By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.
For those who wish to learn more about the background of The House of Dead Maids, I have written a number of web pages dealing with my research into the Brontë family and Wuthering Heights. You may reach all of those pages by clicking on this link.
"This is a strange book," mused the reviewer of The Examiner, and so have many readers since. (Barker, 177) But what makes it so strange? What is it about Wuthering Heights that gives it an atmosphere so powerful that readers retain vivid memories from its pages, as if it were a place they had visited rather than a story they had read?
These motifs and literary techniques of Wuthering Heights help give the book its unique character, and they strongly influenced my prequel, The House of Dead Maids
BREAKING BARRIERS, CROSSING BOUNDARIES
DEEP INSIDE THE HOUSE: THE MOOR
IMPERSONAL PERSONAL NAMES
TWINNINGS/BATTLES TO THE DEATH
THE PLUNDERED NEST
THE ETERNAL ROCKS BENEATH
THE MOST RELIABLE OF UNRELIABLE NARRATORS
From the very first moment of Wuthering Heights, when Lockwood's horse has to push against the gate to gain admittance, the novel is all about trespassing. "Indeed, transgression—the dissolving of normative boundaries—could be called the main thematic idea which holds the novel together. ... Boundaries may be there to create order, but seething within them are the anarchic seeds of their own destruction." (Lucasta Miller, 211-212)
This trespassing occurs on every level of the novel: from the most basic, in which doors, windows, gates, and fences dominate the description, to the deepest layers of plot and character, in which Cathy defies the guardians of society and the angels in heaven to return to Wuthering Heights with the man she loves, and Heathcliff the outsider gains admittance to the home of the Earnshaws to take possession of it for eternity.
The trespassing that occurs in the novel produces its tension as characters come into contact with entire worlds of experience they had not even known existed:
The moor in Wuthering Heights consists of a whole network of adjacent but non-interacting worlds, marked by separations in time and space. ... The dialectical texture of the book traverses vertical and horizontal dimensions simultaneously, creating at crossing points the emotional 'explosions' which reverberate throughout. Tensions are set up; for initially, even the separateness of these different spheres of existence goes without recognition; the Lintons and Earnshaws feel no hostility because they feel no proximity. ... Awareness of separation itself constitutes a first primitive knowledge. (Williams, 120-121)
Practically every page of the novel features a trespass, whether Edgar is coming calling at Wuthering Heights in order to steal Cathy from Heathcliff or Cathy II is jumping her pony over the wall of Thrushcross Grange in order to discover the dangers of the outside world. But who is the ultimate trespasser?
That would be the reader, who sneaks into this most private of novels in the company of Lockwood and stays to unravel its secrets:
Brontë's authorial irony, like the flaming sword at the entrance to Eden that turned every way to prevent man's reentry, forbids trespassing readers entrance into the world of the Heights. But what is forbidden has always been doubly enticing, and generations of readers—much like the persistent and bumbling Lockwood, who tries to understand Heathcliff's and Cathy's behavior—continue to try to pry out the meanings of the novel. (Ghnassia, 4)
When Lockwood comes to Wuthering Heights, he passes through a series of barriers: first, through the gate (which must be unchained); then, up the causeway (a paved path) into the courtyard; beneath the grotesque carving and quaint inscription over the front door; and into the family sitting room, or "house." On his next visit, the land and weather conspire to make him a prisoner for the night, and the housekeeper takes him further into Wuthering Heights—the home and its mysteries.
Leading Lockwood up a stairway, Zillah warns her guest that she is putting him into a chamber about which the master has "an odd notion." When she leaves him, Lockwood looks around for the bed and discovers that it is a further little room: "a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top, resembling coach windows." (Brontë, 25) Within that little room is the bed—and, of all things, a window.
But this is not just any window. It is a magic portal. Its sill forms a table, where Cathy has left the notes of her life to be discovered, and upon which she has scratched her name. Within five minutes, Lockwood is haunted by her presence, and before the night is out, Cathy herself comes knocking at the window, demanding to be let in.
It is to this magical window of Cathy's that her daughter will come later in Nelly Dean's tale, seeking a way out of Wuthering Heights to rejoin her dying father, and this window alone of all the exits in the house grants her desire. It is to this room that Heathcliff comes when he is dying, and it is this window which opens to release his tormented soul and allow the rain to wash his corpse. It is from this magical window that the dead Heathcliff and Cathy gaze on every rainy night.
