“I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. And this is one: I’m going to tell it – but take care not to smile at any part of it.” ― Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
The first time I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, I was both captivated and confused by the strange tale and its intermingling of the supernatural, and I think much of it went right over my head. I returned to it again in college and by its conclusion was utterly repulsed by the dark macabre of the narrative; heartily glad when I had finished with it, I set it aside. This, my third return to the text, left me in much greater awe of the book’s timeless appeal as a favorite among book-lovers. After all, it is the wild, isolated, other-worldliness of Wuthering Heights that captivates readers and which makes the quintessential Byronic hero’s twisted romance with the classic Gothic woman somehow enchanting. In this chaotic sphere, the neat line of inheritance is replaced by usurpation, with characters constantly caught up in the flux of exile and homelessness, seemingly adrift between the two houses on the moor. It is, in fact, the reader’s comfortable position peering in as the “Other,” in juxtaposition to the tumultuous world of Wuthering Heights, that gives the novel its springboard.
Defined by Dr. L. Kip Wheeler as “the depiction or categorization of another person or group of people as distinctly different from the writer’s or speaker’s own group,” “Othering,” and the struggle against the Other, is consistent theme in Wuthering Heights. Even the names are recycled, swirled, mixed and rearranged together as if in staunch opposition to outside influence.
Lockwood, representative of the reader, is the first and most obvious outsider to invade Wuthering Heights, and he even describes his visits to the house as “intrusions.” On his second visit, he matches Wuthering Heights’ forceful expulsion with a violence of his own as he forces his entry. By that evening, he succeeds in penetrating to the very center of Wuthering Heights when he encloses himself in the oaken paneled bed of Catherine’s former chamber. There, in the heart of Wuthering Heights, he finds the axis of this strange world to be text, three texts in fact — the carvings of Catherine’s names in the wood within, her library of books and her diary in the margins of those books. The fact that the axle of Wuthering Heights is text further blurs the lines between the place — world and house — of Wuthering Heights, and the existence of Wuthering Heights the manuscript.
Lockwood then experiences this center as a series of three nightmarish dreams, each of which correspond to one of the seemingly innocuous texts. This can be seen as Wuthering Heights—the novel—engaging in a violent struggle to dispel its Other in order to create space for its own narrative, which begins in the next chapter by insider Nelly Dean. Lockwood is thus successfully expelled as the direct narrator. Literary critic Carol Jacobs writes that Lockwood “dreams of finding its center only to find that the center is a dream … he [then] attempts to establish the ascendance of reality over dream and to dispense with a merely fictional terror by rational explication.” Lockwood hence chooses to remove himself from directly engaging in Wuthering Heights by choosing not to believe in its supernatural elements, and henceforth as an exile, he has little closer contact with it than the reader, resigned to looking in from the perspective as the Other due to his failure to overcome in that nocturnal struggle.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “wuther,” a dialect variant of “whither,” can mean “an attack, onset; a smart blow, or stroke,” and it is in this sense that the house is under constant attack from the outside Other. However, wuther can also mean “to tremble, shake, quiver,” so that “wuthering” denotes “a quivering movement” or “a tremble” that convulses internally rather than from external attacks. The Heights thus wuthers from within as well as from without, and we see this pattern throughout Nelly Dean’s narrative of the house’s history. Arguably, it is due to the penetration of the Other that causes all of the “wuthering.” Initially, Heathcliff himself is certainly the Other, an invading assailant, and he so successfully penetrates Wuthering Heights that he becomes the primary means of the internal, convulsive trembles as well.
Literary critic Steven Vine writes, “It is Heathcliff who seems most insistently to shake the fixed structures of the novel’s world … Heathcliff restlessly invades and overturns the generic and narrative protocols of the novel. An unquiet and contradictory presence, Heathcliff can be seen as a trope of radical displacement … Heathcliff comes from outside, from the other, introducing an instability into the world that precariously incorporates him, and he is never stably lodged in any of the social places he assumes.”
Heathcliff is thus an agent of disruption, and his life is framed in terms of taking the place of others. His introduction to the Earnshaw family is simultaneously an expulsion from it, being adopted while also being rejected. Even his name had already been that of a son in the Earnshaw household who died in childhood. Heathcliff immediately takes the place of Hindley in his father’s affections, and as an adult he takes Hindley’s rightful place as the master of the Heights; finally, he takes the Lintons’ place as the master of Thrushcross Grange.
Vines continues, “Heathcliff’s unstable or wuthering position in the family structure in fact dramatizes the forces that constitute that structure; forces of incorporation and expulsion gather round him in such a way as to make him both marginal to the family and exemplary of its instabilities.” Heathcliff’s “contradictory presence” thus makes him at once a favorite and pariah.
It can be argued that Edgar and Isabella Linton are similar in their introduction to Wuthering Heights — they are certainly the Other until their marriages swirl them into the heart of the Heights and irrevocably bind them to its interior. Like Heathcliff, it is their catastrophic presence in the novel that causes much of the disturbance as the two families violently collide and fuse together. However, they are like the reader somewhat in that much of the Heights is shocking to their more orderly and conventional sensibilities.
Perhaps it is the child in me who always wants to see the pictures or just a healthy love of art, but my third encounter with Wuthering Heights was also delightfully enhanced by reading a copy newly published by the Folio Society. The commissioned illustrations by artist Rovina Cai perfectly capture the “wuthering” that takes place in every element of the novel as well as visually express Catherine and Heathcliff’s uniquely dark romance. Whether you have read it before, love it, hate it, or have never beheld the wild moors of Wuthering Heights, I earnestly recommend you take a peek into this Other world.