The first time I remember hearing about this book was on a drive though the English moors as a child. The adults in the car were talking about the landscape–the hills and heather and clouds–as the setting for the novel Wuthering Heights. I knew there was a character named Heathcliff in the book, whom I imagined, later, erroneously, would be a Mr. Darcy-esque figure. I didn’t make my first attempt at reading the novel until a couple of years ago; when I couldn’t get through the first few pages, I figured it was because I’d chosen the least congruous reading environment possible: a hot, sunny day at the beach. I decided finally to rectify the huge gap in my literary experience a few weeks ago when the weather turned–for a brief spell–chilly and grey. I finished the book on an equally dreary morning.
I found Wuthering Heights to be a deeply weird book.
First, the structure–how on earth Emily Bronte hit upon the structure of this novel, I can’t imagine. The action of the story is twice-removed from the narration for most of the book, unless, for a section, it is three times removed. After the beginning few moments of Mr. Lockwood, the true narrator, witnessing the strange cast of characters at Wuthering Heights (including a ghost!) he retreats back to the house across the way, Thrushcross Grange, to get the story of the bizarre family he just met from Nelly, their longtime domestic. So the novel proceeds, with Mr. Lockwood recounting to the reader the story that Nelly recounts to him about action she has witnessed across thirty years. And then at one point, Mr. Lockwood recounts Nelly recounting another housekeeper, Zillah, recounting the action. There are only about three moments when Mr. Lockwood actually tells the reader what he is present to see, and even in those moments, he is not much more than an observer. Nelly, whose voice is essentially the voice we’re hearing throughout the novel, is nearly as ancillary. Her voice is the immediate one, but the story of Wuthering Heights is about two generations of two families loving and spiting and damning each other to death; the fiascoes that ensue are aided or hindered, at times, by Nelly, but for the most part, despite the hand she had in raising three quarters of the people on the page, she is besides the point.
I know that criticism contemporary to the publication of this book had to do with the extreme unlikability of its characters. I hate to take the side of what seems like a conservative viewpoint, but I didn’t even love to hate any of these people. Their circumstances were rough, to be sure, so I could understand how many of them turned out as sniveling and contemptible as they did, but I didn’t relish any of them. Throughout the novel, I couldn’t help wishing that one of Jane Austen’s characters could swoop in and invite these people to a ball so that they’d meet some new folks. Two generations of people who only associate with their own cousins and uncles? It was hard for me to be invested in a lot of the novel’s predicaments when I couldn’t shake the thought that they were born out of boredom.
The device of death in the novel, too, wore on me. I know it was a different time and people died early and often, but a lot of action seemed to happen through process of elimination rather than by characters’ decisions. Change was brought about, more often than not, because someone died. Some of the deaths were of natural causes, one of madness coupled with surprise childbirth, one of madness and heartbreak-induced starvation. No accidents or murders or exciting incidents that would have made the deaths active, rather than passive, events.
I’m fighting the urge to enumerate what I did enjoy about Wuthering Heights, or to talk about how I actually do understand why it is a classic (which I do). You can read about those things from its millions of devoted fans. I truly was surprised not to like Wuthering Heights, but there you have it.