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Beyond the Lone Islands

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Rereading Wuthering Heights

Portrait of Emily Brontë
by her brother Branwell Brontë

Twenty years or more have probably passed since I first read Wuthering Heights. When I reread it now I had this question in my mind throughout the book: Why do people consider this a romantic love story? There is passion, certainly, but love...? Most of the passion comes out as possessive obsession and downright cruelty.

Catherine does have deep feelings for Heathcliff, but not the romance-leading-to-marriage kind. It is the wild streak in herself that makes her understand the kind of person he is:

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath - a source of little visisble delight, but necessary, Nelly, I am Heathcliff - he's always, always in my mind - not as pleasure, any more than I am always pleasure to myself - but as my own being –
(Catherine to Nelly, Ch. 8)

However, she is never deceived as to his character:

It is deplorable ignorance of his charachter, child, and nothing else, which makes that dream enter your head. Pray, don't imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He's not a rough diamond - a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic; he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.
(Catherine to Isabella, Ch. 10)

What intrigued me more than the main characters this time, was the narrative structure.

At the beginning, at Wutherings Heights, there is the Earnshaw family, with brother and sister, Hindley and Catherine. Into the family comes Heathcliff, an outsider who remains an outsider, even though a bond develops between him and Catherine.

At Thrushcross Grange, in the same generation, we have the Linton family, with brother and sister, Edgar and Isabella.

I won't go into all the details here; but a tangled web of marriages between the two families follows, enhanced by the tradition of naming children after close relatives, and sometimes interchanging first and last names; so that the same names recur in the next generation, but in different combinations.

An indication is given in the 3rd chapter of the book, where the narrator Lockwood stays over night at WH on his second visit there, and sleeps in a "haunted" room, where there is a ledge "covered with writing scratched on the paint. This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small – Catherine Earnshaw; here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton."

A closing of a circle seems to be indicated at the end of the book; which usually also suggests some kind of moral – but I'm not so sure there really is one, in this story... (?)

There is also a rather complicated narrative perspective. The first narrator is Lockwood, who stumbles into Wuthering Heights at the beginning of the book, as a complete stranger - an outsider – and starts to unravel the mysteries of the past. But his own observations are few, and limited to a few occasions in the very last year of the story. Moreover, a shadow of doubt about Lockwood's judgement is thrown in by the real narrator (the author) in the very first chapter. Lockwood reflects, after his first visit to WH: "He /Heathcliff/ evidently wished no repetition of my intrusion. I shall go, notwithstanding. It is astonishing how sociable I feel myself compared to him." This indicates that Lockwood is first and foremost interested in his own entertainment.

Lockwood's main source for the background story, or the second narrator, is the servant Ellen "Nelly" Dean. She may seem to be an outsider, too, in a way, because she is "just" a servant (and Lockwood sees her as such). But Nelly cannot really be considered an objective storyteller, since she often takes an active part in the events herself.

Quite often, there is even a third filter introduced between the events and the reader, because Nelly in turn recounts what others have said, or written in letters. And the things that Nelly (perhaps?) leaves out or distorts, the reader will never know…

It struck me when I thought about this, that Lockwood could be said to represent "the reader", while Nelly represents "the author". The final interpretation of the story (any story) is, and has to be, a dialogue between author and reader - and I suspect Emily Brontë was well aware of that. (It is Lockwood – "the reader" - who gets the last word, by the way.)

1 comment:

rae said...

Interesting! Thanks for the link. I have some things to think about.


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