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Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - Barron's Booknotes
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Charlotte Bronte, in defending her sister's book to the readers of her day,
never defended the character of Heathcliff. "He stands unredeemed," she
wrote in her preface to the novel, "never once swerving in his arrow-straight
course to perdition." She went on to question whether it was even right or
advisable to create such beings.

Although modern readers, on the whole, are more sympathetic
to Heathcliff, it's easy to understand Charlotte Bronte's
position. To recite a catalogue of his sins is almost to retell the
novel. You sympathize with him at first, when Hindley
mistreats him and he loses Cathy, but when he returns
transformed, and his plan of vengeance begins to unfold, your
feelings change. You begin to question his love for Cathy. Was
it selfish, not true love at all, but an obsession? Can love exist
so intertwined with jealousy, hatred, and anger?

Mrs. Dean says that Heathcliff is greedy, and Cathy herself
tells him he's close and covetous. His name is generally
surrounded with words like hell, devil, diabolical, infernal, and
fiendish. Worst of all, he's unrepentant. "I've done no
injustice," he says at the end of the book.

The author's contemporaries were upset that such an evil
character loomed so large in her book. In looking to identify
the source of that sense of evil, some modern readers claim that
Heathcliff represents a specifically sexual energy that Emily
Bronte, a true Victorian, was bound to denounce.

Simply to condemn Heathcliff, however, is to ignore the real
sympathy for him, even identification with him, that Emily
Bronte evokes from her readers. People have seen Heathcliff in
two very different lights:

1. As a rebel. Heathcliff, a friendless laborer, is mistreated by
the landed gentry. He loses his true love to a man with wealth
and a higher social position. He takes revenge by seizing
control of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. In this
view, his revenge is an assertion of his dignity as a human
being, and right is on his side.

2. As a person committed to a higher love. That is, a person
committed to a love beyond the conventional notions of
religion or morality. When Heathcliff identifies himself with
Cathy ("I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my
soul!"), this is not selfishness; he is describing a love that holds
nothing back. And he remains true to his love even when Cathy
has betrayed him for Edgar. When he returns from his three-
year exile, he plans at first to have revenge only on Hindley
and to "look in" at Thrushcross Grange and make sure Cathy is
happy. But his suffering overwhelms him, and he starts to
torment others, especially Isabella, Edgar Linton's sister.

His revenge is thus a horrible deflection of his love for Cathy,
and his greatest crime-and the source of all his later ones-is
not to forgive her on her deathbed. It is only when he finds
himself reconciled to her spirit that he abandons his cruelty
toward Hareton and the younger Cathy.

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - Barron's Booknotes

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