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Illogical romantic heroes

I finally read Wuthering Heights this week. It is one of those books which I had somehow missed – perhaps too much Jane Austen had left me without the space. But seeing it out as a Popular Penguin, I decided it was time to read it.

While never having read the book, I wasn’t totally ignorant of it and had watched various television and film adaptations.  There is also that pervasive image of Heathcliff as a dark brooding romantic hero – mysterious and emotional.

Having read the book now though, honestly the idea of Heathcliff as a romantic anything astonishes me, and it certainly says something about our cultural conceptions of masculinity that he has become one of the archetypal romantic heroes.

Healthcliff is abusive, violent, emotionally stunted, sulky and rude. Even his passionate and (near) romantic moments come with a veneer of violence and abuse. He never frames his feelings for Cathy, rather he sulks and runs away. He forces her to make unreasonable choices and he abuses her affection for him. He marries someone merely out of spite and then physically and emotionally abuses her.  Later he even kidnaps her daughter and forces her into marriage as well as beating her. The man is a misogynist with a predilection for violence when he doesn’t get his way, and violence against those more vulnerable than him is his speciality.

How do we get from here to a figure of romantic adoration. Sure, his (irrational and warped) love for Cathy is undiminished by time and death, but it doesn’t lead him to do anything good. At one point he says he doesn’t hurt Edgar because it would make Cathy sad, but he is still willing to constantly place her in emotionally difficult situations. And once she is dead, the fact that he is violent towards her daughter does not seem to prick his conscience at all. He is dark and mysterious – we do never find out what he did in the missing three years to find his wealth – but is this really a good thing?  As far as I am concerned, lying about on Cathy’s grave in winter does not make up for the fact that he is constantly violent and abusive.

The elevation of Heathcliff to romantic hero status is indicative of a previous lack of concern about violence within a male personality – that perhaps it goes hand in hand with deep passion. In contrast I would have said that Edgar is the real romantic hero: he loves Cathy in a genuine way which means he is willing to give himself over to her nursing; he tolerates Heathcliff’s presence because it makes Cathy happy until it is clear that he is abusing this; he is a good a genuine man who cares for their daughter. That popular culture has translated the violent and abusive character into the hero, really does say something about perceptions of masculinity.

I could also go on about the manner in which Cathy is constructed as selfish when really she is just making choices which are sensible. And what is so wrong with a bit of selfishness anyway? However instead I will leave it at wondering what is it that makes us think a romantic ideal has to involve unrestrained passion, so unrestrained it ends in violence?

5 responses to “Illogical romantic heroes

  1. I posted an entry on my blog about Wuthering Heights and yours came up as a suggested related entry. I have now read it, and I agree whole-heartedly with everything you’ve said. Heathcliff is not a romantic hero; he is a sociopath with some severe issues. I’m glad somebody else appreciates this. 🙂

  2. Ansata ⋅

    It is extremely ironic that he’s known best by the general public (who either have VERY twisted and messed up ideas about love and romance or have not read the book/don’t really know the character that well and have only heard about him) as some type of romantic hero because there is absolutely NOTHING romantic OR heroic about Heathcliff at all! More like the exact opposite really…In truth he’s an excellent sadistic, crazy, evil villain!

    Basically I definitely blame Hollywood films for idealizing, glorifying, sanitizing and censoring the character too much over the decades. They’ve done a real huge disfavour to the entire story in my opinion. People don’t seem to even properly understand what it’s really about! It should be obvious to anyone that this is a story of evil, abuse, insanity and crazed obsession NOT of true love as we normal, empathy feeling human beings understand it.

    And thanks to popular culture also for making heroes or “antiheros” out of obvious sociopaths and abusers!
    Just look at the trend in recent years of having more and more extreme psychopaths and antiheroes as main characters in films and tv. It’s nothing more than glorifying pathological men. In this kind of culture it’s unfortunately no wonder that an obvious psychopath like Heathcliff can be considered “romantic” by some people.

    Villains are villains and sociopaths are sociopaths and they will never change.

  3. You have to remember that this was the era following hard on the heels of Lord Byron, who had quite a number of faults to his credit as well. The “Byronic” hero of the era was a flawed one. Heathcliff is, of course , insane. He is abused himself, as you will have noticed in the text , and the abused often become abusers, it is a classic pattern. Most film versions have ended soon after Cathy’s death with good reason. It doesn’t give him a chance to do his worst.
    It puts me in mind of people who have a pet, usually a dog, who is vicious to everyone except his owner, and yet the owner makes excuses for the pet and loves it anyway, even if it attempts to dismember a toddler!

  4. Liz ⋅

    Wuthering Heights is my favorite between Charlotte and Emily of the Bronte sisters because the story was more realistic then Jane Eyre. I always felt Catherine made the right choice marrying Linton instead of Heathcliff and that if the two ever did marry (Heathcliff and Catherine) they would end up killing each other. The two may have loved each other or be attractive with each other but that does not mean they would have been good for each other. The full novel should be read by the reader because most movies do not do justice to the book since they skip the last part of the book involving the children off all 4 main characters and the beginning of the book with who the true narrator is and how the narrator is first introduced to Heathcliff and his family. I have personally never seen Heathcliff as a romantic hero and always preferred Linton. Catherine, I always saw as a character who tortured herself b/c she had an attraction to Heathcliff and blamed herself for Heathcliff’s actions against her sister in law. Heathcliff has the potential to be a romantic hero but after the death of his adoptive father (Catherine’s father) he reverted to character driven by revenge and destruction.

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