I Was Promised Ghosts
by Kris Kendall
Reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights felt like homework sometimes.
The biggest hurdle to getting to the good parts of the novel is the first third of the novel, in which it seems nobody really likes anybody else, yet they all live together in a setting so cold and dreary, the stink of wet wool and misery wafts off every page. Who, as a reader, are we supposed to root for in this world of grumps, dog-kickers and unaddressed scorn?
But perseverance and a strong desire to get to the “ghost story” angle of the book, kept the momentum going, slow as it was.
Wuthering’s central figure, Catherine Earnshaw, seems like a spoiled brat until the reader is able to step back from her constant mood swings and awful treatment of everyone around her, to realize that she has no female authority figure on which to model her behavior.
Ma Earnshaw dies early on, when Cathy is quite young. Also, Cathy’s growing up in a farmhouse in Northern England in the late 1700s – not an era of great freedom for women.
Not that her circumstances excuse her conduct. And she’s certainly not the only character a reader might quickly put in the “what a jerk!” column. You see, they’re all jerks: Hindley, Heathcliff, that little shit Linton. Just about every major player in the story, save for Lockwood and Nelly Dean, are truly awful people.
Here are the rules governing the universe of Wuthering Heights: When it matters most, characters rarely say what they’re thinking, open hostility is the norm, and all seem incapable of simply leaving.*
Even after reaching the Greek theater-style happy ending of Heights, nagging questions about the set-up that puts the book into motion remain.
For this reader, the most important question is this: Are we to infer that Cathy and Heathcliff are half-siblings? A casual search of the Web confirmed that this isn’t a new idea. Surely that had to be somewhere in Emily Bronte’s mind as she wrote about an era (in an era) when marrying first cousins was accepted.
If that taboo was in Bronte’s notes as she wrote, her ability to bury the suggestion so deep into the text that it barely registers may be the most amazing feat of fiction writing in the 19th century.
Now, about those ghosts – there aren’t any. Wuthering Heights is haunted, for sure, but not in a cozy Victorian horror style. The one “supernatural” scene early in the book reads more like an hallucination than a spectral sighting.
There are hints of ghostly things much later. But this is a horror story with romance and revenge, not a ghost story. That horror? It’s other people and the misery they feel compelled to share.
*SPOILER: One character does manage to get some sense and leave the wretched moor, but again, in the Greek drama style, she is punished with illness and death.
Reference material: Now that the book's been conquered, it whets the appetite for Juliet Barker's biography of the Bronte family, Wild Genius on the Moors and to see the 2011 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Andrea Arnold.
[Cartoon excerpt from Hark! A Vagrant]