Clare B. Dunkle

Background material for The House of Dead Maids

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, England

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.

The Mysteries of Wuthering Heights

The text of Wuthering Heights is a veritable iron-gray cumulonimbus cloud full of mysteries; all the critics who have written about it have agreed upon that if nothing else. Three of the book's earliest reviews began with variations of the sentiment, "This is a strange book." (Letters, 177-179) As Chitham remarks, "The attraction of the book is in part due to its mysterious allusions, as if the author knows much more than is being plainly revealed. ... The whole texture is dense, posing questions and giving half-answers." (5)

We are not used to thinking of a novel in terms of its questions. Our reading habits generally take the opposite approach. Like children hunting Easter eggs, we make our way through a novel, seizing upon answers: heroes, villains, motifs, moral, message. Once we have enough answers, we find ourselves a firm place to stand on from which we can judge the book, as Meg Harris Williams explains:

One's immediate, instinctive, impulsive reaction is to set up a network of defences in the form of false identifications; then, perhaps (if engaged in the business of academic criticism), to categorise and rationalise these defences into standpoints of judgement and evaluation against which to measure the author's achievement. ... Once a character is labelled or interpreted, his contribution to the evolving web of the book's knowledge becomes sealed off. ... What does not make sense, in the terms of our preconceptions, automatically becomes unobservable. (125)

Hunting answers in Wuthering Heights is not a successful strategy: we end up closing ourselves off from much of the richness of the novel, rendering entire sections of it "unobservable," as Williams astutely remarks. We must leave ourselves open to experience uncertainty and confusion instead. This is an uncomfortable process for readers and for critics, but then, Wuthering Heights can be an uncomfortable sort of book:

This peculiarly enigmatic novel has drawn critics of every possible school of thinking to try to explain it, but they can't. As J. Hillis Miller has observed, there is always something left over, something 'just at the edge of the circle of theoretical vision' that eludes explanation. There has been (as we shall see) a plethora of diagrams and visual aids in critial studies of Wuthering Heights; it is as though critics cannot resist trying to control and contain a disturbing and, it seems, threatening novel. (Berg, 9)

But we must turn away from attempts to control and contain, to isolate and defend answers. In order to come to an appreciation of Wuthering Heights, we must hunt for questions instead.

Where did Heathcliff come from? This question cannot be answered from the clues given in Wuthering Heights. The characters themselves, however, make a few good guesses. Isabella Linton, upon first seeing her future husband, takes him for a gypsy: "He's exactly like the son of the fortune-teller that stole my tame pheasant." Her father, with his wider knowledge of the world, makes a more sophisticated guess: "a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway." (Brontë, 49) Nelly, encouraging Heathcliff to be proud of his heritage, suggests that his father might have been Emperor of China and his mother an Indian queen. Consequently, it seems fair to say that Heathcliff does not appear European.

Even more difficult to fathom is the puzzle of Heathcliff's name, perhaps the fittest naming choice in English literature. Indeed, in a book full of odd coincidences and irreducible mysteries, this one statement stands out as the most bizarre and inexplicable of all: "... I found they had christened him 'Heathcliff'; it was the name of a son who had died in childhood. ..." (Brontë, 39) What doting father would christen a foreign-looking foundling with his dead son's name? What fond mother would allow it? We know that Mrs. Earnshaw doesn't like Heathcliff, so the fact that she puts up with this unpardonable robbery of her dead child's identity seems to make no sense whatsoever.

Q.D. Leavis, among others, opines that Heathcliff is Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate son. (Holbrook, 28) Certainly this is the simplest way to explain Mr. Earnshaw's favoritism—the shortest path on the hunt for easy answers. But, like many easy answers critics have tried to hammer into place in Wuthering Heights, it fails to pass the test of logic. For one thing, Heathcliff looks nothing like the Earnshaws, who seem to have a robust set of genes to pass on: Cathy, Cathy II, Hindley, and Hareton all inherit the same black eyes. Heathcliff doesn't look like an Englishman's son at all, making it highly doubtful Earnshaw would believe the boy could be his even if that were the case. Moreover, Heathcliff has clearly led a life of want, evidenced by his stunted stature and hardened nature, and he seems upon his arrival at Wuthering Heights to be speaking a foreign language. If Earnshaw has known all along that the boy is his, why has he allowed his son to be treated so badly and raised in a foreign culture? Conversely, if he hasn't known about the boy, what makes Earnshaw so sure he is the father now? And if Earnshaw has allowed his illegitimate son to live in neglect for six or seven years, why would he not continue to do so, particularly since the child shares none of his features and since his presence in Earnshaw's home can only cause discord there and gossip in the neighborhood?

