Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

It took me much resolve to pick up this book.

It has been on my shelf for the last 7 years now. I hadn’t picked it up because I had thought it would be a formidable read.
The location, the setting of the story was solitary as I understood from the cover page.
The blurb, the title and the story itself, I heard from all who had read it, was dark. So I thought it would be some slow moving narrative, one of those books that’s of interest primarily to academicians and that I would take an eternity to finish it.

But it wasn’t all that dark, or if it was, it didn’t feel like it and I looked forward to picking up the book everyday.

Wuthering Heights is a novel of love and revenge.
It tells the story of two families, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, separated by 4 miles, as seen by a servant Nelly who prevails through the changing lives and times of 3 generations.
When Mr. Earnshaw owner of Heights, brings home a foundling, Heathcliff, to live in the family, complex feelings of jealousy and rivalry develop between his own son and the foster son; also, at the same time, an alliance between his daughter Catherine and the foster son.
Misunderstanding from a half heard conversation, that he has been rejected by Catherine, Heathcliff, leaves The Heights, insulted and bitter at everyone…
When he returns, Catherine is married to Edgar Linton, but she is still fond of Heathcliff. Disaster follows for the two families as Heathcliff begins to take revenge on them all – Edgar who had treated him with disdain and has now married Catherine, his foster brother Hindley who had ill treated him, Hareton who is Hindley’s son, Catherine’s daughter...
Only the second generation survive Heathcliff’s destructive passion and with the death of Heathcliff and his destructive love, the air filled for years, with bitterness, malice, fear, sickness and death, lifts, making way for fresh air, light and tender love, at last.

I loved reading the book and as I closed it, I discovered that I was a born classic lover.

What is it that makes the story enjoyable although dark? What saves it from formidability?

I think the fact that it is being narrated by Nelly who is a good woman and throughout the story narrates the events along with her judgment.
If the story weren’t narrated by anyone and the reader were plunged into it headlong and left there to himself, discovering dark characters and their dark deeds one after the other, the reading would have been formidable and depressing.

As it is being narrated by a character who is not dark herself and a woman of good disposition, the reader is at a safe distance from the cold core of the story, in a way, and is shielded by the narrator, from complete exposure to its depressiveness.

What usually causes discomfort is the absence of judgment: when the narrator refuses to take sides and the reader is alone in his sympathies and his resentments and not even sure about it.
Here, the narrator Nelly is the omniscient voice controlling sympathies. She calls a black man black and a black deed black. And that is much consolation to the reader. It is as I said, as if there were someone sympathising with the reader's sentiments; as if he were not all alone on a solitary journey.

All the characters die untimely deaths – of sickness, of childbirth, but in the end, the reader experiences the satisfaction of divine retribution and the restoration of peace and property to its rightful owners.

The story spans two households and 3 generations.
The slow moving style, typical of classics, where the narration adequately and eternally dwells upon the characters makes the reading a very intimate experience and helps the reader to live the story very deep.

The landscape is solitary yet charming.
Time moves slowly in those quiet, secluded moors.

‘There’s a little flower up yonder, the last bud from the multitude of bluebells that clouded those turf steps in July with a lilac mist…’
‘Before I arrived in sight of it, all that remained of day was a beamless am¬ber light along the west: but I could see every pebble on the path, and every blade of grass, by that splendid moon…’
‘In winter nothing more dreary, in summer nothing more divine, than those glens shut in by hills, and those bluff, bold swells of heath…’

The solitary air of the location also helps to achieve the absence of clutter and clamour and brings the reader really close to and focused on the one single story.

The language standard is simply a feast.

The reader gets a taste of authentic England, of the English people, of their culture, of their ways of life, of the landscapes, their attire, their food; their hats, ponies, barns, fire places, libraries, sprawling houses with parks surrounding them, their countryside, their cold winters and their lively summers…

Shifting sympathies is another feature of the story that stood out as uncommon, as also the apportioning of sympathy to various characters.

The only protagonists happen to be those characters who are not really part of the story: the narrator, Nelly who is a domestic help, Mr Lockwood, a tenant who is listening to the narration and Mr Earnshaw with a small role.
The main characters around whom the story revolves share the reader’s sympathy as well as his angst and resentment.

Heathcliff is introduced as a savage dark soul, but as the narrator goes back, in retrospect, to the beginning of the story, the reader sees that Heathcliff really began as a poor foundling but became perverse following blow after blow dealt upon him by Hindley, Joseph, Edgar and Edgar’s parents. Having lost Catherine too, and hence having lost all, with nothing left on his side, he disappears from the Heights and returns with an agenda of revenge and ruins his aggressors, his persecutors and adversaries.

But, though justified in his hatred and anger to some extent, he goes too far, when he, instead of stopping at avenging his offenders, persecutes their children and family members as well. When he proceeds to ruin his own son’s life, the reader begins to hate this character. Initially there is some compassion for him but he goes overboard and loses it.

The reader’s sympathy is divided also in the case of lovers, owing to their many flaws.
The two lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff, should have had all of the reader’s sympathy (undivided) but because of the haughtiness and craftiness of Catherine and the wickedness of Heathcliff, the reader’s sympathy is divided and eventually the two lovers lose all of it.
The reader begins to sympathize with the original persecutors – Hindley, Edgar, Isabella, Hareton as they become victims and loses all sympathy for Catherine and Heathcliff.

Lines that I noted…

‘I’m now quite cured of seeking pleasure in society, be it country or town. A sensible man ought to find sufficient company in himself.’

‘A person who has not done one-half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.’

