“I have not broken your heart―you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.”
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights.
Give me a dark, tragic romance that’s bitter-sweet. Give me all the cliches. I don’t care. Sometimes stories end on a nice note. Sometimes stories have good people rewarded and bad people punished and all the misunderstandings come to light before it’s too late and all the mistakes get solved. But that’s not real life. I would argue perhaps the greatest divide in literature is between stories that tell us what we would like to have happen, and those that tell us how life usually plays out. The best somehow manage to do a bit of both and still be something special. Wuthering Heights is one of those stories.
On the one hand, it’s got all the hallmarks of a traditional Romance novel. We’ve got two lovers who are just right for each other but, oh no, life gets in the way and there are complications they need to overcome. She’s rich and he’s poor, no problem, he’ll go off and make some money. She’s married someone in the meantime, oh drat! How will they be together now? She’s even about to have a child, oh it seems so hopeless… but I’m sure they’ll find a way to be together. Oh wait. She dies. The heroine dies and our reader’s soul, just like Heathcliff’s, dies with her.
This isn’t a story of people growing and triumphing in their newfound wisdom to overcome their obstacles and be together; it’s a story of chaos and chance, of pettiness and misunderstanding leading people to ruin their lives and those of everyone around them. Why did she marry the other guy and why is he so full of hate? Why did she have to die and why can’t he get over it? We know the answers to all of these questions, they’re rather obvious, but that doesn’t stop us feeling them deeply. In her own way, Bronte has touched on—rather profoundly I might add—a key part of human suffering. We can know why something’s happened, know it shouldn’t have gotten that far, and yet here we are; and knowing something in our minds doesn’t change the feeling in our heart.
Of course, for some of us there is this disconnect, this difference between following the plot and emotionally railing against it. Some people rail against the story for a different reason though. I used to think good literature was universally appealing but after recommending Wuthering Heights to a friend, I was actually shocked to discover why he didn’t like it. He hated Heathcliff, and he didn’t much like Cathy either. He didn’t want to follow these bumbling, self-destructive characters to their doom, and he had no sympathy for them. The very things that made it so powerful to most of us, the tragic failures and all too human flaws and the fact that they weren’t able to overcome them, that’s what he disliked about it the most.
And you know what? I can’t actually argue with him. In terms of a story that’s meant to give us our nice kick and reinforce how we should act in the world, Wuthering Heights fails spectacularly. All I would say is that that’s not the only way to come to a book. I really think that with a book like Wuthering Heights, you can only really appreciate it if you yourself have suffered. Moreover, you also need to be the sort of person who sometimes needs to revel in sad things as a way of helping you through your suffering. Some people want to focus on the good things in life to get them through and keep them going, and that’s fine, but for some, spending some time here and there to appreciate another’s sufferings can be just as helpful.
A minor caveat though, before I finish; I said at the beginning that Wuthering Heights manages to give us both real life and what we long for in spite of it. I’m referring to the ending which, given the amount of spoilers already, I feel fine with discussing. Basically, our two tragic protagonists end up with each other in death and two young people with the spirits of our protagonists end up together and inheriting the estate. In a sense, Bronte played with the archetypes, abused their patterns and trends and yet couldn’t help but give in to them in the end. That itself is fascinating and worthy of a discussion at another time but I personally believe the ending isn’t what most people take away from the book. For those who wanted a fulfilling book, these characters were just too dark and yet for those of us who were captivated by the reality of their suffering, we could forgive Bronte her ending—perhaps even be grateful for it.
What does all this mean for the book as a whole? I’d say it, more than most books, is not for everyone. However, for those of us it connects with, it’s incredibly worthwhile and deeply moving. It can give you a cathartic experience through its visceral exploration of the chaotic tragedy of real life rather than the moralising tragedy of literature. And, yet, it still plays to the trends it subverts, so in the end you still, if you’re not too battered by the ordeal, can finish the book with a bit of the kick we’re all secretly expecting. Whether you end up hating it or loving it, whether you put it down after 50 pages or skip straight to the ending, it’s definitely worth a go.
(Photo of Yorkshire moor by Dirk Ingo Franke. Sourced from Wiki Commons)