A review/essay written about my all-time favorite classic novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ finds a home today at Learningandcreativity.com. So happy to share it with the readers of L&C.
A Gothic tale of passion, vengeance and the elemental clash between man and his destiny, Wuthering Heights, the only novel by Emily Bronte published in 1847, remains one of the most acclaimed works of English literature till date.
Long after the publication of the novel ‘Jane Eyre’, Charlotte Bronte, another Bronte sister used to receive the utmost critical admiration. In fact, Emily in particular was often presented by critics back then as a ghost-like presence surrounded by the ghostly moorland, cut off by the human society. By the 1880’s, however, critics began to appreciate her stupendous literary craft, the brilliant structure and the meticulous execution of the different themes of Wuthering Heights. Over the years, the novel has been regarded as one of the most powerful works of art due to its depiction of the passion and relationships, the physical and spiritual struggles between a couple of families living in the Yorkshire moors.
The Narrative of Wuthering Heights
The narrative of the entire novel revolves around the all-encompassing, powerful and passionate love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, and how their thwarted passion eventually disrupts and destroys their lives as well as the lives of those surrounding them. Throughout the narrative, which critics have labeled as strange, powerful and imaginative, there is an elemental clash between the two opposite forces”storm and calm.
Both Catherine and Heathcliff, while remaining closely connected to each other in a strange, inexplicable way, represent the elemental force of the storm. This strong, elemental force of the storm that Catherine and Heathcliff symbolize seek not only passionate love, but a stronger, higher spiritual existence that transcends mortality. On the other hand, Thrushcross Grange and the Lintons represent the calm that is time and again invaded and consumed by the elemental storm of Catherine and Heathcliff’s presence.
The narrative unfolds with the arrival of a tenant named Mr. Lockwood who comes to visit his landlord Mr. Heathcliff at Thrushcross Grange and reads the diary of the young Catherine Earnshaw, learning that she had an intimate childhood relationship with Heathcliff. His terrifying dream of the ghost of a young girl begging to enter his room leads to a severe ill treatment meted out to him by Heathcliff and his subsequent interaction with Ms. Nelly Dean, an old housekeeper closely related to both the Earnshaw and Linton families. Ms. Dean, then provides the secondary narrative embedded with Mr. Lockwood’s narrative and unfolds the plot bit by bit.
While recalling the history of the Earnshaws, she takes over the narration and begins the story thirty years earlier when Heathcliff, a young gypsy boy is introduced to the Earnshaw family by the Late Mr. Earnshaw. The story then follows a long, winding path of resentment, childhood companionship, love, brutality, revenge and abusive relationships that affects the lives of almost all the characters encompassing three generations. The constant physical and emotional struggles and the continuing tension between the characters”Catherine and Edgar Linton (Catherine’s husband), Heathcliff and Hindley (Catherine’s brother), Heathcliff and Hareton (Hindley’s son), Heathcliff and Isabella (Linton’s sister) form the crux of a turbulent saga that end in the death of Heathcliff.
The Element of Passion in Wuthering Heights
The center of the book, however, is the story of the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff, which unfolds in four stages in a back-and-fourth narrative. While the first part tells about the close relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff and their common rebellion against Hindley at Wuthering Heights, the second part reveals Catherine’s betrayal towards Heathcliff, her marriage to Edgar Linton, and her subsequent death in childbirth.
The third part covers the story of Heathcliff’s revenge and brutality at Thushcross Grange. The fourth part unfolds itself some years back and tells the readers about the changes that come over Heathcliff and finally, narrates his inevitable death. The Catherine-Heathcliff spiritual union remains the dominant theme even in the last two parts, long after the death of Catherine, underlying all other plot developments.
As for the structural brilliance of Wuthering Heights, critics are plainly divided. Mark Schorer had described the novel as one of the most meticulously crafted and constructed literary works of all times. On the other hand, critics like Albert J. Guerard commented that in this splendid novel, there are structural imperfections as Emily loses control over the plot occasionally. Charlotte, her own sister had commented that Emily was an unconscious artist who ‘did not know what she had done’.
