The following is an essay I wrote for a college course
I took entitled "The English Novel". The assignment was to write
a personal reaction to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and to include
in the essay what Ms. Bronte's reasons for writing the novel may have been, a
brief discussion of its romanticism, whether it is to be perceived as an
"ugly" or "beautiful" work, a discussion of Heathcliff as an
"attractive" or "repulsive" character, strengths and
weaknesses of the book, and an overall response to it.
Mil's "Personal Reaction" to Wuthering Heights
While it is likely that dozens of explanations regarding Emily Bronte's purpose in writing Wuthering Heights might be conceived, it seems to me that she was attempting to relate her perception of truth as it pertains to love and human nature. Furthermore, although the novel is quite short, she clearly felt it needful to show not merely bits and pieces of two lives as an illustration of some particular aspect of truth, but to share the whole truth of her understanding of the nature of real love. In so doing, she revealed both the best and worst aspects of human character and, above all, expressed both hope and inevitability by bringing the most hopeless and unbalanced of situations into an ultimate state of perfect harmony. The world Emily Bronte depicts is turbulent, harsh and often cruelly unjust, yet somehow out of this chaos comes beauty, tranquility and unexpected justice.
Given these considerations, it seems impossible to classify Wuthering Heights simply in terms of a beautiful or ugly novel as it is clearly both, often at the same time. Surely the enduring interest in the tale (I know of at least three film versions of it and there have likely been several other dramatizations) suggests that its romanticism leaves one with a stronger sense of beauty (as ugliness is seldom an argument for lasting public appeal). This in itself presents a strong case in favor of Emily Bronte's unique genius as she by no means strove to create a conventional romantic fairy tale. Her characters display warts that do not go away. The fact that their more positive attributes so completely overcome these warts represents an inexplicable ability to reach a more forgiving nature in the reader than he or she is (unfortunately) likely to display even in real life.
Upon reflection, however, it seems only fitting that Emily Bronte's work might appeal to something deeper in each of us than the selves we normally associate with. While she indeed recreated reality, she did so on a plane that deals with our dreams and longings, our sense of how the world should be rather than the way in which our behavior indicates we believe it is.
For example, Nelly's description of Heathcliff's hardness as a child and his apparent indifference to Mr. Earnshaw's love for him imply Heathcliff's unique perspective on the world's inhabitants and relations between them. It seems safe to assume that he had known misfortune and brutality prior to his adoption by Mr. Earnshaw. Survival of these negative circumstances had provided him with an ability to endure hardship but had done surprisingly little to alter his view of how the world ought to proceed. Love was, to Heathcliff, assumed as the status quo - having settled on loving Cathy, togetherness with her is merely a way of life for him. Nowhere do we see him speaking flowery terms of endearment to her. Instead we see him incredulous at the behavior of the Linton children in fighting over a pet - even in childhood he recognized that love is about putting aside selfish wants in deference to the wants of the loved one. Perhaps it is his memory of this instance that later prompts his comment, "If [Edgar]loved her with all the power of his soul for eighty years, he couldn't love her as much as I do in a single day." And, despite the misfortunes his love for Cathy brought him, never in his lifetime does he alter his perception of love and his acceptance that once having found it, maintaining it is as natural as breathing. Proof of this is found in Hareton's description of a brief conversation with Heathcliff near the end of Heathcliff's life "he bid me off to you; he wondered how I could want the company of anybody else."
By the same token, Heathcliff could not endure those who upset his perception of life's (or love's) balance and knew how to revenge himself upon them most effectively. Had Hindley expressed good nature toward him, it is unlikely he would ever have attempted to bring him harm, let alone complete financial and emotional devastation, an assertion that is supported by his treatment of Nelly, to whom he is not always kind, but generally civil, and against whom he clearly bears no personal ill will.
To address the point of integration of environment with character throughout the novel, it seems much of this is summarized in the very first chapter of the book, wherein Lockwood describes initial impressions of Wuthering Heights, including "the atmospheric tumult to which the station is exposed in stormy weather...the power of the north wind...and the range of great thorns...craving alms of the sun." Perhaps the most telling sentence of the description, however, is the final one, "Happily, the architect had the foresight to build [the house] strong."
Indeed, this description might serve equally well in describing Heathcliff and Catherine and the love God had apparently ordained for them to share. Both possessed the stormiest of climates, yet neither was as strong in themselves as the power of the the love which united them, a love so strong "nothing that God or Satan could inflict could have parted [them]".
On a broader scale, the environment is used to describe not only the various characters, but also the particular events they are experiencing together and separately at various points in the story. As Lockwood enters, a great storm is on the horizon, a storm that has already raged off and on for nearly 40 years. Likewise, the tumult of the Heights and its inhabitants is balanced by the peacefulness and order of Thrushcross Grange, which possesses a climate much more civil both indoors and out - a climate many might envy - especially one like Catherine to whom such a climate was so foreign as to hold a fairy-tale type of excitement and promise.
Unfortunately, these climatic extremes serve as uncrossable boundaries for their respective inhabitants, each unfit for the other's habitation - a fact succinctly explained by Catherine Linton as she tells Nelly of the different fantasies she and Linton hold for spending a hot July day...she "would fall asleep in his, and he could not breathe in [hers]."
When all is at last restored, however, and the worlds are both put back where each belongs, the climate is finally sunny and bright in both - or perhaps it should be said in all three, since the death of Heathcliff has released his spirit to join Catherine's in a world beyond the other two, one wherein happiness together seems assured at last, as it is for young Catherine and Hareton as well. "The sky is blue, the larks are singing, and the becks and brooks are all brim full."
Of course, such a conclusion causes one to wonder whether happiness on any level is truly deserved by a person such as Heathcliff. But what exactly does that mean? What type of person is he? Here again is an area where Emily Bronte has drawn a piece of truth, for whoever Heathcliff is, he is undeniably real. At first glance, this may seem a point for debate as few "real" people display evil as openly as Heathcliff - nor do they display his depth of love. Yet it is arguable upon reflection that he is not unique in his desires for revenge, or happiness in love, but in that he acts upon them. No one is completely good or evil - even the apostle Paul declared "That which I want to do I do not, and that which I hate I do" - and Heathcliff is certainly no exception. He is indeed therefore real since although (it is hoped) few would act as he did, all can in some way relate to the desires and underlying wounds that motivate his actions. Thus, he is attractive, he is repulsive, he is sympathetic, he is villainous. In short, he is one of us.
To conclude with a word regarding the novel's strengths and weaknesses and my personal response to it, I believe one could list strengths without end - as I have attempted to do in the foregoing assessment. As to weaknesses, finding these presents a much more formidable task, one I must confess I do not feel equal to - for as our text points out, "Wuthering Heights is the most remarkable novel in English...in the rarest way...it is perfect", words with which I heartily concur.