a good passionate fit of crying.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

This is a tricky review to write. Partly because I don’t tend to enjoy writing negative reviews (I wrote a whole post on the topic, including why I think they’re useful, here). Mostly though because Wuthering Heights is widely agreed to be a stone-cold classic and is a book that a great many people absolutely love. I wanted to love it too. Unfortunately, I didn’t even think it worth finishing.

wuthering-heights-twilight-cover(1)

As an aside, when I first saw that cover I thought it shameful that Wuthering Heights was being sold by reference to Twilight. Having now read a fair chunk of the book though, I can sort of see the link.

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

As the above quote suggests, we’re in gothic novel territory here. Remote, brooding locations. Stormy metaphoric weather. Strange households with dark secrets best not spoken of. To be fair, these are a few of my favourite things so I’ve no issue with any of that. I’d even go so far as to say that the opening sets up expectations nicely, making it clear that what’s to come isn’t going to be a matter of strict realism but rather a work of mood and emotion.

Where the book soon runs into difficulty however is a flabbiness of structure. It opens with a framing device, the remarkably irritating initial narrator coming to his new landlord’s home and discovering a household afflicted by the remnants of past misery and bitterness. Edith Wharton, nearly 70 years later, used much the same device (quite possibly influenced by Brontë) in her Ethan Frome, but Wharton is a much better writer. Her narrator doesn’t take over the tale, she gets to the actual story much more swiftly and her prose is vastly more elegant.

Wuthering Heights then cuts back to the childhood of the central characters (one could argue who those are to a degree, but however you cut it they include Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw). Heathcliff is a foundling, adopted by Catherine’s father and raised with her, not quite one of the family but not a servant either. He cuts across barriers of class, money, race and propriety. In a sense he’s almost more plot device than character, an interloper from beyond the social world the novel otherwise portrays, and thus a living challenge to that world’s order.

He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose.

Catherine, though as wild as Heathcliff by nature as a child, grows up to assume the place expected for her by society. She becomes a lady, gently spoken, refined and beautiful. In her heart she loves Heathcliff, but when the time comes for marriage she chooses a gently born neighbour as Heathcliff has no fortune and thus could not maintain her position.

I won’t say what happens, since there may be those reading this who don’t actually know the story, but it’s all very passionate and dramatic. How could it not be, when we have conflicts of nature and society, of expectation and desire? The problem though is the characters and the contrived nature of the plot.

A degree of contrivance is inevitable in a gothic novel. Here though it’s simply heavy handed. At one critical passage Heathcliff overhears Catherine talking about how she feels about him. He manages to hear the bit about why she doesn’t want to marry him (he’s broke), but not the lengthy exposition of how much she loves him. He then charges off in a fury and naturally never thinks to ask for clarification. It’s a device still used in literature and film today, the part heard conversation leading to misunderstanding and breakup, but it’s a terrible device and the perfect example of how characters here act as puppets to the plot rather than from any organic sense of character.

Wuthering Heights is a novel of grand passions. The difficulty is that the characters are vehicles, not people. It’s easy to write that two characters love each other. I can do it now: Bill and Hannah love each other. It doesn’t make it mean anything though. Bill and Hannah are in love because I’ve said they are, but I’ve established nothing about them that makes that love meaningful.

Reading Ethan Frome, I could see why Ethan felt trapped, why his cousin Mattie was so important to him. The characters felt real, their emotions grew out of their natures and their situations in ways that were organic and true. Ethan Frome isn’t really any less contrived than Wuthering Heights, but it feels like a story that could be told in no other way and so has the quality of Greek tragedy.

In Wuthering Heights characters act as the plot demands. Of course that’s also true of Ethan Frome, and most every other plot-heavy novel ever written, but in Wuthering Heights you can see the puppeteer’s hands moving the strings. I had no sense that Heathcliff and Catherine’s situation arose out of anything other than their being written to be in that situation. I had no sense that they had lives beyond the novel (which of course no character in any novel does, but then novels are beautiful lies which in most cases at least seek to make us forget we’re being lied to while we read them).

Perhaps I was just the wrong age for this book. Were I first encountering it as an adolescent I can see that I might relate to characters motivated by sweeps of emotion which overcome their reason. I might find Heathcliff romantic (with a lower case r, he’s obviously Romantic with an upper case R), and Catherine’s dilemma interesting. I’m not adolescent though, and I couldn’t believe in them or their problems.

I’ll end on a minor positive note. The following passage reminded me irresistibly of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. The two books have nothing in common, and the Hardy while I think more successful is much less ambitious than Wuthering Heights, but the Hardy is easy to love and anything that reminds me of it is welcome.

our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them.