The Gothic and Metaphysical Elements in Wuthering Heights
Whether Wuthering Heights is Gothic or metaphysical in its essence and finer appeal remains yet another controversial issue among its critics. The strange, powerful world of Wuthering Heights inhabits shadowy, brutal yet enigmatic figures like Heathcliff and Catherine who are consumed by the utmost personal, peculiar world of their feelings. In their very essence, they represent a gothic world. Incorporating the Gothic elements of imprisonment, escape, flight, persecuted heroine, ghosts, as well as introducing the mysterious Heathcliff who destroys the lady he loves and who usurps inheritance; Emily Bronte establishes several Gothic traits that are embedded into the narrative of the novel. On the other hand, the overwhelming presence of a larger reality, the desperate striving for a greater, higher union and an unbridled passion in pursuing that quest suggest a transcendental meaning that is essentially metaphysical in its nature and final analysis. On the whole, the novel remains a potent, imaginative classic with a raw, rugged beauty and intensity to it that renders it timeless and universal.
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (First Published 1847): Penguin Books
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847) by Arnold Kettle
Wuthering Heights: Storm and Calm, by David Cecil
Academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu, ‘Later Critical Responses to Wuthering Heights’
Academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu, ‘Religion, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Wuthering Heights’
I don’t know how these empty years have passed, in evanescence.
I want to swim the deep waters of a shady past
Of my rainy day caresses with you.
Here I spread out my arms and light the flame
Look back at quick stings, ruckus and impending doom,
Screams and murmurs alive in a hazy sleep.
Fighting away the memories and stings to free myself,
I am bound up tight in ropes– surrendered to your flames.
One last time, I want to reach out to the trembling and beauty
Of long nights and the smell of youthful, candid smiles
Lighting up the smothering traffic,
Old stairs, shady buildings in twilight haze.
Smiles that ran into the tramways, the busy subways
Of uncertain miles, bring me again, to nothingness
As I allow open wounds and scars of a castaway life
Whip me with a splash of colors.
My eyes walk across the Atlantic Ocean
As I sit at the edge of a slumber, whimpering and pining
Silly old tears of a forlorn city…..
You knock me down each time with your quandaries.
You knock me down each time with sins and sighs
Crush my breath–as if the sky is torn off my life.
I keep coming to you barefoot, scattered in ashes and dust
Walk back to you over rocks and thorns,
Stark dead and grinning, every time you grind the pieces in me–
Together and apart, you watch me blown to death.
You cherish me, limp and crazy
The constant cold departures, the sinking away”
While you know I would come back again to your dingy streets
And undo’ ME’.
I am–bits, pieces and splinters of you
The frozen memories, the buried yesteryear sins.
The betrayals, the thwarted passion, the wilderness that bleed
Summer’s scarlet tears in your naked, primal chest
Bleed and ache, whisper and scream, within ME.
Being an ardent lover of poetry, to be more specific, romantic poetry, I have always been fascinated with the sense of oneness I feel with the poets’ world. Romantic poetry, for some of its major attributes like pictorial quality, imagery, mysticism, absorption in the beauty and life of nature, classical features and above all, celebration of beauty and aestheticism—has a huge amount of appeal to the highly refined and sophisticated readers of all times. And surprisingly, it is this pictorial quality, sensuous delight in nature, sheer artistic beauty and richness of imagery unfolded by romantic poets that continue to inspire us in some way even after so many years!
When we come to think of the Romantic poets, the name John Keats, the finest flower of the Romantic Movement-comes foremost on our minds. Deeply revered as one of the greatest word-painters in English poetry, his verses present subtle imagery and a fusion of different sensations that has time and again, produced musical effects, and in that, he was rather a conscious artist.
