Monday, February 15, 2010

Wuthering Heights

I'm not sure how I escaped from college with an English degree without reading any of the Bronte sisters. I did an entire semester on Jane Austen but never cracked a single book by either Emily, Charlotte, or Anne. About a year ago I remedied that by picking up Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I loved the book but remember thinking that it wasn't what I was expecting. Apparently all the sisters have that in common.

I've heard tons about Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's immortal novel. It has been described as one of the most romantic books ever written. It has been described as passionate and powerful. Many say that the love story between Catherine and Heathcliff is one of the most obsessive and powerful they'd ever read. Just today I saw it listed by two different writers, as they're favorite romantic book. So I was expecting a romance. When I finally read the book last week I found something completely different.

I didn't consider Wuthering Heights a romance. Yes, there is a romance between Catherine and Heathcliff. But that takes up only the first quarter of the book. It is what happens after that seemed to me the focus of the story. Instead this is a book about a tragic family. It is a book about revenge. It is a book about a villain. Far from romantic, I found Heathcliff to be horrible. The man was a villain of the first degree. After Catherine's meladramatic and mostly foolish death, he falls apart and begins to take systematic revenge upon everyone who'd ever come in contact with her. He starts with her sister-in-law, then her husband (yes Catherine marries someone else), then her brother. Eventually he moves on to his own son, Catherine's daughter, and any other person who may once have been involved in the family.

Now don't get me wrong, Heathcliff is not a killer. Instead, his villany is far more creative. He simply plots and schemes to take everything from them. He manages to steal away everything from Catherine's brother (who also happens to be his. It's complicated). He takes revenge on Catherine's husband by forcing their daughter to marry his son against her wishes, thereby giving all of their estate to him. After Catherine's death it is simply one heineous deed after another as he takes his revenge on everyone around him. The interesting thing about this whole book is that I never manage to see the connection between him and Catherine. They claim, at separate times, to be in love with each other but I, as reader, didn't really ever see it. They stood up for each other in childhood, they adventured together as adolescents. And then later, after Catherine is married, do they finally state that they love each other. But both Catherine and Heathcliff are such dispicable characters that by that point I didn't really care.

You would think that after all this talk that I hated the book, which is not true. I devoured the book. Not one of the characters is likable. I found myself constantly yelling at the characters that they were acting like idiots. I was shocked by the pure malice in the book. And I was still surprised that this was not a romance. But through all of this, the story of this family is so sad, so tortured that I had to continue. Each character was flawed but distinct. This book, told by the former housekeeper, is delicious gossip. We get to know the characters from the vantage point of looking in. We see their struggles but from the detached observer standpoint. And like a train wreck it was tough to look away. Tolstoy famously started Anna Karenina with this line. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Wuthering Heights is the story of an unhappy family and the tragedies that befall them. Tragic, powerful, and beautiful, this book is everything but romantic.


Lonster said...

I agree, I never thought it was romantic. There is a great deal of passion, though.

The-Fire-Olympus said...

When Bronte published it, Wuthering Heights it was not viewed as a romance at all.

But when it came out she was a women. It was seemed as romantic because, what else can a women write about besides romance.

:rolls eyes:

I loved Wuthering Heights but, I do not view it as romantic at all.

Cat B said...

Lon, I would agree that it is definitely passionate. Certainly intense. I had originally thought that I was just too old when I read it (like Anna Karenina) but it sounds like I have company in not finding it romantic.

Fire-Olympus, Thank you for the comment. I knew that it was originally released under a pen name. So sad that people assume that a woman writer has to be a romance writer. And many seem to have fell for that idea. I'm glad to hear that others agree with me.