Reviewing classics can be a little daunting. They’re classics for a reason. You know the titles long before you read them, and often you know the story, or think you do, before you’ve even started. Sometimes you already feel a connection with the characters or sometimes an element of the story makes you reluctant to read it.
For me Wuthering Heights has always been a dark, gloomy ghost story. I saw part of an old adaptation on TV when I was younger. Just a few minutes, but I caught a pivotal scene and that coloured my opinion of the novel for a long time. It was the moment that Cathy’s ghost appears at her window, and from then I always thought of Wuthering Heights as a ghost story.
Reading it over Christmas, I realised there were a few things I had gotten wrong. The ghost story is a small part of Wuthering Heights, although Cathy’s restless spirit embodies the longing and grief that comes from missed opportunities. The residents of Wuthering Heights bear grudges, hold onto slights, their wounds stay open and because of that they never move on or let go of the past.
The characters of Wuthering Heights had always seemed romantic, but they lost their charm by the end of the book. Cathy was spiteful and selfish, Heathcliffe proud and hateful, Hindley irritable and brutish. They are the most content when they are injuring each other. Brought up under the dark clouds of their parents’ tragedies, their children seem destined for the same fate. Nature and upbringing play an important role. Heathcliffe has the potential to be a fiercely loyal ally to the Earnshaw family, but Hindley’s cruelty turns him into a bitter enemy. Yet, Heathcliffe has always been quick to anger, and takes pleasure in acting out revenge. It’s hard to say for certain that the darker parts of his character wouldn’t have emerged if he had been treated better.
Hareton, Hindley’s son, is brought up in a similar way to Heathcliffe. After his father’s death Heathcliffe treats him as he had been treated, forcing him to work outdoors and denying him an education. Hareton could become cruel and bitter, but a change in circumstances and his relationship with his cousin Catherine redeems him. Heathcliffe has ample opportunities to redeem himself but prefers to inflict suffering instead.
It’s interesting that the story is told not by the immediate characters but through the perspective of Nelly, the housekeeper, who raised Cathy and Heathcliffe. From the beginning she is suspicious of Heathcliffe, but she does offer him small kindnesses when others are cruel to him. Would Cathy have painted such a damning portrait of Heathcliffe?
In Wuthering Heights, love is as damaging as hate but at the end of the novel it provides an opportunity for hope.