Wuthering Heights is the story of Cathy Bradshaw, a willful young woman who destroys everyone around her, and Heathcliff, an orphan boy who falls in love with Cathy. When she rejects Heathcliff, he becomes determined to win her back, and, when she is dead, destroy her family – leaving us to wonder: what kind of love is it that destroys that which it loves?
This was a disturbing read on a number of levels for me. Obviously, Heathcliff’s almost demonic obsession with Cathy gets a little weird, but even aside from that, it bothers me that I don’t really want to like this book – there are so many things about it that drive me crazy – but some small part of me is fascinated despite myself.
The whole book has this weird, dark tone that I find strangely appealing, and I do like the story itself, but anything good I can say about this book has to be canceled out by a number of huge issues that I can find no way around.
1. Point Of View
Point of view is crucial. Most writers are aware of this fact, and all of them must recognize how crucial it is, or fail at their craft.
Perspective can be confusing in Wuthering Heights because there are literally layers of it. The story is actually being told from the perspective of a completely random character we know nothing about, a young tenant of Heathcliff’s. However, it isn’t terribly obvious that the story is being told from his perspective, because most of the story is told from the perspective of the Bradshaw family’s maid, Nelly. Nelly is telling Cathy and Heathcliff’s story to the young man. So, in other words, most of the story is in the form of dialogue. Or monologue, rather.
Bronte made, in my opinion, a peculiar decision when she had Nelly tell the story. Though Nelly was deeply invested in the inner workings of this family and familiar with Cathy’s story because she witnessed most of it, she still does not seem the right person to tell this story.
I’m sure that there are those who would strongly disagree with that assessment. Some people may view Nelly’s being the narrator the best thing Wuthering Heights has going for it. I’m sorry to say that this is probably my biggest issue with it.
If the story was written entirely from Nelly’s perspective, the inconsequential little servant girl watching from the fringes, and was telling it as it occurred, it might just have been a brilliant move – it would have worked well with the tone of the rest of the story, flowed well to have the distant observer, someone on the outside, telling the story. But having Nelly tell the story as an old woman was a big mistake.
2. Let Me Tell You A Story
Nelly is orally passing the story on to a young man staying at the house she takes care of, which makes it seem like Nelly is just casually telling it as nothing more than common hearsay or gossip. This “story” is something she was apart of, she is relating the most painful events of her life. And she is doing it in the calmest manner possible! I’d like to see a little emotional investment or something!
Because Nelly is supposedly telling the story to this guy – who is a completely useless character, by the way – and the story is too involved to tell all at once, she actually takes several breaks from telling it.
During these pauses, we temporarily return to present time, which is thoroughly frustrating because we were just starting to actually be interested in this story and we really couldn’t care any less about some random guy having a cold, or taking a nap, or a walk, or whatever!
This phenomenon is also extremely distracting. All the jerks back to present time are jarring. Random Dude and Older Nelly don’t fit into this story.
For those of you who would argue that these pauses build up suspense, you’re wrong. They don’t. They simply kill all the momentum the story was gaining.You can’t mix present and past like that – unless the past comes to us in the form of flashbacks, which it does not in Wuthering Heights.
4. One Good Memory
Another thing about Nelly: how has she remembered all this so perfectly? She recounts her story in vivid detail, including people’s exact words. I know of very few people, especially elderly women, who have that perfect of a memory concerning things that happened when she was in her teens and twenties.
5. Nelly: Both Sides
Nelly is the impartial mediator between Heathcliff and Cathy in this story. She doesn’t actually like either Cathy or Heathcliff, and while her cold indifference to both of them isn’t exactly admirable, it does allow her to coolly observe the whole thing without bias. So maybe she is the person to tell this story after all. Even when Heathcliff despises everyone else, he regards Nelly with something like fondness. Even when Cathy stubbornly refuses to submit to anyone else, she is swayed by Nelly’s opinion. Nelly plays, albeit reluctantly, both sides. She serves alternately as Heathcliff or Cathy’s partner in crime; she is traitorous – and brilliant.
In the end, all of these distractions take away from the haunting beauty of Cathy and Heathcliff’s story. It just goes to show that the details are everything and that little mistakes can ruin the whole story. I like the story, I just don’t like how it’s told.