‘I perceive that people in these regions acquire over people in towns the value that a spider in a dungeon does over a spider in a cottage, to their various occupants; and yet the deepened attraction is not entirely owing to the situation of the look¬er-on. They DO live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface, change, and frivolous external things. I could fancy a love for life here almost possible; and I was a fixed unbeliever in any love of a year’s standing. One state resembles setting a hungry man down to a single dish, on which he may concentrate his entire appetite and do it jus¬tice; the other, introducing him to a table laid out by French cooks: he can perhaps extract as much enjoyment from the whole; but each part is a mere atom in his regard and re¬membrance.’

‘We MUST be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering’

Heathcliff to Catherine - ‘I seek no revenge on you. That’s not the plan. The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against him; they crush those beneath them. You are welcome to torture me to death for your amusement, only allow me to amuse myself a little in the same style… Having levelled my palace, don’t erect a hovel and complacently admire your own charity in giving me that for a home. If I imagined you really wished me to marry Isabella, I’d cut my throat!’

‘Her appearance is changed greatly, her character much more so; and the person who is compelled, of necessity, to be her companion, will only sus¬tain his affection hereafter by the remembrance of what she once was, by common humanity, and a sense of duty!’

‘I don’t know if it be a peculiarity in me, but I am seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death, should no frenzied or despairing mourner share the duty with me. I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break, and I feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter - the Eternity they have entered - where life is bound¬less in its duration, and love in its sympathy, and joy in its fullness. I noticed on that occasion how much selfishness there is even in a love like Mr. Linton’s, when he so regret¬ted Catherine’s blessed release! To be sure, one might have doubted, after the wayward and impatient existence she had led, whether she merited a haven of peace at last. One might doubt in seasons of cold reflection; but not then, in the pres¬ence of her corpse. It asserted its own tranquillity, which seemed a pledge of equal quiet to its former inhabitant.’

‘I was weeping as much for him as her: we do some¬times pity creatures that have none of the feeling either for themselves or others’ - Nelly weeping for Heathcliff when he is not moved by Catherine’s death.

‘(Heathcliff) laughed; Hareton darkened: I perceived he was very sensitive to suspected slights, and had obviously a dim notion of his inferiority’

‘She then turned her attention to seeking out objects of amusement for her¬self, and tripped merrily on, lilting a tune to supply the lack of conversation…’

‘Miss Cathy conversant with no bad deeds except her own slight acts of disobedi¬ence, injustice, and passion, arising from hot temper and thoughtlessness, and repented of on the day they were com-mitted, was amazed at the blackness of spirit that could brood on and cover revenge for years, and deliberately pros¬ecute its plans without a visitation of remorse’

‘Never did any bird flying back to a plundered nest, which it had left brimful of chirping young ones, express more complete despair, in its anguished cries and flutterings, than she by her single ‘Oh!’ and the change that transfigured her late happy countenance’ - when Nelly disturbed Cathy’s drawer full of love letters to Linton Jr.

‘Her affection for him was still the chief sentiment in her heart. (Catherine’s love for her father)’

‘We deferred our excursion till the afternoon; a golden afternoon of August: every breath from the hills so full of life, that it seemed whoever respired it, though dying, might revive. Catherine’s face was just like the landscape shadows and sunshine flitting over it in rapid succession; but the shadows rested longer, and the sunshine was more transient; and her poor little heart reproached itself for even that passing forgetfulness of its cares’

‘Oh!’ she replied, ‘I don’t wish to limit his acquirements: still, he has no right to appropriate what is mine, and make it ridiculous to me with his vile mistakes and mispronunci¬ations! Those books, both prose and verse, are consecrated to me by other associations; and I hate to have them debased and profaned in his mouth! Besides, of all, he has selected my favourite pieces that I love the most to repeat, as if out of deliberate malice.’
But his self-love would endure no further torment: I heard, and not altogether disapprovingly, a manual check given to her saucy tongue. The little wretch had done her utmost to hurt her cousin’s sensitive though uncultivated feelings…

‘(A sight)…it affected him too deeply to allow an observation on the subject that night. His emotion was only revealed by the immense sighs he drew…’

‘The red fire-light glowed on their two bonny heads, and revealed their faces animated with the ea¬ger interest of children; for, though he was twenty-three and she eighteen, each had so much of novelty to feel and learn, that neither experienced nor evinced the sentiments of so¬ber disenchanted maturity’

‘How did you contrive to preserve the common sympathies of human nature when you resided here? I cannot recognise any sentiment which those around share with me – Isabella in a letter to Nelly’

‘I saw it pleased him (Edgar Linton) that his sister had left her husband; whom he abhorred with an intensity which the mildness of his nature would scarcely seem to allow…’

‘I was spared the pain of being the first proclaimant of her flight’, Nelly. A maid announced Isabella’s running away.’

‘I could not picture a father treating a dying child as tyrannically and wickedly as I afterwards learned Heathcliff had treated him, to com¬pel this apparent eagerness: his efforts redoubling the more imminently his avaricious and unfeeling plans were threat¬ened with defeat by death’

The havoc that months had previously wrought was now emu¬lated by the inroads of hours - Edgar linton’s health.

Frightful Yorkshire pronunciation

‘I did not love her, and rather relished mortifying her vanity now and then…’

Catherine tearing her pillow - ‘That’s a turkey’s,’ she murmured to herself; ‘and this is a wild duck’s; and this is a pigeon’s. Ah, they put pigeons’ feathers in the pillows no wonder I couldn’t die! – pigeon’s feathers are supposed, in north country superstition to prevent the soul from leaving the body.

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