Wuthering Heights is the best work of fiction ever written.
When I first read the book at about 19, I was too young for it, even though Emily Bronte was young and isolated herself. I liked it, maybe even loved it, but did not understand it. When I read it again at the age of 40, I thought that Emily Bronte had torn the mask from the face of the universe. A brilliant book, far more than a Gothic tale, it has a wild passionate violence to it and is about the very darkest and most perverse ways in which human beings can tear apart those they care about. Beautiful, unknown and wild.
The book almost defies analysis. It is of course one of the first books and perhaps the first book to be told by unreliable narrators. We usually have two unreliable narrators between the events and the story as told to the reader.
My own interpretation is as follows:
The book is really about a kind of passionate love which is by its very nature combustible and almost impossible to make into a stable long lasting relationship. However, it is a love with a kind of lasting endurance to it. That love, which is so romantic, has an attraction to it. The first half of the book basically paints that violent wild love accurately. I think a lot of people don't think that those kinds of feelings exist and the book is often criticized as melodramatic (which it is, however, real lives can be melodramatic) and hysteronic. Interestingly, our culture is almost alone in history as viewing the very existence of those kinds of passionate violent emotions with suspicion. Historically, they have been the most common theme in world literature, unsurprisingly, as they generate extremely good stories.
Of course, the first half of the book ends in a betrayal by Catherine Earnshaw of her love for Heathcliff through her marriage to Linton. Catherine's reasons for doing this are because while she does love Linton with what I think is clearly meant to be an inferior kind of love, her primary reason for marriage is class based. In a few famous passages Catherine justifies her decision and weirdly their is an interpretation of the book that does not see her decision as the catastrophic betrayal that it is. I would have thought that because Bronte reverses the class positions of the Heathcliff and Linton families and emphasizes the catastrophic consequences for everyone that this interpretation is completely unjustified.
The second half of the book then maps out the consequences of that choice. Catherine of course dies young, and Heathcliff becomes completely consumed with the betrayal. Unable and unwilling to punish Catherine for her decision, he punishes the whole universe becoming a kind of demon, a sort of human monster torn apart by that decision. Those consequences are then felt by the spouses and then by the children of Catherine and Heathcliff. Everyone around them is pulled into a destructive vortex and there is an atmosphere of cruelty and violence that has become totally normalized. The book is filled with casual violent imagery; such as one character casually walking around with a brace of dead puppies, another character almost incidentally throwing a knife at another character's head and so on. Part of the power of this book is that this kind of violence is presented as it is felt by the characterized as both normalized and yet traumatic.
The characters inhabit there own little isolated world in which the isolation, starkness and violence of the landscape becomes a metaphor for the characters themselves. There is a sort of denial of the reality of their circumstances and the trauma of the two main characters which arises out of a catastrophic act of self-destruction, which spreads as if to the whole world. A world in which everyone denies the reality of what is going on.
The final redemption of Heathcliff where he forgives Catherine and forsakes his vengeance out of love for her alone occurs basically at the moment of his death. It has come too late to make a difference. This act of forgiveness is integral to the book, but what it means is not so clear to me. Whatever it means it is not a tacked on happy ending.
The book itself gets its magic and its mystery, by in some sense or other being committed to and approving of the love between Heathcliff and Catherine (despite the narrators condemnation of it), while at the same time not flinching from the catastrophic consequences of that love. It is that duality that makes the book so hard to interpret: is it a romance, a Gothic tale, a tale of an abusive monster, a realistic work, a parable, a kind of phantasmagoria, a hysterical melodrama or so on.
The second hand nature of the story adds to the sense of dislocation and mystery and the relentless theme of half concealed violent passions which permeates the book, its characters and the landscape.
It seems to me to be saying something really deep about the human condition. The book is committed to the love between Catherine and Heathcliff while at the same time painting in an atmosphere of brooding violence and that loves catastrophic consequences. In some way the book resolves this. In its own mysterious, dark and wild way it squares the circle. It shows a world that our culture denies. It rips the mask from the face of the universe in ways that are ineffable. It is a challenge to our world view and a challenge in particular between the post second world war view of the human condition, what it can be, what people can feel and why they can act. It says something deep that I cannot express in words and can barely get a hold of. It says it in a language of vast power and beauty.
It is life in all its incomprehensible vastness, and quite frankly I think that the negative reactions that the book regularly produces are from people who cannot handle it and want to believe that life is smaller than it really is. It disturbs people who believe in the world of the sitcom and the mass market paperback.
I believe that we live in a traumatized culture. That our culture (not the individuals in it) was traumatized by the senseless, irrational horrors of the 20th century and we have collectively taken flight and buried ourselves in a world of TV, video games, drugs, fast food, home decorating, internet browsing, mediated electronic human communication, marriages that resemble the domestic arrangements of roommates and which are disposable, and on and on and on.
There is in Catherine this same flight. A flight from a love which is demanding, which is necessary. In a way the books dilemma is the dilemma of our age. But we have not rooted ourselves in violence, but in a senseless numbing and flight from meaning and importance which has infected every aspect of our culture, including its literature and philosophy.
Wuthering Heights shows as clearly as any book ever written, a world in which love matters and in which passions are real and decisions important. It is on the side of that world while not backing, in any way, away from its horrors.
Dark and beautiful.
Real and Beautiful.