Wuthering Heights has an undeniable hold but an elusive meaning. It has been continually cited as the archetypal story about romantic love, where the lovers experience an exquisite communion doomed by its own extravagance. Yet theirs is a love almost without tenderness. Unlike lovers such as Romeo and Juliet, whose downfall is wholly sympathetic, Heathcliff and Cathy behave with extraordinary perversity towards one another.
Catherine swears it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff; he determines to pursue her like the angel of death as punishment. This has contributed to the inherent flaw in any dramatisation. By attempting to soften, humanise, explain the lovers, screen adaptations have failed to capture the book's power. Self-destruction is a feature of tragedy rather than romance; Wuthering Heights is a tragedy in the purest sense, the tragedy of self-betrayal and transgression. The lovers experience the essential only through one another. Divide them, and the rest of the world, as Cathy so memorably puts it, means nothing.
Despite Nelly's view of the lovers as wicked, the book reveals the world as the aggressor, the lovers driven to their extremity. The enduring image of Cathy is a spirit ensnared, losing her physical shape; Heathcliff becomes a maddened animal. The so-called civilised Lockwood scrapes Cathy's ghost-self's wrist against the broken window pane, the dog guarding Thrushcross Grange captures her in its maw, Edgar is the cat who will not let the bird (Cathy) escape, toying with her as prey.
When Heathcliff leaves the Heights he loses his humanity, a creature committed to revenge. As the wild boy on the moor with Cathy he was himself and she was herself. What the lovers initially share is the "heaven' of being uncivilised, unsocialised. When the exiled, married Cathy cries "Why am I so changed?" it is the cry of every woman forced to dress, behave, live within a prescribed social setting. She is every tomboy forced to grow up; her very femininity appears to kill her. But it is more than that. Cathy and Heathcliff have lost an Eden and that is the power of their story.
Wuthering Heights itself is abandoned as a dwelling-place by the end of the novel. Its name remains. Our sense of our human loss of heaven always remains.
So the meaning of Wuthering Heights cannot be condensed, it has a ripple effect as mathematical as its time scheme, its layering of narrative, its constant evocation of heaven and hell. The second Cathy and Hareton achieve a compromise between these opposites, but it is pallid and unsatisfactory. The reader longs for "the sleepers in the quiet earth" to wake and so turns back to the beginning: the Heights, the "misanthropist's Heaven", vital, essential, which a part of us will always yearn for.
Melissa Jones's novel 'The Hidden Heart of Emily Hudson' is published by Sphere
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