I have recently been reading Marianne Thormählen’s fascinating book ‘The Brontës and Religion’ (Cambridge University Press 1999).
I shouldn’t be. Really, I should be doing more research into the social background of the UK in the early Georgian era for my latest – but I couldn’t resist it.
I came across it through its mention in the notes of the 1994 Wordsworth Classic Edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ as containing a good discussion of Anne Brontë’s belief in universal salvation. Having as usual glanced ahead at certain portions, I expect it to provide the key to certain puzzles and ambiguities in the depiction of evil and the development of character in the Brontë sister’s novels.
For instance, as I have said in blog posts elsewhere, I have always been surprised at the widespread and I think, wholly mistaken view that Heathcliff is meant to be a romantic figure (for all his depiction in many films).
Once, in an energetic mood, some years ago, I even entered into a discussion about this on Goodreads. There. a startling number of readers coming to ‘Wuthering Heights’ for the first time, assured me that I was entirely mistaken, and that I ought to read the book yet again, confident that I would immediately see that Heathcliff is a misunderstood romantic hero.
I know that Emily Brontë reflected in her poems an interest in the final fate of the unrepentant evil doer, and it may well be that her depiction of Heathcliff is influenced by that. He goes wholly unrepentant to his grave. Notoriously, when Nelly Dean advises him to send for a clergyman, comes this exchange: –
‘You are aware, Mr. Heathcliff,’ I said, ‘that from the time you were thirteen years old you have lived a selfish, unchristian life; and probably hardly had a Bible in your hands during all that period. You must have forgotten the contents of the book, and you may not have space to search it now. Could it be hurtful to send for some one— some minister of any denomination, it does not matter which— to explain it, and show you how very far you have erred from its precepts; and how unfit you will be for its heaven, unless a change takes place before you die?’
‘I’m rather obliged than angry, Nelly,’ he said, ‘for you remind me of the manner in which I desire to be buried. It is to be carried to the churchyard in the evening. You and Hareton may, if you please, accompany me: and mind, particularly, to notice that the sexton obeys my directions concerning the two coffins! No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me.— I tell you I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me.’
In the same exchange, he refuses to accept that he has treated anyone unjustly, even seemingly, the younger Catherine: ‘As to repenting of my injustices, I’ve done no injustice, and I repent of nothing.’
This annoying refusal to accept responsibility for his wrongdoing is of course, very human. Nevertheless, the author takes care to sprinkle the book with many references to his seemingly demonically inspired behaviour.
As Thormähelen notes, he spits out the words that summarise Christian virtues with contempt: ‘duty’, ‘humanity’ ‘charity’ an d ‘pity’. Although he worships the first Catherine, he does not feel this sort of tenderness towards her, and his savage treatment of her when she is dying in fact hastens her death. This parting, of course, he appreciates will leave him in a sort of hell on earth, as he regards her as his ‘soul’.
The more metaphysically inclined reader wonders at the fate of these two barbaric lovers in the next world. Are they joined in death, perhaps in a form of purgatorial existence, or separated until they can love in a slightly more spiritual way, or condemned to walk the earth together until they can abandon their unholy alliance?
Joseph, that caricature of a Calvinist, has no doubt as to the final destination of Heathcliff or Catherine:
‘‘Th’ divil’s harried off his soul,’ he cried, ‘and he may hev’ his carcass into t’ bargin, for aught I care! Ech! what a wicked ’un he looks, girning at death!’ and the old sinner grinned in mockery. I thought he intended to cut a caper round the bed; but suddenly composing himself, he fell on his knees, and raised his hands, and returned thanks that the lawful master and the ancient stock were restored to their rights.’
The country folk would certainly talk about ghosts anyway; but the hint that the two godless lovers do indeed walk, is shown by the famous encounter between the down to earth Nelly and a little shepherd boy on the moor one twilght:
‘I encountered a little boy with a sheep and two lambs before him; he was crying terribly; and I supposed the lambs were skittish, and would not be guided. ‘What is the matter, my little man?’ I asked.
‘There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’ nab,’ he blubbered, ‘un’ I darnut pass ’em.’
I saw nothing; but neither the sheep nor he would go on so I bid him take the road lower down.’
