Pop Culture Homework Assignment #5: Wuthering Heights

The copy of Wuthering Heights I got from the library is bound in a pale pink cover, with the image of a placid, porcelain beauty on the front. Its back cover includes a quote that reads: "My greatest thought in living is Heathcliff. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be... Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure...but as my own being."

Makes it sound so sweeping and romantic, doesn't it? If you knew nothing about Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which I didn't, you'd assume as I did that it falls into the same category of those other drawing room romances, with hopeful young Englishwomen plotting their schemes for an advantageous marriage. That's not a criticism. I happen to love that style of literature; Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen both hold places of pride on my bookshelf. So, being a fan of the style, I figured it was time to fill in this glaring omission in my reading background, and plunged in. Wow, you people had me fooled.

Wuthering Heights is emphatically not a shy little romance, but a dark, twisted novel of despair and selfishness and petty revenge. None of Austen's heroines would last a week in this setting, where brutal physical fights and constant emotional manipulation are the norms, and the best thing any character can hope for is to be ignored. Rather than a love that conquers the ages, the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine is a mutually destructive dirty bomb that poisons and destroys all around them, and that's how they like it. Both of them are completely egocentric monsters, devoid of compassion for anyone but themselves and each other. If they existed today, they'd have a reality show on E!

It's a very claustrophobic story. The characters are sealed off in two neighboring country houses, and hardly anyone can either penetrate that isolation from the outside, or escape it from within. Who wouldn't go crazy? Heathcliff overhears part of a conversation that would seem to suggest Catherine feels herself too above him to consider marriage, and that one little event sets off a chain of hate and recrimination that will eventually decimate half a dozen lives.

This novel is incredibly pessimistic of human nature. Aside from the Heathcliff/Catherine debacle, there is plenty of child abuse, hypocritical religion, and psychological warfare running rampant through its pages. And if all of this sounds like a complaint, it's not. This book kind of blew me away, mostly because its plot was so unexpectedly bleak. Though nine-tenths of it is morose, Bronte made sure to end on a hopeful note, with the promise that the cycle of pain and heartache endured by this family for two generations may finally be coming to a close.

So, by all means, read it. But the next time someone tries to lump this book in the same category with Sense and Sensibility, don't fall for it like I did. The characters of Wuthering Heights would sooner grab your head and smack it on the fireplace than escort you to the local ball for tea and cakes.

Wuthering Heights: B


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