High Strung

High Strung

Why would Nelly Dean torture herself to stay at Wuthering Heights?

Of the characters in Nelly Dean beyond those in Bronte’s novel, I believe Nelly’s mother is most influential. The nature of the other characters’ interactions with Nelly is better displayed in this context. Where Bronte’s narrator ventures across the gothic evils of the characters and their contrivances, Case takes a higher road to the same effect.

Case’s novel has humor well placed to lighten the otherwise darker picture formerly painted in Wuthering Heights. After the sobering truth Hindley spoke about his drinking problem, Nelly was saddened. Then, Hindley chases her down. “ ‘Hey, Nelly,’ he cried, ‘remember this?’ Then he stretched his face into a solemn scowl and began sawing at an imaginary fiddle while his legs danced wildly beneath him, as he had done on that long-ago night. I laughed and clapped.” (p. 442) The effect creates a realistic longing any half-hearted human should have to bring joy to those around an individual despite his/her own problems. It is a reminder to remember the good times we have with friends and loved ones after they have passed.

Then, there is the tension, the largest difference in the two novels. As Nelly seemed like the rock that forded the storms in Bronte’s story, she was battered and shipwrecked against her own fortitude in Case’s version.

I find fault in Case’s novel at the start when Nelly’s mother speaks with Mr. Earnshaw in his office while Nelly listened. Her mother’s stammer at the word of Heathcliff to be treated as a blood relative gave me the immediate inclination that she had an affair with Earnshaw, with Nelly as the result. Which, in the end is true, and the reason for Nelly’s abuse at the hand of her ‘father.’ This seemed neatly packaged for Nelly’s mother being blood relations in a distant past relative.

I cannot say that I saw the end coming, though. In both books, the troubles begin with the arrival of Heathcliff. And, both have a happy ending for the main character that the narrator follows; in Bronte’s novel, Hareton marries Cathy, and in Case’s novel, Nelly is finally married and happy. The award for the largest twist and out of left field ending is certainly to Case’s Nelly Dean.

Nelly was strung along through the whole story, thinking she was a servant housekeeper, undeserving of Hindley. She threw herself into caring for the children that came along and finally collapsed in the end. Bodkin calling her illness the lifting of the weight of the world from her shoulders, like Atlas holds. That was certainly another light moment, but I felt it slightly contrived for her to go off on vacation, certainly well deserved goes without saying.

All told, I certainly enjoyed this novel and the more modern language compared to Wuthering Heights.

Nelly and the Falcon

 At the end of chapter seventeen, Nelly walks into the house after speaking with Bodkin to find everyone in a tizzy about a loosed falcon in the living room. We don’t know much else — who brought it in or how it otherwise got into its current predicament. There is not even a description of the falcon itself. We only see the family’s and then Nelly’s reaction to its presence. Almost immediately I connected this hawk with Nelly herself and the relationships she holds with the rest of the family.
    Nelly herself thinks on the hawk later, after the debacle has concluded. She thinks on it in relation to the family she serves, believing it “a good figure for any of the three of them”. As a reader, however, I am drawn make comparisons between the loosed bird and the main character. She, of course, does not indulge my thought spirals, using the whole event to reach the (rather obvious) conclusion “’I am not like them’”. Honestly, Nelly, we figured that out about ten chapters ago, but okay! Glad that you are on board with us. Just after this declaration, however, Case drops hints that Nelly understands her predicament on a deeper level. She phrases herself as having “bruised [her] wings on those ancient beams a few times”, but believes now that se has learned better from it. It is the same lesson that her mother has been trying to drill into her skull since she was four — she is not like the Earnshaws, to any mess that they make for themselves is therefore not hers to clean. The lesson that she actually learns, however, is that she is their tamed bird to keep and give attention to at their own enjoyment. No matter how much the Earnshaws mistreat and manipulate her, she no longer has the ability to tear herself away.
    This is depressing, partially because I really enjoy Nelly as a character. She is brave, sensible, reliable, and genuinely cares for others. I often find myself pulled aside from the book by my own thoughts and fantasies about her escape from Wuthering Heights. I imagined that she would flitter away to work with her mother or in some other town, find herself a loving (and preferably rich (and definitely not Hindley)) husband, and create a home and hearth of her own. Then I remember this is Wuthering Heights, and no one here gets a happy ending. She could achieve so much of only she would leave the residents of Wuthering Heights to drown in their own cesspool. But she can’t, and this is her fatal flaw. The moment she falls for Hindley she becomes another captured victim of the mire. Her wings will never carry her farther than her feet, nor will she experience life outside of the small cage she has constructed.
    The most depressing aspect of Nelly’s ‘caging’ is that she has willfully constructed and stayed inside her provincial gave despite multiple efforts by others to make her leave. This most notably comes in the form of her mother, ironically the same person who originally deposited her there in the first place. When Nelly is a child, her mother repeatedly warms Nelly against placing herself as an equal to the Earnshaws This is an effort on her part to keep Nelly from becoming too emotionally attached for proper work. As an adult, she outright asks Nelly to abandon the Earnshaw house and come work with her. All in all, she is trying to keep Nelly from putting her own stake in with the Earnshaws. Chapter four is entirely consumed with a story from Nelly’s mother warning against the dangers of wishing. This, unfortunately, is the very hole that Nelly falls into — she wishes to marry Hindley against all practicalities, she wishes that Hindley and his father will get along, she wishes that Hindley could be a more responsible adult and master, and one by one her wishes fall to the wayside, harming nor helping anyone but Nelly herself.
    In effect, Nelly lives up to the words of Hindley, becoming “a permanent fixture” in spite of everything that should lead her to be the contrary. For such a sensible character, it is her soft heart that eventually causes her downfall.

