Friday, September 16, 2016

Lessons from Wuthering Heights

The second question, I have great interest in; it is this--Is Mr. Heathcliff a man?  If so, is he mad?  And if not, is he a devil?

A poll was taken in England to determine the greatest love story.  Coming in at #1 was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

It was Brontë's sole published work, printed only one year before her death in 1847.  

The story centers on the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine (Earnshaw) Linton.  When Catherine was a young girl, her father found Heathcliff orphaned in Liverpool and brought him to live with the family on their estate on the moors.  

Catherine's older brother, Hindley, immediately resented his father's affection for the newcomer, resulting in his subsequent abuse and mistreatment of Heathcliff.  This only escalated once Hindley became the master of Wuthering Heights.  Catherine and Heathcliff became close companions as they sought refuge from the bleakness of their home life on the wild, untamed moors.

The turning point of the plot occurs when Catherine decides to marry Edgar Linton, a decision based on Linton's prominent social standing and Heathcliff's lack of one.  Marrying Heathcliff, Catherine claims, will degrade her.  

Heathcliff, agonized over Catherine's choice, sets his course on revenge--on Hindley for his years of abuse and on Linton for marrying his soulmate.  When Catherine dies, Heathcliff is plunged into misery and seeks out her ghost, even digging up her coffin to glimpse her corpse.

"...Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living!  You said I killed you--haunt me, then!  The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe--I know that ghosts have wandered on earth.  Be with me always--take any form--drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!  Oh, God! it is unutterable!  I cannot live without my life!  I cannot live without my soul!" 

It is understandable that Heathcliff would latch onto Catherine, the only source of kindness and support he knew.  The few happy childhood recollections he must have had, scattered among plentiful moments of abuse, were with her.  

But, as I finished reading the novel, I was left flabbergasted by that designation: the greatest love story.  Was this a love story?  Was Heathcliff a romance novel hero?

The devil masquerades as an angel of light: Lucifer literally means "light-bearer."  So I assert that one could call Heathcliff a romance hero as much as one can call the devil an angel.  

Indeed, there seems to be more literary evidence for Heathcliff being a demon than any hero.  Consider this:

* As a child, Heathcliff vows revenge on Hindley.  When Nelly, the servant and book's principle narrator, chides him and explains that it is God's job to punish the wicked, Heathcliff rebukes her, saying, "No, God won't have the satisfaction that I shall."  Heathcliff desires to take the position and power of God, a truly Satanic characteristic.

* When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after Catherine has married Linton, Nelly remarks, "I felt that God had forsaken the stray sheep there to its own wicked wanderings, and an evil beast prowled between it and the fold, waiting his time to spring and destroy."

* Heathcliff, in enacting his revenge on Linton, determines to marry Linton's younger sister, Isabella.  When Catherine hears of his plans, she says to Heathcliff, "...I won't repeat my offer of a wife: it is as bad as offering Satan a lost soul.  Your bliss lies, like his in inflicting misery."   (Not exactly the words of lovers, are they?)

* Linton tells Heathcliff that his presence is a "moral poison."

* Heathcliff visits Catherine when she is ill, their final meeting before her death.  When Catherine casts herself into his arms, fainting, Nelly approaches to check on her mistress.  Heathcliff grasps Catherine greedily, "foaming like a mad dog," preventing Nelly from interfering.  He acts like a man possessed, whose heaven lies in his arms and whose hell is life without her.  

* Heathcliff is described as a most "diabolical man."

* When one of the narrators, Lockwood, arrives for the first time to Wuthering Heights, he finds it guarded by fierce, gnarling dogs.  These two "hairy monsters" bent on viscousness are like hounds of hell.  And Heathcliff is the master of this hellish estate.

* When Bronte was writing, the dangerous, smoking factory-towns in England frequently symbolized hell.  For example, poet William Blake wrote of England's "dark Satanic Mills."  Where did Heathcliff originate from?  No one knew his parentage or history; all they knew was that he came from a factory-town.

Catherine describes that she and Heathcliff are one: they are the same soul.  If that is the case, the are the same demonic soul.  Illustratively, Catherine is also described in Satanic terms.  She relates a dream she had in which she was unhappy in heaven and the angels flung her out.  Catherine didn't mind, however--she wanted to be brought back to the moors, a place of chaos, disorder, and death (many people drowned in the pools or became lost in the wilderness).  