Besides that, we have the promises Earnshaw has made to his children and to Nelly Dean: he has agreed to carry home such delicate items as fruit and a fiddle. If he knew he were traveling to Liverpool to fetch home his illegitimate son, would he agree to load himself up like this? Wouldn't he take a horse instead? Everything points to this having been a spur-of-the-moment decision by Earnsaw—hardly the way to treat such an important matter as the raising of one's illegitimate offspring.

Another of the great puzzles of Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff's drive to be master. He seems to believe, against custom and common sense, that Hindley is the usurper or at least is very unjust. This might seem to bolster the argument that Mr. Earnshaw is Heathcliff's real father, but that argument fails to take into account the fact that Hindley would still be the older brother and Heathcliff would still have no claim. Nelly Dean, who has grown up with the family as Hindley's foster sister, understands perfectly well that she is a servant. Heathcliff doesn't appear to understand this, and when Hindley treats him like a servant, he becomes very bitter. We might imagine that Heathcliff develops the mistaken notion that he should inherit because he has been so well treated by his foster father, but Heathcliff is no fool, and he knows Hindley doesn't like him, so this reversal of fortune should not come as a surprise. Yet Heathcliff's feelings of indignation over Hindley's treatment of him are undimmed by the passage of time: over a decade afterwards, he mentions to Nelly Dean "my wild endeavors to hold my right." (Brontë, 255) But what right has he ever had?

Very unusual notions about the afterlife feed another great Wuthering Heights controversy: is the book realistic fiction, or is it fantasy—a ghost story? Cathy has dreamt that after her death, the angels have thrown her out of heaven, back to the land of Wuthering Heights, "where I woke sobbing for joy." (Brontë, 72) She is convinced that upon her death, she will return there: "[Joseph]'s waiting till I come home that he may lock the gate." (Brontë, 108) To come home, she must first die and be buried in the Gimmerton graveyard, but not alone—Heathcliff must come with her: "I'll not lie there by myself; they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me, but I won't rest till you are with me. I never will!" (Brontë, 108)

Where has Cathy I learned these odd and decidedly unchristian ideas of the afterlife? Her father is a pious Christian, and her tutor is the local curate. The two family servants, Nelly Dean and Joseph, both season their daily speech with religious aphorisms. Heathcliff alone could have brought these essentially pagan ideas into the household, and indeed, Cathy first brings them up in the context of trying to explain her feelings for him. But Heathcliff is so young when he arrives. How has he held onto his religious beliefs and passed them on to another instead of learning to practice the religion of his new home?

Interestingly enough, Heathcliff seems to hold no grudge against the dominant Christian religion. As children, he and Cathy comfort each other by picturing Mr. Earnshaw in a Christian heaven, and Heathcliff isn't angry with Nelly Dean for wanting to send for a curate when he is ill. Heathcliff and Cathy don't seem to think that Christianity is wrong in a global sense; rather, they both seem convinced that the Christian afterlife, while fine for others, has nothing to do with them. But why?

And, even more important, are Heathcliff and Cathy correct? Do they attain their version of the afterlife? This question has no answer within the context of the book. Lockwood describes his encounter with Cathy's ghost as if it is a dream, but we notice that he doesn't mention waking up from it. Locals claim to have seen Heathcliff after his death, and even Joseph declares that he has seen the dead pair together. But Nelly Dean doubts their testimony, choosing to believe, as she says, that "the dead are at peace." (Brontë, 265) Lockwood dismisses the notion as well, unable to imagine "unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth." (Brontë, 266) His testimony, however, does nothing but rouse our suspicions: Lockwood has been wrong about practically everything else throughout the entire book, so there is no reason to respect his opinion now.

