I think a personal theme of this year’s cannonball has been the ruining of books well-remembered. I read Wuthering Heights in high school and loved it. As that was many years ago, I thought I’d do a re-read to see if I would still enjoy what the book jacket describes as ‘one of the most haunting and atmospheric love stories ever written.’
I’m sure I agreed with that sentiment as a sixteen-year-old. But now….
Let me start with a list of all the things this book does well for craft’s sake:
- We hear the story from ‘the help’s’ POV, which was a refreshing new voice in a time of books about rich people
- Bronte experiments with two unreliable narrators to tell her story, which works well for the overall atmosphere
- Bronte’s female characters are witty, intelligent, and make decisions instead of allowing men to make decisions for them. Bronte’s women are capable women.
- Bronte’s language is rich and poetic, and truly does build atmosphere and vivid word pictures.
But the actual story had me screaming at the book from the fourth chapter. The basic premise for those unfamiliar with the story is a Mr. Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights adopts a city street urchin named Heathcliff on his way home from a business trip. His daughter, Catherine takes kindly to Heathcliff since they’re the same age, but Earnshaw’s older son, Hindley hates Heathcliff since he sees him as an outsider and a rival. Hindley beats the crap out of Heathcliff at every turn, and after Daddy Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff’s life turns terrible, with his crush on Catherine the only thing keeping him afloat. Amidst all this, Catherine ends up marrying their next door neighbor even though she’s really in love with Heathcliff because the neighbor is rich, loves her, and has better social standing in the community. Heathcliff is just a sorry, broody farm-hand, so she can’t marry him. So Heathcliff goes on a walk-about for several years after he finds out Catherine jilted him. Then he comes back and seeks to wreak havoc on both Hindley’s family, and Catherine’s to get Catherine back and to seek revenge on the whole Earnshaw family.
There are few redeemable characters in this story, and the happy-ish ending only slightly makes up for the 350 pages of darkness and literal domestic torture we have to live in to get to ten pages of pay-off. Every couple of chapters a violent physical altercation of varying stripe erupts, and as I turned the pages, all I kept thinking was “isn’t there a constable in the town who can be called? Or a priest, or even a concerned neighbor?”
I get that this book was written about a time period in which physical abuse was prevalent and accepted, and perhaps Bronte’s purpose in writing this story was to shine light on the reality of many domestic situations in the 18th and 19th Centuries. But the self-same book completely glorifies Heathcliff and Catherine’s dysfunctional abuse destroying everyone around them.
I can’t find anything redeeming in their love story. If anything, I hate them and their ridiculously melodramatic behavior and their selfish obsessions with each other. Catherine chose to marry a man she didn’t love so she would have better societal standing, and then hated his existence and lusted after Heathcliff for the remainder of her marriage. And Heathcliff knowingly chose to emotionally destroy every person he came into contact with for no other reason than not getting the woman he wanted. That isn’t a love story; that’s just dysfunction.
At its best, this is a story about obsession. At its worst, this is 400 pages devoted to domestic abuse. I’m going to make an unpopular and completely un-researched statement, but seriously; this book is how we ended up with 50 Shades of Grey.
This book gets a 4 for good craft and beautiful sentences. It gets a 1 for the story. Average rating: 2.5