Well might Catherine deem that Heaven would be a land of exile to her, unless, with her mortal body, she cast away her mortal character also.  Her present countenance had a wild vindictiveness in its white cheek, and a bloodless lip and scintillating eye...   

Heathcliff even inquires of her if she is possessed by a demon.  "She showed herself, as often was in life, a devil to me!" Heathcliff exclaims to Nelly.

With this abounding evidence, I wonder how anyone can claim the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine constitutes the greatest love story.  There is little true affection between them, scant moments of tenderness.  Their happy moments lie solely in childhood, to which we have only the briefest of glimpses through Catherine's diary.  The rest of the time, they act in a completely selfish, harmful manner.

Maybe it is a "love" story in the same vein that the relationship between a girl and a vampire--who always teeters on killing his beloved through overwhelming lust--is a "love" story.  Or consider the immensely popular Fifty Shades of Grey, where a BDSM relationship is considered a "love" story.  

Even more astounding than the designation of "greatest love story" was an essay I read about Wuthering Heights.  Martha Nussbaum wrote "Wuthering Heights: the Romantic Ascent."  In her article, Nussbaum asserts that of all the characters, it is Heathcliff who is most Christian.  

No, even more: Heathcliff, she states, is a Christ-like figure.  Every other character keeps his or her love guarded and limited, protecting his or her heart.  Heathcliff, on the other hand, pours himself out for Catherine.  Nussbaum points to a scene immediately after Catherine's death, when Heathcliff smashes his head against the wood of a tree, pouring out his blood for love of the departed.

"...Heathcliff's entirely unguarded love is linked, by contrast, with a deeper sort of generosity and the roots of a truer altruism.  There is no character but Heathcliff in this novel who really sacrifices his life for the life of another...he is in a genuine if peculiar sense, the only Christian among Pharisees, and--with respect to the one person he loves--a sacrificial figure of Christ himself, the only one who sheds his own blood for another.  The novel suggests that only in this deep exposure is there true sacrifice and true redemption."

This interpretation of Heathcliff is completely perplexing and disturbing to me.  Christ allowed Himself to be crucified by others for the sake of humanity's greater good; Heathcliff willfully destroyed himself--physically and spiritually--in a manner that did nothing to help Catherine and potentially damned his soul.  

How could Nussbuam overlook the long and horrifying list of atrocities committed by Heathcliff?  It is too long to detail here, but let me just mention Heathcliff's deceitful treatment of Isabella Linton, whom he married and immediately thereafter verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abused.  He also seized his young son, raising him and keeping him alive with the sole motivation of wanting to inherit the boy's property.  He held characters captive, forced a marriage, and may have had a hand in murder.  

For his whole life Heathcliff nursed a grudge and vindictively sought revenge.  And after all the evil he committed, Heathcliff had no sorrow or regret.

" to repenting of my injustices, I've done no injustice, and I repent of nothing--I'm too happy, and yet I'm not happy enough." 

Emily's sister, Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre), wrote in the forward to Wuthering Heights, "Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition..."

How anyone could call Heathcliff a Christ-like figure is bewildering to me.  But love is very misunderstood today--many things masquerade as love, but are far from authentic.

I suppose, perhaps, someone could argue that it is "romantic" that Heathcliff's feelings for Catherine were so passionate and boundless, he was willing to destroy himself as a result of his affection for her.  But I argue that this is a very disordered understanding of love.  Love, having as its source Love itself, cannot lead to damnation.  

The novel closes with the scene of Catherine and Heathcliff's graves, lying side-by-side.  The moor is silent and peaceful, the narrator implying that so are the souls of those whose names are engraved on the tombstones.  

But I think differently.  

Heathcliff and Catherine have died and their poisonous effect on the members of their families is ended: there is finally peace at Wuthering Heights.  

Yet, some have claimed to spy the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine wandering about the moor.  

This seems to indicate that their souls have not found eternal rest in the heavenly homeland.  Instead they roam the wilderness of the moors.  Perhaps that is what their souls desired: Catherine, after all, dreamed she would not be happy in heaven.  

God does not send any soul to hell.  Those in hell choose it.  And perhaps that is the eternal choice Heathcliff and Catherine made, together. 

I guess some people consider that romantic.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights and the way it made me reflect--it was a multi-dimensional, complex novel.  

I would certainly recommend it to others, but definitively not as a romance.