Book Review: Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

“It is a poor conclusion, is it not . . . An absurd termination to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished! My old enemies have beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don’t care for striking. I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand! That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time, only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case – I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.” – Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights – 4 out of 5 stars

Confession time – I was dreading reading this book.

Sure, my wife made a strong case for it (and she hasn’t lead me astray so far), and its a classic, which is simply short-hand for a book that’s stood the test of time, but… I assumed this would just be a boring period romance. I’ve seen Pride & Prejudice on the telly and Bridget Jones’s Diary, haven’t I suffered enough?* Indeed the only reason I agreed to read it was because I needed to read something written prior to 1850 for my BookRiot Read Harder challenge (this was written in 1847).

Whelp, my assumption certainly made an ‘ass’ out of ‘me’ (I can’t speak for ‘u’). I couldn’t have been more wrong with this book – yes it’s period, but it wasn’t boring, and it definitely wasn’t romantic. This is an brooding book of revenge, with a difficult windswept setting and an angry cold-hearted protagonist.

I enjoyed this book, and I do recommend it.


Synopsis

Wuthering Heights is a tale of anger and hatred. Told principally through the narration of the housekeeper Mrs Nelly Deane to the visitor Lockwood, we are told the story of the monstrous Heathcliff, his darkly (and mutually) obsessive relationship with Catherine, and the horror he inflicts on two households (the Earnshaws and the Lintons) as revenge for being denied his obsession.

It starts with Heathcliff being an adopted into a (I use the term loosely – from the book it appears that the kindly Mr Earnshaw simply picks the brooding young child up off the road), where Heathcliff forms a quick relationship with Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine and a mutual enmity with her older brother Hindley. They grow up together, and when Mr Earnshaw dies and Hindley becomes the head of the household, Heathcliff is relegated to a barely tolerated servant; this does not sit well with Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s pride is further damaged when Catherine meets and eventually marries Edgar Linton who lives in the next homestead over. Scorned, mocked, kept low by Hindley, and deprived of his love (his obsession) due to his low station and Edgar Linton, Heathcliff undertakes a program of passive abuse and revenge against both families (including his own child) that manages to wreak misery across the best part of 50 years.

Review

In the synopsis above I might imply this is a story about Heathcliff… this is not strictly true; the tale documents the two families covering parents and children. Heathcliff is however the driving force – his quietly burning rage is why anything in this story happens at all. His systematic dismantling of the family members, seducing some, setting up marriages of others, emotionally and sometimes physically abusing everyone he comes into contact with, brings all the conflict here.

As I said earlier, this is not a romance (ok, there is perhaps a tiny bit at the end). I’m sure many will argue with me; some reviews I have read indicate that Heathcliff and Catherine are almost tragic lovers, they are miserable because they are destined to be together but cannot be… but I don’t buy it. The primary driving relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine is one of fixation – they are bound to each other, but I am not entirely certain that either is truly capable of love. Themes of obsession, torment, and hatred dominate this novel, I saw little love in it.

This darkness was itself a bit of a challenge. Almost none of the characters were remotely likeable – until the final Act (heck the final chapter) there were none I would want to spend more than 5 minutes around. Hindley was an abusive alcoholic wreck. Heathcliff was an aggressive raging boor, Catherine a flighty and wild shrew. Even the sympathetic characters (in the main these were from the Linton family) were soft, weak, and frequently foolish or at least far too innocent. I found around the middle of the book the unrelenting unpleasantness of most of the characters ground on me, and it would have been easy to put the book down. I’m glad I didn’t of course, but it goes to show how bleak it was.

The other challenge here was of course the style of the book – both the slightly archaic writing style (expected; and you warm up to it after a dozen pages so not a big deal), and the fact that most of this is told second hand by a narrator to a third party. Our POV character is either the visitor Mr Lockwood (who rents a house from Heathcliff) or the main narrator the housemaid Mrs Nelly Dean. Nelly was a fine storyteller, but I found the ‘outside looking in’ perspective occasionally created a bit of separation from the participants. Again, not a big deal in the scheme of things, and Bronte’s writing is both engaging and effective. She makes great use of the brooding and windy setting to reflect the wildness of the characters, and draws these larger than life characters with great skill.

Final thoughts

I’m really glad I read this book – reading and enjoying this has opened my options a bit as far as reading the classics goes (opening up other avenues of reading is the whole point of the Read Harder Challenge of course). I shall put some other classics on my TBR list (maybe for next year – this year is looking pretty full). Perhaps its time for some Dickens?

*Another confession – I enjoyed both the BBC Pride & Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary movie. There. I said it.

Postscript:

After reading Wuthering Heights, I went back to these excellent comics by Kate Beaton on her Hark, A Vagrant site… so much funnier now I have read the actual story:


#AusReadingApril

This month I have decided to work my way through some of the Australian books sitting on my TBR list – so I started #AusReadingApril. The books I hope to read this month are:

All SF/F. I don’t expect anyone else to join me in a whole months of Aussie writers, but if you do read anything Antipodean, drop me a line and let me know!

Cheers

KT

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

  1. Our PBS network did a movie series on this book. I kept up- chapter for chapter. I loved the book and hated with parts that I loved were left out! I’m not sure without the movie, if I would have liked the parts that I loved?

    Liked by 1 person

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