The age of Keats and the literary influence on Keats:
The Romantic era, as history says, was the time when almost the whole of Europe was intensely shaken by the ideas and ideologies of the French Revolution. Major poets of that period were greatly inspired by the personal and political liberty of the revolution, breaking the bonds of the artistic conventions of the 18th century. Those were the times when these ideas and ideals “awaked the youthful passion of Wordsworth, of Coleridge”, “stirred the wrath of Scott” and “worked like yeast on Byron”… However, Keats was distinguished from his contemporary poets and literary figures in the fact that the excitement and the turmoil that gathered round the revolution was not directly represented in his poetry. Thus saying, it is worth mentioning that some portions of ‘Hyperion’, ‘Fall of Hyperion’, and ‘Endymion’ do bear testimony to that fact that Keats was influenced by the political turmoil – but it’s definitely not as pronounced as the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Shelley. His poetry, on the other hand, was an embodiment of his vision of beauty that he sees everywhere in nature, in art, in human deeds of chivalry and in the fascinating tales of ancient Greece. This in fact, was the profoundest and the most innermost experience of Keats’ soul, which he expresses most emphatically in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’:
“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’, that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Tracing his poetic growth, researchers have found out that he was educated almost exclusively by the English poets. While in the early part of his career, the influence of Edmund Spenser, specially his ‘Faerie Queene’, was instrumental in awakening his imaginative genius; the brooding love of sensuous beauty, the luxuriance of fancy and the response to the charm of nature characteristic of Spenser’s poems were to be re-echoed in Keats’ poems. In the later years, critics have cited the influence of Shakespeare, Milton, and even Wordsworth in his poems. While the influx of Shakespearean words, allusions find expression in the 1817 volume of his ‘Endymion’, he was also greatly influenced by the distinctive spirit and vocabulary of the old English poets, especially those of the Renaissance. Thus saying, it is worth mentioning that the influence of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is highly visible in his ‘Hyperion’. At the same breath, the classical influence on his poetry has also been a subject of intense research by scholars.
Critics today say that what makes the poetry of Keats the most distinguished among all romantic poets is the fact that his poetic genius blossomed under the romantic breeze, and matured under the sunshine of classicism. The genuine classicism of ancient Greece, which shows the characteristic classical restraint, is very much present in his poems. What more, it is harmoniously blended with the romantic ardor of his poetry, which results in a wonderful fusion of romantic impulse and classical severity. This statement holds much truth when we take into account his more mature Odes, where we notice Keats’ sense of form, purity and orderliness. His Odes have all the spontaneity and freedom of imagination that characterize the poetry of the Romantic era. For example, when in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the poet describes the bird’s song as the voice of eternity and expresses intense longing to die in the hope of merging with eternity, there is this romantic suggestiveness of sensual delight of the poet in these lines:
“The same that oft-times hath/Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn”.
However, at once, the poet restrains himself with the lines:
“Forlorn! The very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self”…which is a perfect example of romantic passion fused with classical restraint. In all his mature Odes, including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode to Melancholy’ and ‘Ode to Psyche’, he is said to have cast aside his over-loaded diction of his earlier poems and come out with a romantic richness that is replete with the Hellenic clarity characterizing Greek literature.
The poetic alienation and the theme of melancholy:
While beauty and mutability are said to be the recurrent themes in Keats’ mature Odes, critics have pointed out that he was somewhat “obsessed by the close juxtaposition of joy and grief, delight and pain”. Some point out, that in his pursuit of beauty, he became an escapist, ignoring the realities of life. In his earlier poems, ‘Isabella’, ‘Lamia’, The Eve of St. Agnes’ and others, his imagination certainly plays with the romance of love, with medieval elements, cruel, mysterious ladies, ‘a faery’s child’, the spell and enchantment of the magical world. However, all this is characterized by his sense of alienation as a creative thinker, which, assume a deeper tone and meaning in his later works, i.e., his Odes. Throughout his journey as a poet, he strived to harmonize what scholars today say ‘the life of sensation with life of thought’. His earlier hankering for unreflecting enjoyment of sensuous delights, as seen in his ‘Sleep and Poetry’, is later replaced by a strong yearning to subject himself persistently and unflinchingly, to the joy and beauty of life, that is accompanied by the inevitable pain, hopelessness and despair of life. Hence, the lines: “Joy whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu”. Keats knew that joy and beauty on this earth is transient, and from this transience, the melancholy so very typical of his poems originate. Melancholy, he says, “dwells with beauty/Beauty that must die”.
It is this triumph of the stoic acceptance of life over despair which he attains through a deep spiritual experience, as he expresses in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shall remain in midst of other woe than ours’…
These lines can never come from the pen of an escapist. For me, he was purely a thinker profoundly concerned with the mystery of life which he deals as a poet, not as a political rebel or as a philosopher. Scholastic researches strive to bring out new perspectives of his poetry even today. As a reader, I would be content exploring the romantic fervor and richness of imagery of his poems for years to come!
Some useful resources that helped me write this article:
Muir,Kenneth (ed): John Keats: A Reassessment (Liverpool 1957)
Ridley, M.R.: The Craftsmanship of John Keats
G.M. Bowra: The Romantic Imagination
Middleton Murry: Studies in Keats
Dr. S. Sen: John Keats: Selected Poems with Odes, Hyperion, and Fall of Hyperion
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