Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, or: Surviving “A Perfect Misanthropist’s Heaven”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, read by Carolyn Seymour

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
Read by Carolyn Seymour

Blackstone Audio, 2011
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository

Remember November 2010? Way back when I was just a little bit obsessed with Jane Eyre? Back then, one of the things I thought I’d do was reread Wuthering Heights, that most difficult book written by Charlotte’s sister Emily Brontë. I was fairly confident that this time around I would like it better. However, as so often happens, one bookish fancy passed and I picked up other novels and did not return to Wuthering Heights for quite some time.

That is, until there was the option to download a free audiobook version of the novel sometime last summer. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, read by Carolyn Seymour. I enthusiastically started listening. Until I stopped running regularly. However, here we are, months later: Iris is back to running and is happy to report that she has finally finished rereading Wuthering Heights on audio.

I know it is customary to remark on the audio production of a book at the end of a review, but can I just mention something about this book in audio at the very beginning of this post? I think that, in part, audio is a perfect medium through which to experience Wuthering Heights. The story just flows, and listening to someone reading the sentences aloud really brings out the poetic qualities of Emily Brontë’s prose. The obvious drawback being, of course, that audio does not allow you to leaf back through the pages, and since Wuthering Heights is such a complex and often confusing read, I did feel the urge to check earlier chapters for some of the facts. I cannot really remark on the quality of the narration, since I have very little audiobook experience. I will say that Seymour does quite a good job, though her accents for different characters got on my nerves a little.

Now, back to rereading Wuthering Heights. Did I like it better than last time, or less? Did I feel I understood it better?

Well, to be honest, I am not really sure how to answer that. I sure was not as naive as back when I thought that it would be a quick read. I came to the novel much better prepared. Yet, I am not sure I enjoyed it much, or enjoyed it better even. Nor can I claim to understand it in its essence. I will, however, claim that I appreciated it more. I know that is probably the most unsatisfactory answer I could give you, but there it is.

One thing I enjoyed discovering was of how many stories within stories within stories this novel exists. All of them providing different perspectives; all shading the truth in one way or another. There is a lot of rumour, skewing of details, and protection of personal responsibilities by the characters going on in Wuthering Heights. All of which leads to a lot of confusion and disorientation on the reader’s front. Amateur Reader has written a post on just this aspect of the novel, on how Emily Brontë meant to mislead and disorient the reader from the very start. At times I found it strangely entertaining to discover just when something like this occurred, when Emily meant to have you question which version of reality you are supposed to hold on to, meant to have you feel dizzy by the number of characters and dreamlike sequences.

But I admit that just as many times, I couldn’t quite enjoy the experience. I could not move beyond the mere “heh, she’s doing it again” to the “this is genius”. Because, honestly, at times I like knowing what is what. At times I like knowing what I am supposed to be believing, what I should believe, and how I should feel about all of it. Or, as much as I hate someone telling me what to think, I find it easier to at least know what the author is thinking him or herself. Of course, perhaps this is the very strength of the novel. Perhaps this is why it is so daring at its core, and why Violet, who I fear will not like me very much after this post since I did not love her favourite book, admires Emily Brontë so much. The thing is, I can see it, I can signal it (in part), and I can appreciate it. I just couldn’t love it.

I think a major reason for not always liking what I found in Wuthering Heights is that it just made me feel so damn uncomfortable. There is the hatefulness of almost any character in the book. Or perhaps I had better say the character’s feelings of revenge, be it through storytelling or actual acts. There are the layers upon layers of untruths, fancies, and versions of events that become an almost intangible web. There are the hints that are dropped, though not often outright mentioned, of Heathcliff’s abuse, as Amateur Reader (again in a different post) points out. But then, does that mean Heathcliff is horrible, or is it hinted at because Nellie Dean finds him so? And if she does, why does she never outright condemn him, only leave hints for the reader (or really, listener Lockwood) to interpreted? And what are we to make of Lockwood’s retelling of Nellie’s version of events? Difficult,  difficult, disturbing book.

More disturbing and difficult towards the end than the beginning, I think. Not so much in its fast array of characters or shifting perspectives, because these were always difficult, but because of the turn events take. A few chapters from the end, not the end-end which is less so, I really did not know how to deal with all of the bleakness in this book. Of course, some might wonder at my choice of words: bleak? There’s all the passion! and love! and hate! and love turned to hate but love at its core! But for me, this book left a lingering sense of bleakness, hopelessness, and pessimism on reading it. I just cannot help but tell you that it truthfully did.

Again, I couldn’t love this book. I did not hate it, as some seem to do, either. I did very much appreciate it at times. But then again, I did not so much at other occasions, because it’s just that confusing and  disturbing in its picture of human nature. You know what I would really like? A proper class on Wuthering Heights. This book, and I as its reader, could only become better through close reading and discussion of it, I think. It is just that kind of book. The kind that leads to endless discussions and fierce divisions of its readership, but I fear not ever to me fully embracing and loving it. That fact in itself is rather interesting, I think? Perhaps that is why, in writing about it, in sharing with all of you on the blog, I might just have grown to like Wuthering Heights a tiny bit more.

