Wuthering Heights

I just finished reading Wuthering Heights, and somehow felt surprised that I had never read it before.

Along with everyone else in the English speaking world, I felt utterly familiar with the names of Heathcliff and Catherine, and hearing those names immediately conjured up images of  star crossed lovers, stormy nights out on desolate English moors 200 years ago, romance, death, tragedy, and ghosts. Basically, I assumed that I knew how the entire story would play out, when actually all I knew about it was, of course, the lyrics to the Kate Bush song of the same name, released in 1978.

University courses can take credit for the scholarly study of Wuthering Heights, and for it’s recognition as a classic of literature, but I think Kate Bush is probably owed a lot of credit for keeping Wuthering Heights in the collective imagination of Generations X and Y. It’s through her song that we all think we know the story (and therefore assume that we don’t need to read it.)

Lyrics to Wuthering Heights

Bush sums up the entire story pretty well, alright, even in those first 3 verses and chorus. Yes, there are fits of temper, and jealousy – in fact the 2 main characters are both nasty, bickering, jealous, selfish, and bad tempered. The worst is the malevolent, tryannical, vengeful Heathcliff. This is the probably the point on which the story was such a surprise  to me, given the historical period in which it was written – and perhaps it’s one of the reasons why it is now considered to have been ahead of its time – the fact that both of the main characters were ultimately unlikeable, and their faults were never redeemed through remorse for their behaviour or through their recognition that they were victims of some circumstance that caused them to behave in a certain way. They are unlikeable, unredeemable anti-heroes.

Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes show us some angst

I suppose I had assumed that Heathcliff would be characterised along the lines of other literary heroes from that time – eg, Mr Rochester, the hero in Charlotte Bronte’s famous story, Jane Eyre, written about the same time as Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights, or Mr Darcy, the hero of Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen and published about 30 years earlier than the Bronte’s novels. These dudes were tough, cold, seemingly dispassionate types who at first come across as unlikeable, but are eventually revealed to be basically decent blokes, with reasons for their seemingly cold behaviour. On Wikipedia this is referred to as a Byronic* hero, meaning, like Lord Byron, who was apparently:

“a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”.

Well, there is nothing to redeem Heathcliff, who goes out of his way to ruin one person’s life after another, in order to exact revenge for wrongs done to him as a child, or for the loss of his loved one to another man, and then to death. Boy, what a little bit of psychotherapy could have done for him!

Yes, it’s a shame that the science of psychoanalysis had not been developed at the time that Wuthering Heights was written – although, even if it had, no-one would have been able to force Heathcliff into a therapist’s chair.

But we can apply a psychoanalytical analysis in hindsight, and from my layperson’s (ie, I have no training in pyschotherapy ) point of view, I think Heathcliff  was suffering from what people in Victorian times called Melancholia. Melancholia is apparently a psychological condition that occurs when, after the death, or loss in some other manner, of a loved one, someone identifies so strongly with the departed loved one that they are unable to work through the usual process of grieving and accept that the person is gone.

So I don’t feel sorry for Heathcliff – nor would he want me to – but I think that his malevolent personality, and therefore this entire story of jealousy and revenge, is the result of his inability to work through what we’ve now labelled the Stages of grief. These days, a psychoanalyst might say that he is suffering from Complicated Grief.

It seems to me that Wuthering Heights is a tale about a man who could not cope with grief, and the suffering that this indirectly led to for all those around him.

In Kate Bush’s song, Catherine entreats, “Heathcliff, it’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home….let me into your window…” I assumed that her death occurred close to the end (like Juliet’s) and those lyrics represented how impossible it was for them to be parted.  I didn’t realise that in the novel, as in life, death arrives half way through, and only the living spend all their remaining time after that point, longing for a reunion. There is a suggestion of a ghost in the story – but it could equally be a vision, or a nightmare – after she dies, we never hear from Catherine again.


*(A Byronic hero should not be confused with a Bionic hero, like Steve Austin. We will cover Bionic heroes some time in a separate post.)

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