Friday, April 12, 2013

What's so romantic about Heathcliff?

Okay Miss Haltiner, you win. I tried to fool you by reading the Cliff's Notes back in 11th grade (or was it 12th?), but you couldn't be fooled. "Next time read the book" is what you wrote on my assignment, and I realize now how ridiculous it was to think I could get away with it. And I know I've sworn I'd never read Wuthering Heights, but I did – yes, nearly 30 years late – but better late than never, right? But now that I've read it I'm kind of at a loss for words. It was "okay," perhaps even interesting at times (less so, at others). And I'm puzzled by how many people over the years have told me they loved that book – often smart and intelligent people (and probably, oh... maybe something like 100% of them were women). Most of all, I don't get why Heathcliff has such a romantic reputation. There was a song a number of years ago that vaguely suggested as much:

"What if I were Romeo in black jeans
What if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth
Maybe she's just looking for
Someone to dance with"

Most of the story is told by the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, to Mr. Lockwood who rents Thrushcross Grange from Mr. Heathcliff, who lives a few miles away at Wuthering Heights on the Yorkshire moors. Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw as a boy when he found him on the streets in Liverpool, and it's suggested he might have been a "gypsy." Earnshaw's son, Hindley, is jealous of his father's affections and mistreats Heathcliff, especially after his father dies and he becomes the master of Wuthering Heights. But Catherine, Hindley's sister, befriends him and they generally lead a wild life roaming the moors and getting into trouble as they grow up. (So far I get it: Heathcliff bears a legitimate grudge toward Hindley, although the relationship with Catherine is a bit... well, indecent.)

Hindley's behavior become so intolerable that Heathcliff runs away, and a few years later Catherine marries the very respectable Edgar Linton. Soon after, Heathcliff returns (and somehow has money) and begins to plot his revenge against the people who've ruined his happiness – namely Hindley and Linton. Hindley has become a drunk after his wife died, and Heathcliff does everything he can to turn Hindley's son, Hareton, into a foul and uncouth brute. He also marries Isabella, Linton's sister, out of spite even though he detests her. And he continues to brazenly visit Catherine, driving a wedge between her and her husband to the point that her health is seriously compromised and she dies in childbirth.

At this point the story shifts, although the romance between Catherine and Heathcliff remains in the background. Now, a relationship between Catherine's daughter (called Cathy) and Heathcliff's son forms. Isabella ran away from Heathcliff, but when she dies her son – whom she named Linton – is sent to live with Edgar and Cathy. When Heathcliff finds out he insists that Linton come to live with him – but again, this is only out of malicious spite for Edgar Linton. Hindley has since died, and Heathcliff focuses on making Edgar miserable by encouraging a romance between their children. In fact, everything he does is to destroy the lives of those around him, and he is not only vile and abusive (to people and animals), but even resorts to kidnapping and detaining people on numerous occasions as well as bribing public officials, digging up graves, and you might even make the case for murder!

So, how does a creep like that end up with such a favorable public image? Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to compare himself to Heathcliff (which leads me to think that he – like me – didn't really read the book when it was assigned) for which he was justifiably mocked. Instead of becoming the poster boy for domestic abuse, Heathcliff is remembered as the tragic and tourtured romantic hero!

As for the story, yeah I'll concede it was interesting enough (in a bizarre sort of way) that I finished it. And it's stuck in my mind (in a puzzling sort of way) that days and weeks after I finished I'm still puzzling over it. Personally, I didn't find the writing style all that clever or beautiful, and the characters are borderline disgusting. So what is it about this story – and especially Heathcliff – that so many people find so appealing?

I'd really like to know.

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