Thus, at the deepest point inside Wuthering Heights—at the focal point of its mysteries—we find ourselves gazing "outside." But this window does not open onto the banal outdoors through which Nelly Dean passes each morning on her patrol of the house. This is the wild moor of Cathy and Heathcliff's lost childhood, that land in which the two of them can be free. "The closet-bed in which [Lockwood] has his dream," explains Meg Harris Williams, "enclosing the only window in the house which it is possible to climb out of, is the ultimate 'recess' in the Heights. ... Just as the front door displays official Earnshaw history, so the closet-bed and window provide the family's unofficial, subterranean, back-door contact with ostracised or unacknowledged spiritual forces, the otherworld within themselves, the spiritual wild moors." (10)
Ordinarily, a name helps to establish a character's individuality. But in Wuthering Heights, the names possess the characters, and not the other way around. For one thing, as many critics have observed, "...there don't seem to be enough names to go around. ..." (Lucasta Miller, p. 212) Hareton must share his name with the legendary founder of Wuthering Heights, whose name is inscribed over the door. And Cathy must share her name with her own daughter, who is doomed to live again the experience of a woman caught against her will between rival lovers—the role that so distressed her mother.
Furthermore, "...the surname used as a Christian name ... seems to have fascinated Emily Brontë. ..." (Birth, 120) It is true that this was common in Emily's day, and also that Emily lived with daily evidence of it. Her brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë, had to share his Christian name with his father, so he went by his middle name, which had been his mother's surname. But his mother's sister lived with the family too and was known as Aunt Branwell, so Branwell also found himself without "enough names to go around." Did Emily find this confused identity interesting?
No fewer than six of the major characters of Wuthering Heights have a surname for their "personal" name, rendering it much less personal as a result. Lockwood, Hindley, Heathcliff, Linton, and Hareton are five such names that are not just surnames but also place names, as their etymology makes clear. What few readers realize, however, is that Edgar—while familiar to us now as a first name—was a common surname in the region of Ireland from whence Emily Brontë's father came. (Irish, 124) This makes it likely that even Edgar is burdened with a surname as his personal form of address.
In the first generation, we observe Cathy playing with names to try to determine her future: "This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small—Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton." (Brontë, 25) These names are not different facets of Cathy's character; rather, they are roles for her to try on—roles which will take possession of her as soon as she accepts the name. The names represent courses of action which are irrevocable and also exclusive: although Lockwood may go on to tell us how "in vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton, till my eyes closed," Cathy does not have the luxury of combining these names as he does. One name will eliminate the others.
However, in the second generation, we begin to see the names blend as various roles from the first generation have become crystallized: Cathy's daughter does in fact end up with this blended name, but in reverse: Catherine Linton Heathcliff Earnshaw. And witness poor Linton Heathcliff, who is forced to carry his unlucky family tree around with him as a mode of address. With such a rigid expression of hatred and misfortune forming his name, he has no room to develop any life of his own. It is hardly surprising that the pitiful creature expires the minute his puppet master of a father is done with him.
