Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Heathcliff is a monster

Wuthering Heights is a story about child abuse. It's a story about other things, too, but it's an abuse novel. I think academics prefer the term "trauma," which is a better fit here, since one can include the deaths of the various parents and so on. Heathcliff comes from a terrible background (I assume - that's actually one of the novel's dark mysteries). His foster brother Hindley resents him and abuses him. Heathcliff turns on Hindley as soon as he is powerful enough, and possibly murders him; he's also brutal to Hindley's son Hareton and even worse, much worse, to his own son.

Really brutal - remember pathetic Linton out on the moors, too terrified to stand up. What is he afraid of, what will his father do to him, or what has he done? Brontë doesn't exactly say, but by this point in the book she doesn't need to. Heathcliff is a violent monster.

Sounds hilarious, I know. Romantic, too. That's the shift in tone I was talking about before. For a while, Wuthering Heights is grown-up Lemony Snicket. All sorts of horrible things are threatened, but it's so outrageous it's hard (for me) to take seriously. Look at the scene where a drunken Hindley drops his son over a banister. Heathcliff catches the baby, but is then angry that he did so. This is a terrible scene, really, just awful, but it's also sort of comical. Heathcliff's petulance is outrageous, but not yet threatening enough to spoil the fun.

I'm not so heartless. It's all Nellie Dean's fault. Yes, I blame the narrator: "A miser who has parted with a lucky lottery ticket for five shillings, and finds next day he has lost in the bargain five thousand pounds, could not show a blanker countenance than [Heathcliff] did on beholding the figure of Mr. Earnshaw above." This is what you say when someone saves a baby? That miser upset about the lottery, that's comedy.

Almost all of the story is told to us by Nellie Dean*, who is rarely quite horrified enough by anyone's bad behavior. She always finds rationalizations. The view of Heathcliff as a romantic figure is partly her fault - she likes him well enough. As a narrator, she is an ancestress of Humbert Humbert, an obscurer of atrocities. Heathcliff has corrupted her, too, at least a little.

I don't think the "trauma" interpretation is sufficient. Heathcliff is rescued from a terrible situation by a nice family, right, so he should improve, like Hareton does when rescued from Heathcliff? Heathcliff seems to be an actual monster, a creature of a not-quite-human species, a relative of Frankenstein's creation, or the Icelandic saga heroes who are half troll and can't function in normal society. And how does one explain Catherine, who's a bit of a monster herself? Surely not as a victim of Heathcliff? Wuthering Heights always turns in on itself. It's such a rich novel, but perhaps it's not quite coherent, in the latter respect like this post.

* I'm assuming Lockwood is presenting Nellie's narration more or less accurately. This book is a tangle.


  1. A grown-up Lemony Snicket! That made me laugh. Yes, this novel is a tangle, all right.

  2. I've often wondered, with little resolve either way, how faithful Lockwood is to Nellie Dean's account of things. He is quite ill for part of the story, and perhaps somewhat disoriented. You are right that Miss Dean is overly sympathetic to Heathcliff, though—a result, in my opinion, of having known him since a child. She also seems to hold his and Cathy's relationship in a relatively romantic light.

    As to a nice family rescuing Heathcliff from a terrible situation—do we have evidence of this? I don't know that his previous situation was terrible, and I'm partial to thinking Heathcliff is an illegitimate half-brother to Cathy, brought home by his own father for whatever reason.

  3. Do we have evidence, nicole, that Heathcliff had a terrible childhood? Yes - Mr. Earnshaw says he found Heathcliff "starving and houseless" in Liverpool. Also, Nellie says that he was "hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment."

    Do we have proof? No - Mr. Earnshaw could be lying. And we agree that we can't quite trust Nellie (and what's that "perhaps"?).

    It's this sort of thing that leads to the incest theory you mention. (as if Catherine and Heathcliff weren't weird enough). Heathcliff's life off the moors - his early childhood, his years of wandering - are complete mysteries. How does a reader fill the holes?

    So I just googled "Lemony Snicket" and "Wuthering Heights," and the first hit is an interview in which Handler says specifically that his books are descended from WH.

