The blurb on the back of my Vintage Classics paperback edition presents Wuthering Heights as “[p]erhaps the most haunting and tormented love story ever written….” While I usually recoil at the whimsical descriptions publishers use to wrap (and sell) classics, this statement is particularly accurate. The characters we encounter in this book are highly caustic. The themes we encounter are sickness and death, passion and haunting, and generational curses—which find their pitch in light of their author’s tubercular death a year after the book’s publication. Indeed, it is a dark novel. In the first paragraph alone one finds the words troubled, misanthropist, desolation, and black eyes (not as a result of punching, by the way). But one must not get too hung up on the well-trod ground of the novel’s gothic themes. Let’s look at some other dimensions.
In this novel, Emily secures herself as a genius, though the writing is somewhat clunky in places: “Heathcliff glanced me a glance…” (308; redundancy); “I asked if Heathcliff were at home?” (341; not a question, unless this is an early example of uptalking). But, given that editing was carried out by Emily’s sister Charlotte (of Jane Eyre fame), to which sister shall we assign blame? For that matter, how much is Emily’s versus Charlotte’s writing? Here one easily slips into the hotly contested Raymond Carver-Gordon Lish debate. These syntactical blemishes, however, are easily dismissed, especially for a first novel. One marvels at the possibilities had Emily lived on to write more.
Perhaps the most striking element of the novel—to me, at least—is the sly way in which Brontë assigns a woman the role of main narrator, which was certainly unconventional at the time. In fact, the book was originally published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell (E. B.; very nice, Emily!). Mr Lockwood takes the helm as our narrator, but after a few chapters the perspective shifts to Mrs Dean for almost the entire remainder of the novel. We only get brief, jarring interpolations from Mr Lockwood. Well played, again, Emily! And not only that, but she has the male character affirm the female narrator’s abilities: “‘She is, on the whole, a very fair narrator and I don’t think I [Mr Lockwood] could improve her style'” (178). And, lest someone should question how Brontë justifies a servant’s soaring storytelling ability, the justification should please any self-respecting reader: “…I [Mrs Neal] have read more than you would fancy, Mr Lockwood” (71).
One of the most pervasive subthemes in the book is that of what I will call, to use Brontë’s own word (3), penetralium, which is defined as an inner sanctum. Throughout the book we encounter the recurring theme of going deeper into something. In the first pages after the introduction of the rare word (in English literature, at least), we encounter the phrases “shrunk icily into myself” (4) and “in the depths of the cellar” (5). The book is, of course, concerned with uncovering mysteries, peeling back layers. Even the narrative structure is layered: the reader regards through Mr Lockwood’s eyes that of Mrs Neal telling the history of, predominantly, Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in retrospect.
I have six pages of reading notes from which to cull the pieces of this little review, but I shan’t continue with delusions of my abilities as a critic. Let us at this point suffice it to say that the following line, like Thomas Wolfe’s “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again,” hit me with such impact as to ensure its presence in my consciousness forever: “Well, there is one who doesn’t shrink from my company!” (382).
One word of advice I have to offer is to lookup or create your own genealogy tree for the characters in the novel. Between all the close relations between the families and the use of several monikers per characters—though not as confusing as, say, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—one can easily lose the narrative thread. Other than that, I would recommend this as a great fall-winter read for atmospheric heightening. The theme of a new generation emerging out of a caustic generation of passion and fate reminds me of one of my favourite recent movies, The Place Beyond the Pines (2012).