Only Heathcliff appears to be master of his name, perhaps because his name alone of all the names in the book betrays nothing about either his past or his future. In the end, this single name is all anyone knows about him, and he alone has escaped the iron rules of tradition to forge a unique and unprecedented role for himself:
"But where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?"muttered superstition, as I dozed into unconsciousness. And I began, half dreaming, to weary myself with imagining some fit parentage for him; and, repeating my waking meditations, I tracked his existence over again, with grim variations; at last, picturing his death and funeral; of which, all I can remember is, being exceedingly vexed at having the task of dictating an inscription for his monument, and consulting the sexton about it; and, as he had no surname, and we could not tell his age, we were obliged to content ourselves with the single word, 'Heathcliff.' That came true; we were. If you enter the kirkyard, you'll read on his headstone only that, and the date of his death. (Brontë, 260)
Linked to the claustrophobic naming convention is the pairing or twinning that takes place in the book. Chitham comments on "the binary nature of the book (it is full of dualities),..." and this binary nature appears everywhere, from the two great houses/families to the two generations we follow, including their two main lovers' triangles in which two male rivals contend for a single woman. (Birth, 86) But this struggle of two characters for a single prize goes beyond just the main lovers' triangles. Heathcliff and Hindley struggle to win Mr. Earnshaw's affection and the mastery of Wuthering Heights; Cathy and Isabella compete (most unequally) for Heathcliff's regard; and both Isabella and Edgar eventually lose to Heathcliff the role of parent to their two children. Beyond this, many scenes set up temporary rivalries between two characters: Hindley and Nelly struggle together over the young Hareton (and both lose him, incidentally, to Heathcliff, in a moment of foreshadowing); and Nelly and Cathy II quarrel over young Linton and later fight for the possession of Cathy II's love letters. Within the novel, there is in fact a "stifling family closeness," in which one character's gain represents another character's bitter loss. (Birth p. 115)
Such rivalries over a lover or piece of property are not unusual in Victorian literature, but what is unique in this case is that the contests so often end in death. Eleven of the entries on Charles Percy Sanger's famous family tree have death dates, leaving only two family members alive by the last page. (Brontë, 290) Cathy and Cathy II represent the most extreme example: they are literally joined together in a struggle for life, making the one's death date the other's birthday. These desperate Darwinian battles for survival emphasize the characters' ephemerality, and that emphasizes the permanence of the bleak, windswept land, which in the end will outlast them all.
In the final struggle, Cathy II and Hareton appear to be pitted against Heathcliff and a ghostly Cathy for the ultimate prize: freedom, as well as the accumulated property. Although Heathcliff soon dies and Cathy has been dead for some time, the pair nevertheless maintain an active presence, haunting "near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house." (Brontë, 265) But the threat of their reappearance does not worry the young lovers, for whose sake Heathcliff has already retired graciously from the field, conceding that he has "lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction," and for whose sake Cathy may have come to take Heathcliff away, since her haunting of him coincides with the beginning of the young cousins' love. (Brontë, 255) Cathy II and Hareton know that they have won: "They are afraid of nothing. ... Together they would brave Satan and all his legions."(Brontë, 266)
It is significant that Hareton and Cathy II alone of all the victors in the book offer their rivals a compromise. Upon their marriage, they intend to move to Thrushcross Grange, and that will leave Wuthering Heights free "for the use of such ghosts as choose to inhabit it." (Brontë, 265) At last, with almost all of the combatants in this claustrophobic struggle sidelined in death, there are prizes enough to go around.
The motif of the plundered nest serves as a metaphor for the entire tale of Heathcliff's extraordinary life. When asked about his history, Nelly Dean answers, "It's a cuckoo's, sir . ... And Hareton has been cast out like an unfledged dunnock [a baby sparrow]!" (Brontë, 37) The European cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, one egg for each nest. As soon as this feathered parasite hatches, it ejects the other young birds or eggs from the nest and receives the full care and attention of its foster parents. Thus, the house of Wuthering Heights is itself a plundered nest, with both Cathy's and Hindley's children cast out and Heathcliff—the human "cuckoo"—in possession of the entire estate.
One of the most disturbing bits of information related during Cathy's delirium has to do with another nest Heathcliff has plundered, or at least destroyed, and she relates it while she herself is "plundering a nest"—plucking the feathers out of her pillow:
"That's a turkey's," she murmured to herself; "and this is a wild duck's; and this is a pigeon's. ... And here is a moor-cock's; and this—I should know it among a thousand—it's a lapwing's. Bonny bird; wheeling over our heads in the middle of the moor. It wanted to get to its nest, for the clouds had touched the swells, and it felt rain coming. This feather was picked up from the heath, the bird was not shot; we saw its nest in the winter, full of little skeletons. Heathcliff set a trap over it, and the old ones dared not come. I made him promise he'd never shoot a lapwing after that, and he didn't. Yes, here are more! Did he shoot my lapwings, Nelly? Are they red, any of them? Let me look." (Brontë, 105)
It is this scene of little skeletons on the moor that shows us there has been no idyllic, innocent childhood for either Cathy or Heathcliff, no matter how they both long for their lost unity later. Their earliest time together was already a brutal battlefield, with Heathcliff pitted against his foster family: the cuckoo struggling to take possession of the nest.
