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Loving a Monster: The Horrible Hero of Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights is charged with a difficult task: Make us sympathize with a character driven by unhealthy, unreasonable obsession. Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy, the centerpiece of the story, goes far beyond lust, affection, even love. It is obsession, plain and simple.
His fascination with her transcends Yorkshire social status, the norms and ethics of general society, and, of course, death itself. As author/professor Bernard Paris notes, “[Heathcliff’s] frantic dependency on Cathy is one of the most intense emotions in all of literature” (Paris 243). This is some extreme stuff, and not necessarily relatable. We might have felt envious, or vengeful, or passionate before. But the average reader will find it difficult to corroborate the rationale of a dog-strangling, grave-defiling man who locks up two children in the name of revenge. Logic just gets in the way sometimes.
No, Brontë must go farther to sway her audience’s loyalty towards Heathcliff. Sympathy alone for his suffering is not enough; it will evaporate the moment he hangs his first puppy. Brontë makes us empathize, encourages her audience to view her world through the same emotional, irrational lens as Heathcliff’s, and she does so very strategically.
Brontë introduces Heathcliff as every bit the quarrelsome man he is in the opening scene with Lockwood, normalizing his rudeness as understandable. Then, she includes large diary excerpts from the dearly departed (and thereby very sympathetic) Cathy, where the reader is taught to vilify the establishment and wholeheartedly support the rebels:
“Heathcliff, myself, and the unhappy plough-boy were commanded to take our prayer-books, and mount: we were ranged in a row, on a sack of corn, groaning and shivering, and hoping that [authority figure] Joseph would shiver too, so that he might give us a short homily for his own sake” (Brontë 17).
Just picture those poor souls out in the cold, suffering because of the whims of The Tyrant (whether that tyrant be Joseph, Hindley, or whoever else stands in the way of freedom)! From the very beginning, Wuthering Heights teaches the audience new rules to the world: That any action against this awful authority is justified, that passion cannot be stifled even by death, and that whatever that passion may transform into (say, maniacal revenge?) is still better than heartlessness (i.e. Hindley’s cruelty, Nelly’s rationality, or Linton’s general milquetoast-ness). It’s wonderful escapist fiction, and it’s fun to stand firmly on the side of passion and revolution. But this kind of limited viewpoint also leads us to support the two young lovers on their quest, no matter what. We’re stirred up by Heathcliff and Cathy’s rebellion. We connect to it, and our hope for that breath of defiance to go on pushes us to stretch farther and farther in order to continue relating to Heathcliff. And boy, does Brontë make us stretch.
How does Brontë string us along to the point that we have mixed feelings towards Heathcliff rather than pure contempt; even when he’s betrayed Cathy, lovelessly married Isabella, and power-grabbed his way to become the exact menacing tyrant we were taught to vilify and fear in the beginning of the book? It’s simple: The text never admits to his wrongdoing. Heathcliff is not portrayed as good, but he’s always the least bad. As Arnold Kettle puts it, “Heathcliff’s revenge may involve a pathological condition of hatred, but it is not at bottom merely neurotic. It has a moral force” (Kettle 38). And so, even though Heathcliff becomes inhumanly cruel, our loyalty to him transcends our loyalty to what he once stood for. We side with him even when we think he isn’t right. In this way, we become Cathy. We become obsessed.
And if the reader feels some degree of that obsession – if they can relate to Heathcliff despite knowing the wrongs done to him as a waif of a child cannot compare to the wrongs he committed in return as an adult – then Wuthering Heights has succeeded in its great task.
Brontë, Emily, 1818-1848. Wuthering Heights. London; New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Kettle, Arnold. “Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of
Wuthering Heights. Edited by Thomas Vogler, Prentice-Hall, 1968, 28-43.
Paris, Bernard J. Wuthering Heights. Imagined Human Beings: A Psychological Approach to
Character and Conflict in Literature, NYU Press, New York; London, 1997, pp.
240–261. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qffv8.16.