There it is then, Wuthering Heights. I genuinely wanted to like it, and having compared it here so much to Ethan Frome which uses very similar devices I’m slightly frustrated that all I seem to say in the end is that I didn’t like it because I didn’t think it was very good. Unfortunately, that’s where I come out, I just didn’t think it was very well written. If you read this and you disagree, think I’ve utterly missed the point, whatever, please feel free to tell me where I went wrong in the comments.

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48 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brontë, Emily, English Literature

48 responses to “a good passionate fit of crying.

  1. This is a hard novel to get right the first time through. Brontë is a trickster of high order.

  2. How so Tom? I found the characters unpersuasive and the plotting obvious, are those issues a reread would really help with?

    Happy to be persuaded. I’m aware I’m a minority view here.

  3. I’m so happy to meet someone who didn’t like this novel.

    I’ve read it twice, once as an adolescent, I couldn’t see the draw. I read it again four years ago thinking I’d missed something the first time and I struggled to finish it. Dull, boring and heavy.

    I don’t see why Heathcliff and Catherine are seen as a great love story. I don’t think it’s romantic at all or even plausible. Like you, I think the characters have no flesh, no personality beyond binary feelings (love/hate…).

    PS: Perhaps it’s sad that it’s marketed with a reference to Twilight (they do read Wuthering Heights in it) but I’m always practical and if it can make new readers try it (this or Austen who is also mentioned in the book), then, let’s put a huge Twilight sign on it.

  4. Happy to be persuaded that Wuthering Heights is a significant work of art? The Cambridge companion to the Brontës is good and quite readable, and the Norton Critical Edition has the heavy hitters. The J. Hillis Miller article is especially good.

    As for the re-read – my answer to your question is “yes, of course” – you answer the question yourself:

    novels are beautiful lies which in most cases at least seek to make us forget we’re being lied to while we read them

    Wuthering Heights is one of the other cases. It is a cousin of Tristram Shandy and Moby-Dick and The Good Soldier and Pale Fire. It has nested unreliable narrators, for pity’s sake!

    Bella and Edward have actually never read the novel. This is a secret they keep from each other. They have only seen film versions.

    Emma – the answer to your question (why is it seen as a great love story) is that the film versions always omit the second half (and also the beginning, and much of the rest) of the book. The films shape the material into a story of doomed love. This is only partly the fault of the author.

  5. I read this for the first time when I was 12. Have the old paperback with the date written inside. Loved it. Still do–I think it has everything. It doesn’t make my top ten list but it’s still IMO a remarkable novel.

  6. Tom, I haven’t seen film versions of Wuthering Heights. I understand how you can cut the nasty parts and make it a story of doomed love. I should have thought about abridged versions and film versions.

    Personally, I thought the characters had no redeeming qualities. It’s not necessary that characters are likeable; serial killers without redeeming qualities don’t prevent a crime fiction novel from being good. But when you read about a supposedly love story and don’t find the characters profound enough or likeable, it’s hard to enjoy or love the book.

    PS: S Meyer is not a great writer but she seems to know her classics. The parts where W.H. is mentioned don’t skip the dark side of the story. And yes, young readers ask questions about the books mentioned in the series. It works.

  7. This is from a comment Emma left on a piece I wrote about Le Grand Meaulnes:

    “Reading your review, I understand why I didn’t like it at all. I need realism.”

    So that pretty much knocks out Wuthering Heights.

  8. Tom, I don’t think WH is the same kind of “not realist” as Le Grand Meaulnes. Jane Eyre or Le Comte de Monte Cristo aren’t realistic at all and I loved both books.

    I don’t do well with Great Suffering for a Grand Love and with exaggerated feelings and gestures. I’m not a fan of Anna Karenina or Lotte & Werther.
    Of course, I don’t deny the literary merits of these novels (and who am I to judge anyway) but they don’t appeal to me.

  9. Hey, you said it, not me!

    I am pretty sure that Max is denying the literary merits. No?

  10. I read Wuthering Heights in my Romantic literature course in graduate school and I must say, I loved it. One should remember who wrote it – a young, largely home-educated, reclusive woman living on those wild Yorkshire moors, nurtured on Scott, Byron, and Shelley,and creating childhood fantasy worlds with her brother and sisters. Emily died at the age of 30 just a year after the book was published. Such a person would hardly write a sophisticated, carefully wrought, literary novel. I think she was giving flesh to all her inward dreams and passions. I was about 21 when I read the book, and I haven’t read in years, so I don’t know how I would feel about it now.
    Max, do you like Jane Eyre? It may be Gothic, but it’s much more restrained in tone.

  11. Ah, ‘Wuthering Heights’, the classic that divides…

    … I loved it, naturally ;)

  12. Binary is a good way of putting it Emma, I found no depth to the characters, they felt more like robots to me.

    WH didn’t feel to me like one of the exceptions I was alluding to Tom, I’m interested that you think it is. What makes you see the narrators as unreliable, or more unreliable than the average viewpoint character anyway? I get that, for example, the first narrator projects a bit when he first meets Heathcliff and so mistakes Heathcliff’s nature, but that’s soon resolved and it’s hardly enough to make him an unreliable narrator for me.