Each of the plundered-nest images in Wuthering Heights, then, relates to a sad loss of childish innocence and harmless joy: Hindley and Nelly's little nest of treasures in the guidepost appears to be despoiled by the foul-mouthed, expletive-spewing young Hareton, and Cathy II and Linton's discovery of a cupboard full of treasures that had belonged to their parents in childhood ("a heap of old toys: tops, and hoops, and battledores and shuttlecocks") does nothing but spark a disagreement between the cousins over who shall have the best of the spoils. (Brontë, 199)
But it is the removal of Cathy II's love letters that most poignantly conveys the image of the loss of childhood's joy, and indeed gives this motif its name. Having gone on a ramble on her sixteenth birthday, Cathy II is caught by Heathcliff "plundering nests"—searching out the nests of the grouse on Heathcliff's land. In this way, Cathy learns that her cousin Linton lives nearby, and she embarks on a correspondence with him which Linton's father soon manages to turn into an opportunity for spurring romance between the cousins. "The earlier dated were embarrassed and short," Nelly Dean tells us of those notes; "gradually, however, they expanded into copious love letters, foolish as the age of the writer rendered natural, yet with touches, here and there which I thought were borrowed from a more experienced source. ... They appeared very worthless trash to me," she adds, and so must all of childhood's most treasured possessions and occupations appear to the cynical eye of maturity. (Brontë, 182-183)
When Nelly removes Cathy II's love letters from their locked drawer, the young woman is crushed by the loss."Never did any bird flying back to a plundered nest, which it had left brimful of chirping young ones, express more complete despair in its anguished cries and flutterings, than she by her single 'Oh!' and the change that transfigured her late happy countenance." (Brontë, 183) Nelly Dean burns the precious little notes, and the happiest part of Cathy II's largely unhappy courtship comes to a close.
Yet, just as the ensnared lapwing nest proved that her mother's happy childhood was a lie, so this nest of love letters gives the lie to Cathy II's inexperienced ideas of happiness: "Linton's contrived, artificial letters embody the false conjunction of 'Linton Heathcliff'; they are an assortment of dead elements, Catherine's 'pile of little skeletons', not a nest of living fledglings." (Williams, 79) Here, too, Heathcliff has set a snare which will baffle the efforts of the older generation to protect the young. This trap ultimately wins for him another plundered nest—and another young person ends up cast out like an unfledged dunnock.
Cathy's paneled bed is a unique and private space: "a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top resembling coach windows. ... In fact, it formed a little closet. ..." (Brontë, 25) It is in this enclosure that Cathy and Heathcliff sleep together during the happiest years of their lives, before Hindley and the Lintons intrude to separate them.
This wooden box of a bed winds up doing temporary service as a coffin when Heathcliff dies in it, and indeed, Cathy makes it sound like one already when she describes being put to bed there as a child without Heathcliff beside her: "I was laid alone, for the first time. ..." (Brontë, 107) Of course, a nursemaid may lay a child in a bed, but corpses are laid out, too. Throughout the novel, corpses are compared with sleepers and sleepers with corpses from the time Mr. Earnshaw dies and is mistaken for a sleeper to the very last page, when Lockwood stands over Cathy and Heathcliff's grave and cannot imagine "unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth." (Brontë, 266)
At the beginning of Cathy's long "sleep" of death, she shares her couch with her husband: "Edgar Linton had his head laid on the pillow, and his eyes shut. His young and fair features were almost as deathlike as those of the form beside him, and almost as fixed; but his was the hush of exhausted anguish, and hers of perfect peace." (Brontë, 137) By the end, however, Heathcliff has joined them: "I sought, and soon discovered, the three head-stones on the slope next the moor—the middle one, grey, and half buried in the heath—Edgar Linton's only harmonized by the turf, and moss creeping up its foot—Heathcliff's still bare." (Brontë, 266)
But Heathcliff has not just had himself interred beside his "heart's darling." (Brontë, 33) He has taken a much more drastic—not to say macabre—step: "...I struck one side of [Cathy's] coffin loose, and covered it up—not Linton's side, damn him! I wish he'd been soldered in lead—and I bribed the sexton to pull it away, when I'm laid there, and slide mine out too. I'll have it made so, and then, by the time Linton gets to us, he'll not know which is which!" (Brontë, 228) Heathcliff has recreated the little oak closet in which he and Cathy slept together, the one to which her spirit still returns. She will no longer have to be laid alone, for Heathcliff will soon be "sleeping the last sleep" beside her, "with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers." (Brontë, 229)
Thus, Heathcliff joins Cathy in death, as she has demanded of him, and at the same time, he fulfills the most earnest wish of her delirium: "Oh, if I were but in my own bed in the old house!" (Brontë, 106) It is from inside the oak panels of this bed/coffin that she and Heathcliff are said to look out on every rainy night after Heathcliff's death. The little ghost child has come home at last.
