The ultimate dysfunctional family
It’s unfortunate that Wuthering Heights often gets lumped into the category of Victorian chick lit, because it probably has more in common with Dickens or Balzac than with Jane Austen. The various film adaptations often make much of the love between Heathcliff and Catherine, but that doesn’t begin to cover the scope of this book. Wuthering Heights is no conventional romance novel. It is in fact an epic examination of human wickedness involving an ensemble cast that spans two generations over the course of almost 50 years. Filled with powerful imagery and unforgettable characters, it makes for a profoundly entertaining read.
Heathcliff, a gypsy-looking street urchin from Liverpool, is adopted by the Earnshaw family, who live among the moors of northern England at the secluded estate of Wuthering Heights. Mr. Earnshaw treats Heathcliff as his favorite, much to the consternation of his eldest son Hindley. When the father dies, Hindley seizes the opportunity to retaliate against Heathcliff, revoking his favored family position and forcing him to labor in the fields. Meanwhile, Heathcliff and his adopted sister Catherine develop a love for each other, but due to his servant status, dirty boots, and surly demeanor, she spurns him for her more elegant and refined neighbor Edgar Linton. Heathcliff resolves to revenge himself upon all who have hurt him, and the following generation of Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliffs must also suffer the repercussions of his passionate vengeance.
The joy of Wuthering Heights is that there isn’t a single character in the book who could be described as a good person. They are all at best selfish and petty, at worst deplorably evil. All are set on destroying each other, not through murder or violence, but by making each other’s lives a living hell until one by one they gradually drop dead of sorrow or destitution. Emily Brontë’s unrelenting audacity in depicting the cruelest, basest aspects of humanity is so refreshing it’s a joy to read. Yet over and above its sensationalistic pleasures, Wuthering Heights is undeniably a meaningful piece of literature with an intricately constructed plot and keen insights into human nature. It offers important lessons on the poisoning effects of resentment and vengeance upon the soul, as well as the resilience of the human spirit to rise above adversity and degradation.
The one drawback of Wuthering Heights is its narrative voice, as told through the perspective of a visitor, Mr. Lockwood, which results in some rather convoluted constructions (Lockwood says that Nelly said that Cathy read in a letter that Linton wrote that Heathcliff told Hareton . . . ). The story would have been better served by a third-person omniscient perspective. Nevertheless, Wuthering Heights deserves its renown as a classic of English literature. It’s a shame this is the only novel Emily Brontë ever finished. Let the chick-lit label be damned; real men read Wuthering Heights too!
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