Friday, 1 February 2008

Some questions from Wuthering Heights

I finished reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte this week and found it very confronting and confusing. When you pick up a mystery, you expect to spend your reading time second guessing the author, but most people wouldn't tend to expect that of a book some have described (oddly, in my opinion) as a romance. It seemed that each chapter brought up further questions and hardly any of them were answered satisfactorily, yet I was absorbed and not annoyed. I think Emily Bronte was an extremely talented author - one who could take me out of my comfort zone and yet not frustrate me by doing so.

I found myself asking just what manner of being Emily believed Heathcliff to be. Was he a man, whose brutal nature had been formed early by his desertion (for whatever reason) by his unknown parents and his treatment at the hands of his foster brother Hindley? Had his rejection by Catherine driven him from a barbaric childhood to utterly evil manhood? Or was he some evil fairy who cast a spell upon Mr Linton and perhaps Catherine also? Was he mad, or possessed or just obsessed? At different parts of the novel one or other of these possibilities presented itself as more likely, only to be supplanted by another possibility later in the narrative.

I wondered, why did the first Catherine become so enraptured by Heathcliff? Was it simply the blind adoration a lonely child has for a playmate, borne unquestioning into adulthood? Yet she seemed to have such a realistic understanding of his repulsive and cruel nature when she attempted to warn Isobella away from him. Or was that conversation itself merely intended to portray Catherine describing the most horrible person she could imagine, selfishly hoping that Isobella would give up her romantic aspirations and Catherine could have Heathcliff all to herself, while Catherine did not actually believe her own description to be true? (That is, was it a sort of masterful co-incidence?) In what way did she see their lives to be entwined, as she described thusly: "Nelly, I am Heathcliff"? Did she see in herself his cruel nature? And when she experienced fits, etc, towards the end of her life, was this meant to indicate madness brought on by her previous illness, or madness brought on by possession perhaps through her proximity to the demonic Heathcliff, or was it madness brought on by her own unruly self-will?

Did Emily intend this novel to be a testament to the power of nurture over nature, in the twisting of somewhat pleasant (or, at least, bland) people into barbaric and sadistic creatures? Or did she intend to show how the taint of evil present in only one person (perhaps from birth, given Heathcliff's unexplained history and parentage) can spread and infect others without limit? If this was the case (I return to an earlier question), did she have an understanding of Heathcliff as being of a demonic nature? Or was he simply orchestrating situations which made it easy for others to be overcome by their own humanly sinful natures?

Lastly, I wondered whatever happened to Emily in her life that she would write such a novel. Her poetry (at least, that of it which was quoted in the editorial notes) portrayed a dark and bleak view of life and a fascination with life and the afterlife. Was Emily really like this in person? If so, was this the result of her many illnesses, or the death of her mother and elder sisters, or her exposure to the sordid life of her adict brother? Honestly, my first thought when I attempted to hypothesise an answer to this question was that Emily must have been abused as a child! Because what other sort of personality imagines these sorts of people and situations otherwise? The very close friendship she maintained with her younger sister Anne throughout her life and the (questionable) biography given by her elder sister Charlotte would seem to indicate that Emily was not a monster herself. So where did the germs of Heathcliff and Catherine (and even Ellen, the terminally bungling foster-sister cum servant) come from? Were they nothing but figments of an immensely fertile imagination?

As I said, the novel inspired many questions. I wish Emily had lived longer to be interviewed by the press of her time to give an authorial explanation to some of these matters. Or that she had lived long enough to write other novels so I could at least, by comparison, obtain a greater understanding of Emily's own nature. Perhaps a sign of the power of this novel is that it planted in me a desire to know more - not of the characters, but of their creator.

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