The first time that I read Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, I was not impressed. To be honest, it was a dark period of my own life . During this time, I used literature as an escape from my own less than desirable realities. With distraction as the goal, it was hardly uplifting to read a book rife with themes of struggle and revenge. While some revel in reading depressing novels in the dead of winter while holed up under a comforting blanket, I don’t care to give myself over to that type of overwhelming melancholy.
Nevertheless, Emily Bronte’s genius is undeniable; and it was with this in mind that I decided to look deeper at her work. I had undergone an extensive study of Charlotte in order to complete my master’s thesis, and it became apparent to me that the seemingly universal Bronte genius was born from stark reality juxtaposed against fierce sibling and filial fidelity. It is well known that the Bronte siblings were afforded very little luxury, but their passion for literary imagination, and the doors it unlocked for them, became a fascinating escape from the daily drudgery of the cold English moors. Together, their imaginations simultaneously exploded into works both strangely chaotic and wonderful. Perhaps it was their lack of stimulation that produced an insatiable desire to create; it seems too clear to me that when youth are given constant external stimulation their boredom only increases. This leads me to the topic of technology, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. But trust me when I say that the void produced a need, and the Brontes met that need.
There are multiple layers of complexity to Emily’s masterpiece, and to settle upon only one theme does her work an injustice. I’ve already alluded to the Gothic elements which would include but are not limited to: revenge, spiritual darkness, struggle, conspiracy, loneliness, and tragic love. And to be honest, it’s hard to get past these ever-present elements. I wondered about Emily’s crippling introversion as I scoured the pages. Was she trapped within her own body: struggling against her time and the space in which she lived, but mostly, against herself? It could certainly be so. However, it seems to me there is an even greater theme. She was trapped, but like the agoraphobic who fears forced and undesired emancipation from a self-controlled prison, I don’t think that Emily longed for change. She was comfortable and secure within the tiny loving world that she knew. Perhaps she was trapped, but she didn’t desire freedom.
And so too, Heathcliff, tyrannically denied Catherine’s love, does not desire to find happiness. He does not seek to be free from his misery. To find happiness and contentment beyond Catherine, who he calls his very soul, would be an insult to their unquenchable love. In a macabre turn, he lives his life as the worst type of human being, because if he cannot feel her love, he seems to rather feel pain and to inflict torment upon others. He damns himself, because in his mind, without her, he is already in hell. It is an unrealistic, passionate, violent love. It’s the kind of psychotic love that ruins him and all whom he encounters. But I have to ask myself: WHY? What could sweet, introverted, quiet Emily Bronte be saying with this troubling narrative?
The answer to this question becomes an intellectual smorgasbord with an unending supply of answers, postulations, and theories. As I stated earlier, I can’t begin to cover all of the possibilities. It’s useless to try. Nevertheless, in the interest of piquing interest in the book, I will make one brief observation.
The line between love and hatred is very thin. The deeper the love has reached, the more gaping the hole when that love is taken away. That emptiness can be the absence of oxygen to a deprived heart. The inevitable “acting out” ensues, as is often seen in the aftermath of broken or cut-too-short relationships. Heathcliff’s love was a jealous, passionate love, one to which he gave himself over entirely. But his love was unearthly. It was a love that no human could satiate or sustain. Because Catherine became a godlike savior to him, her absence became a spiritual damnation. She was his idol.
Too many of us do this. The most sought after thing in the world is “true love,” but is it ever enough? Can we be filled by another? I submit we cannot. How easily we make our romantic relationships imperfect gods. And being rejected by a purveyor of spiritual fulfillment is the worst kind of hell.
It shouldn’t be. I am quite sure Emily would agree, as her text confirms this reality. I’m glad Wuthering Heights found its way to my musty study.