When I started writing this post a few weeks ago, I was spending the day finishing up Wuthering Heights for one of my prelim exams. This wasn’t my first time slogging through the moors between Thrushcross Grange and the Heights, but the story felt different from my first reading; so different, in fact, that I’ve been puzzling over how much a book’s influence over you can change in just a few years. Some texts have a perennial, positive influence on their readers. Jane Eyre does this for me, and so does Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. But Wuthering Heights felt like a completely different novel this time around. As afraid as I am to admit this, there’s something terrifying about allowing these characters—especially the wildly intense Cathy and Heathcliff—to influence you.
I have nothing against living intensely. In fact, I agree with writer Elizabeth Drew’s sentiments when she claims, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.” To live intensely is to feel all the feelings and notice all the rhythms of death and rebirth that make up a thoughtful life on this planet. This is the same thing Sir Philip Sidney says in the sixteenth-century when, in the Defense of Poesy, he argues that literature makes virtue so beautiful that we can’t help but be moved to virtue ourselves. Living intensely is a rich, powerful goal. But if I were to teach Wuthering Heights tomorrow, I couldn’t help but frame the discussion around these sorts of questions: What are the limits of living intensely? At what point does our intensity cross the line?
A friend of mine in college used to love to tell the story of how much she hated Wuthering Heights when she read it in high school. “I don’t want to read a book about awful people,” she would say. “Don’t you think the whole relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is selfish and deranged? How is this even considered ‘great literature’?” I didn’t want to tell her that I thought her complaint (i.e. compelling characters are often the most deranged) was the whole point of why the novel has remained so important in the canon of English literature, but I understood her point. Our romantic leads in the novel are awful and selfish—they live so intensely that they block out the whole world for the sake of reveling in their own strange fantasies, and they don’t seem too concerned with what they destroy in their wake.
Cathy’s famous admission of love for Heathcliff (which she confides to her housekeeper, Ellen) smacks of the intensity my friend criticized:
“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees—my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he’s always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself—but as my own being…” (Wuthering Heights 73, Oxford World’s Classics Edition)
My friend would say that Cathy’s problem is her inability to view her love for Heathcliff in practical terms. I bet she would call her (with good reason) excessively melodramatic. And that Cathy is. But I’m not sure the message of the novel is that intensity is bad. I wonder, actually, if the message is that intensity is enviable, especially when things go well. After all, Wuthering Heights invites the suspicion that Cathy and Heathcliff’s intensity would only flourish if they could comfortably and happily marry. We envy their attachment, even though the novel makes the relationship fail. (Or does it? That’s another question…)
The frame narrative of the novel—those ongoing conversations between Ellen Dean and Mr. Lockwood that essentially tell the story—only makes the intensity seem more exaggerated. Ellen and Lockwood are paragons of moderation and carefulness; they are anything but reckless, and they certainly aren’t “intense.” But when I finished up re-reading this novel a few weeks ago, I remembered that no one really wants to grow up to be Ellen. She’s virtuous, yes, but not necessarily exciting. And Mr. Lockwood is hardly an in-demand gentleman caller. Intensity is attractive for most readers of Wuthering Heights, and, even though things go poorly for Cathy and Heathcliff, their intensity is still an enviable quality of their love for each other.
So, here are a few mid-week English teacher questions for you: What are the limits of living intensely? How much is too much, especially in an excessively dramatic novel like Wuthering Heights?