Slowly, I’m working my way through a list of classics that I have always wanted to read. “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte was next on the list. I knew that it was a story of unrequited love, and I was curious to see how her work would compare to her sister’s. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” is one of my favorites. I didn’t know, however, that the main characters would have the emotional maturity of two-year-olds. Maybe I have been reading far too many young adult novels because I thought “Wuthering Heights” would contain characters that I would, maybe not relate to, but at least latch onto and then want to follow their plight to a satisfying conclusion. Heathcliff, however, is purely a villain with no redeeming qualities and Catherine a spoiled brat. This was disappointing because I wanted to immerse myself in the novel and get lost in their relationship. Instead, I followed the train wreck that they created and the ripple effects impacting the people around them, including their children. It’s not often that a novel features the “bad guys” as protagonists and the secondary characters as the normal people. This interesting twist, the excellent quality of writing, and the fact that I can’t stop thinking about the story made the novel worth reading.
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I seem to be one of the few literate women who - up until yesterday - had never read Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Given the rapturous delight with which many recall this novel, I fully expected to be caught up in a gothic, romantic dream. I think, however, I may have read it at least 20 years too late. If I had first read this between the ages of 14 and 24, rather than at 44, I think I would have loved it. Don't get me wrong, it was a good book, but I didn't think it was a great book.Wuthering Heights takes place in the wilds of northern England. Mr. Lockwood has come to rent the house at Thrushcross Grange, and soon meets his landlord, Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. After a very unpleasant encounter with the residents of Wuthering Heights, an unsettling night in which he is visited by a ghost, and a long trek back to the Grange, Lockwood becomes sick. He asks Nelly Dean, the servant woman who takes care of the Grange, to tell him more about Heathcliff and the other denizens of the Heights. Nelly gladly dives into the story - she has been serving the family for many years and knows all the details.SPOILERSThirty years earlier, Mr. Earnshaw, the owner of Wuthering Heights, brought a street urchin back with him from a trip to Liverpool. He is names Heathcliff, and grows up with Earnshaw's children, Hindley and Catherine. From the start, there is something "different" about Heathcliff - he is brooding, dark - an unknown. However, he and Catherine become extremely close, while Hindley sees Heathcliff as an interloper. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley and his wife take over the estate, and Hindley immediately banishes Heathcliff to work with the servants. Meanwhile, Catherine meets the neighbors at Thrushcross Grange - Edgar and Isabella Linton. Heathcliff abhors the Lintons; not only is he jealous of the time Catherine spends with them, but he sees them as soft and unworthy.When Hindley's wife dies (after giving birth to a son, Hareton), Hindley takes to drinking and Catherine agrees to marry Edgar Linton. Heathcliff leaves home, never knowing that Catherine truly loves him, not Edgar. When Heathcliff returns, some three years later, he is now wealthy and bent on revenge. He gambles with Hindley, who loses everything to Heathcliff. He elopes with Edgar's sister Isabella, which may allow him to inherit Thrushcross Grange when Edgar dies. Eventually, Isabella has a child - a weakly boy named Linton. Meanwhile, Catherine becomes sick. When she finally sees Heathcliff, it helps to drive her to her death - but not before she gives birth to another Catherine, or Cathy for short.Over time, Edgar dies and eventually Heathcliff - through underhanded means - forces Cathy to marry the dying Linton. He keeps Cathy prisoner at Wuthering Heights, even after Linton's death. However, Cathy and Hareton eventually become friends, then fall in love. Heathcliff discovers he has nothing left to live for - no reason for revenge. He dies and is finally able to spend his afterlife with Catherine, his one true love.Yep, lots happens in Wuthering Heights. And it all happens to cousins, it seems. The plot is convoluted, but moves along quickly. However, I found it very difficult to really like any of the characters. Of course, Heathcliff is meant to be irredeemably lost. If there was any chance that he might have a modicum of goodness in him, it was snuffed out early - either before he got to Wuthering Heights, or soon after Mr. Earnshaw's death. I found Catherine the Elder to be pretty annoying as well. Although she says she loves Heathcliff, she goes ahead with Edgar anyway. She seems to delight in torturing just about everyone around her. Cathy the Younger was okay, but a young and somewhat spoiled girl. And the other characters? Either they were cruel, or soft, or cloying, or delicate, or mean, or some combination thereof.I really appreciated Brontë's writing style. There seem to be few "literary" novels from the 19th century that speak in plain language (and yes, I mean "plain" as a complement). This may be because Bronte wrote this way naturally, or it may be because most of the narration comes from Nelly Dean, a servant, but a pretty well-educated one.And this leads me to Nelly, who is our narrator for most of the story. Of all the characters in the book, I found Nelly to be the most interesting. Whether this was intentional on Brontë's part or not, I don't know, but I became more and more intrigued with her as the story continued. She is fascinated with death, superstitious, and doesn't seem to hesitate to be a tattle-tale. She works all sides, always making sure she comes out on top. In many ways, this all-too-unreliable narrator is the most brilliant part of the novel, and I found myself wondering just how much of the story was "true" (none, of course, but since Nelly basically admits she'll do what she has to to ensure she keeps her employment, one wonders).Overall, Wuthering Heights is a good book. One wonders what brilliance Emily Brontë might have shown if she had lived past the publication of this, her one and only book. Too bad we'll never know.
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