WUTHERING HEIGHTS MAKES SLAVES OF US ALL
EMILY BRONTES WUTHERING HEIGHTS, first published in 1847, continues
to still be regarded as one of the finest works in the whole of English
literature, one of the few which stands consistent rereadings at any
point in the readers life. What is it that makes it so endure?
Like any work by any of the Brontes, a lot of Wuthering Heights
strength lies in the elements of her upbringing. Patrick Bronte, Emilys
father, was a friend of William Wilberforces and joined the
campaign to end slavery. The influence of slavery is apparent on Wuthering
Heights, as Catherine and Heathcliff are far from the libertines which
they initially appear to be, instead being completely enslaved by
their emotions for each other. My love for Heathcliff resembles
the rocks below says Catherine at one point. A source
of little visible delight, but necessary. This is not what love
is supposed to feel like; almost a Calvinistic view of love. It is
not supposed to feel necessary, it is supposed to provide
the delights which are clearly lacking from Catherines experience.
She is driven by the primitive rather than what is best for her. Is
there any wonder that so many of the very young become enthralled
with Wuthering Heights as one of the first classics they
read? Catherine and Heathcliff are so driven by the id that they are
basically primitive, at times selfish, children.
Slavery was finally abolished in 1833. Wuthering Heights was published
fifteen years later, with the scars of slavery still visible. The
abolition appeared, sadly, a month after Wilberforces death.
Wuthering Heights is rarely looked at through the influence of Patrick
Brontes involvement with the anti-slavery campaign. Cultural
context changes the reading constantly, and slavery seems so far away
that it is cast from the readers mind.
Wuthering Heights was greeted harshly by the critics upon publication
due to conventions of Victorian morality, but modern readings tend
to romantacise itmuch more. However Dorothy Van Ghent, an influential
modern critic on the Brontes, has referenced the savage cruelty
and violence in the novel because, as she words it Even in the
weakest of souls there is an imitation of the dark Otherness, by which
the soul is related psychologically to the inhuman world of pure energy,
for it carries within itself an otherness of its own,
that inhabits below consciousness. It has also been pointed
out that post modern critics are generally sympathetic to Catherine
because of her supposed rebellious nature in the context of such a
conformist culture. However, I do not see this rebellion as being
enough to transform her into a complete free agent. Brontes
angle on the novel could be compared to Oscar Wildes view that
the artist can have no ethical sympathies the characters are
presented simply as they are, not being judged or condemned. By the
end of it, the reader finds themselves liking Catherine and Heathcliff
due to the passion and intensity of their love.
Many people have had a relationship which appears bad for them, but
the intensity of the love overrides this. We can always turn to literature
to provide a sympathetic portrayal of this; novels such as Yukio Mishimas
Slave to Love and Emily Maguires Taming the
Beast (a novel which references Wuthering Heights) deal with
the theme of love being an enslaving emotion, but when it comes to
sheer unbridled passion with little thought for the consequences,
there is no novel which deals with it quite like Wuthering Heights.
It was the only novel Bronte published, as she died a year after its
publication it is difficult to imagine how she could have ever
followed this due to the portrayal of some of humans most complicated
Humans never stop feeling. Many classic novels can be a little to
detached from this. The way Wuthering Heights runs in
the opposite direction ensures that it still a novel that the modern
reader will turn to time and time again.
We are all enslaved to its power.