Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Ludic Economies of Wuthering Heights

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Ludic Economies of Wuthering Heights

Article excerpt

"I have said nothing about Wuthering Heights because that astonishing work seems to me a kind of sport." R. F. Leavis, The Great Tradition

In explaining why he says "nothing" about Wuthering Heights in The Great Tradition, Leavis actually gestures toward saying much more than he supposes. While the novel may become a sport by breaking with Victorian novelistic conventions as he suggests, Leavis encroaches upon a reading of the novel that has yet to receive serious attention in its critical tradition, namely the role that play assumes as an important narrative economy in it. Although Johann Huizinga writes how the nineteenth century "had lost many of the play-elements so characteristic of former ages" (195), it has become clear in recent years that the Victorians not so much lost the element or desire for play. Rather the Victorian era witnessed the restructuring of traditional and popular play activities and the introduction of new forms of play as a result of industrialism and the cementation of cities as cultural centers.1 Play, like work, emerges as an important discourse during the era, and as counter intuitive as it may seem at first glance, Bronte's novel becomes a striking if unorthodox statement of the potential work that play could perform in a work of nineteenth-century fiction. In particular, the plot of Wuthering Heights and the narratorial interplay between Lockwood and Nelly emerge as respective expressions and alterations of fort-da, the rhythmic game of disappearance and return played by Freud's grandson. While the story of the Heights is marked by the returns and disappearances of Heathcliff and Catherine (in life and in death), the Nelly-Lockwood narrating-dyad draws on the play of fort-da only to reproduce it in different form.

Less a product of how the novel remains in a state of transition between acts of narrating the same story, this interplay becomes an expression of how the novel produces a shared final product, a merging of focalizations, temporalities and rhetorical positions (teller/listener) of those who narrate it.2 Not simply one iteration or the other, Bronte's novel periodically erupts as a simultaneous narration of Nelly's and Lockwood's version of the Heights' story. By oscillating between two iterations of a story the novel yet formalizes these two separate but inseparable iterations into a block of narration, fortda rather than the fort-da informing the novel's plot. The reading of fort-da that follows performs its own back-and-forth alternations by moving to-and-fro Peter Brooks' model of plot and Bronte's novel.

What makes Reading for the Plot a compelling point of entry for a reading of fort-da/fortda in Wuthering Heights is the way in which the novel harnesses the play driving plot in Brooks' model of narrative and reproduces it as a narratorial dynamic. His essay "Freud's Masterplot" remains indebted to a ludic discourse that gestures toward a reading that Brooks does not explicitly pursue, namely that plot works by playing. In particular, the "playground" that plot becomes results, in part, from the returns and repetitions of what appear and disappear in a story, a formulation of fort-da's play that I hope to draw out and make more explicit. Situating fort-da at the center of Wuthering Heights, then, becomes its own gesture, one that aims at suggesting the play at work as a functional dynamic or drive of narrative, but one that does not remain bound to narrative plotting: by putting fort-da to work as narratorial fortda, Wuthering Heights exploits a ludism inherent to narrative and extends the rules of the novelistic game during a century that was keenly interested in the relationship between work and play.

Context and Playtext

Reading for the Plot begins by explaining Brooks' focus on nineteenthcentury narratives: the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed an increased need for plots, in part, because previous masterplots of culture ceased to provide answers they used to. …

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