Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Baggage (Oh, and Tortured Love Affairs)

Book Reviewed:  Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Sometimes, the baggage we bring to books ends up being more interesting or important than the books themselves.  I'm talking about all the extra stuff you bring into a reading experience - your personal life, your reasons for reading the book in the first place, other people's thoughts about the book.  And sometimes, its the baggage that makes you decide to read the book at all. 

This is what happened to me with Wuthering Heights.  Somehow I made it through four years of high school and four years of being an English major without once touching this classic novel.  I've known lots of people who've read it, and I've known people who either hate this book with every ounce of their being or love it without reason.  (I even knew a guy in college who said it was his favorite book.  Had I read the book at that time, I might have known better than to harbor a bit of a crush on him in my last weeks before graduation).  Wuthering Heights is one of those books that inspires great emotions in people, be they positive or negative.  I've heard close friends rant against it until red in the face.  But there are writers I respect who adore this book.  One of my favorite Anne Carson poems, the epic "Glass Essay," is largely about Emily Brontë and her only novel.  It's one of only a handful of classic books that has such an omnipresence in contemporary culture.

And yet, none of this was quite enough to make me read Wuthering Heights So what changed my mind?  Netflix.  I got a Netflix account and found it was full of PBS Masterpiece Theater series.  One was a 2009 BBC production of Wuthering Heights that starred Tom Hardy as Heathcliff.  "What the hell," I said to myself.  "I might as well at least know what the hubbub's about."  HOLY. CRAP.  Even though tons of people have told me how they feel about this story, not a single person mentioned that it was absolutely crazypants.  I finished the series by tweeting that I found it so insane, I was sure I would never read the book.  Flash forward to a few days later, when I absolutely cannot get Wuthering Heights out of my head.  Suddenly, I had to drop all of my other reading plans and read this book.  It became an obsession.

For those of you who don't know, Wuthering Heights is the story of the tormented love affair between Heathcliff, a foundling, and Catherine, the somewhat wild daughter of the respected Earnshaw family.  This is only a part of the story, though.  Rules of class dictate that Heathcliff and Catherine can never really be together, so they torture themselves and others over this great loss.  Catherine marries the overly-patient and wealthier Edgar Linton and eventually dies at a young age.  Years later, Heathcliff, still taking out the horrible deals given to him on others through elaborate revenge schemes, forces Catherine's daughter (also named Catherine) and his super-annoying son, Linton, to marry.  The narrator of the story is Mr. Lockwood, who meets this second generation of assholes at the book's start, but the one who tells most of the tale is Nelly Dean, a maid for the Earnshaw and Linton families.  There's a lot of hearsay going on this book, that's for sure.

Why do I call this story crazypants, you might ask?  Well, let's start with the fact that Catherine's ghost might just be haunting the moors and its occupants.  Then there's Heathcliff digging up Catherine's body decades after she has died.  There's Catherine's older brother, Hindley, who is the cause of much of the book's misery.  Hindley comes home after his father dies to take over the manor of Wuthering Heights and tortures Heathcliff, making him a servant.  Hindley's son, Hareton, then has the same injustice done to him by Heathcliff in revenge.  It's amazing the way these people scheme against each other! 

Every single character in this book is deeply unlikable.  Nelly Dean comes off as a tattle-tale, Edgar Linton as a pushover, Linton Heathcliff as a whiny bastard, and Catherine Earnshaw as a jealous, inconsiderate hussy.  I can't even begin to mention what a complete and total monster Heathcliff is.  The only character for whom I had any sympathy was Hareton Earnshaw, who doesn't realize he's been done any wrong but who also seems like the only one of these people capable of an honest emotion. 

Yet, despite hating all these people, I found I couldn't hate this book.  In fact, I couldn't stop reading it.  It's an all-consuming novel, that's for sure.  Heathcliff and Catherine may not be worthy of my love, but they definitely deserve each other.  Their tortured pleadings of love and loss over one another are some of the richest sentences of pain I've ever encountered.  In fact, this book has some really lovely prose at times, particularly the last sentence, which is a perfectly unsettling finale.  I have never in my life been so confused over my feelings for a book.  I could never, ever call it a favorite.  It's too strange and dark and twisted for me.  But you know what?  I'm glad I finally read it. 
Note:  For those of you who have read this book, what did you think?  And were any of you like me and thought that you would've liked to had a peak in on those years where Heathcliff, Hareton, and Joseph all lived alone together in the Heights?

1 comment:

  1. I loved the book, more for how twisted it was and how intertwined all the characters were together. It's just crazy that a book can be that complex and yet so simple.