Wuthering Heights is an iconic love story in Western culture, and like most iconic love stories (Romeo and Juliet, Eloise and Abelard, Gone with the Wind) it’s not all soft lighting and roses. Our iconic love stories are frequently terrifying. Even if we believe that love conquers all, we have to recognize that “conquering” conjures up notions of violence and defeat. For love to conquer, something must be destroyed.
In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff wants to destroy the distance between himself and Catherine. He wants to destroy Hindley. He wants to destroy the civilized breeding that the Lintons represent. After a while, the targets of his rage blur together. He just wants wants to destroy. Catherine, selfish and arrogant, is hardly any better. Emily Bronte does not invite you to like her characters. But she does invite you to be fascinated by her characters.
Heathcliff—driven by vengeance, hoping to be haunted by Catherine’s ghost, ultimately destructive of almost everything, including his sense of self—is the focus of the fascination. He has a clear antecedent. The great Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) creates the Byronic hero in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1817), and he continues to revise this character through a number of his works. Basically, the Byronic hero is an outsider who is not subject to the regular laws and conventions of his society. He’s cynical, reckless, emotionally scarred but also intelligent, cunning, and attractive. Byron, perhaps the world’s first true celebrity, was often confused with his creation, and the whole of Europe seems to have been drawn to him. But Byron never truly was the Byronic hero. And perhaps the fullest incarnation of the Byronic hero would be Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff. Brooding, tortured, violent, his very name derives from two foreboding features of a rough landscape, the heath and the cliff. They both can be beautiful. They both can kill you. The Romantic era, to which Bronte’s novel responds, called that the sublime.
The fullest explanation of the sublime comes from Edmund Burke, more famous now for helping to articulate the intellectual foundations of modern conservatism in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke contrasted the sublime with the beautiful. For Burke, hills are beautiful; mountains are sublime. In art, women’s bodies are beautiful; men’s bodies are sublime. In short, the sublime describes those aesthetically moving landscapes and artworks that filled you with an awful—for the era, “full of awe”—thrill. (It’s the same theory that informs how American national parks came to be in America. Most of them signal the sublime in their extreme names—Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave, or Everglades, not a continuous jungle but an ongoing glade, or open spot). The beautiful brings pleasure; the sublime brings a kind of desirable, pleasurable pain. The sublime was the reigning aesthetic in the Gothic tradition, thus the haunted old houses and terrifying landscapes of the Gothic tradition that contribute heavily to the feel of Wuthering Heights. The sublime in Wuthering Heights fills you with awe because you sense the threat.
Bronte senses the threat of love, of intense losing-control-of-yourself love, of no- longer-able-to-make-good-judgments love. She also senses its promise and understands the powerful draw that an all-consuming love can have on our imaginations. The love that Heathcliff and Catherine represent might be called one that seeks transcendence, that seeks to make the two isolated individuals become one larger thing, that seeks to remedy a fear that we might be existentially alone. Bronte might be said to be making a religion, or maybe a cult, of love. Religion we trust to bring us fulfillment and promise. Cults destroy. Which one Bronte depicts I will leave to you to decide.
Charles T. Hazelrigg Associate Professor of English
John Kinkade joined the Centre College faculty in 2006. Prior to this, he taught at the Texas Military Institute, the University of Texas at Austin, and in the Naples, Fla., community schools. Kinkade graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Centre College with degrees in English and government, and earned a master’s and Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Texas at Austin.