One cannot read Wuthering Heights without becoming aware of the strong presence of the land, that bleak and forbidding place where the stunted trees "all [stretch] their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun" and "...sky and hills [mingle] in one bitter whirl of wind and suffocating snow." (Brontë, 14, 22) The power of the land comes through in spite of the fact—or perhaps because of the fact—that Emily Brontë rarely describes it. (Her descriptions, when present, are perfect, and therefore linger in the mind.) Primarily, it is her description of the people who deal with the land—the harshness of their characters, the isolation of their upbringing, and the wild strength of their passions—that conveys to us how desolate the land must be. That wild place has formed wild characters in its two devoted children, Heathcliff and Cathy.
Books of rough people from rough places are not unusual. What is unique to Wuthering Heights is the way the wild place and the wild characters seem to pervade one another. As Charlotte Brontë puts it, "Some of [Heathcliff's] spirit seems breathed through the whole narrative in which he figures: it haunts every moor and glen, and beckons in every fir-tree in the Heights." (Barker, 203)
The haunting of Wuthering Heights by this unnatural pair—and the haunting of the pair by the Heights itself—generates the tension of the book:
...The emotions of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw function differently to other emotions in fiction. Instead of inhabiting the characters, they surround them like thunder clouds, and generate the explosions that fill the novel from the moment when Lockwood dreams of the hand at the window down to the moment when Heathcliff, with the same window open, is discovered dead. (Forster, 187)
It is small wonder, then, when asked to explain her relationship to Heathcliff, that Cathy has to explain her relationship to Wuthering Heights first."I was only going to say," she begins, "that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy." She concludes by comparing her and Heathcliff's relationship to the land she couldn't bear to leave: "My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath. ..." (Brontë, 72-74) That love seems to be a force of nature rising out of their close identification with the land, not a human emotion.
It is worth noting that an unusual source may have inspired Emily Brontë in her creation of Wuthering Heights. Scholars suspect that Patrick Brontë passed down to his children the stories he had learned from his grandfather, a storyteller of considerable local renown whose first language was probably Irish. (Irish, 48) Among those stories would likely have been the legends of the Táin Bó, the stories of Queen Maeve and the hero Cuchullain:
It is impossible to summarise this legendary material, which includes magic, giant heroes, warrior queens, and is full of stark emotion. However, it is worth noting that it is a continuous saga, from which incidents can be chosen for telling and retelling, just as in Gondal incidents can be embroidered and retold. Although the story of the Táin Bó is in one sense in the remote past and recognized to be so, in the other sense it is timeless, just as the elements in Wuthering Heights are timeless. The larger-than-life characters, such as Maeve and Cuchullain, act more as forces than as individuals. (Irish, 58)
Certainly that heroic cycle would be a fitting origin for these two Titans, whose love cannot be contained within the limits of society, or even of mortality, because it rests on "the eternal rocks beneath."
The tale of these two mythic figures would have faded into unreality if not for Emily Brontë's skillful and unusual choice of narrators. Lockwood and Nelly Dean, in contrast to their wild protagonists, are two deeply respectable—not to say narrow-minded—individuals. They sprinkle their stories with homely aphorisms and practical details that keep us thoroughly grounded in reality. For instance, through Lockwood's observation, we learn that Gimmerton is always three weeks behind the other villages with its harvests, due to the harsher weather there. Consequently, we more easily believe such remarkable details as the little hand coming through the window and Heathcliff's subsequent outburst of grief. "Because the narrators remain cool," Holbrook concludes, "one does not feel that what is reported is improbable." (19)
Lockwood begins the story in the chatty style of the sophisticated diarist, the sort of writer who would inspire Oscar Wilde, fifty years later, to describe Cecily's diary in The Importance of Being Earnest as "simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication." Lockwood spends the first three chapters relaying to us his cynical impressions of Wuthering Heights—"a perfect misanthrope's heaven"—his neighbors—"the clown at my elbow, who is drinking his tea out of a basin"—and life in general—"forty, a period of mental vigor at which men seldom cherish the delusion of being married for love, by girls: that dream is reserved for the solace of our declining years." (Brontë, 13, 21) When the ghost sets upon this world-weary prig, he and we are equally astounded.
