Heathcliff, the anti-hero

Resurrected and rewrote this one.

Although I never found it easy reading given its complicated, disjointed style, for many years I shared the widespread delusion that Wuthering Heights was a love story. Won over by the brooding Laurence Olivier performance in the film, I too thought that the darkness permeating the entire novel related to thwarted passion/love of the soulmate variety. The powerful, dramatic narrative makes us think this way: 

 “If all else 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.” 

“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” “You know that I could as soon forget you as my existence!” 

Written by Emily Bronte in 1847, it is a strange, disconnectedly bitter story written by a woman who herself never knew romantic love being a peculiarly guarded character. If we write what we know about, phew, then what was tucked away within Emily’s vivid imagination?

Paul Miller (2013)  felt depressed by the idea that Wuthering Heights was once considered The Guardian readers’ favourite ‘love story’ – because love barely enters into it. He has a point.

He claimed that Wuthering Heights is not a romance. It is about addiction, revenge, and jealous rage. There are no redeeming features for Heathcliff, the anti ‘hero’. There is no concern for the other from him, only the self. Cathy is not terribly pleasant either; wild yet materialistic, abandoned yet conventional, the female protagonist is the perfect destructive partner for Heathcliff.

Miller actually described Heathcliff as Gollum (now there’s an image, my precious): “consumed, enslaved and made a tyrant by his obsession“. It is a good description. He calls it “narcissistic eros” for there is a kind of mutually destructive self-love between Heathcliff and Cathy, which renders Heathcliff, especially, incapable of humanity, with Cathy not far behind, psychologically rather than physically brutal. 

Which is what brings me back to what I hated so intensely about it. Before reading it I had a general impression that it was a great story of forbidden love that many people looked to as a stirring tale of how to follow your heart lest we lose our soulmates. That radically misreads the book. Heathcliff does follow his heart, and that is exactly why he destroys himself and everyone around him…

I hate this book’s reputation and the way this book is read and perceived by others. I can’t read this book as moving or inspiring or think that Catherine and Heathcliff were unjustly parted lovers, victims of fate or the world or an uncaring world. They are only victims of their own folly and poor decisions.         Paul Miller

Meanwhile, Jacqueline Parkinson (2013) wrote from a psychological perspective, of co-dependency and narcissism among the two leading characters. They feed off each other, wish to control, fear abandonment and are utterly dysfunctional. Heathcliff is dark and cruel, a misogynist. And that is just a taste of it.

As Cathy stresses, there is no pleasure in her relationship with Heathcliff. And that obsession cannot be love but is extreme, pathological. It is a dark need indeed.

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: 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 as my own being.

There is no joy in it.

What brilliant writing though to convince so many of us for so long that it is a love story.