WUTHERING HEIGHTS – “ELEMENTARY GOTHIC MY DEAR WATSON”

6 Jun

GOTHGGG

“When the sublime is impossible Watson, then only the Gothic is possible”

      Bronte’s novel is everything one would expect from a Victorian Gothic; a third party fireside tail related by a servant who can only reveal that which she believes to be true. This lends the story a mythical quality as the falling action is merely perceived truth, as we never truly see into the minds of the protagonists. Set in a bleak Yorkshire landscape an ancient house, that dates back centuries, is battered by the elements on a wind riven, snow gusted promontory, arousing both the sinister and melancholy. Small enclosed windows allude to ominous shadowed interiors shielded by a stalwart stone construction that has allowed the house to endure the passing of countless seasons. Wuthering Heights is no castle but with a maze of wooden stair cases, dark hallways and locked rooms it is a foreboding location. The atmospherics are enhanced by a room, in which nobody is allowed to sleep, that conceals long forgotten books containing clues to the families strange and dramatic past. To compound the horror and suspense there is the foreshadowing of names penciled into a window frame. From the outset the reader is acquainted with a supernatural dread and an expectation that worse is to follow. This suspicion is confirmed by the appearance of the ghost at the window and perhaps more disturbing, the figure of Heathcliff barging through the door “with candle wax dripping off his fingers” who then pulls open the casement windows to scream insanely at the tempest raging outside. One might be forgiven, that rather than a sedentary Northern English farm house, that one had entered a lunatic asylum. From the uncanny and mysterious, to the downright diabolical, the novel contains it all; including obligatory, incomprehensible yokels. Bronte brilliantly achieves an element of the unheimlich; the ghost at the crossroads, the hanging dog, the sounds of horse’s hooves and unseen riders escaping into the night all margin the immediate and thrill the reader. Could anything be more Gothic? 

         We join Lockwood in what should be a familiar domestic setting but instead find ourselves in an alien and uncanny environment; the novel immediately sets the reader ill at ease. The assumptions made by Lockwood regarding the interfamily relationships presented to him are all incorrect and so, like him, we stare around a room at a group of characters of whom we know absolutely nothing. The rapid confusion of shared and similar names adds to the initial disorientation of both the reader and unwanted guest. Who is who, and why on earth would Lockwood decide that he needed to revisit a house that was initially so inhospitable to strangers? Bronte places her reader at a deliberate disadvantage so that from the outset they are back-footed, causing them to suspect the worst of what is obviously a dysfunctional situation and search for the natural yet nonexistent clues in an attempt to comprehend what is clearly incomprehensible. This oppressive if dynamic suspense is neither welcoming nor does it encourage one to read further and yet, the introductory intrigue is so dense that one is forced to plough through the chapters at a blistering rate in an effort to garner clarity. “Wuthering Heights” is a novel which at every twist and turn reveals or rather conceals yet another hidden truth. Just as Lockwood is eager to hear the fire-side gossip of Nelly Dean, the reader too is on tenterhooks to discover whatever truth she may reveal.

        Thrushcross Park and marriage to its owner gives Cathy the ability to save the man she herself cannot save; a manifestation of true love where one lover cares more for their partner than they do for themselves. Cathy surrenders her own feelings for the benefit of Heathcliff – by marrying Linton a man she doesn’t really care for and who is the antithesis of the childhood friend – who’s been brutally crushed by Earnshaw to the point where only the memory of her erstwhile companion is left. Despite the financial benefits of her union with Edgar she’s optimistic that her elevated position will rescue Heathcliff from his untenable existence. Recognizing that they’re kindred spirits, she realizes that they can never be together as due to the lack of care and education at Wuthering Heights – enjoyed whilst favored by Earnshaw senior – Heathcliff is doomed to a life ignominy and misfortune. It’s only upon his escape and return to the moors that she begins to question her own position.

       Selfish regret and egotistical revenge exhibited by both protagonists late in the novel lend clarity to the true natures of Cathy and Heathcliff. Cathy clearly on a path to self-enrichment has finally bitten off more than she can chew and despite her avarice discovers that her fatal flaw is her love for the Byronic hero Heathcliff. Unfulfilled by material acquisition the objects of her desire – be they physical or emotional – always seems to inflict distress on those supposedly closest to her. After barely a thought to Heathcliff – except the terse explanation that he is now beneath her thanks to his neglected education – her few weeks at Thrushcross awaken her inner narcissist and after sampling the good life abandons everything she allegedly holds dear in order to maintain it. No longer the wild, care-free, moor-roaming child she’s quixotically content to enjoy the confines and luxuries of the grange. Rather than a portrayal of a capricious child we are offered the mind of a devious anti-heroine who doesn’t give a damn about anybody else except herself. Her explication on the notion that marrying Heathcliff would degrade her speaks volumes and yet she is frivolous with her Husband’s affections in her continued correspondence with him. Cathy cares about one thing and that’s Cathy. If anything she mirrors Heathcliff more in later life than she did in her youth as she contends her “lovers” one against the other. Cathy has nothing to lose and everything to gain from their rivalry. Should Heathcliff have killed Linton then Thrushcross would have been hers. Her husband prevailing on the other hand changed nothing. It was only the unforeseen effects of weak constitution coupled with pregnancy and exacerbated by her hysteria that eventually killed her. This mirroring is seen in the Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella whose only design is to put him one step closer to owning Thrushcross and destroying those – as he’d already done at Wuthering Heights – he considered to have done him ill. One could almost believe that the love they purportedly share for one another is secondary to their ulterior desires. Theirs is a dysfunctional attraction which ultimately destroys the lives of those around them as well as their own.

      The sentiment of nature versus nurture was a key question in Frankenstein: whether or not the creature was truly terrible or made so by circumstance. This applies equally to the Heathcliff character who for all intents was an innocent – foundling child – who receiving the love of old Earnshaw thrived and when abused by Hindley became the black-hearted villain and seminal destructive force in Wuthering Heights. The notion of “other” is ubiquitous as reactions to him despite his physical differences were dependent upon those who both loved and hated him. Instead of analyzing the notion of “other” in Heathcliff, perhaps we should consider the discrepancies in his nurturing. Was it “other” that made him different or the perception of him – as either a blessing or a threat – by those with whom he interacted? Heathcliff is a product of the limited society he enjoyed and therefore judging him a villain by his degree of “otherness” would be mendacious.

      Alternatively one could debate the notion of free will and that by choosing to follow the path he did, is responsible for his own actions. In the vein of Eastern spiritualism one has to experience the darkness in order to appreciate the light. The idea that the consciousness grows form each experience clearly does not appear to apply to Heathcliff and therefore one has to conclude that his lack of humanity is innate. Attempting to perceive Heathcliff as a victim and therefore forgive his indiscretions is disingenuous of the consummate villain that he is.

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