A Desire Disguised

The strange narrative of Nelly Dean poses an interesting question, “What comprises a duty?” Who and what determines its parameters? Is it subjective to the one upon whom it is placed?  Most would say no. Yet, the justification for all of Nelly’s undertakings bank upon duty’s subjectivity to the one upon whom it is placed.

From a young age, Nelly’s mother instills in her a devotion to duty and a caution towards pursuing desire when duty crosses it. As the novel continues, Nelly, fearful of the farmer’s tale that forewarns the danger of desire, extends the framework of her duty as servant of Wuthering Heights to encompass her deepest wishes and, in doing so, quiets her conscience.

Nelly’s understanding of her duty can be summarized as such: to save the Earnshaws from themselves. This responsibility, and her adoption of it, issues originally from Mr. Earnshaw’s sincere remark in his belief that she  was “born to be the salvation of [the] house” (105). Nelly, in turn, banks her life upon this statement. Henceforth, she endeavored to save them, and from that salvation to attain her heart’s yearnings: the love of Hindley. Upon discovering that he is returning with a wife, Nelly walks the moors to clear her head and choose a course of action. Resolving to stay her post, Nelly “tells herself “that [her] prior good influence with [Hindley] and [Heathcliffe] made it [her] duty to stay and bring about peace between them” (237). She later discerns that “in truth it was compounded in equal parts of selfish interest and pride” (237).

As time goes on, contemplations and conversations continue to reveal the latent desires that drive Nelly’s understanding of her duty to Wuthering Heights. When Mr. Earnshaw was dying, Nelly admits her dream of delivering him, through her committed care, from his illness in order to win his approval and thus earn the right to Hindley’s hand in marriage. Later, she likewise acknowledges her initial supposition that, if Hareton embraced her as his mother, Hindley would follow suit and embrace her as his wife.

Several characters challenge her notion of duty, beginning with Heathcliffe, who, as a child, furious at Nelly’s nursing of Heathcliffe, asserted, “it’s all very well to say you were only doing your duty, Nelly,… but you half killed yourself to save him” (110). Likewise, Bodkin urges her to remember that she is not “obliged to keep working” at Wuthering Heights, to which she simply responds of her affection for the residents and their need of her (117).

Nelly’s undertaking to bind Hareton to herself through Elspeth’s means prove telling portent of her muddling of duty for desire. Though her endeavor to sustain his life is honorable, her duty as a servant did not necessarily warrant her actions at Pennington Crag. Instead, they were driven by her deepest wishes, which in turn imbued her view of her role in at Wuthering Heights.

In the end, Nelly concedes what drove her all those years, for what she had wanted “more than anything, was to be one of the Earnshaw’s to be truly a member of their family (447).

Hindley of the Post Modern

In the early chapters of Nelly Dean, we are introduced to the character of Hindley, the oldest living son of the Earnshaws and therefore the heir to all they own. This, obviously, is the same Hindley from Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. To call him the same person, however, would be quite the stretch. In Nelly Dean, the character of Hindley is expanded in ways that were originally left to the reader’s imaginings.
A large difference is that we experience Hindley before Heathcliff interrupts the family dynamic. We witnessed this in Wuthering Heights, but only briefly. Here we see a Hindley that is much more open, imaginative, with a wild streak very similar to his sister. When reading these passages, the most burning question in my mind is thus: why does Alison Case feel the need to explain and expand Hindley, who in the original text is a pernicious and violent man, into a character that we can empathize with in this way? The most obvious answer is that she wants us to better understand why Hindley behaves the way he does. But why do we need to understand Hindley or his phycological nuances? To me, this is an example of the social differences from the gothic-romantic nineteenth century to the post-modern twenty-first. Post modern media, books and otherwise, often attempt to persuade the reader in the favor of unlikable characters by explaining their behaviors as being the result of childhood trauma or mistreatment. Hindley, with his insecure attachment to his father, the loss of his older brother, and the invasion of another, younger child into his home (who very clearly is his father’s favorite, despite not actually being his child) fits into this category quite nicely. There is also evidence that Hindley could be diagnosed with ADHD, with his extreme energy, violent tendencies, and inability to “keep his mind to a schoolroom task for five minutes together”(Chapter 5). It makes sense that Bronte did not expand on these ideas because, frankly, people during that time did not generally understand the nuanced nature of the human psyche. It wasn’t until much later in the eighteenth century that the study of psychology rose to scientific respectability.
Alison Case, however, absolutely had these developments available to her, having lived and written in the twenty-first century. In short, the Hindley that we see here is one built for the modern reader. We as modern readers and writers like to analyze how a character came to be as they are, and if they happen to be deeply-troubled and a bit traumatized, all the better. Trauma and PTSD have become a narrative short-hand for characters with a troubled mind. So it makes sense to create characters or in this case, recreate. This Hindley, therefore could be considered a completely different character, written for a post-modern interpretation.

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.