Cathy's ghost (in dream or reality—we can't tell which) tells Lockwood that she has been lost on the moor for twenty years, leading us to another of the mysteries of Wuthering Heights. Why does she mention twenty years? We would expect the ghost to complain of wandering since her death, but she has been dead for only seventeen years. Lockwood meets the ghost in November of 1801, as Charles Percy Sanger argues convincingly. (292) Twenty years before this date would be November of 1781, and in 1781, according to the book, absolutely nothing happens. Cathy is ill in 1780 but has recovered by that winter. The next event Nelly Dean relates in Cathy's life is her marriage almost three years later. The ghost's speech, therefore, appears to make little sense

Edward Chitham suggests that the time span comes from Emily Brontë's own life. She was writing Wuthering Heights around the twenty-year anniversary of the death of her sister Maria, and Chitham believes that it is the child Maria as much as Cathy who is mourning her twenty years on the moor. (106) I think the span has a possible explanation within the context of Wuthering Heights, however. Nelly Dean, our narrator for this part of Cathy's life, makes an error in her chronology. She refers to "the summer of 1778—that is, nearly twenty-three years ago." (Brontë, 59) But the summer of 1778 is actually twenty-three and a half years ago: Nelly Dean is off a year in her reckoning. She could have continued by erroneously calling the summer of 1781 "nearly twenty years ago," or nineteen years ago, and that suggests that Cathy's ghost is referring to 1780 as the date when she has lost her way. This is the year Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights. Meg Harris Williams believes that it is this event the ghostly Cathy refers to in her complaint. (14)

But this explanation merely raises a further mystery: why would this event cause Cathy, who goes nowhere, to become lost? We must look for hints in her own speech: "If all else perished, and HE remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it." (Brontë, 74) This sundering from Heathcliff is not mended during Cathy's life; in fact, Heathcliff blames it for causing her death. Is it the reason, then, that Cathy continues to wander after death (if, indeed, she wanders at all)?

Cathy is not alone in feeling the trauma of this rift. The house and land experience it as well. The night Heathcliff leaves, a violent storm splits a tree that grows at the corner of Wuthering Heights, damaging the house and sending stones rolling down onto the kitchen hearth, the archetype of home. "We thought a bolt had fallen in the middle of us," Nelly says. (Brontë, 76) A casual critic might consider this to be a typical Victorian use of pathetic fallacy, in which the weather reflects the moods of human characters. But the land has too strong a presence in this novel for us to dismiss its contributions so readily. Is this a preternatural expression of grief or anger at the parting of the pair? Does it relate to their firm expectation to be united with each other and the land after death?

Cathy twice suffers complete breakdowns, shattering her physical and mental health, and both of these breakdowns occur when Heathcliff leaves for an extended period of time. The first takes place after the episode just mentioned, when Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights for three years and has the intention of leaving for good. The second takes place after Cathy's quarrel with Heathcliff over his scheme to marry Isabella; he subsequently elopes with Cathy's sister-in-law and is gone for two months. Cathy's illnesses seem excessive in comparison to their causes, and indeed, casual critics reaching for quick answers have misjudged Cathy as something of a drama queen on this account. (Nelly Dean is the first to do this.) But is this a just accusation?

The text hints that it is not. Cathy has a robust constitution that can stand roaming the moor in all kinds of weather. She has handled disappointment, grief, and even fairly stiff child abuse without becoming ill before. Dr. Kenneth, the wonderfully phlegmatic doctor who tends every patient in Wuthering Heights, expresses his own doubts on the subject: "A stout, hearty lass like Catherine does not fall ill for a trifle. ..." (Brontë, 111) Edgar Linton marvels at it too: "Months of sickness could not cause such a change!"(Brontë, 109)

In fact, Cathy declares herself to be the victim of preternatural forces: "I've been haunted, Nelly!" (Brontë, 104) Nelly Dean dismisses this notion, and the reader might be tempted to do so as well, but that would be incautious in a book loaded with mysteries that has featured a ghost—or the possibility of a ghost, at any rate—in its earliest chapters. Is Cathy haunted? And if she is, who or what is doing the haunting? The likeliest suspect seems to be Wuthering Heights itself: Cathy sees her old bedroom around her and suffers obsessive thoughts about her childhood there. Is the land asserting a claim on her?