    I don’t need realism (leaving aside that particular quote, which came from a particular review at a particular time), so that’s not the issue. If anything I’d have been happier if it had been less realist. It felt though contrived rather than say modernist or proto-modernist or whatever other arealist category one might try to put it in. Contrived isn’t necessarily bad, many great books are pretty contrived, but contrived with lifeless characters isn’t so great.

    Am I denying its literary merits? That sounds hubristic, and at one level I’m not so arrogant as to say that all those readers and academics and others who’ve rated it highly over the years are wrong. At the same time, I didn’t think it very good, so at that level necessarily I am denying its merits. Tricky.

    Lorinda, does who wrote it ultimately matter to the text itself? I don’t think it does. If it turned out it was actually written by an Italian count 30 years previously would that change how good or bad it is? Explanation is interesting, but it doesn’t ultimately go to merit.

    I haven’t yet read Jane Eyre, but I do plan to because Jean Rhys after all wrote a sequel and I adore Jean Rhys’s writing (I’m never sure when to add an s after an apostrophe following an s, must clarify that for myself some time).

    Guy, Tony, what did you two love about it? Was your reaction similar to Tom’s? Do you see it as a novel like Tristram Shandy? It’s a comparison that surprises me (admitting that I’ve only read a bit of TS, which I absolutely do plan to return to as it looks tremendous).

  13. I think it’s a top notch iconic gothic full of high drama. For me, it’s a ‘what’s not to love’ scenario. Heathcliff and Catherine were ‘meant’ to be together for they are driven by passion–but conventions get in the way and then you have Catherine going for the traditional marriage and being desperately unhappy because she had a glimpse of something else…. But there again, Catherine was never very conventional to begin with. Perhaps that’s why she was drawn to Heathcliff in the first place–one of the intriguing possibilities of this multi-layered book.

    On another level, of course, there’s the stance against Victorian morality–a sort of defiance, all that thwarted lust and passion but which in a strange way is an endorsement of tradition as well. After all, look what happens when Heathcliff returns. There’s an underlying doubt to the story: if things had played differently, would Catherine and Heathcliff have been happy? Or would she have been happy if Heathcliff had never entered the picture? Is Bronte saying that traditionalists stand a better chance of being conventionally happy as they don’t butt up against society? Is Heathcliff the worm in the apple? Certainly Earnshaw’s act of kindness invites an element into Wuthering Heights that would have been absent and we can imagine an entirely different future for Hindley and Catherine (de Sade’s No Good Deed Goes Unpunished). Is Heathcliff a sort of Satanic figure who enters Eden and corrupts the existing structure?

    And that brings me to location! Could this story have happened in, let’s say, London? No, so then there’s something about the moors. The ‘society’ there is certainly lacking, and it seems to be written in the stars that the Earnshaws and the Lintons will inter-marry. The wildness/roughness of the moors has entered the bloodstream of those who live there and who will never leave. Makes me think of Hardy’s Return of the Native which makes my favourite novel list.

  14. I completely agree on age not making any difference to quality or complexity. Kafka was 29 when he wrote The Metamorphosis and started writing America, he was 31 when he started writing The Process (he never finished them).

    Also, IMHO, Wuthering Heights is not actually a love story or a Gothic tale, just like Don Quixote was neither a Pastoral novel nor a Sword and Dragons Fantasy. Those books are attacks on those previous traditions and create something new and seminal as a result. I cannot tell you how much bad genre fiction I’ve read where the plot revolves around the nice girl falling in love with the dark and mysterious stranger, who’ll turn out to be an evil master. Those fictions usually also include a vanilla nice guy as an alternate love interest/victim. The problem with Wuthering Heights, as its epigonic descendant fictions reveal, is that it has a perverse, or even worse, a perverted core. And the strain of this perversity against the conventions of the 19th. Century ‘proper’ novel shows in the unreal, yet realistic feel of the book, its nightmarish taste, how unconvincing, from an strictly conventional point of view, its characters seem. And yet, if we compare Wuthering Heights to an actually perverted book, say Justine, we realize what an extraordinary tight-rope walk kind of achievement it was.

  15. Let’s go in order.

    Lockwood is routinely unreliable. He mistakes everything. E.g., Ch. 2:

    “‘Ah, your favourites are among these?’ I continued, turning to an obscure cushion full of something like cats.

    ‘A strange choice of favourites!’ she observed scornfully.

    Unluckily, it was a heap of dead rabbits. I hemmed once more, and drew closer to the hearth, repeating my comment on the wildness of the evening.”