Nelly Dean takes up the tale and tells it with a similar practical turn of mind. She doesn't avoid sharing her prejudices with us because she finds herself an eminently sensible body, and she feels sure we will do the same: "'She's fainted or dead,' I thought, 'so much the better. Far better that she should be dead, than lingering a burden and a misery-maker to all about her.'" (Brontë, 136)
In fact, when Nelly Dean and Lockwood turn their self-satisfied attitudes on each other, we see an unstoppable force meet an immovable object:
"The clock is on the stroke of eleven, sir."
"No matter—I'm not accustomed to go to bed in the long hours. One or two is early enough for a person who lies till ten."
"You shouldn't lie till ten. There's the very prime of the morning gone long before that time. A person who has not done one half his day's work by ten o'clock runs a chance of leaving the other half undone."
"Nevertheless, Mrs. Dean, resume your chair; because to-morrow I intend lengthening the night till afternoon." ...
"A terribly lazy mood, I should say." (Brontë, 58)
In the company of such steady narrators, we find ourselves ready to believe anything, not so much because we think Lockwood or Nelly Dean too good to tell a lie, but because both of them appear to lack the imagination. In fact, our narrators don't seem to have the wit to understand just how extraordinary their tale is. And that is where we begin to part company with them.
This mode of narration is unusual, to say the least, because this narrative frame provides the standard for social behavior against which Lockwood and Ellen Dean judge the protagonists; this, in turn, also entices the readers to pass judgment. But the traditional formalities of polite society disintegrate at the feet of characters who consider them irrelevant. ... Revolutionary in both form and content, the novel thus abandons its readers in a world where the reliable, social conventions do not apply. (Ghnassia, 4)
At first, we are amused when Lockwood makes so many errors of judgment getting to know the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. Although his first guesses turn out to be wrong, we assume, as he does, that it is not through any fault of his, but only because these strange people are so eccentric and unpredictable. But when the dour Heathcliff bursts into tears and begs his dead sweetheart to come back to haunt a second time, we find ourselves doubting our narrator, who considers it "raving" and "folly," belying Heathcliff's "apparent sense." (Brontë, 33) We can already tell that it is more.
And here we are truly lost—and Emily Brontë demonstrates that she is a hundred years ahead of her time. In books of her era, either the narrator or the author himself usually guided the feelings of the reader, leaving little doubt who the heroes and villains were. There is a certain pleasure in being led by the hand through a book. One is always sure of one's ground. Consider this passage from the beginning of Chapter Five of Charles Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, written only a couple of years before Wuthering Heights:
Blessings on thy simple heart, Tom Pinch, how proudly dost thou button up that scanty coat, called by a sad misnomer, for these many years, a "great" one! ... Who could repress a smile—of love for thee, Tom Pinch, and not in jest at thy expense, for thou art poor enough already, Heaven knows. ... Who, as thou drivest off, a happy man, ... would not cry, "Heaven speed thee, Tom, and send that thou wert going off for ever to some quiet home where thou mightst live at peace, and sorrow should not touch thee!"
The reader who has read more than a book or two by Dickens instantly knows two things: first, that the author is terribly fond of this character, who will be good and true and will fully repay the author's high opinion; and second, that poor Tom Pinch will either suffer through a patient and inspiring death or else sacrifice his greatest happiness for his friends—he certainly will not get the girl. This inside information gives the reader a certain amount of confidence to tackle the next fifty chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit.