Should we simply ignore Cathy's speeches during her illness, seizing upon the easy answer that they are the ravings of delirium? If we do, we will risk sealing off and rendering "unobservable" certain details about the book, as Meg Harris Williams has warned us. For instance, we will lose sight of the fact that her ravings do seem to have some sense behind them, and a certain amount of preternatural insight as well. Certainly the predictions of death she makes at the time come true. We will also miss Cathy's description of her afterlife in her comment to Edgar that "my soul will be on that hill-top before you lay hands on me again." (Brontë, 109) The churchyard is in a valley, so the hill-top she refers to must be the land of Wuthering Heights, the force which appears to be haunting her.

What causes the deaths of Heathcliff and Cathy? And are those deaths caused by the same phenomenon? As with Cathy, so with Heathclifff: a healthy person begins to fast and to rave and then wastes away in a surprisingly short time. Heathcliff himself remarks at the onset of his illness how unlikely he is to die: "With my hard constitution, and temperate mode of living, and unperilous occupations, I ought to, and probably shall remain above ground, till there is scarcely a black hair upon my head." (Brontë, 256) Nevertheless, he is dead within a couple of months. During that time, Nelly witnesses him following with his eyes some object only he can see. Heathcliff greets this vision with rapture, and Nelly hears him uttering Cathy's name, placing the identity of his specter or hallucination beyond doubt. But is he haunted or just delirious? The book refuses to tell us.

It is worth taking a brief moment to consider the customary explanation for the parallel illnesses of Cathy and Heathcliff. Both of them see visions, begin to rave, refuse food or become unable to eat, and die more quickly than their fasting alone would account for. And yet, many critics indicate that Cathy dies because of her fasting—a death due to hysteria—while Heathcliff is haunted by a ghost. Why would we believe that these parallel processes come from different causes? Why do we feel that Cathy has caused her death through silliness, while Heathcliff's death comes to him from an outside source? Does this tell us the truth about the world of Wuthering Heights or the truth about our own prejudices where young women and anorexia are concerned?

Heathcliff makes an astonishing statement immediately after Cathy's death. In asking his lover to haunt him, he declares in Nelly Dean's hearing, "I know that ghosts have wandered on earth." (Brontë, 139) He doesn't say that he hopes they do or that he believes they do. He declares it to be a certainty. No preternatural happenings have occurred up to this point in the story, with the possible exception of Cathy's cases of delirium or haunting, and these have taken place while Heathcliff is absent. What ghosts can Heathcliff have seen? And does this provide a clue to the strength of his non-Christian beliefs? Has he clung to them because he thinks he has seen proof of their power or veracity?

Both Heathcliff and Cathy threaten not to rest in their graves if their wishes concerning their burials are not honored. Cathy declares that she will walk if Heathcliff is not with her, and Heathcliff threatens to haunt Nelly Dean if she doesn't make sure he is placed by Cathy's side. Why are these burials so important? How can Cathy speak so casually about her marriage to Edgar and Heathcliff's marriage to Isabella and yet demand with such forcefulness that Heathcliff's body lie beside hers? Heathcliff carries this odd notion still further: he modifies Cathy's coffin and his as well so that they can lie in a single grave, "and then, by the time Linton gets to us, he'll not know which is which!" (Brontë, 228-229)

We will never know the "true" answers to these questions from Wuthering Heights. We will never reduce its mysteries to their solutions. Like Lockwood—even like Nelly Dean—we are locked out of Heathcliff and Cathy's world, with only a baffling glimpse of it through the casement of Cathy's paneled closet bed. But rather than regret its loss, we can appreciate what Emily Brontë has left us: a magnificent text imbued with a sense of wonder.

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. New York: Overlook Press, 1998.

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.

Holbrook, David. Wuthering Heights: A Drama of Being. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

Sanger, Charles Percy. "The Structure of Wuthering Heights" in Wuthering Heights: An Authoritative Text with Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed. Edited by William M. Sale, Jr. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1972.

Williams, Meg Harris. A Strange Way of Killing: The Poetic Structure of Wuthering Heights. Strathtay, Scotland: Clunie Press, 1987.

"The Mysteries 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.

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