    Lockwood does this sort of thing repeatedly. Yes, more unreliable than the average viewpoint character, because he is far from average – most of what he tells us is not even from his own viewpoint, but from that of someone else, someone who may be unreliable in a different way.

    The bit about realism was written by Emma and directed at her, as a gentle reminder, but what else do you mean when you say characters are “unpersuasive” and lack “depth”? Of what do you think they are trying to persuade you?

    The characters have as much life as those in, for example, Elective Affinities, a novel that is almost certainly a source for WH, or any number of E. T. A. Hoffmann stories, or, to grab another contemporary fantasy, The Scarlet Letter. Imagine that Catherine is a moor-elf and Heathcliff a moor-ogre.

    Modernist is in no way a category opposed to realism, so I did not understand that point. What the Modernists found interesting and new in WH and some of the other books I mentioned like Tristram Shandy were questions of fictional technique, like how Brontë and Sterne and Melville play around with the narrator or time or plotting. These novels make more sense in a tradition that leads to Ford and Nabokov than that of George Eliot and Henry James. You did not see the book as one of the “other cases,” but these later critics and readers did. cleanthess gets at this really well, the way that WH is about literature. Just look at the way books are treated in the novel!

    “largely home-educated” – like Jane Austen, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, and the future George Eliot, all authors, like Emily Brontë, of “sophisticated, carefully wrought, literary” work.

  16. *moaning* oh dear, The Scarlet Letter is July’s read for my book club. Now I’m dreading to read it.

  17. There was a period in the critical history of The Scarlet Letter when it was seen as a realistic exploration of the life and ideas of the American Puritans. So you have precedent to read around the witch, the elf-child, and much of the rest of the book.

  18. AR(T), excellent breakdown, just as expected from the WUTHERING Expectations blogger. Emily Bronte was an extraordinary writer of enormous subtlety. For example, look at how she hints at the sexuality of her characters by the use of the keyword ‘heaven’. Just at the very start of the novel: ‘A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us.’

    Then, when Linton and Catherine discuss their views of what heaven’s like, for Catherine heaven’s an active place where you are continuously doing things, for Linton a passive place where you don’t do anything, you just lie there.

    Next, there is this part where Catherine reveals how she perceives Heathcliff to be of the same dominant kind as she is (notice how the carefully placed word ‘degrade’ contaminates the rest).

    ‘If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable.’
    ‘Because you are not fit to go there,’ I answered. ‘All sinners would be miserable in heaven.’
    ‘But it is not for that. I dreamt once that I was there, [...] heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.’

  19. I’m having one of those moments when I dearly wish I had the novel more fresh in my mind and immediately at hand, but I’ve read WH three times, each time with greater and greater admiration. No, admiration is far too tame a word – I was, I am crazy about this novel. I think it’s one of the more daring things I’ve ever read, and I do not think age – the writer’s or her readers’ – has anything to do with appreciating what’s going on here (unless one buys into its ill-fated reputation as convenient shorthand for unbridled romance). It’s one of the strangest documents in Victorian literature, if for nothing else than for the idiosyncratic maelstrom of human emotion it involves. To reduce this, however, to a simple tale of “passion,” it seems to me, would be to lop off the explosive wildness it (barely) contains, and as cleanthess points out above, the sexuality boiling up over the top of that drab Victorian morality. That wildness comes in multiple forms – sexuality, transgression, uncertainty, unreliability, the marvelously weird poetry of Bronte’s language and imagery (i.e. that “heap of dead rabbits” Tom mentions). The weather. And that stunning stage set of the moors on which these characters play out their parts – it’s like something of Beckett (and even King Lear for that matter).

  20. I’m delighted to have so much disagreement. I should dislike classics more often clearly.

    Guy, ironic gothic is an interesting way of putting it (and fits with cleanthess’s comment that it’s not a gothic story at all). The elements of gothic are plainly there, but as some of you say are at the same time subverted. It’s impossible to put Heathcliff in any traditional role as hero, anti-hero or villain because he is in various senses all these things and because it’s far from clear that things would have been better (or worse) without him.

    Location I absolutely give you by the way, though I don’t think it has a better sense of location than say Ethan Frome (to return to that comparator) did.

    Cleanthess, I would struggle to see how anyone could come to the view that Quixote was fantasy or pastoral. It’s immediately more troubling than that. Your points though on the unreal yet realistic feel of the book are interesting. I did find the characters unconvincing, and I wouldn’t say that simply from a conventional point of view. The characters in Anna Kavan’s Ice lack consistency. They slide around in attitude and relationship, nothing is certain. For all that they convince, at each moment anyway. The novel feels true, even though it goes beyond the unlikely into the flat out self-contradictory.