Yet in Wuthering Heights, we must make our own way. The novel presents us with a variety of stories from a variety of storytellers: Lockwood's narrative, Nelly's retelling, Cathy's diary, Isabella's letter, and scenes related by Heathcliff, Cathy II, and others. Each of these storytellers brings his or her own commentary into the tale, creating a confusing puzzle: "Chinese boxes of texts within texts." (J. Hillis Miller, 45) Through it all, the author maintains a magnificent silence. She absolutely refuses to tell us what to think."Brontë never invades the privacy of her characters ... The reader's initial judgment must be revised, rethought, as situations and characters change." (Ghnassia, 3) Lockwood and Nelly Dean almost immediately reveal their inadequacies as emotional guides, the rest of the storytellers have their own agendas, and we have nowhere to turn but to our own hearts.
Meanwhile, our narrators have other escapades to report and other duties to perform. They say their piece, arrive at the judgments their narrow minds suggest, and quickly shrug off the questions, content to get back to their own lives. We readers end up puzzling over the clues long after they have left the scene, having become much more involved in the mystery than they are.
If the whole novel of Wuthering Heights is a series of narrators interpreting and commenting on narrations, the ghost is the only one who seems to speak just for herself and not to interpret herself for an audience. Here is no cynical social commentary, which Lockwood seems to pass on to us less exalted mortals as some kind of alms; no smug exoneration of self, which Nelly tucks into her tale incessantly; no meditation on one's motivations, which Heathcliff frequently utters; but simple, direct wishes and facts: "I'm come home, I'd lost my way on the moor!" (Brontë, 30) Yet immediately, this pathetic little figure is the object of harsh and unfair judgment: "...She must have been a changeling—wicked little soul! She told me she had been walking the earth these twenty years: a just punishment for her mortal transgressions, I've no doubt!" (Brontë, 31-32)
Cathy, the liveliest character in the story, quickly becomes a ghost even during her lifetime: an object of reproach or a possession to be coveted, not a human being to be treated with fellow feeling. When Heathcliff, her only ally, descends to brawling over her, she is done with mortal existence: "...The thing that irks me most is this shattered prison, after all. I'm tired, tired of being enclosed here. I'm wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there; not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it, and in it." (Brontë, 134)
"The most truly marginal character in Wuthering Heights is Catherine," Maggie Berg remarks. "She speaks to us directly only from the margins of a 'tome,' and exists as a ghost for most of the novel. A ghost is the most liminal figure that we can conceive, being neither dead nor alive, neither of this world nor the other." (6-7) However, having given up her shadow existence as the respectable wife of a country gentleman for the invisible existence of the true ghost, Cathy knows that she will regain her influence: "I shall be incomparably beyond and above you all." (Brontë, 134) "...Her absence from Wuthering Heights paradoxically makes her powerfully present throughout..." (Berg, 7)
Critics still argue over whether Wuthering Heights is a ghost story: "There is puzzlement throughout the novel, about whether the dead go on existing in some tormented way, and whether they are aware of the torment of the bereaved whom they leave behind." (Holbrook, 139) But this very uncertainty itself belongs to the ghost story: not "He walks these hills yet" but "They say he walks these hills yet." It is the nature of the ghost story to leave us in doubt—to remind us of how much we still don't understand. At the end of a good ghost story, we are left quaking in the dark, trapped in a vast, strange, and frightening universe.
Few people know this better than Debra Pickman, who allegedly experienced a haunting firsthand. In the final moments of an interview about her experience, she expressed as well as anyone ever has the ignorance and insignificance we mere mortals feel in the face of a ghostly encounter:
It's been more than ten years since we've lived in that house, and—you know—people come up to us and ask, "What do you think was going on there? Why do you think these things happened to you?" And it's such a very open-ended question because we really—we don't know. It just kind of leaves a hole in that part of your life. You've experienced it, but you can't explain why. You have no reason ... you have no justification. And that's kind of a hard thing to deal with. ("Sallie's House")
(We may draw some useful insights by comparing this disturbing experience to the disconcerting experience of reading Wuthering Heights, where—as here—"...there is always something left over, something 'just at the edge of the circle of theoretical vision' that eludes explanation." (Berg, 9))
The ghost story presents a phenomenon older—sometimes far older—than its earthly witnesses, who come back from their encounter with just a few garbled hints concerning an entity that appears to follow rules we don't understand. Measured against the ghost's enduring existence, our own lives seem brief and uncertain. The questions it forces on us are eternal.