And so will the final words of the novel, which are beyond beautiful:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Other Opinions: Lucybird Books, The Octogon, Jenny’s Books, Age 30+… A Lifetime of Books, blookblog, Layers of Thought, A Few More Pages, NYC Book Girl, Mad Bibliophile, Dear Author, The Worm Hole, Vulpes Libris, Adventures in Reading, Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog, Jules’ Book Reviews, Estella’s Revenge, The Reading Life, Park Benches & Book Ends, Melody and Words, Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity, A Room of One’s Own, In Spring it is the Dawn, Bookish, The Bookworm Chronicles.
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14 thoughts on “Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, or: Surviving “A Perfect Misanthropist’s Heaven”

  1. ambienandfranzia

    Aw, shucks. I really love this book and am always saddened when I hear that people hate it. I like that you are honest and can appreciate certain aspects of the book. I’ve read and reread this book so many times. Great blog. I think people should always go back and give the Classics a chance.

    Reply
  2. Peter Galen Massey

    My take on Wuthering Heights: It’s a really interesting, really dark psychologically realistic novel up until the point Cathy dies. Then it turns into a “Perils of Pauline” pulp potboiler where you can almost literally see Heathcliff twirling his villainous mustache. Then in the last few chapters it goes to some absolutely metaphysical freaked-out plane of existence, like no place I’ve seen in any other book. No wonder it’s hard to nail down.

    Reply
  3. Jillian ♣

    Wow, the last lines gave me chills. (I’ve read this book, but had forgotten those lines.) I too would LOVE a class on Wuthering Heights!

    Reply
  4. Shivanee @ Novel Niche

    Reading your post, Iris, has convinced me of one thing about Wuthering Heights above all others: that I need to read it again. Given the choice between it, and Jane Eyre, I’d always choose the former as my preference, because I’ve never formed any attachment to Charlotte B’s masterpiece (perhaps, unfairly, in part because I adore Wide Sargasso Sea as much as I do, but I acknowledge the immense unfairness of this on my end).

    Books that do this… that engender fierce, deeply-felt debate from a multiplicity of perspectives… are fascinating to me. In a way, it’s a hallmark of how a book stays alive in collective consciousness, isn’t it? Perhaps, like you, I will pick up this audiobook and listen to the twisted, fragmented, intense tale of Cathy and Heathcliff as I run.

    Reply
  5. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    Thanks so much for the attention to my old Wuthering Heights posts.

    I would never want to try to convince someone to love, like, hate, or feel indifferent to a book. That seems like a futile critical project. Also, I don’t care. I don’t care if I like a book, much less if other people do.

    When I am having trouble with a book, my usual method is to try to bear down more closely on the text, re-read passages, and figure out how the imagery and details work across the novel. I do not listen to audiobooks and have no idea how one might do that with a recording. There is probably a way, but I do not know what it is.

    How much does it matter to you that a novel has likable characters? As long as that is important to you, Wuthering Heights will never work right. But if you think of sympathy or lack of sympathy as artistic choices, or tools available to the author, the book can open up. I spent a week a couple years ago working on this issue, with Wuthering Heights as my prime example.

    That class is available for the taking. People have written about Wuthering Heights – they have written a lot. Pick up The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës and follow whichever paths seem most interesting.

    Reply
  6. aartichapati

    I read this in high school and just HATED Heathcliff and Catherine. They seemed so selfish and cruel. I may not have read it with the depth I would read it now, but I admit I don’t really have a desire to reread it because of how horrible I remember thinking the two main characters were.

    Reply
  7. Violet

    Ah well. I think that in order to love WH the reader needs to be able to relate to Cathy and Heathcliff, to have lived and breathed the dark side of their tempestuous and tormented souls. Maybe it’s better not to know how that feels.

    Reply
  8. Maryom

    I loved Wuthering Heights as a teenager but when I re-read it as an adult I was struck by how childish it all felt. The characters emotions are just SO over the top, I couldn’t believe in them at all.

    Reply
  9. Charlie

    Saying whether you like/enjoyed this book is so difficult, isn’t it? I think your use of the word “appreciate” is very appropriate and satisfactory. I never thought about what Emily thinks about it all, I suppose I was just so shocked by everything that that somewhat blurred to me the rest of the content.

    Needless to say, it’s over a year since I read it and decided it would be a one-time thing, yet you’ve made me want to re-read and re-evaluate what I thought. If only I could get over the horror of the description of Heathcliff.

    Reply
  10. Alex

    I’ve also re-read it recently with my Classic Bookclub. Not only am I famous in that group for being The One That Would Marry Mr. Collins If She Was Charlotte, I’m also the one that Doesn’t Think Heathcliff Is God. I’m surprised they haven’t kidded me out yet!

    Reply

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