A Seeming Dichotomy: Duty and Desire

While most characters in Wutheirng Heights operate out of their passion and emotion, Nelly Dean highlights a new type of character, one driven by duty over desire. The divergence between duty and desire proves consequential, according to Mary Dean, who stresses the necessity of the former in all she does. She advises Nelly to “not get in the habit of imagining [her]self entitled to more than [she] have earned by [her] own labours” and to “leave off making idle wishes” (67). She tells to remember her place and live accordingly, reminding her in a letter to “do [her] duty” (82). Likewise, Mary urges Mrs. Earnshaw, who would rather treat Heathcliffe according to her distaste of him, that her “duty is now to this child” (29) and that it is her “duty to bring him up to be a credit to the family” (28). Page 82 provides perhaps the most telling passage regarding Mary’s dedication to duty over desire. When Mrs. Earnshaw laments her departure to Brassing, Mary responds with, “You wouldn’t have me neglect my duty to Tom, would you?” (82). This seems an interesting response. What drives her to Yorkshire is not an overwhelming love for her husband and sadness at the thought of being separated from him, but an allegiance to her duty as a wife.

Was this sober, unemotional fidelity to duty the common stance of woman at this time? Not necessarily. Rather, women were stereotyped as being driven by their emotions.

However, this stereotype seems to contradict the picture of women illustrated in Mary’s story, “The Heart’s Wish”, which she conveys as a well-known local tale. The wife in this story seems, like Mary, more devoted to duty than desire.

She asserts her duty to speak against what might destroy her family, while her husband, the farmer, follows his own hankering to his downfall. Perhaps her portrayal of the heroine as one driven by responsibility and reason rather than emotion indicates that Mary tweaked the story in order to provide an memorable illustration for her daughter of what happens when desire overpowers duty.

Though resolute in her duty as a wife and in Nelly’s place as a servant, Mary proves less adamant in her stereotypical role as a woman. She adheres to class boundaries while pushing gender boundaries. For example, when addressing Mr. Earnshaw after Nelly has been expelled from the Heights, Mary presses him “with directness that rather startle[s] [Nelly]” (20). Furthermore, she questions Earnshaw with confidence, challenging his decision to bring Heathcliffe home and interrogating him on his business trip to Liverpool. As a woman and a servant, Mary would have no right to speak this way to her master. This implies, then, that either Mary takes quite a progressive stance regarding gender or that there is a history between Mary and Earnshaw that solicits her treatment of him. Her behavior resembles that of the wife in “The Heart’s Wish”. Perhaps then, their relationship at one time extended beyond servant and master.

 

Wuthering Heights: A Return to Eros

Wuthering Heights, for all of it’s strange and twisted machinations, is often labeled as a love story. To a degree, this is true, a significant portion of the plot does center around a romance between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw-Linton. However, the book bears little resemblance to contemporary romance fiction. It would be better and more accurate to group it closer to the greek understanding of love, Eros.
Now, a little context. The greeks had four distinct words for describing love: storge, philia, agape, and eros. Each of these four described a distinct type of love. Eros described what we would call romantic love or attraction. The other three described platonic versions of love, such as love of family or friends. To be clear, the greeks did not view Eros as being a very positive or beneficial state of being. It was viewed as a form of theia mania, in english ‘madness given by the gods’. The affiliated greek god, also conveniently named Eros, spread this type of love by shooting people with special arrows given by his mother, Aphrodite. Eros (the feeling, not the god) came upon a man as a direct attack by the gods onto his psyche, driving him mad with obsession. That’s pretty intense. It was also common that relationships borne from these conditions met with tragic ends, often because of the white-hot intensity of emotions involved.
It’s not hard to see how Wuthering Heights fits in with this narrative (especially that last bit). It is easy to argue how love drives some characters to act in ways that they would not otherwise. We see this from the very beginning of the novel, before we fully understand what Heathcliff’s relationship to Catherine had developed. He begs Catherine, long dead at this point, to come in and haunt him and his house, calling her “[his] heart’s darling” (Chapter 3). Such strong professions from a man who spent much of the novel trying to take vengeance upon Catherine and her kin. Their relationship, horribly corrupt and filled with toxic and manipulative behavior, is most definitely passionate enough to fall under the label of mania. No matter how far one strays from the other, a string between them seems to pull them back towards one another. Theirs is not the only one in the story, not by a long shot. Most of the relationships in the novel are on some level dysfunctional. Even sweet Edgar Linton, easily the best character from a moral standpoint, has a rather possessive relationship with Catherine. After being struck by Catherine, Nelly describes him as “[possessing] the power to depart as much as a cat possesses the power to leave a mouse half killed, or a bird half eaten”(Chapter 8). Take note of the predatory aspect of Bronte’s language here. This predator-prey dynamic leaves the reader with an ominous foreshadowing to an unhealthy co-dependendant relationship, just as a cat is dependent on mouse and bird for sustenance.
If I am being honest, to see Wuthering Heights labeled as a romance is a bit disconcerting. The relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine, though passionate, is as far from the modern concept of romance as Lolita is from proper parenting techniques. Viewed through the lens of greek understanding, however, and the intense and manic behaviors appear to almost be inevitable.