Emily Brontë knew this. Two of the few facts we know about this very private individual are that she adored ghost stories and that her father shared with her the ghost stories he had learned from his father, a great storyteller from a culture that to this day cultivates storytelling as an art form.
[Hugh Brontë, Emily's Irish grandfather] would sit long winter nights in the logie-hole of his corn-kiln, in the Emdale cottage, telling stories to an audience of rapt listeners who thronged around him. ... The place was crowded to suffocation. ... Hugh Brontë seems to have had the rare faculty of believing his own stories, even when they were purely imaginary, and he would sometimes conjure up scenes so unearthly and awful that both he and his hearers were afraid to part company for the night. Frequently his neighbors could not face the darkness alone after one of Hugh's gruesome stories, and lay upon the shelling seeds till day dawned. (Wright, 458)
Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's lifelong friend, recalled that Patrick Brontë also told terrifying stories, and that Emily Brontë delighted in them the most, loving fairy stories and unnatural tales more than the rest. (Irish, 100-101)
The meticulous Brontë scholar, Edward Chitham, believes that the ghostly child at the window was the start of the whole novel of Wuthering Heights in Emily's imagination. (Birth, 106) Nor did she neglect the oral tradition which, in her family, was as much a part of ghost stories as the ghost itself. "... God had given her the hereditary art of oral story-telling, so that she put her story in an audible form, making it possible for us to hear 'Nelly' ..." (Irish, p. 151):
We buried him, to the scandal of the whole neighbourhood, as he wished. Earnshaw and I, the sexton and six men to carry the coffin, comprehended the whole attendance.
The six men departed when they had let it down into the grave: we stayed to see it covered. Hareton, with a streaming face, dug green sods, and laid them over the brown mould himself: at present it is as smooth and verdant as its companion mounds—and I hope its tenant sleeps as soundly. But the country folks, if you asked them, would swear on the Bible that he walks. There are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you'll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen two on 'em looking out of his chamber window, on every rainy night since his death—and an odd thing happened to me about a month ago.
I was going to the Grange one evening—a dark evening, threatening thunder—and, just at the turn of the Heights, I encountered a little boy with a sheep and two lambs before him; he was crying terribly, and I supposed the lambs were skittish, and would not be guided.
"What is the matter, my little man?" I asked.
"There's Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t' Nab," he blubbered, "un' Aw darnut pass 'em." (Brontë, 265)
This is how real, home-grown ghost stories get told around the fireside—from the dawn of time right up to today. But does this mean Wuthering Heights is nothing more than a thrilling ghost story? If it were, it would not have fascinated generations of readers as it has done, and the ghost would not be a literary motif, but simply a ghost. Exactly what Cathy is—what the ghost truly signifies—has stirred debate for a hundred and fifty years. That debate will never be resolved.
The impulse which urged [Emily Brontë] to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel— a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely 'I love' or 'I hate,' but 'we, the whole human race' and 'you, the eternal powers...' the sentence remains unfinished. (Woolf, 159-160)
Barker, Juliet. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. New York: Overlook
Berg, Maggie. Wuthering Heights: The Writing in the Margin. New York: Twain Publishers, 1996.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights: An Authoritative Text with Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed. Edited by William M. Sale, Jr. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1972.
Chitham, Edward. The Birth of Wuthering Heights. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
—. The Brontës' Irish Background. St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1927.
Ghnassia, Jill Dix. Metaphysical Rebellion in the Works of Emily Brontë: A Reinterpretation.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Miller, J. Hillis . Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. New York: Knopf, 2003.
"Sallie's House." A Haunting. Season 2, Episode 4. Discovery Channel, July 13, 2006.
Williams, Meg Harris. A Strange Way of Killing: The Poetic Structure of Wuthering Heights. Strathtay, Scotland: Clunie Press, 1987.
Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. First Harvest Edition. New York: Harcourt, 1984.
Wright, William. "Love in a Cottage. The Irish Story-teller. Hugh Brontë as a Tenant-Righter: Stories of the Brontë Family in Ireland." McClure's Magazine, Vol. 1. June, 1893, to November, 1893. New York: S.S. McClure, Ltd. 1893.
"The Literary Motifs and Techniques of Wuthering Heights" copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.