Having reread PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to see how it changed for me since I first encountered it in high school, I thought it was time to take a look at a classic that I absolutely loved when I first read it - Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which I read in college. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that, just as Austen's work has improved for me with age, Bronte's work has lost some of its appeal.
What strikes me most is the utter absence of likeability, or even redemptive qualities, in the characters. Cathy and Heathcliff are passionate, but they are also selfish, vain, narcissistic, cruel and brutal. It seems on this reading as if Bronte intentionally wrote them with absolutely no redeeming attributes. They resolutely refuse to act in any redeemable ways, even when Bronte gives them multiple opportunities to do so. Even in the childhood scenes, it's clear Bronte is confronting us with the germ of their worst traits, already deeply ingrained. Is the novel a condemnation of unbridled, self-destructive passion?
Well, no. The other extremes, the Lintons, are foolish, weak, insipid, easily led, even whiny. What of the intermediary characters, then? The various narrators of the tale, who are removed from the center of the story? Well, they're not completely abhorrent. But they don't do much to make us care about them either.
I had somehow deluded myself over time, as many of us have, into thinking of Heathcliff and Cathy as tragic, passionate, misunderstood romantic characters - much like Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. They are not. Passionate - absolutely, with a passion that destroys themselves and everyone in their path. Tragic? I'm not so sure. Their inevitable downfall is brought about by their intense passion, but that element of sympathy or empathy that I think of when I think of a tragic hero is definitely lacking. Their passion and selfishness and cruelty are not tragic flaws but defining traits.
Where is the novel's appeal, then? As a writer, I've always believed that even my villains should be complex and multi-dimensional, and my story needs a protagonist that we can care about, flawed, but sympathetic. This re-read of WUTHERING HEIGHTS has me questioning that. Because, the thing is, as violent, brutal, fatalistic, unrelentingly hopeless and without redemption as this story is, I can't seem to stop reading it. Granted, I set myself the goal of re-reading it, and I'm not one to leave a book or goal unfinished. But still. WUTHERING HEIGHTS is a classic for a reason. And my college-age self consumed it with gusto.
Is it simply the power of human extremes painted in livid detail? Is it our natural fascination with villains, cruelty and passions, sort of a literary equivalent to the obsession with soap operas? Is it the compulsion to watch the gothic horror of the thing unfold and reach the inevitable conclusion that is laid before us in the very first chapter, much like the "how" of a murder mystery? Do we keep reading because we keep hoping, just like the poor deluded Isabella Linton, that redemption lies ahead?
I don't know yet. But re-reading it has forced me to question my maxim that a story must have a protagonist who is both flawed and likeable. And I have a new kind of respect for Bronte because she was able to write a compelling literary classic in which there is not a single likeable character, and in which the most memorable characters really have no redeeming qualities at all.
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