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Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, has inspired fourteen film and television adaptations, around 50 novel-format retellings and even a #1 song. However, at the time of its initial publication in 1847, many contemporary critics found little to love about the cult classic and even claimed the revenge story too disturbing to be of any great literary value, with H.F Chorley’s 1847 review deeming it a ‘disagreeable story’. Indeed, the novel’s protagonists, Heathcliff and Cathy, are two destructive, self-serving and, at times, wholly unpalatable characters. Their brutal romance plays out amidst the backdrop of the wild Yorkshire moorlands, which almost acts as a character itself. Brontë’s novel deals in the darkness of unhappy families and how the yoke of patrilineal inheritance plays a huge part in the characters’ misery. But why has Bronte’s airing out of the Earnshaw’s and Linton’s ‘dirty washing’ remained so enticing in the present day? Arguably, the biggest cause is Cathy and Heathcliff.
Heathcliff is the polarising romantic villain who is impossible to feel indifferent towards. His actions are consistently despicable and rarely amicable, and yet it is Heathcliff who remains the most captivating character of the novel. He is frequently voted literature’s favourite romantic hero in polls, despite his violence and tyranny to pretty much everyone in the novel. Heathcliff’s tortured romance with Cathy is idealised most often in modern film adaptations, most famously in the 1939 film starring Sir Lawrence Oliver and Merle Oberon. Despite Cathy’s death midway through the novel and Heathcliff ultimately dying alone, their relationship still dominates the second part of the book. The romance of the next generation between Hareton Earnshaw and the young Catherine Linton pales in comparison to the older Heathcliff and Cathy. Brontë’s conclusion of the turbulent story is one that has fascinated critics for over one hundred years. The engagement of young Catherine Linton to Hareton Earnshaw ostensibly suggests that their responsible and less melodramatic love is preferable to Heathcliff and Cathy’s volatile passion. Although Brontë rounds the story off with the young couple, the supernatural elements of the novel suggest Heathcliff and Cathy’s ghosts still haunt the moors: ‘the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible, that he walks’. Eerily, Heathcliff and Cathy linger in the moors after their respective deaths, and their characters have certainly proved to be culturally immortal.
Heathcliff, especially, is firmly cemented as one of the most menacing characters in English Literature. In her 1850 preface to Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë wrote, ‘whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know.’ Heathcliff and even other characters like Cathy and Hindley delineate the most primal instincts of humanity. It is no mere coincidence that the violent characters of Heathcliff and Cathy choose the unruly moors as their haven of escape. Nor is it a coincidence that Lockwood reports that the moorlands have become a ‘quiet earth’ following Heathcliff’s death. Masterfully, Brontë creates a landscape that mirrors the tempestuous behaviour of the characters who inhabit it. In Heathcliff and Cathy’s absence, their remaining family members and the Yorkshire moorlands are finally at peace.
Why is it, then, that the story of Cathy and Heathcliff is still so appealing? More modern responses to Wuthering Heights have certainly viewed the relationship through a more practical lens. In 2007, Guardian critic Martin Kettle wrote, ‘if Wuthering Heights is a love story then Hamlet is a family sitcom’, in response to a UKTV Drama poll which recorded that 2,000 people had voted the novel as the greatest love story of all time. Kettle rightly articulates that to limit Wuthering Heights to a love story neglects its arguably more prominent themes of obsession, revenge, family and wealth. The ‘love’ between Cathy and Heathcliff is a much more complicated matter.
But ultimately, the popularity of Cathy and Heathcliff is not that much of a mystery. For many, Heathcliff is appealing because of many flattering film portrayals, namely those that exclude the second half of the book, where Heathcliff only grows crueler and more calculated in his vengeance and money-grabbing. Naturally, it is likely that Heathcliff’s mystery also makes him an intriguing romantic hero for a reader. Brontë writes Heathcliff as an orphan picked off the streets of Liverpool with no name and no history. When he is older, he also leaves the Heights for several years before returning much wealthier, but with no explanation as to how he attained this money. But what is most fascinating about Heathcliff, and was certainly rare for literary romantic heroes at the time, is how he hates as intensely as he loves. For him, love and hate do not exist separately from one another; they are interchangeable, perhaps even the same thing. Truly, Heathcliff is an anti-hero at best and a villain at worst. His actions blur the line between love and hate frequently, and yet we, the readers, still seem to root for him to end up with Cathy regardless.
Ultimately, Wuthering Heights‘ central relationship and its ‘Byronic’ protagonist has enchanted audiences, past and present. Many have credited Wuthering Heights with fuelling the trope of literary ‘bad boys’. Feminist writer Caroline Norton in 1863 wrote: ‘a race of novel-heroes have sprung up whose chief merit seems to be that… they could ‘knock down a Mammoth or a Megatherium’1. Norton refers to Emily’s sister Charlotte Brontë and her similar fallibility in creating romantic heroes who fundamentally treat their lovers terribly. Just as contemporary critics could not fathom whether to rejoice in Brontë’s melodrama or condemn it, critics today are still divided. Ultimately, the most fascinating and enduring quality of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece is her ability to evoke a reception of simultaneous magnetism and contempt for her central character.
1 Samantha Ellis, The Telegraph, How Heathcliff Ruined My Love Life, [accessed 15/03/2021], https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/heathcliff-ruined-love-life/