Reading Wuthering Heights again, at 30
Back to the moor
When I was younger I was a serial reader, then I reflected that there are too many books in the world to “waste time” with those I had already read and I stopped.
But last summer, I came across a popular Italian podcast and listened to the episode dedicated to the Brontë sisters with great interest. That’s why I decided I started reading Wuthering Heights again, at 30. I went to my parents’ house, made my way through the new books, and recovered my now yellowed Penguin Classic edition. It was such a shocking experience that I believe I will repeat it with other books.
But first, let’s take a step back.
Emily Brontë was born in 1818 in Thornton, Yorkshire. Her life was almost as stormy as her novel and was a great source of inspiration for her writings. Orphaned by her mother at an early age, Emily, her sisters, and her only brother were left to themselves by their father and made the moors their playground.
Their upbringing was mostly home-based, with the exception of the year that Emily and her sister Charlotte spent in a boarding school with very strict rules. This experience marked the two Brontës so much that it then became a source of inspiration for Jane Eyre, Charlotte’s novel.
Once they returned home, the Brontës lived a relatively happy time in which their favorite pastime was inventing stories set on imaginary islands. Unfortunately, we have only a few poems left of these texts.
It was thanks to her poems that Charlotte became aware of Emily’s literary talent.
In 1846 the poems of Charlotte, Emily, and Ann (author of Agnes Gray) were published under a pseudonym under the title Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
The following year, it was the turn of Wuthering Heights. The novel, however, was not appreciated by the critics of the time who considered it amoral. It was only time that made Wuthering Heights a success that she couldn’t enjoy as she died in 1848 at the age of 30.
Wuthering Heights Plot
Summarizing the plot of Wuthering Heights is very difficult and intricate. So much so that when I tried with Stefano he raised the white flag. Be patient, if you feel confusion it is normal, you just have to read the book.
Siblings Hindley and Catherine Earnshaw live in Wuthering Heights with their father who, after a business trip, brings home a boy named Heathcliff. Orphaned, uneducated, and with a gypsy appearance, Heathcliff is the object of ridicule by the Earnshaw brothers, so much so that his father is forced to send the eldest, Hindley, to boarding school. Left alone with Heathcliff, Catherine changes her mind about the boy and the two become inseparable.
When his father dies, Hindley returns from boarding school accompanied by his new wife and can finally take revenge on the boy who deprived him of his father’s affection. Having become the master of Wuthering Heights, he forces Heathcliff to drop out of school and work as a servant. Despite everything, the bond between Heathcliff and Catherine continues to grow and the two take advantage of every moment to play together on the moors.
Thrushcross Grange and the Lintons
During one of the walks, Catherine enters the park of the nearby Thrushcross Grange mansion where she is bitten by a dog. Forced to stay there for a few weeks, Catherine is welcomed by the wealthy Linton family and develops a strong bond with Edgar, the eldest son.
Once back to Wuthering Heights, Catherine no longer sees Heathcliff in the same way due to the merciless comparison with the Lintons. In later years, Catherine cultivates a relationship with Edgar, but she continues to secretly love Heathcliff. During a confession with housekeeper Nelly, Catherine says that although she is madly in love with Heathcliff, she will never be able to marry him due to his low social background. Heathcliff overhears only part of the speech and, convinced that Catherine despises, decides to leave in search of fortune. With Heathcliff away, Catherine marries Edgar Linton.
In the meantime, Hindley becomes the father of little Hareton but, after being widowed precisely because of the birth of his son, he turns to alcoholism and gambling.
Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after about three years and is a changed man. He has become rich but is still blinded by his love for Catherine. He repeatedly visits the latter who, pregnant and torn by love for Heathcliff and Edgar, dies giving birth to a girl who will also be called Catherine (henceforth Cathy).
With no more Catherine, Heathcliff can take his revenge on all those who have deprived him of happiness. First, he lashes out on Hindley whose vices he foments until he gets the name of Wuthering Heights as payment for his gambling debts. When Hindley dies, Heathcliff reduces his son Hareton to a state of misery and ignorance, just as Hindley did to him.
Meanwhile, he deceives Isabella Linton marries her becoming the father of a child. Upon Isabella’s death, he takes the boy, who is very ill in health, and does everything to bring him closer to his cousin Cathy with the aim of marrying them and becoming the master of Thrushcross Grange.
