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?