May 2, 2016

Reading the Classics: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Houghton Lowell 1238.5 (A) - Wuthering Heights, 1847.jpg
Wuthering Heights was originally published under Brontë's nom de plume Ellis Bell.
Image from wikimedia commons

Wuthering Heights. Romance on the moors, love, loss, a broody leading man. That’s what I was expecting. Yeah, those of you who have read the book are probably snickering right now. For anyone who hasn't, let's get one thing straight right now: Wuthering Heights is not a love story. It's a study of human nature at its worst, with bent and twisted characters who only live to torment each other. It's a horrible, nasty book. I almost wish I hadn't read it. (Spoilers ahead, if you haven't read the book.)

I hated this book.

Really hated it. 

I hated the nasty characters, from sadistic Heathcliff to spoiled brat Catherine to whiny, milquetoast Linton. I hated the prose style, most of the time. I hated the structure, and the ridiculously similar names that made it almost impossible to follow the story. Okay, the description was vivid at times, especially with the scenes of cruelty, but because of the structure, a lot of the book was telling rather that showing.

I actually looked up why this story is considered a classic, and many sources cited that one reason is the structure of the book, which was revolutionary at the time, and the way that Emily Brontë turned reader expectations upside down. Instead of a love story, we are presented with a tale of obsession, jealousy, and cruelty. I don't know how anyone could think that Heathcliff is a romantic hero. He's an abusive, savage psycho that strangles puppies. Yuck. Some people seem to feel that Heathcliff and Catherine's love somehow redeems them. I didn't get that from the book. Even when Heathcliff dies, I don't see him being redeemed. He never regrets a single thing. 

And about that revolutionary structure: what is the point of it? What's the point of giving us a third-hand account? Mr Lockwood gets the story from Nelly, a servant that witnessed the whole thing. Is Brontë going for an unreliable narrator? Why? I felt that this distanced me from the text, and many plot events seemed to come out of nowhere and didn't feel that meaningful because of the structure.  Like with Catherine's (Catherine n:o 1) death. So suddenly she's pregnant? Did I miss the whole thing, or is it just a convenient way of killing the character off? And why kill one of the main characters in the middle of the book? It felt very rushed to me. Is it just so Brontë could show the violence corrupting the next generation, too? Is that why there are two Catherines and two Heathcliffs in the story? A parallel between the two?

Okay, end of rant. Now I'll try to take a step back and look at the book as a learning experience, writing-wise. 

I had a bad reaction to the book, but maybe that's okay. Maybe hate is a better reaction than "meh"?  I also wonder how much of my reaction was based on my expectations of what I thought the book would be like? If I had known the nature of the story beforehand, I might have been less disappointed. It's like reading a science fiction novel that turns out to be sword and sorcery: that's not what it said on the package. 

The characters were horrible and warped, and they did things that were really hard to read. Why did Brontë write those? Just to make the reader feel sick? Probably not. At the time women had next to no rights, and undoubtedly there was a great deal of domestic violence. Most women would have been quite helpless to escape situations like those in the book, with no property or prospects, and due to the lack of birth control, they probably had several children to deal with as well. And there is the issue of violence begetting violence. Would the characters have been so horrible if they had been treated better as children? 

The characters seem to fall in two camps: the savages of Wuthering Heights and the civilised weaklings of Thrushcross Grange. Maybe that's a part of what Brontë was getting at, savage nature agains civilisation? Lockwood, the narrator, sees the savagery and decides to leave. Is civilised society better, in the end?  Hareton, Catherine no:1's nephew, is left to grow up without anyone teaching him about civilised life after his mother dies in childbirth and his father becomes a angry drunk. He doesn't go to school, doesn't study. He's adrift. But at the end of the book, Catherine n:o 2 aka Cathy, daughter of the first Catherine and Edgar Linton, the lord of Thrushcross Grange, befriends him, and he starts improving himself.  It's implied that they're falling in love and will marry. In a way, he illustrates that it is possible to overcome a difficult, abusive childhood and turn out okay as a person. 

Should the characters have repented? Maybe some kind of character growth would have helped make them more likeable? But not everyone becomes a better person, even with age. For writers,  maybe a lesson to learn here is not to be afraid of really going the distance with your literary monsters?

I mentioned that I didn't love the structure and didn't really see the point of it here, but one shouldn't be afraid of experimenting with structure, either. 

The similar character names were quite annoying. Another reminder not to do that in my own writing. I also found Joseph's dialect very hard to understand, to the point where I skipped his lines just to avoid the frustration. Lesson learned: better to find other ways of showing an accent or dialect instead of writing it out phonetically. Or maybe just use a little bit, enough for colour.

Okay, I guess that's about it. I'm going to delete this monster from my kindle now. I'm glad I don't have a physical copy of the book, because I couldn't stand to have it festering in my bookcase. I don't think I could destroy a book, but I'd probably abandon it somewhere, like the airport or a coffee shop.  

Read at your own peril.

Classics read: 27/100

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello, stranger. What's on your mind?