Little is known about Emily Bronte who was born in England in 1818 and died in 1848 at the age of thirty—one year after the publication of her only novel. It had been published jointly with another novel called “Agnes Grey” that was written by Emily’s younger sister, Anne. The two women, presenting their works under male pseudonyms, had had to subsidize the project themselves. Neither Anne nor Emily was very satisfied with the printed products; but future editions of each book eventually followed and the literary gifts of the Bronte sisters—Charlotte included, author of “Jane Eyre”—has long since been recognized.
“Wuthering Heights” is a love story that is unlike anything one might find in the popular romance genres. However, a number of borrowings from formidable writers have occurred. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald strikes me as a virtuoso offspring of “Wuthering Heights”. But while Fitzgerald’s novel is technically superior to Bronte’s, its effect—on me, anyway—is less profound. As for the various film versions of the Bronte novel, they definitely fall short of their source; not because I buy into the notion that “the book is always better than the movie” but because this book is inimitable.
The plot concerns the turbulent relationship between earthbound or hellbound Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. The latter, a homeless child whom the father of Catherine rescued from the streets of Liverpool, is brought to an isolated country home set among a wild landscape of hills and heather. A friendship quickly develops between this child and his stepsister despite his being rejected by others in the household. When the father dies, this rejection becomes more acute—and cruel. In the meantime, the bond between Heathcliff and Catherine grows increasingly intense, even as Heathcliff methodically plots revenge against his enemies.
Despite the force of their love, one is left with the impression that it was never physically consummated. This peculiarity might be a byproduct of the Victorian prudery of Bronte’s times; consequently, she may have expected readers to infer the sexual component. On the other hand, she may have explored this relationship exactly as she desired. Catherine and Heathcliff seem to experience their union the way mystics experience God: an absolute exchange of selves. “Nelly,” Catherine says at one point, “I AM Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure … but as my own being.”
Compelling as these themes are, “Wuthering Heights” features other attractive elements as well, including humor. The sour, self-righteous servant, Joseph, is like a character out of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, mumbling against the wickedness around him with an English dialect that is rustic enough to require footnotes. Nelly Dean, the household servant, is the main narrator. Her character has been derided by a number of critics down through the years. However, I am with Charlotte Bronte who said that this character is ‘a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity’. It is from Nelly’s lips that a note of religious hope is conveyed, convincingly so, at the novel’s conclusion. This seems consistent with Emily Bronte’s theological outlook, concerning which her sister wrote: “She held that mercy and forgiveness are the divinest attributes of the Great Being who made both man and woman…”