What does grief do for the human journey? Nelly Dean, the longtime servant of Wuthering Heights, gives this statement in Chapter 17:
“I used to draw a comparison between [Edgar Linton] and Hindley [Earnshaw]…and perplex myself to explain why their conduct was so opposite in similar circumstances.”
The difference in conduct despite the similarities in circumstances is a key factor in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In the story, the deaths of major characters is juxtaposed with the resulting responses from their friends and families. The fallout from death becomes the driving force for most of the pain, the anger, and the anguish for these characters. Certain characters use their grief as a way to degrade their life and the lives of others without remorse. Others use their grief as a way to restore what was already starting to take shape. In all cases, grief is the catalyst for the characters’ change in personalities or situations.
Chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights is where I think the idea of change in grief comes to fruition. In the ensuing chapter, Hindley Earnshaw (the patriarch of the family) dies from alcohol abuse – the product of years spent drowning his sorrows in the bottle after the death of his wife. He was virtually mad with anger and drunken rage, troubling those around him. To the readers looking in, we find sympathy with Hindley – a man who is broken and is trying his best to live after a death but cannot find the power to do so. Without his wife, Hindley doesn’t find much to live for. In a way, Hindley was dead before he even passed on. Edgar Linton (the husband of the elder Catherine Linton), on the other hand, finds solace in the Lord and in his beliefs. Instead of shunning his family away like Hindley, Edgar pulls them in closer in the form of his newborn daughter, Cathy. In the last part of the chapter, their servant, Nelly Dean states this:
“Linton, on the contrary, trusted God; and God comforted him. One hoped, and the other despaired: they chose their own lots, and were righteously doomed to endure them.”
Righteously doomed to endure them is an interesting phrase. “Doomed” carries a negative connotation: we think of doomed as a horrible thing. But “righteously” is different: to be righteous means to be so devoted to one’s cause that it becomes a moral grounding rod. If we carry that to Edgar and Hindley, we know that both men were hopelessly doomed to endure the pain of living without their respective wives. As Nelly says: Hindley decided to despair and wallow in that desperation with no hope of getting out, and Edgar decided to devote his life to God and to his child.
The dichotomy in their actions, whether good or bad, seems to be what Bronte wants us to discover. Based on her language, and her equalization of the two men through Nelly’s telling, I don’t think she is saying one response is worse than the other. Rather, she’s giving us a glimpse of the two very human reactions to death and grief – one response that seeks to shut itself out from the world and the other to open oneself up to the world. The idea that trauma will happen and that we are “righteously doomed” to endure it leaves the choice up to us of how we could act. This puts Wuthering Heights in a very real context and helps us see that the characters we read about are far more complex than their surface values.