Are Catherine and Heathcliff cut from the same cloth?

Are Catherine and Heathcliff cut from the same cloth? Catherine herself seems to believe so, even confessing, “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…” yet when I initially confronted this question I leaned more towards no. How could two children with such different lots in life turn out the same? As such, I originally interpreted them are irrevocably different people. However, upon further examination I believe Catherine is correct, and it instead became hard to point out a way in which they are different. These similarities are especially evident in the similar paths their lives take, although they follow slightly different timelines. Both characters spend their childhoods together running wild on the moors and experience a period of isolation from their childhood home- Catherine first when her injured ankle leaves her at the mercy of the Lintons for a few weeks and then Heathcliff when he mysteriously vacates Wuthering Heights for a period of 3 years. Both characters are changed by their experiences away from the moors are come back cultured and cruel. This is evident when Catherine strikes the members of her household. First she strikes Nelly not once but twice, leaving her marked with, “…a decided purple witness to refute her…” and again Hareton received the same treatment when “…she seized his shoulders, and shook him till the poor child waxed livid.” Even Edgar received a boxed ear for moving to protect Hareton. This scene speak to the change she underwent in the Linton’s household, the same change that motivates her to cast aside Heathcliff in favor of a more socially acceptable match with Edgar. Heathcliff is similarly changed when he returns from his leave of absence at the manor. He is wealthy, aloof, and sporting a new agenda: revenge on those who have wronged him. Because they were so changed by their experiences away from their childhood home, both Catherine and Heathcliff end up marrying for money and power. These loveless marriages end badly for the women involved as both Catherine and Isabelle die young.
A wild childhood, period of absence, and power hungry marriage. Double personalities and cruel dispositions. After further reflection these characters have too many similarities to count. At first, this made me believe they are indeed meant to be together, but when I took the time to actually sit down and contemplate what their relationship would have looked like, it was obvious to me that they would have made each other miserable. They simply shared a childish infatuation, which, if Catherine were made of stronger stuff, could have faded with time. But, as is the way with Victorian novels, the main love interest wasted away and died young.

Happily Ever After, Or Maybe Not?

Happily Ever After or Maybe Not?

 

Is Heathcliff’s ending happy or sad?

 

At face value the ending of Wuthering Heights seems to be happy. Catherine and Heathcliff are reunited in death and Cathy and Hareton are going to be united in marriage. However, that does not mean that all is at seems, especially for Heathcliff.. The first instance we get of this is when Nelly is speaking to Heathcliff before his death. Nelly tells Heathcliff that, “’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. …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?” Heathcliff responds a while later with “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 this particular conversation Nelly is forwardly telling Heathcliff that for most of his life he has been an ungrateful heathen whose every actions have been for the wrong reason. She goes on to tell him because of that he is going to Hell. Despite this Heathcliff doesn’t seem to mind because he has already attained his heaven. So what does this mean? This questions opens a lot of potential possibilities none of which are fully addressed in the novel. So does Heathcliff end up in heaven or hell? Is it his own personal heaven where he is reunited with his long lost lover? To answer that one would have to questions if Heathcliff was in a right state of mind at all. He spent most of his life seeking vengeance against all who wronged him and punishing those with no part in it. To make a 360 at the end of ones life and claim that he has, “lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing,” seems miraculous. If Heathcliff says he has achieved his own personal heaven perhaps we, as the reader, should believe him; but at the same time, at the end of his life he has lost his purpose and will to live. Can achieving a goal of destruction really be celebrated or should pity be taken upon a character who lost so much?