February 1, 2007

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

I thought it was about time I re-read Wuthering Heights, not least because I am a little tired of teaching Jane Eyre in my 19th-century novels course and wanted to consider the obvious alternative. What a grim, unpleasant novel it is, though. The people in it are almost universally awful, and those that are not, like Edgar Linton, are weak and ineffectual, as if soft feelings just make you vulnerable. I remember at one time finding the passions of Heathcliff and Cathy romantic, but on this reading I found it impossible to associate either of them with any positive or sentimental feelings. The teacher (and critic) in me sees all kinds of stories to tell about the novel's structure and themes, but I wonder how much enthusiasm I could muster for lecturing on it without something (or somebody) in it to root for. I have often made the argument to my students that the disappointments we are left with in George Eliot's novels stimulate us to action: we wish for a realistic ending that is more satisfactory, for Maggie Tulliver, say, or Dorothea, and thus turn a critical eye on the real world that let them (and us) down. I can't see taking this approach to Wuthering Heights, though, because the novel's characters don't really seem to deserve better than they get. Still, there's no denying the raw power of the book, and its gloomy gravestones would certainly provide a contrast to the more conventional 'marriage plot' endings.

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