    Justine I haven’t read yet. Nor Elective Affinities for that matter. There is in fact much I haven’t read, as for everyone I suppose. I have though read some ETA Hoffmann and I wouldn’t call at least as much life as that much of a compliment turning to Tom’s comments.

    Tom, to me those are fairly crude mistakes. The error is soon revealed in the narrative – there’s no work required of the reader to bridge the gap between narration and internal reality. That’s why I didn’t see him as unreliable. Perhaps this is a question of semantics, but for me for a narrator to be unreliable means more than that they make mistakes, it suggests something deeper.

    Regarding persuasion, that the characters are either in some sense credible human beings or that they represent something meaningful within the fiction (or both of course). This is a hard one to pin down. Returning to Ice, the characters persuade in the sense that I recognise their emotions and actions as human emotions and actions, they are credible in that they are human, but even so at another level they’re not remotely credible people – they change from paragraph to paragraph.

    So, here I found Catherine and Heathcliff binary, as Emma put it. They didn’t for me reflect a complexity of emotion or indeed a human emotional state. They just were, like robots. They do work better I grant as meaningful entities within the fiction, Heathcliff more obviously due to his interloper status within the social milieu, but in a very obvious way.

    I may be missing a reference, but why would I care what a moor-elf and moor-ogre thought or felt?

    I should perhaps have contrasted modernism with naturalism. My point was more that modernism tends to question the authority of the author and its own nature as a text. I didn’t see this as particularly doing that. I note the nested narrators, but that felt more framing device (in the manner of a myriad fairly straightforward novels) than anything more interesting.

    Still, I do note that you argue that I placed it mentally in the wrong tradition, and so approached it in the wrong way. I’ll think about that.

    More in a moment.

  21. Cleanthess, confirmed bachelors are a fairly common element in 19th Century fiction. I can see a gay reading there, but I’m not yet persuaded it’s remotely a necessary reading. Still, I do agree that the characters’ perception of heaven acts as a reflection of their nature. Not sure I’d call it subtle though.

    Degrade for me is a word with powerful connotations, moral, social and of course financial. To marry Heathcliff would reduce her to the state of beast, both in the sense of taking her away from her civilised choice (if one goes for that particular analysis, which is among those the scene’s capable of I think) but also because of her choosing animal passion over reason, and of course because of then being forced (as she anticipates anyway) to live in poverty.

    Scott, it’s definitely no romance, no more than The Scarlet Pimpernel was (as I hoped when I read that) a swashbuckling adventure story (that one is a romance).

    Your comment makes me think of it as almost kabuki. I should perhaps at this moment avoid mentioning that King Lear is probably my least favourite of Shakespeare’s plays (though the last production I saw of it was truly terrible).

    Anyway, thanks all and more rebuttals welcome. Even if you don’t persuade me, my experience of blogs is that for every person who comments there’s a good few more who just read and the hope with any review (even a negative one) is that it helps a book find its readers. That may not be me for this one, but others may read it in light of your responses.

  22. The reference. If Catherine is an elf and Heathcliff an ogre (or a troll, I actually called him a troll) this insistence of yours that the characters be human is misplaced. If you want them to be robots, that is OK, too. Some of Hoffmann’s finest characters are robots.

    Roundedness, lifelikeness, “humanness” – this is an option for a fiction writer, a tool, worth admiring when used well. It turns out it is not necessary to produce artful fiction. For some kinds of fiction it is an obstacle.

  23. Humanness is absolutely an option, I entirely agree. I don’t remotely think it’s necessary, nor do I think it’s always appropriate.

    I wasn’t insisting on the characters being human, and indeed talked about different ways authors might use characters (as examples of humanity or human experience, or as meaningful entities within the fiction, but I wouldn’t want to tie myself to just that).

    Characters sometimes illustrate particular points the author wishes to make. They may capture an argument, represent a psychological state, act as an instrument of mood, a vehicle for ideas, a way to explore concepts that would otherwise make for a merely dry essay, a thousand things, I do appreciate that.

    The question though with any character is what are they doing within the fiction? Not what does the author intend (not that you make that error), but what actually are they doing? It may not be one thing, hopefully isn’t, but what is it?

    Here they don’t persuade as people. They lack humanness. So, what instead do they do? If that’s not the option the book elects for, what option or options has it elected for?

    The difficulty is, I’m not persuaded that it hasn’t made the election for humanness and just not quite pulled it off.

    I’ve read Egil’s Saga. Egil works on the level of humanness because despite being half-troll his emotions are ours, writ large. We recognise him. He also works though as an example of certain dangers, the danger of thoughtless fury. Again he works at the simpler level of adventuresome protagonist, Egil’s Saga is a fun read at the level of adventure tale as much as any other.

    There may be more, it’s been a while since I’ve read it.

