Revisiting my high school days, I watched Wuthering Heights (1939) and read Emily Brontë’s novel again – better than I remembered! Well, not entirely: This bit was no less fantastic then than now.
How she does stare! It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’
What is this book?! It is unlike any other I know, and I have read a lot of 19th century gothic romances. Wuthering Heights trades in some features of the gothic – the supernatural, the barren and forbidding setting, weird, demonic characters – but compared to it, stories such as Melmoth the Wanderer and the like are child’s play. The horror and the fright in Wuthering Heights is all born out of psychology, twisted and implacable. More likely, the book has provided the template for a host of latter-day gothic horror stories set in windy inhospitable places filled with creepy dangerous people, and houses filled with sadistic perversity.
There is so much to this novel: the role of women of course; the place of servants; sexual perversity bordering on necrophilia; and psychopathology. For the surrealists, it was a touchstone of l’amour fou, although the film adaptation by the master, Luis Bunuel, The Abyss of Passion (not to be confused with the current telenovella of the same name!) misses the mark widely.
The story involves two households and two families on the moors of northern England. Local color is given by the deep Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, the insufferably pious hypocrite and loyal house servant. There are no towns nearby – the action is all local, except when the characters charge out of the novel’s frame to elope, or emigrate to America to gain a fortune, and reports of their doings filter back by letter or word of mouth. The family trees get tangled, and it’s a good idea to have a clear one before you when you read the story since there is Catherine Earnshaw, and Cathy Linton, and Healthcliff (no other name, as in Cher, or Sting) and Mr. Heathcliff, his despised son, and so forth. Heathcliff wreaks havoc on them all.
The demonic Heathcliff is adopted informally to the family by Mr. Earnshaw who finds him homeless on the streets of Liverpool during a business trip. His act of generosity is the undoing of his descendants and community: is there a moral here? Heathcliff and Cathy develop an intense bond as children – is this unhealthy? – and Cathy’s brother is jealous of his prerogatives as the heir to the manor. When kindly Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is banished to the stables.
The book is filled with servants, telling as it does the tale of local country gentry. In fact, the main characters are surrounded by people, but most of them are never seen. Stableboys, field hands, servant girls, all toiling to produce the wealth that sustains the Earnshaws and the Lintons. Heathcliff runs away to escape the humiliation heaped upon him as one without a lineage or property, and he returns rich: where did he get his money? Nobody knows. He seeks vengeance on the landed proprietors that cast him out. No wonder this book was popular with Marxists literary critics!
In the end, Heathcliff appears to be successful in his quest: He lost Cathy to an early death, but he is assured of being buried next to her, an essential arrangement for him. In fact, he can barely restrain himself from embracing her corpse that he has ordered exhumed in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book. He has driven Cathy’s brother to ruin, pushed her husband into an early grave, financially and emotionally emasculated his former tormentor, the son of his benefactor, and is on the way to thoroughly degrading the son of Cathy’s brother, who should be the heir to the Heights, but doesn’t even realize he’s being cheated of his birthright. Oh, and Heathcliff has a son, whom he despises, born of Cathy’s sister, who was idiotically attracted to his dark, handsome prospect, and was quick to realize she had practically married Satan. She, at least, had the good sense to flee.
But Heathcliff is undone by love. His own obsessive love for the dead Cathy haunts him to distraction. And the genuine love and affection that springs up between Cathy and Hareton, despite his best efforts to turn them against one another, irritates him beyond endurance. Cathy has inherited the stubbornness and defiance of her mother, and turns it, with love, against Heathcliff. He just dies…
And then there is Nellie, the servant who narrates most of the book. She is often in the position of doing something that she doesn’t think is quite right, and that she would not do for her own family, but which her subservient position compels her to do. And then, sometimes she just concludes that it’s not worth the effort to try and oppose the wishes of her masters: after all, they are the masters, and she just a servant, even though she knows she is right and they are wrong. I wonder if she is, after all, the voice of Emily in the book.
Man, what an imagination that woman had!
The 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is very fine in its Hollywood-romantic way, although it deals only with the first generation of pain in Wuthering Heights, ending with the death of Catherine Earnshaw. Olivier is wonderful in embodying the dark attraction of the Heathcliff as well as his frenzied, obsessional love. And his supercilious blank stares when he is playing cat and mouse with his gentry opponents is brilliant.