Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When one Character is all the Atmosphere; Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights is a tale from one half of a pair of author sisters that moves slow and captures many elements of being incredibly enveloped in the industrial revolution. So many aspects of this time period come out in one character specificly, who almost cries back out at a certain class of people; his friends and family. The chief element moving these themes in this novel is the relationship between characters, and then the characters themselves. Emily Bronte creates detailed, deliberately paced atmosphere, with the characters again being a chief tool used to employ this. Many characters have contrasting views and they form cliques, while the reader witnesses their growth.

The foundation of the styles employed on Wuthering Heights is in its setting, use of nature, and of course, the very notable character of Heathcliff. The setup for it’s story and natures role is explained quite early with the character of Nelly Dean, the narrator of the story, who herself believes in apparitions. What’s interesting is that this superstition, which captures the characters in time, is what binds characters together.  The aspect of nature is what I found very profound as well, with bits pantheism. Indeed, the characters who are early on waiting out the storm are in a desolate place. There is a glorification about the weather, and at a time when people are finding divinity in the forces of nature (this is also a way to make the construct of nature more appealing; think less about the earthquakes, more about the rainbows) it forces an experience that is frightening. It is the message bearer, as opposed to the reflection of a god’s beauty. 

In support of this is the character Heathcliff.  He is an all encompassing example of the Byronic character. His behavior is destructive but he is also himself seductive. Of course this makes for an exciting read; by chapter 17, Heathcliff has turned into a character so hated that Isabella even prays for his death and questions his capability at holding onto his own humanity. He himself has strange aspects of humanity; sudden gained wealth, small bouts of anger but no actual hints toward what a feared character he is becoming. He strikes so much fear, some characters even enter seclusion because their fear of crossing paths with Heathcliff forces them into hiding. He himself is also supernatural and tied into nature; as well as not explaining forms of his wealth and intelligence, his past is mostly a secret, his upbringings unknown to the reader, large chunks of time missing. Heathcliff is turning more and more miserable, yet he is capable of enchanting many people. At this point however, he seems more content on being moody and less like what was described as someone so much like the women he loved they found themselves unworthy. Heathcliff, in chapter 9, starts to let his true intentions known, thus fulfilling even moreso, his role as a  Byronic heroe; “You are welcome to torture me to death for your amusement, only allow me to amuse myself a little in the same style…”

1 comment:

  1. I like that you pick up on the spiritual elements of the natural world in this novel. For two daughters that were raised in a strictly religious household, both Emily and Charlotte Bronte exhibit a certain fluidity when it comes to Christianity which at times seems almost sacrilegious. Note what Catherine says to Nelly about heaven on page 75,

    "This is nothing,' cried she: 'I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy."

    In one key scene in Jane Eyre, right after the priest and soon-to-be missionary St. John Rivers attempts (Mr. Collins-style) to propose to our heroine, Jane suddenly hears the sound of the voice of her former lover and soul mate Mr. Rochester. She bursts out of the house and into the garden:

    "Where are you?" I exclaimed.

    The hills beyond Marsh Glen sent the answer faintly back--'Where are you?' I listened. The wind sighed low in the firs: all was moorland loneliness and midnight hush.

    "Down superstition!" I commented, as that spectre rose up black by the black yew tree at the gate. ‘This is not thy deception, nor thy witchcraft: *it is the work of nature* (my emphasis). She was roused, and did--no miracle--but her best.'

    I broke from St. John, who had followed, and would have detained me. It was *my* time to assume ascendancy. *My* powers were in play, and in force. I told him to forbear question or remark; I desired him to leave me: I must, and would be alone. He obeyed at once...I mounted to my chamber; locked myself in; fell on my knees; and prayed in my way--a different way to St. John's, but effective in its own fashion. I seemed to penetrate very near a Mighty Spirit; and my soul rushed out in gratitude at His feet. I rose from the thanksgiving--took a resolve--and lay down, unscared, enlightened--eager but for the daylight" (358).

    It would seem that both characters—Catherine and Jane—have a connection to the natural world that lies beyond traditional, patriarchal religion. Both heroines use the natural world to describe an “in-between” space that is neither of the material world nor necessarily the spirit world or “heaven.” They invent their own religion that lies beyond the patriarchal order, and it’s significant to me that both female characters seek their asylum outside of the domestic sphere of the home: Catherine finds solace in the wild, rambling moors and Jane outside in the marshy hills. We should continue to explore the role of the supernatural in WH, specifically Catherine’s ghost and what symbolic properties it possesses.