    Frankenstein’s monster is a mirror held up to us, a creation born of horror but yet which in some aspects is perhaps better than we are. Our creation tells us something of ourselves. Egil is flawed, but profoundly human. Heathcliff for me wasn’t as interesting as either (though I’m glad you’ve picked some examples I’ve actually read).

    What Hoffmann’s are you thinking of? I’ve only read one (I reviewed it here) and I thought it historically interesting, but ultimately fairly crude. I’d rate Wuthering way above that Hoffmann, which is why the comparison slightly puzzles me.

  24. The robot is in “The Sandman,” and there is another in “Automata,” but the first one is more famous.

    Maybe I will mention here that I actually think Heathcliff is a big success as a rounded if not exactly human character. Nellie Dean, too. Catherine is more of a cipher (which is Nellie’s fault, part of Nellie’s revenge). I was granting Max’s point for the sake of argument, but it seems to have circled back now. Egil, yes, good, but then also Heathcliff.

    To go back to the earliest point, perhaps upon re-reading the novel, or spending some time with critics better than I am, Heathcliff will appear less robotic, although no less strange.

  25. Tom,
    I’m going to be very blunt, but you know me by now.
    In my book, as a very lazy reader, if a novel requires a PhD in literature and extensive reading of critics to be understood and enjoyed, then something is wrong with it.

  26. Ah, that’s why I couldn’t understand your Hoffmann reference then. I’ve not read those ones.

    How very creative though Hoffmann clearly was, to have robots and serial killers so early in European literary history. Remarkable.

    I must of course admit the possibility that I approached the novel in the wrong mindset, expecting a more traditional story than it was attempting. Had I done that with say Pynchon (whom I love, so far anyway) I imagine I’d have found him rather frustrating, and perhaps been talking about the lack of character depth in (the utterly brilliant) The Crying of Lot 49 (although I love the characters in Lot 49, each and every one). That would have been a profound misreading of that book (which I’ve written up here, if anyone’s curious and hasn’t seen that).

    Now, naturally like all of us I have read a fair few novels that turned out not to be as I expected, so I would normally expect to just shift gears when reading something in the wrong mindset. Still, it would be arrogant not to admit the possibility of a misreading. Given that, and given it’s at least not 500 pages long (Emma worried me with her comment on Anna Karenina, which I hope to read in the next few months or year), I’ll give it another try at some point once my initial reaction of dislike has tempered a bit. It’ll be a while though, and of course my reaction may be just the same. Not every book is for every reader. Still, it would be good if on another occasion I could find in it what cleanthess, Guy, Lorinda, Scott, Tom and others have. I read it expecting to love it and it’s quite a disappointment that I didn’t.

    What are people’s thoughts on Jane Eyre by the way, which as noted above I only really want to read so I can better read Jean Rhys’s book based on it?

  27. Not sure I agree with that Emma (we crossed comments), but equally I’m not sure this is a book that requires those things. If it did it wouldn’t have the popularity it has. Presently I’m finding it not as subtle as others have, my criticism would be for its lack of subtlety, not an excess of it.

  28. Max,
    What I meant is that, after reading the comments giving valid reasons to call it a masterpiece (something I’d never deny as I don’t have the competence to challenge more than a century of literary critics), I feel that the subtleties were lost on me because of a lack of cultural background.

    Is it popular in its original form or in its filmed or abridged versions? I think it’s difficult to read, more than Austen or Jane Eyre.

    PS: go to Himadri’s blog, there’s great stuff about Anna Karenina over there.

  29. Mr. Cairnduff, you make very good and considered points, they’re well taken.
    IMHO, more than Jane Eyre, a spiritual sister book to Wuthering Expectations would be Pierre or the Ambiguities, another perverse genre-exploding novel on the same vein. Melville’s book is an attack on two popular genres of the time, the bodice-ripper and sensational literature. The way Melville subverted those genres is by borrowing their plot elements and stock characters and infusing them with perverse ambiguities, making the tale both lurid and morally disturbing.

    Melville concocted his book with unconvincing characters, perverse, if not perverted plot and a nightmarish setting of a long lost attractive sister, an accepting former mistress and a young woman all going to live together in the same house with young writer Pierre, out of reach of decent society’s watchful eye. Once again, hundreds of derivative inferior harem/erotic genre books have fully cleared what is going to happen by reworking the premise and the setting of Melville’s masterpiece and bringing them to their rotten conclusion. This plot was so disruptive, Melville felt he had to kill almost every character to atone for it.
    One final point: what is the relation between Enceladus and a world of superficial surfaces, or superinduced superficies?

