Critical review on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Critical review on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Talking about Wuthering Heights is not an easy work at all. Since there are lots of articles already published concerning so many aspects of the novel, this essay is an attempt to establish a critical review on this great book. One of the general characteristics of the novel as a genre is the realistic intention; writers try to make an imitation of reality, or they try to show how reality should be, using the concept of verisimilitude. In Wuthering Heights, however, this concept itself is changed: we have spirits and ghosts in the narrative, leading us to a new style – the Gothic Novel. Another important remark is the hybridism of this genre in literature, thus it takes all others kinds of literature and put them together.

The story starts in medias res, so we have a story about the past, about an ancient generation. The problems that will take place later with the main characters are explained by the constant return to the past. We can see in this novel a narrator who is, at the same time, protagonist and also hero of the story. In fact, we have a double narration and this must be accepted as a convention. All in Wuthering Heights, we say –the characters as well as the techniques – seem to be a convention because there is not only one enigma in the story, the story itself is an enigma. Emily Brontë creates effects of something that is hidden in the plot. There is not an outside story, and all things are connected in some way. When the reader reaches the end of this book, he is invited to go back to the first chapters, in order to understand the multiplicity of inside meanings hidden in the plot. This movement is an example of repetition, so we are invited to do our reading again, for reaching metaphorical connections and understand a new signification of the entire story.

The double narrators in Wuthering Heights are opposites in almost every way. Mr. Lockwood is an urban man from the south and he does not act in the plot. On the other hand, Ms. Nelly Dean is a rural servant from the north who reacts to the environment. All the words come to us from Mr. Lockwood, and the story that he records is told to him by Ms. Nelly Dean, so we don’t have access to the first story. Having it in mind, the plot is affected for her point of view, for she has her preferences and is not a neutral character; she is completely involved in the plot, once it is connected to her own life story. Some parts of Nelly’s story are narrated by other characters, such as when Nelly receives a letter from Isabella and recites its contents verbatim. According to Gérard Genette we could say it is a metanarrative when the enunciation of a report is from the level intradiegetic, that is, a character in the story is requested or instructed to tell another story, which appears well embedded in the first story. It has functions that can be explanatory, predictive, themes, persuasive, distracting obstruct.

Still in the metanarrative perspective, Wuthering Heights is different from other further stories that use this kind of recourse. On it, there’s no intention of constructing one narrative that has as issue the act of making another narrative, like it can be observed in Eça de Queirós’ A ilustre casa de Ramires, in which there is an intention of constructing a complex metanarrative web whose aim is that. Instead of this, Brontë, through an intradiegetic narrator, makes at least two narratives inside the book. The first one is the story of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw and the other is about her daughter Catherine Linton and Hareton. These two stories inside the main one are important in establishing the humor and atmosphere changing in the plot, effect obtained through the mixture of metanarrative and gothic recourses.

Beyond, we establish a single meaning inside the text. The structure of Wuthering Heights is like a circle and we have a lot of meanings which are important to understand the whole story. So, what we must know is that this romance is in two levels: the state meaning (superficial) and the symbolic meaning (deeper). We should read both levels, because when we read the state meaning, we give voice to the author. The dominant text reveals the second muted text one. That is a feminist way to write.

The construction that Nelly does about the story of Catherine and Heathcliff is made from her own world view. It is the voice of reason, as a counterpart to emotion (represented by Catherine and Heathcliff). This rational character of Nelly is sometimes overcome by emotion (e.g., the last meeting between Cathy and Heathcliff, facilitated by her). Perhaps, out of pity of the two people involved, perhaps by the desire to convey the tormented soul of breath Heathcliff, trying to make this a better world sees and forgives the mistakes that caused harm in the past. Not always, emotion overcomes reason, and the need for Heathcliff speaks louder to the Nelly’s heart. It is an example of human character that she has and gives to the story.

We could also make a feminist reading about Wuthering Heights if we accept that the main characters are feminine. When Catherine says “I’m Heathcliff”, we can infer that there is something feminine on him; it’s a fact that they both had grown up together, one having influences over the other, like brothers, friends or even lovers. So, they are the same soul in two bodies. Catherine is the double of Heathcliff and with Catherine’s death, Heathcliff gets to know himself. “I am Heathcliff” is the recurring theme of the novel, which is what Catherine says when she explains her dream to Ms. Nelly Dean. In the dream, she realizes how connected she is with him. It is the unconscious what really tells the meaning of the dream. In Catherine’s dream this could be that she is realizing how much Heathcliff means for her and how unhappy she is without him. By coming to the Grange, which is connected with heaven in her dream, she is stuck in heaven fighting to get back to the Heights. She becomes unhappy by the enclosed environment she finds herself in. Death plays a fundamental role in the lives of human beings, because only with its proximity humans can have a full vision of life, and then, identify and recognize themselves, as it allows a more pure human. Through death man knows his individuality. In Wuthering Heights death was seen by Catherine and Heathcliff almost as something desirable, once that heir love was forbidden for the moral and society’s laws. Death was seen as a punishment, but not just that, it was also a need for expiation or atonement, especially for Catherine, once their love was a transgression of moral law. And, finally, it was the only way for the loving couple gets back together in the eternal life, which is exactly what they could reach with the death of Heathciff. All of that being said, these characteristics are also found in many other novels, before and after Wuthering Heights. Intradiegetic narrator and metanarrative are also observed in many other novels and short stories; gothic characteristics were found in many other predecessors, like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764); love purged with death, as an expiation by transgressing society’s laws were seen before in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. If it’s so, what makes Wuthering Heights so special? The answer is not very simple, and it’s that what will be shown since now.

The recourses of narration had not been well studied yet in the time in which Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights; that recourses were in development when it was written, but even so she uses them in a perfect way in order to create the contrast between the first and the second narratives. Gothic effects are used in this novel not in a crude way, but with softness and delicacy, spreading them through the entire narrative aiming to reach lots of inside meanings. The atonement in Wuthering Heights has also another characteristic that makes it different from its predecessors: the tragedy occurs inside Catherine and Heathcliff. She couldn’t bear the burden of her feelings towards Heathcliff, knowing that they were transgressions of the moral law, and then she decided for herself that she must have been punished. The atonement was self-inflicted; she decided about her guilt and about her penalty: death. So Heathcliff punishes himself in living so long after her death.

Furthermore, what makes Wuthering Heights a masterpiece is the mixture of all these kind of recourses in only one novel, considering the innovational character of each one for the time when she writes it. For that, this book will always be a classic reading and one of the most important of the period in which it is written.