Wuthering Heights in a Nutshell

Wuthering Heights by Robert McGinnis
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Emily Brontë was the daughter of an ordained minister of the Church of England who served his parish devoutly and diligently for forty years. Like her father, Emily was a faithful and devout Christian, a fact which is evident in the moral perspective manifested in her famous novel.  

The darkness of the novel is driven by the refusal of the novel’s principal protagonists to love their neighbors or to forgive those who have sinned against them. The result is a destructive chain reaction in which more and more innocent lambs are turned into vengeful wolves. This is the very animus of the novel and the impetus of its plot. 

The light of Christianity penetrates the darkness of the novel in the words and actions of Nelly Dean. It is she who attempts to bring the plot’s protagonists to their senses. She warns Heathcliff that “[p]roud people breed sad sorrows for themselves.” These words of wisdom will serve as the very defining moral and motto of the novel. The whole story is the weaving of the sad sorrows brought upon the main protagonists by their own pride. 

The wisdom of Nelly’s words, and the suspicion that they are the words of the author speaking vicariously, are present in an exchange with Catherine, in which Nelly emerges as an incisive Christian theologian. “If I were in heaven,” Catherine says, “I should be extremely miserable.” The reason, says Nelly, is because “all sinners would be miserable in heaven.” Her axiomatic riposte should be borne in mind as the dialogue continues, particularly in the light, or darkness, of Catherine’s obsession with Heathcliff:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it…. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks…a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he’s always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself—but, say my own being—so don’t talk of our separation again.  

In this well-known passage, Catherine is confessing the infernal nature of her “love” for Heathcliff, who is not merely her idol but her demonic god. She not only worships him, she is possessed by him. 

This demonic dimension was not lost on G.K. Chesterton, who wrote that Heathcliff “fails as a man as catastrophically as he succeeds as a demon.” The demonic is further suggested by the fact that Catherine’s words, “I am Heathcliff,” echo those of Milton’s Satan, “myself am hell.” Like Satan, she is exiled from Heaven because everywhere, even Heaven, would be “a mighty stranger” to her if Heathcliff were not there; she would “not seem a part of it.” 

She would rather be with him in Hell than without him in Heaven. Nothing will separate her from the “love” of her god, not even the love of God. She will be with Heathcliff for ever, not merely “till death do us part” but beyond death itself. Heathcliff is the “eternal rock” upon which she builds her church. He is “a source of little visible delight” but, on the contrary, is “darkness visible,” like Milton’s Satan, and the source of all her suffering. Yet she will not be separated from the Hell she has chosen. She gets what she chooses. This is profoundly orthodox Christian theology, in the finest tradition of Dante’s Inferno.

The towering influence of Dante is once more evident in the scene between Heathcliff and Catherine when the latter is on her deathbed. Catherine’s “love” for Heathcliff is so disordered that it seems indistinguishable from hate. “I shall not pity you, not I,” she says. “You have killed me—and thriven on it, I think.” 

The moment of death, for Heathcliff and for Catherine, is not a time for reconciliation, either with God or with each other. It is a time for bitter reproach, a time for venting one’s spleen in one final act of self-destructive abandonment. “I wish I could hold you till we were both dead!” Catherine exclaims. “I shouldn’t care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do!” 

Catherine still has no desire for Heaven, preferring the Hell of Heathcliff. She makes her choice and is self-condemned by it. Heathcliff, for his part, spits his venom at Catherine but would prefer to writhe with her in the Inferno, in an eternal love-hate embrace, than live without her in Heaven or on earth:

“Are you possessed with a devil to talk in that manner to me, when you are dying? Do you reflect that all those words will be branded in my memory, and eating deeper eternally, after you have left me?…It is not sufficient for your infernal selfishness, that while you are at peace I shall writhe in the torments of hell?”

“I shall not be at peace,” moaned Catherine…       

The emphasis has been added to highlight the metaphysical drama that lurks beneath the physical surface of their exchange. For Emily, as for her great forebear and inspiration, Dante, every act in life has eternal significance. 

In stark contrast to the benign Christian presence of Nelly is the malign presence of Joseph, the puritanical and moralizing Calvinist. Joseph represents the superficial Christian. He’s not the real thing. His lack of charity disqualifies him. Echoing Christ’s condemnation of the scribe, the Pharisee, and the hypocrite, Emily is following in a noble tradition of Christian literature in exposing the hypocrisy of uncharitable Christians. Dante has a whole section (bowge) of the eighth circle of Hell reserved especially for the hypocrites, and Chaucer spends much of his General Prologue exposing the hypocrisy of many of his pilgrims. 

The novel ends on a light note, in both senses of the word. Following Heathcliff’s death, the darkness lifts and the emergent light lightens the burden of evil that has loomed, doom-laden, over the whole work. As Mr. Lockwood returns to Wuthering Heights we are almost dazzled by light and lifted by light-heartedness. Love is in the air; true love, not its infernal inversion. This happy ending serves as the final judgment on the novel itself, confirming that Emily Brontë, like the indomitable Nelly Dean, is on the side of the angels.       

Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-ninth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: “Wuthering Heights” by Robert McGinnis]

By

Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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