Sunday, April 29, 2007

Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights"

First published in 1847, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is set on the bleak Yorkshire moors, where the drama of Catherine and Heathcliff, Heathcliff's cruel revenge against Edgar and Isabella Linton, and the promise of redemption through the next generation, is enacted.

Patsy Stoneman, a leading authority on the nineteenth-century novel, applied the "Page 99 Test" to Brontë's classic novel and reported the following:
I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition, in which p. 99 is in the middle of Vol. 1 Ch. 10. It begins in the middle of a speech by ‘Mrs Linton’, who is identified as ‘Catherine’ later on the page. She is telling Nelly, who is also the narrator of the story, that Heathcliff has returned to Wuthering Heights. I am sure that after reading just this page, I would want to read on. These are my reasons:
  • The situation is very intriguing. Mrs Linton/Catherine has quarrelled with her husband (whom she refers to as ‘that creature’) over the return of Heathcliff, to whom she is very much attached – so much so that his absence caused her ‘agony’ and his return means that she is ‘reconciled to God and humanity’. To complicate the situation, Heathcliff has come back to live at Wuthering Heights with Catherine’s brother, Hindley, who is described as ‘his ancient persecutor’. Heathcliff’s motive in returning is thus divided between a desire to be near Catherine and his desire for revenge on Hindley. Heathcliff, the beloved of Catherine, is thus an enemy of both Hindley and Mr Linton, and they are all to live in close proximity. The page ends with Catherine setting off to visit Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights, which promises a very exciting encounter.
  • Catherine’s words are very forthright: she speaks of her brother’s ‘covetousness’ and ‘greed’ and her own ‘angry rebellion against providence’. She exhibits extremes of reaction, from ‘Oh, I’ve endured very, very bitter misery’ to ‘Good night – I’m an angel!’. One oddity is that she blames her husband for his ‘petulance’ over Heathcliff and seems confident that she can make their peculiar relationship work, but her heightened language suggests that the drama will be an emotional firework display.
  • Nelly, the narrator, chooses a very different kind of language, cautious and foresightful, providing a great contrast to Catherine. When Nelly speaks of ‘fear of consequences’ from Heathcliff’s return, and describes Catherine’s angelic reformation as ‘self-complacent’, we sense a striking element of moral dissension to this drama which will raise difficult dilemmas while preventing us from easily taking sides with any of the characters.
Overall, the page suggests complex interactions between characters of very different motivations and moral attitudes, played out in dramatic and vivid language and promising unpredictable developments. If you read on, you are likely to get deeply involved; you will have to try to solve puzzles and to make judgements, in situations which raise fierce emotions.
Professor Stoneman is Emeritus Reader at The University of Hull. Her particular scholarly focus is on the works of Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontë sisters, and her publications include Elizabeth Gaskell and Brontë Transformations: the Cultural Dissemination of ‘Jane Eyre' and ‘Wuthering Heights'.

She has also published extensively on Wuthering Heights, having written the Introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition and edited both the Macmillan New Casebook and the Palgrave Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism of the novel, and contributed an essay to the MLA's Approaches to Teaching Emily Brontë's ‘Wuthering Heights'. She has also contributed essays to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës, The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës and The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell.

--Marshal Zeringue