  4. I like your question here about Nellie Dean and how she obscures the reader's sympathies..or skews them anyway. It would be interesting, maybe, to try and sort out what Bronte's purpose was in writing the novel. Would she have wanted her reader's to think of Heathcliff as a monster? of Cathy as a monster too?

  5. Emily could have had a highly Goth attitude for all I know - Heathcliff opening Catherine's coffin is, like, the coolest thing ever.

    Charlotte thought that Wuthering Heights was immoral, and tried to excuse it in various ways. It's actually a Christian novel; it teaches by negative example; it's simply a picture drawn from life. I'm forgetting one. None is entirely wrong, none is sufficient.

  6. I think it's nature+ nurture. He's a monster, but Hindley's attitude and behavior do make it worse.
    There's a character in the book that I dislike more than Heathcliff, however: Linton Heathcliff.

  7. You're going after the sickly, abused kid? Now that is what I call reading with distance. Or perhaps it is a good example of the influence of Nellie Dean.

    1. This is an excerpt from a post of mine, written in January 2013:
      "... To me, Linton elicits even more complex emotions than Heathcliff and Catherine do. When he 1st appears, he strikes one as being pale, thin, frail, languid and effeminate. As the story goes on, he moves from his mother's place to his father's (after her death), the character develops. Sickly, morose, peevish, whiny, selfish, passive, physically and mentally weak... Sometimes he makes me feel sympathetic and sad for him because he, like other Lintons, is very weak, even weaker and sick all the time, and yet he has to live with and put up with a cruel, domineering father like Heathcliff, who despises him and who keeps calling him a worthless wretch. But sometimes I still feel sick of him, of the way he cares of nothing and no one but his own suffering and doesn't want to do anything. I imagine Linton having a thin voice, effeminate, perhaps a bit high-pitched, sounding very annoying. Just as I feel Cathy is more similar to her aunt Isabella, Linton is also more similar to his uncle Edgar than his own father Heathcliff, similar in the way that he's very weak in both strength and character. I now and then have some pity for him, dislike him without hating him, because I think, how can anybody be cheerful when always sick and on the verge of dying? And Heathcliff treats him so badly. Especially in the scene where he's outside the house, with Cathy and Nelly, and later, seeing Heathcliff, Linton appears so pathetic and fearful, and in such health, he can never run away the way his mother has done.

      However, I've changed my mind. Like other characters by Emily Bronte, Linton's a fascinatingly colourful person. Once inside his house, no longer suffering from heat, he changes. He says horrible things like "I can't stay with her. I'll not stay, by myself. She cries so I can't bear it. [...] moaning and grieving, all night long, though I screamed for vexation that I couldn't sleep." And "... I sometimes think she can't speak for pain. I don't like to think so! but she's a naughty thing for crying continually; and she looks so pale and wild, I'm afraid of her!" Worse, he also says "He's in the court, talking to Doctor Kenneth who says uncle is dying, truly, at last- I'm glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him- and Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn't hers! It's mine- papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine- she offered to give me them, and her pretty birds, and her pony Minny, if I would get the key of our room, and let her out: but I told her she had nothing to give, they were all, all mine." It's most outrageous when Nelly asks about his feeling when he sees Heathcliff beat Cathy, he says "I winked. I wink to see my father strike a dog, or a horse, he does it so hard- yet I was glad at 1st- she deserved punishing for pushing me..."

      One may say, he doesn't know what love is, living with Heathcliff, but he has more than a decade with his mother, who I don't think doesn't love him. One may say, it's understandable that a person in sickness and pain thinks more of his own suffering. But whatever the case, Linton, like Heathcliff, is despicable and heartless; worse, he's petty, selfish, and without any redeeming quality such as the ability to love. I believe, his heart has the darkness like Heathcliff's that doesn't lead to brutal and violent acts only because of his poor health and lack of strength."

      I do not mean that Linton Heathcliff's a worse person than his father. Heathcliff's hard, coarse, savage, aggressive, angry, vengeful, violent, tempestuous, brutal, scheming, manipulative, obsessive... But Linton Heathcliff...

    2. Ooh, that's good. Thanks for copying it over here. I have no idea where your blog is or was.

    3. Uhh, my blog's just a hodgepodge of nonsense of various sorts, so generally I'm quite reluctant to let people know the link. I'm not as well-read as you are either.