Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Likeability Factor - Rereading WUTHERING HEIGHTS

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.



  1. I have to think about this. I just watched the movie "Melancholia" last night and it is already appearing on critics top 10 list for 2011. I was ranting and fuming after watching the entire 2 hours and 15 minutes because there was not a single likable character in it (for me). I won't rant here. And I won't say what I did like about the movie, because what I want to write about here is what you are talking about: whether we can like a story with no likable characters. Obviously "Wuthering Heights" has lived on in spite of its flaws. Like you, I feel strongly on the subject: I want my protagonist to have at least one redeeming characteristic! I want a reason to care. Are we in the minority? Are we wrong?

  2. I don't think we're wrong. So it begs the question, in the case of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, why DO we care? Or is it simply, as you said, a case of something enduring in spite of its flaws, like Shakespeare in spite of his stolen and/or convoluted plots. Dickens also comes to mind as one whose plots, while chock full of action, have pretty convoluted structures, but his work endures because his descriptions and characters are so engaging and engrossing.

  3. I agree with Cynthia about Dickens' characters, some of them were likable at least. The movie version of Wuthering Heights also left me with the impression that I probably would not like either character in real life. I recently read a romance novel for my genre project and the "Hero" was so self absorbed, I was left wishing the poor girl would see what the reader was seeing and give him the boot. I think Bronte was simply tired of them by the end, however.

  4. Thanks for your comment. I confess that watching a movie version recently was one of the reasons I felt I needed to look back at the book. Heathcliff seemed like such an ass in the movie. Guess it was a better adaptation than I thought!

  5. Hello! I "followed" you here from the blog "A Writer's Journey".

    I really enjoyed this post. The first time I read Wuthering Heights (for a book club), I hated it. Recently, I challenged myself to give it another chance, because as you said it's a classic. I liked it better this time around, but I can't say I love it.

    Have you read 1984? I remember that as the first book I ever read where the MC was not likeable. He was absolutely insipid.

    It is fascinating how some authors can make that work.

    P.S. I totally agree about Dickens.

  6. Welcome to the conversation, Leslie!

    It's been SO LONG since I read 1984. Maybe I'll add that to my list of books to reread. I wonder if it's still a staple of high school reading lists.


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