Magazine article New Criterion

On the Depth of "Wuthering Heights"

Magazine article New Criterion

On the Depth of "Wuthering Heights"

Article excerpt

In commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of Emily Bronte's birth on July 30, 1818 (d. 1848), Oxford University Press has reissued its Companion to the Brontes, by Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith and seven other contributors. (1) Dozens of pages of maps, pictures, a section on Dialect and Obsolete Words, a Classified Contents List, and a three-column Chronology (The Lives of the Brontes, Literary and Artistic Events, Historical Events) accompany the nearly six hundred pages of compact, authoritative, and engaging (if frequently esoteric) entries with enormous variations in length.

These include "editing history of mature novels," "verse dramas by Branwell Bronte" (there are three), "mythology, classical," "Bible, the," "reading public," "imagery in the Brontes' works" (richly revealing), much impressive material on the Brontes' reading habits and their commentaries (they could mark up a book with the best of us), biographical entries that include journal entries and letters, and entries on the major works that include Composition, Manuscript and Early Editions, Sources and context, Plot, and Reception (as well as short bibliographies).

A casual browser will linger and, more often than not, be gripped. The entries on Emily moved me to re-read Wuthering Heights (1847), the greatest Bronte work, Emily's only novel, and the book without which, frankly, there might not be a Companion. For it is no ordinary book but a growth from some desolate precinct of a haunted imagination. "The reality of unreality has never been so aptly illustrated," wrote a reviewer in the Atlas, as quoted in the Companion.

Now I returned to this book, if not to settle a score, then at least to scratch an intellectual itch. I had first read the masterpiece as a college freshman. My instructor emphasized, fervently, that it is among the greatest love stories ever written--maybe the greatest. I did not know enough to dispute her ranking, but having just come off a miserable six-month depression in the company of Clyde Griffiths (An American Tragedy), I did know enough to wonder about the "love" claim. Passion--desire, obsession, possessiveness--indisputably, but love? If that were the case, why in the world had Cathy abandoned Heathcliff to marry Edgar? "I'll tell you why," I thought to say (but did not), "because she was shallow. For her, passion was nothing more than a garment to be worn, or not, as suited her age, mood, and circumstance. She had been seduced, not by Edgar Linton but by his life at Thrushcross Grange-order and its beauty as opposed to the chaos of Wuthering Heights."

So what, then, if not love? No great book should be held to one tiling--and we know that literary artists, not least the greatest of them, often do not themselves know the true nature of what they have wrought, which I think is true of Emily and her book. But every great book is in a key. Is this one in the key of polarity? Or that of a self-made hell (the Companion tells us that D. G. Rossetti opined that its "action is laid in hell")? Or of the disruption wrought by an outsider: nature versus nurture? Or class envy (not only between the families but within their households) ? Or is it sexual commentary? (Is Cathy all girls? But even as a freshman I knew that could not be.) There is a tragic Greek undertone of the Cursed House, for Mr. Earnshaw is a good man who gravely errs, and there is a strong biblical texture (not least from the servant Joseph: very Old Testament). Or is it in the key of nothing more than atmosphere (but what an atmosphere!), both internal and external: moodiness, tantrums, and "wuthering"--according to the tenant Mr. Lockwood "a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather"?

Cathy, first as a child, then as an early adolescent, is not quite cosseted, but she is certainly privileged and does not know either herself or the possible consequences of her wildness. …

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