  30. I was intending to reply, went to bed, and came back to all this…

    Anyway, pretty much what everyone else has said: the tricky series of Russian-doll narratives, the characters of Heathcliff and Nellie Dean, the eerie sense of isolation the writer creates – oh, and the Heights themself, of course ;)

    ‘Jane Eyre’? Not a fan…

  31. Pynchon is a great example that I wish I had thought of. Melville’s Pierre is a hilarious example. Well done, humblehappiness! I have not read it. I will read it this summer. It is a spiritual sister to Wuthering Expectations!

    I will say one thing about Jane Eyre. The best evidence of that nonsense about elves and ogres in WH is that it reappears in Jane Eyre. Charlotte B. frequently parodies her sister’s book, most prominently in the lead male character. There is no reason this will make you like WH,/i> any better – Charlotte did not like it much herself – but you may be happier to have WH under your belt.

  32. WH didn’t do anything for me either, give me Tristram Shandy any day, or the Monk. I didn’t believe any of the characters either and whilst I can cope with multiple levels of narration (aren’t there nine in the Call of Cthulhu?), I don’t think distance added anything to this hocum. Admittedly, I do have a problem with 19th C language. I find the wordiness and indirectness an obstruction to reading. I’ll have to read the comments more closely to see what others got from it.

  33. leroyhunter

    Great discussion, appropriately passionate. Interesting to see the different lenses people bring to the same piece of literature.

    It’s so long since I read Wuthering Heights that I can’t really offer an opinion on the book, other than to say it made a great impression on me long ago.

    I’m moved to consider re-reading the book, a good outcome fromm reading any review I think.

  34. I’ve picked up a copy of Pierre, though it’ll be ages before I read it. I suspect I’ll get less from it than you cleanthess, given your evidently better knowledge of 19th Century and earlier fiction.

    Enceladus is both a mythic giant and a moon of Saturn – the best candidate for life beyond Earth that we know of. It also seems to be referenced in Pierre, but the allusion is sadly beyond me for the moment.

    Emma, it’s not an easy read, and yet many do read it so I’m not sure it’s inaccessible either. A difficult read that people persevere with for some reason? Do you have a link for Himadri’s blog?

    Tony, the character of Nellie Dean? I should have read further to get that, so far she seemed a bit central casting. Interesting that she gets better.

    Tom, sounds like I may need at some point to reread this then Jane Eyre. That sounds suspiciously like homework. I may just have to skip that particular Rhys. Tricky.

    Steve, CoC is stylistically much trickier than many realise, I agree, and the reason many don’t realise it is because of how well it’s pulled off.

    Leroy, it is appropriate isn’t it? The Red Room won’t get anything like this debate I suspect, though it should. If you do reread it, let us know what you think.

  35. Himadri on Anna Karenina.

    I seem to have misinterpreted this line: “Unfortunately, I didn’t even think it worth finishing.” Regardless, no homework is necessary for Jane Eyre. The narrator will fill you in where it is useful.

  36. Mr. Cairnduff, I wouldn’t dream of comparing my meager reading experience with yours, Amateur Reader (Tom)’s or Caravana de Recuerdos’ Richard’s: you guys are my blogging heroes.

    I don’t want to spoil Melville’s Pierre for those who have not read it yet, so I’ll limit myself to one quotation about Enceladus:

    ‘Old Titan’s self was the son of incestuous Coelus and Terra, the son of incestuous Heaven and Earth. And Titan married his mother Terra, another and accumulatively incestuous match. And thereof Enceladus was one issue. So Enceladus was both the son and grandson of an incest; and even thus, there had been born from the organic blended heavenliness and earthliness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood; which again, by its terrestrial taint held down to its terrestrial mother, generated there the present doubly incestuous Enceladus within him. […]

    “Enceladus! it is Enceladus!”–Pierre cried out in his sleep. That moment the phantom faced him; and Pierre saw Enceladus no more; but on the Titan’s armless trunk, his own duplicate face and features magnifiedly gleamed upon him with prophetic discomfiture and woe. With trembling frame he started from his chair, and woke from that ideal horror to all his actual grief.’

    IMHO, the operational theory of Pierre is that, just like there was no actual Enceladus causing ‘those Etna flames, of old asserted to be the malicious breath of the borne-down giant’, there is no conscious agent willing our actions, below the superficial surfaces of human beings, only volcanic passions, the tremors of lust and dark desires.

  37. I loved this review Max … all I can say is that I ADORED this book when I read it in my mid-late teens but I have realised in recent years that I have no desire to read it again. I feel that the heightened emotionalism is just not of interest to me anymore, whereas I can read Austen again and again and again. A tiny bit of me feels I should give it a go again but life is short – been there done that!

  38. PS I did reread Jane Eyre in my recent adult hood (as against my long ago adulthood!) and I liked it a lot. If you haven’t read it, you should give it a go. It has Gothic elements and some melodrama but it’s an excellent read with complex some characters.

