Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights had been on my to-read list for years. It seemed like everyone around me had read it; and everyone who had read it adored it. I've heard many rapturous reviews, and many fitful sighs from women readers over the character of Heathcliff, the moody, untamed hero of the book. Finally, this past few weeks, I read the book. My feelings about it are mixed, but powerful. Whatever else you can say about Wuthering Heights, it is a book full of intense, magnetic emotion, and dark tempestuous characters.
I won't spoil the plot, but the central conflict lies between Catherine and her choice between a wealthy, even-keeled, well-established suitor, and Heathcliff, the penniless boy she grew up with, whose untameable nature seems to challenge and infuriate everyone he encounters. Heathcliff is frequently connected to the wild, open moors through which he rambles, and the very uncivilized place he calls home, Wuthering Heights (wuthering, I discovered, is an old Scottish word for gusting wind). On this level, the novel is an exciting romance, that dares to entertain the possibility that the most moneyed and staid suitor is not the best choice. It is completely unlike the novels of manners by Bronte's contemporary, Jane Austen.
At the same time, judging the book by contemporary moral standards leads to some real problems. Heathcliff is not just a wild, romantic character; he is a boor, a bully, a raging misogynist, a kidnapper, a slave driver. All in the name of love for Catherine, he traps young girls in his mansion, forces the son of a friend to live as a slave in his home, embezzles money, and frequently calls women very bad things for refusing to marry him or his son. What gals of today are still clutching their chests and calling Heathcliff a true romantic, or his relationship with Catherine "real love"? Heathcliff is a madman; his hatred and dominance of others is truly repugnant.
So what was I left to think? Again, I couldn't conclude one way or another. I was left with a swirl of powerful and confused emotions, which I think speaks well for the book and its lasting impact. If a book challenges you; if a book leaves you confused and hurt; if a book leaves an image resonating in your mind; then it's a good book. Read Wuthering Heights with a healthy dose of criticism; but read it. You won't regret it.