Wuthering Heights

Fan-art from some obscure Russian website - you get the idea.

Fan-art from some obscure Russian website – you get the idea.

I have a love/hate relationship with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes.

With the partial exception of Othello, when their lives start shutting down around them, I don’t feel much in the way of sympathy. And see, that’s the thing; MacBeth is a son-of-a-bitch. He betrays his best friend. The play is a resounding success as an anatomical study of the someone in his position, and the way it reveals the internal workings of that mind.

That said, I don’t like the guy. He is a rat – he murdered the man to whom he owed a debt of loyalty. Furthermore, he had been laying his life on the line as a soldier in Duncan’s name for decades. Making a career out of those kinds of sacrifices and then murdering their patron while he is a guest in your house is not the act of a ‘sympathetic’ character.

Similarly, I have no sympathy for King Lear; the way he speaks to his daughters, trying to strike Goneril sterile with the invective of his language.

“Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear:

suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful.

Into her womb convey sterility;

Dry up her organs of increase,

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honor her. If she must teem,

Create her child of spleen, that it may live

And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.”

…what a prick. Sure, I sympathize with the fact he went mad and his life became a misery, but a prick is a prick and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, one thing’s for sure; everybody reaps what they sow.

Wuthering Heights is one of the ‘greatest’ novels I have read; probably the best ‘popular’ novel. If Robert McKee’s thesis about drama is true, that one event must create a crisis which opens into another event even more crucial than the one before it, Emily Bronte has set the standard. The book effloresces from one disaster into the next, each one lit by a revelation greater and more shocking than the one before it.

At the center is Heathcliff. He is the most compelling portrait of evil I have come across, and Bronte’s master-stroke is in her ability to render him utterly sympathetic as she reveals the inner workings of his heart.

The book is told in large part as a tale by a former servant of the family, Nelly Dean, who dwelt at the house called Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff, dark-haired and dark-eyed, was found living as an urchin on the streets of Liverpool by the patriarch of the house, Mr. Earnshaw. He brings the child home, and the kid says almost nothing. He’s characterized by his enormous, wide-open eyes, electric with terror.

When he appears at the house he is, I suppose, innocent. His presence throws the family into a spin and Earnshaw’s son, Hindley, is resentful of him. The other child, Cathy, becomes his close friend and confidant and a bond forms between them that is so strong and so profound, it transcends the definitions of both filial and romantic.

We know nothing about Heathcliff’s past, but we know he has suffered. And rather than alleviate his suffering, Mr Earnshaw seems to have bought him into the place where it will reach its greatest intensity. The old man dies and his eldest son, Hindley, becomes master of Wuthering Heights. He allows Heathcliff to remain, but only as a servant.

The whole situation is barely tolerable because of Catherine. They spend most of their time together, rapt in the other’s attention. One day, they make a trip to the nearby house, Thrushcross Grange, to poke around and spy on its inhabitants. They are surprised and Catherine seized by the ankle by the estate’s bulldog, Gnasher. Heathcliff tries to free her and, failing, runs all the way home. Catherine is well-known to the inhabitants of the Grange; the Linton family keep her there and care for her until she is well enough to return home.

The Catherine that returns to Wuthering Heights is a very different girl to the one accosted by Gnasher. The Lintons seem to have civilized her somewhat; her manners are pristine as her finger-nails. She also has attracted an admirer in the son and heir of the Linton family, Edgar. Heathcliff tries his best to behave himself and is encouraged to look his best by Nelly. As is always the way, however, both luck and other people conspire against him. The situation devolves into a disaster in which Heathcliff is once again cast as the brute and the outsider.

The fulcrum point of the tragedy is put into motion by Catherine, some time later. Edgar Linton proposes and she accepts. She explains to Nelly that she really loves Heathcliff, but can’t marry him because of his low birth. She intends to use her social position to assist him, however. Heathcliff overhears the conversation and runs away.

The second half of the novel kicks off when Heathcliff miraculously returns from wherever he ran as a strong, handsome, successful young man. From here, he begins to insinuate tentacles of influence to wreak his revenge on all involved. Then, worse luck, Catherine dies of a fugue, ironically inspired by the fact she is forbidden from seeing him by her loving husband, Edgar. This disaster charges Heathcliff with a terrible momentum which sends him crashing all the way to the end of the book.

Heathcliff is so terrible, he reminds me most closely of Aaron the Moor from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Andronicus was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and Aaron is the last on which villains like Iago were built. The play ends with Aaron on the scaffold, delivering his last words:

“I am no baby, I that with base prayers

I should repent the evils I have done;

Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did

Would I perform if I might have my will.

If one good deed in all my life I did,

I do repent it from my very soul.”

I have often heard Heathcliff described by women I know as an enigmatic, deeply compelling romantic hero. To a ‘normal’ man, this information is both disturbing and exasperating. He’s as crazy as a shit-house rat, even stretching himself to the limits of necrophilia, which is possibly what caused such a sensation when the book was originally published in 1847.

He is probably the archetype of the bad boy; ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. He is also more than half-crazy with passion for Catherine, which works to bend him all the way out of shape, until it finally kills him. In fact, by the time of his death, he has metamorphosed into a kind of palimpsest of the dashing, brooding romantic lead with Nosferatu playing over its surface.

At the end of Othello, when the stage is littered with the bodies of his victims, Iago is asked why. He replies,

“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.

From this time forth, I never will speak word.” 

The thing about Iago and Aaron is that, as portraits of evil, they are like black holes. The hole may appear black, but black isn’t a colour; it’s an optical effect caused by a complete and utter absence of light. And of course, the ability to see depends on the eye’s ability to perceive light. No light means no sight. No delineation or perception.

While the structure of Wuthering Heights is profoundly compulsive and lit with a spectacular command of language, Bronte’s greatest achievement is Heathcliff. He is utterly repulsive and utterly sympathetic at the same time. I suspect this is because we meet him as a child who is forced to live as the receptacle of terrible hatred and suffering; a suffering which had already reached critical proportions before his arrival at Wuthering Heights, the weight of which he carries in his enormous, dark, urchin’s eyes. And no matter what he does, Emily Bronte forces us to see his awful acts through the shimmering, watery depths of that suffering.

I think Heathcliff’s enduring status as tragic hero is a tacit explanation of what a women wants, whether she likes it or not: a woman wants a man who is stronger than she is, who is absolutely enslaved by his passion for her.

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