Wanna read a novel that tells the truth? Check out Wuthering Heights (1847). It is so brutal in its exposure of life in the white supremacist patriarchy that it has left readers shaking their heads for close to two centuries. How could this little lady (Emily Brontë 1818-1848) who lived a quiet life in a parsonage on the Yorkshire Moors write such a dark tale? What got into her? What is she trying to say? What would move her to write of such dark happenings and grim hauntings? I guess it’s because she lived in the white supremacist patriarchy and had seen quite enough of it by the time she was 29 to write this scathing review.
Check it: Heathcliff is black. He is brought into this proper white English home (complete with bible thumping servants) in the late 1700s by the patriarch of the family. Of course, because he is the patriarch, no questions are asked as he removes the previously unknown child from his coat and tells his wife to accept him as a “gift of God.”
The book’s narrator recalls that Mr. Earnshaw (the patriarch) went to Liverpool and when he returned
“…opening his great-coat, which he held bundled up in his arms ‘See here, wife! I was never so beaten with anything in my life: but you must e’en take it as a gift of God; though it’s a dark almost as if it came from the devil.’
We crowded round, and over Miss Cathy’s head I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough, both to walk and talk: indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s; yet when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand”(35).
The wife at first resists but then the husband tells her he found the lad homeless on the streets of Liverpool (a city well known for its transatlantic slave trade until 1807) and could not leave him like that. She drops her resistance. After all, one does not question the patriarch. He has absolute power. And so Heathcliff comes into the home or estate called Wuthering Heights and, as the story goes, is deeply beloved by his new father and sister, Catherine. Not so much by the white supremacist older brother Hindley who makes his life a living hell and the mother who allows this mistreatment to go unchecked.
The maid, Nelly Dean, describes Catherine as having:
“had ways with her such I never saw a child take up before; and she put all of us past our patience fifty times and oftener in a day; from the hour she came downstairs till the hour she went to bed, we had not a minute’s security that she wouldn’t be in mischief. Her spirits were always at high-water mark, her tongue always going—singing, laughing, and plaguing everybody who would not do the same. A wild, wicked, slip she was—but she had the bonniest eye, the sweetest smile, and lightest foot in the parish…”(41).
Catherine and Heathcliff are as twins.”Twin flames” or “twin souls” we might call them today. They are passionately connected and “in love” of the mystical and transcendent kind. You know, that kind of friend or lover. The kind you would kill for, die for, steal for or lie for. The kind of person that evokes the raw wildness in you, makes you lose your senses and not care about conventions. Your love for this person, so overwhelmingly opening and enlightening, evokes in you a love for humanity, a desire to fight for what is right. You care so deeply about their humanity — that it makes you care about all of humanity. This kind of love (brotherhood, sisterhood, peace-out, #BlackLivesMatter, #women’srightsarehumanrights)contains within it everything the patriarchy hates, because it is uncontrollable and uncontrolled. It seeks equality and fairness. It is so vast that it exposes the truth.
Right away Brontë reveals to us that these are two wild, passionate, uncontrolled and uncontrollable souls. These days we might call them human rights activists, those who “speak truth to power,” changemakers, revolutionaries. But this is 19th century England in the moors, and so this is the presentation they have inside Emily Brontë’s worldview. The rage against the machine version of the 19th century British Moors looks like this: the dark mess of a tale that is Wuthering Heights.
As he is dying Catherine’s father asks of her,
“‘Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?’ And she turned her face up to his, and laughed and answered, ‘Why cannot you always be a good man, Father?’”(42).
Who knows, Catherine and Heathcliff were probably biologically related as many readers and critics have speculated Heathcliff to be the illegitimate child of said patriarch. Again: Big. Surprise. This happened all the time. But as we are wont to do in the white supremacist patriarchy, the family does as well: pretend they don’t know or notice that this child is the product of an illicit relationship most probably with an enslaved woman.
At any rate, Heathcliff and Catherine hit it off swimmingly. Because he is black, he is referred to as the devil and gets all the wonderful treatment most black and people of color receive in the white supremacy of this particular patriarchy in 19th century England. Is Emily Brontë actually calling this out? Sure seems so.
This wickedness acted out onto Heathcliff in cruelty, starvation, beatings, withholding of assets and information, making sure he “knows his place,” has an effect. He becomes sullen and bitter. Big. Surprise. But that is not what tosses him over the edge to eventually become a man who wants only revenge, no. It is that Catherine betrays him for the white supremacist patriarchy and marries their wealthy, white neighbor, Edgar Linton. Heathcliff gets to overhear her saying she could not marry him because of the loss of position his color and subsequent abuse has brought upon him. “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now”(79).
Destroyed, he leaves Wuthering Heights but returns later to begin to exact his revenge on the brother who abused him while possibly keeping Catherine in his life as a friend? We are not exactly sure of his intentions with Catherine upon his return but Heathcliff and her husband fight it out for her. The husband wins and Catherine dies. Literally and spiritually.
The white supremacist patriarchy ruins Catherine by driving her to madness with “choiceless choices” encouraging the rejection of her own self and wild soul for domestic, white wife, life. It ruins Heathcliff with abuse, dehumanization and separation from his best friend.
It steals both of their souls (one soul) and creates a destructive vortex that none can escape from for the rest of the book and possibly beyond. Hello 2020.
This book packs a punch. The abuse continues over generations, playing out all the ways it does in patriarchal culture: physical abuse, entrapment, bondage, control over resources, bitter revenge, hate, stealing of children, child trafficking, entitled white people, the working poor, the abused blacks.
And the haunting. Throughout the whole book is the haunting of and from the soul of Catherine and Heathcliff– one soul separated by this hideous culture and left to eternal unrest because of it. Wuthering Heights illustrates as clear as day how the patriarchy steals our souls, creates monsters and self-perpetuates.
The victims of the patriarchy haunt. They haunt our lives and ruin us. There is no good way to live in the white supremacist patriarchy. No one will get out of this haunting until it is ended. Is it ended at the end of the book after Heathcliff finally starves himself into eternal life with Catherine? He finally loses his taste for revenge and no longer has any reason to live. Wow. Come on people! Why can’t we understand this novel?
Perhaps the younger Catherine Linton, (Catherine and Edgar’s daughter) , and her husband Hareton (Hindley Earnshaw’s son) are heading to happiness at the end? It seems the only way the Brontë sisters could figure out a way to get any agency for a woman with a man around was by somehow crippling (Rochester is blinded in Jane Eyre) or disabling the man (Hareton has far less schooling than the young Catherine in Wuthering Heights). Perhaps because, in the Brontë’s own family, the brother, Branwell, was so impotent that they were able to actually claim some agency for themselves, they saw this as the only way a woman could attain and keep power in the patriarchy. Surely the 21st century female imagination has moved beyond that? Let’s hope.
And so the novel Wuthering Heights ends with Hareton and the younger Catherine moving into the newly refurbished domestic bliss of Thrushcross Grange, up the road from Wuthering Heights. But Catherine the elder and Heathcliff yet haunt the moors, just as wild nature and uncontrolled and uncontrollable spirits yet haunt the patriarchy.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Brontë Emily. Wuthering Heights. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.
Gilbert & Gubar. “Looking Oppositely: Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell”, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press 1979.