me was a tough climb with a rewarding view at its conclusion.

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