Only once his revenge is accomplished will Heathcliff find peace in death.
The story is presented to us in the form of a long story told by housekeeper Nelly Dean to Mr. Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange.
Reading Wuthering Heights again, at 30
The first time I read Wuthering Heights I was in high school, it was the mid-2000s and I was also reading Twilight alongside the literature books. Specifically, in the second volume of the vampire saga, New Moon, the protagonist Bella feels like a modern Catherine Earnshaw, torn between her love for the vampire Edward (Heathcliff) and for the werewolf Jacob (Edgar Linton). I, influenced by the hormones, worried along with her. At the time, my perception of Wuthering Heights was filtered by the romantic interpretation of the story suggested by New Moon, and it remained unchanged until last summer.
This is not a romantic story
Now I am no longer shamefully obsessed with Twilight, the hormones are at bay and I am now in my thirties. You can therefore imagine my surprise to discover that Wuthering Heights is NOT a romantic book but a story with selfish, resentful, and vengeful characters and that between the pages there are no heroes but only very desperate people.
Wuthering Heights is a tragedy.
But let’s go in order.
Three things I understood differently
- Heathcliff is not a romantic hero and if he were a 2021 character, we would call him a stalker. He has an unhealthy and obsessive attachment to Catherine. He lurks under her window, sneaks into her house, and doesn’t leave her alone even when she’s dead.
The feeling that moves him is not love but resentment. He is convinced that everyone has wronged him and does not see the wrong that he has done. Everything he does is moved by wounded pride and not by sincere love, at least in my opinion.
- Edgar Linton and Hareton are the novel’s true victims. They are good people who have had the misfortune of being fond of very unstable souls.
- Mr. Lockwood had a love interest in Cathy. I don’t know if I didn’t understand it as a young man or if I didn’t remember it, the fact is that re-reading Wuthering Heights at the age of 30 I also caught this piece of the puzzle. It seemed to me that with the Cathy-Haerton-Lockwood “triangle”, Emily Brontë wanted to repair the one with Catherine-Heathcliff-Linton. Cathy finds a way to live with Hareton’s “cultural degradation” and together they have a (fairly) healthy love story. Nelly gives Lockwood the picture of the situation and he rightfully decides that it is better not to meddle.
Three things that have not changed
The setting of the novel is perhaps the thing I love most about Wuthering Heights. The Yorkshire moorland in the north of England is a land poor in vegetation, inhospitable, perpetually windswept and I have always loved it. I fell in love with these places invaded by heather reading Frances H. Burnett’s The Secret Garden when I was a child and that landscape fascinates me ever since. Little fun fact, even the Friuli Venezia Giulia have our little moor, or the Magredi of Pordenone.
Nelly Dean remains one of the characters I disliked the most in the novel. She could have done more, a word from her would have been enough to placate all other characters’ minds instead she has often contributed to discord depending on her sympathies.
Is it possible to dislike all the characters but love the novel in general? I would say yes because even as a teenager I wasn’t fond of any of the characters, despite the Twilight influence. Even as an adult, magic didn’t happen, but at some level, I think it’s their being unlikable that makes them special. In their being imperfect they are also extremely real. It is easy to love a novel where all the characters are heroes, lovable, nice, and winning, it is more difficult to do it with annoying and defective characters but Emily Brontë succeeded.
Was it worth it rereading Wuthering Heights at 30? In conclusion, I would say yes.
I didn’t realize how revolutionary Wuthering Heights was. In a Victorian world in which we have been accustomed to considering Elizabeth Bennet revolutionary for rejecting the rich Mr. Darcy, Emily Brontë populates her novel with anti-heroes, mean and flawed characters. She puts in the chill of the moors, death, and ghosts and deprives readers of a happy ending. If this is not revolutionary, I don’t know what else could it be.
Although I liked the novel even as a teenager, I caught all its nuances only by rereading it as an adult. My perception changed so much that it was really like reading a whole new book.
I’m really curious, and at the same time frightened, to repeat the experiment with other books from my adolescence. So far the only book I read again was The Witches by Roald Dahl.
Have you ever read the same book in two different phases of your life? What differences have you noticed?