As Charlotte Brontë has observed, if it wasn’t for his very occasional flashes of humanity in his mild affection for Nelly Dean and Hareton, it would be difficult to think of Heathcliff as having any human emotions at all, for as she says, the attachment he shares with Cathy is a terrible and relentless (though intriguingly asexual) obsession, not any form of true love.
Hareton, in fact, is an interesting pointer about the author’s attitude towards the problem of dealing with evil.
This is not done by conscious design on the far from cerebral Hareton’s part. But he is naturally fearless, and not only does he not only feel none of that dread and fear that most people feel for Heathcliff, but he is even fond of the man who led his real father to his ruin and usurped Hareton’s own rights, regarding him as a sort of stepfather.
Therefore, as Thormähelen astutely observes, Hareton is not corrupted. He is, in fact, able to remain essentially untouched by Heathcliff’s scheme to degrade him as Hindley’s heir. He may be able to make him illiterate and seemingly brutish, but he cannot make him mean spirited. Heathcliff himself sees Hareton’s intrinsic worth, particularly compared to his own son, Linton, who was almost certainly conceived in hatred, and very probably through rape. Catherine, of course, comes at last comes to see how she has misjudged him and they fall in love and history comes full circle. This time, however, there is a happy outcome, for Hareton and the young Cathy have all the capacity for human affection lacking in original lovers.
The author also notes, about Heathcliff and his life devoted to revenge, a thing that I have noticed myself. Adopted and spoilt by the ailing Mr Earnshaw, his degradation to the place of a servant by Hindley after the older Earnshaw’s death, leading to his rejection by Cathy, is:
‘The basis for Heathcliff’s revenge,and compared to the crimes and sufferings that prompted his Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors to take up arms against an assortment of evildoers, it is not a very impressive one. All the wrongs he sets out to avenge are wrongs directed against himself. Nobody has murdered a parent or child of his, and his loved one, as he recognises, in effect murders herself.’
In other words, there is something rather ridiculous and self-pitying about Heathcliff’s refusal to get over his childhood wrongs at the hands of Hindley for twenty years. By the standards of a rough age, they were not excessive when compared to many. Still, Heathcliff dedicates his life to hatred.
Even his speech towards the end, when he sees in Hareton as he sits with the younger Catherine ‘The ghost of my immortal love; of my wild endeavours to hold my right; my degradation, my pride, my happiness, and my anguish’ cannot in all its dramatic effect make this decidedly ignoble basis for his grand scheme of vengeance anything but mean spirited.
Hareton, as the author points out, escapes largely undamaged from his upbringing in the terrible atmosphere of Wuthering Heights precisely because he does not hate his enemy. Presumably sensing Heathcliff’s grudging admiration and affection, he cannot really accept that he is an enemy.
And as Emily Brontë was, for all her apparent heterodoxy, a parson’s daughter, and as the Christian response to a sinner is to hate the sin but love the sinner, this is highly appropriate.
Partly because he cannot properly degrade Hareton, Heathcliff’s elaborate plans for revenge fail. For now, haunted by his vision of Cathy, he has lost interest in that vengeance, as reflected in his famous speech to Nelly.
‘‘It is a poor conclusion, is it not?’ he observed, having brooded awhile on the scene he had just witnessed: ‘an absurd termination to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished! My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand! That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case: I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.’
Heathcliff’s going unrepentant to his death may strike some readers as romantic, but his end, completely lacking in insight as it is, strikes me as bleak. It is, of course, impossible for a healthy man in his prime to starve to death in a few days, and his death, whatever it is caused by, is certainly not caused by his refusing to eat for that length of time.
He is mourned by nobody save Hareton, and all the evil he has devoted two decades towards accomplishing is undone by the coming together of the two young lovers. Yet, though love triumphs over hate at the end of the story, it is, as Marianne Thormähelen observes, about as unsentimental a depiction of the power of good over evil as can be imagined.
Thormähelen considers that neither vengeance nor forgiveness is allowed a decisive victory in the world of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Here, I would disagree: I think that after all the horror of inhumanity, forgiveness does triumph in the world of the novel: but only just.