You Are What You Read: Wuthering Heights


Elizabeth Walsh on the book that inspired her to study English literature

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Image by Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1992

By Elizabeth Walsh

In times like these when social interaction (other than with those within your household of course) is inevitably scarce, there’s nothing better to do than dive into a good book. When I was thinking about which book to read, an old favourite sprung to mind; one that moved me to such an extent it solidified in my mind that I definitely wanted to study English at university.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a book I have adored since I first picked it up. Although I had to study it for my A-level, it soon rightfully earned its place as my favourite. Don’t get me wrong, on my first attempt at reading this twisted tale I was just as confused as everyone else. Give it time. Once you get your head around the disturbing, borderline incestuous, relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine and the fact that everybody seems to share the same name, you won’t be able to put it down. With haunting depictions of fierce love, lies and betrayal, it’s got it all.

Brontë’s beloved Yorkshire moors provide the perfect backdrop for  the supernatural events that unfold. The isolation of the setting accurately reflects that of its characters, who are so far removed from society it is as though they are not really a part of it. Brontë practically writes her protagonists into the landscape, with the desolate moors reflecting the truly wild nature of Catherine and equally animalistic tendencies of Heathcliff.

Published in 1847, Wuthering Heights tells the story of two families whose lives and subsequently whose fate become intertwined. The Earnshaw’s occupy Wuthering Heights whilst the upper-class Linton family reside in ThrushCross Grange. Their worlds collide one fateful night when Catherine and Heathcliff (who is adopted into the Earnshaw family) spy on the Linton’s, resulting in Catherine being savagely attacked by their dog. On her return to the Heights, Catherine’s fiery passion appears to be extinguished, rendering her almost unrecognisable, much to Heathcliff’s dismay.

Despite his flaws and contrary to popular opinion, I personally and unapologetically feel the most sympathy for Heathcliff. We are often quick to write Brontë’s Byronic hero off as an unlovable and disturbed individual. Disturbed he may be, but how could we expect anything less? I feel the level of villainy so often associated with him is unfair. The relentless levels of physical and emotional abuse he endures from childhood are more than enough to turn anybody savage.

Although he treats the other characters with cruelty, Heathcliff remains devoted to Catherine, even when she chooses financial security over true love and marries Edgar Linton. Heathcliff’s passionate devotion turns to obsession, driving him to insanity following Catherine’s untimely death. Brontë depicts this through strange and disturbing scenes including when he digs her grave up in an attempt to be close to her once more. Romantic, I know!

Despite the unbridled passion, Wuthering Heights is not your typical romance novel. Far from it. Brontë is initially deceptive in a ploy that dares you to read on. If, like me, you are a hopeless romantic naively believing that the typical happy ending is around the corner, you will be sadly mistaken. If you are waiting for Heathcliff to be redeemed, flourishing into a Mr Darcy-like figure and to truly repent, you will be waiting forever. He is wholeheartedly unapologetic. Having said this, it is Brontë’s bold move to defy convention in every sense that makes her novel so captivating. Her characters were not created to be liked. They are selfish, violently passionate and vindictive from start to finish.

I would like to think that we can all take something away from this novel. I am by no means suggesting we make a regular habit of behaving like Brontë’s monstrous protagonists, as it would get us disliked pretty quickly. However, Brontë alludes to the fact that we all contain aspects of Heathcliff and Catherine somewhere deep within us. In everyday life these traits can sometimes make an appearance, and that is okay. By opening up a conversation about the seemingly undesirable traits we possess, Brontë shows that they are nonetheless part of what makes us human. It is because of this that her novel is so timelessly relatable. Her creation of such imperfect and flawed characters is a breath of fresh air as it shows that it is in fact okay to be less than perfect sometimes.