  39. Controversial stuff, Max! :)

    I’ve read WH three times (when I was, like 15 or something; again at uni, and again about 2 years ago) – I remember enjoying it each time, though I do find some of your arguments to be pretty convincing. The unreasonable reaction to the half-heard conversation is, of course, a cliche of modern drama, and it does indeed undermine Heathcliff’s passionate temper by turning into something petulant and juvenille.

    I always liked Jane Eyre more.

    Fantastic review – I’ve very much enjoyed reading the comments thread. Debate is always fascinating – especially when you have such learned, well-read commenters as you do!

  40. Hi. My name is Dwight and I’ve never read Wuthering Heights. (Hi Dwight)

    Something I need to fix, and thanks to Max, AR, and others, I think I’m prepared to accept I won’t “get it” the first time.

  41. Thanks WG, a bit more push to Jane Eyre is useful since it doesn’t really sing out to me as a must-read otherwise.

    Tomcat, so it’s proved. The conversation bit is a cliche of modern drama, which flags one challenge with older works which is that where they drift into cliche it may be that they precede the cliche or are its source. It’s easy say when reading Raymond Chandler to see stock private eye elements, and to forget that they’re stock precisely because people copied him, not because he was unoriginal.

    So here the storming off may not be a cliche because that cliche hasn’t happened yet. It still doesn’t work for me as a scene though.

    Hi Dwight! Glad the discussion worked for you. If you do read it, let us know what you think. This is why it’s worth writing negative reviews in a nutshell, look at the quality rebuttals I got after all.

  42. Dwight, I see you’re reading The Foundation Pit, or are about to. Is there a way with blogger blogs do you know to sign up for email notification of new posts/comments?

  43. I have Blogger and below the comment box there is a link that says Subscribe by Email, which will give you responses to the comment. Also, on my blogs, Also, I have on my blog in the sidebar, a gadget that says Follow by Email. You enter your email and click “Submit.” However, I don’t know that everybody has that gadget on his blog.

  44. I’ve been meaning to re-read Wuthering Heigths and to read “Bronte Heretic” since I’ve read this post by Violet last year. I think you will find it interesting.

    http://still-life-with-books.com/?p=4742

  45. Max, thanks to Lorinda I’ve added the “Subscribe by Email” function on my sidebar.

  46. I can’t really add to the conversation here because I haven’t read Wuthering Heights, but you can’t force yourself to like something regardless of its Classic “status.” (On a completely unrelated note, my favourite Bronte novel is Wildfell Hall — Gilbert is my Darcy. One of the lesser known sisters…)

  47. ABB

    Several of you alluded to the role of landscape in WH. To me, this has always been a novel that is quintessentially about landscape, with the land itself as the central character and dominant influence. From Lockwood’s early encounters mist and snow, the land projects itself into the human narrative. If you’ve ever lived or walked on the moors (which I have done many times), the slap of cold rain, the flowing mist, the squelch of peat underfoot, and the projecting crags of millstone grit are instantly recognizable and evoke a strong reaction. The entire novel is framed within its landscape. Consider that Lockwood opens with an exclamation (“This is certainly a beautiful country.”) and ends on a notes of calm (“I lingered round them under the benign sky, watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebell, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”). The land has absorbed Heathcliff and Cathy back and is now, for the moment, quiescent. But that is misleading – as others have noted Lockwood usually misunderstands what he sees. The moorland is anything but quiescent – constant change and turbulence are its norm and pervade the novel. The houses are built to withstand and shut out the conditions (“narrow windows are deeply set into the wall”) and the changeable weather conditions are a constant threat (remember Lockwood in the snowstorm). Even today, these uplands can be dangerous (as each year some unprepared hikers find out to their cost). Consider where Emily lived and the environmental conditions she was exposed to – a bleak cold house on the edge of the moorland, with [by our standards] discomfort and dim light (no electric lights remember!). It is not surprising that the landscape dominates throughout, with the human struggle and resolution set against and subservient to these larger, long term, and more powerful forces. Emily perfectly caught these tensions in her writing. As you can probably tell, I delight in this novel, but perhaps for different reasons than other commentators.

  48. Thanks for the link Caroline.

    Literary, you can’t and nor should you. Classics are generally called that for a reason, but it doesn’t mean every reader will relate to them. That’s just the way it goes.

    Wuthering Heights does seem to be one that particularly divides people. I had a few tweets and comments elsewhere from people saying they’d never liked it. Better to be loved and hated than to suffer indifference, as I often say.

    ABB, thanks for that tremendous comment. Much appreciated. I did see that landscape was critical, but I’ve not been there and didn’t feel it as you would. Still, excellent examples and analysis. If I reread it, I’ll try to do with that aspect more in mind – character more an expression of landscape rather than landscape an expression of character (which is the more common approach of course, but which has no intrinsic superiority by virtue of being more common),

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