The Comedic Genius of Wuthering Heights

July 28, 2018

Happy 200th Birthday Emily Brontë! It may surprise you to know that we are still discussing and debating you and your work. We can't seem to decide if we love or hate your masterpiece Wuthering Heights. For the record, I am firmly in the love camp. What is not to love about unhappy people who torture one another? We like to discuss whether you were a "nice" person. I have been making my way through "The Brontës (Authors in Context)" by Patricia Ingham. It's not a page turner like the novels you and your sisters wrote, but I am learning a great deal. You didn't enjoy the accepted careers for females in the early 1800s. Being a governess or teacher didn't suit you, despite your obvious intelligence. You scheduled your piano students around your personal preference rather than the student's first choices. It's almost like you were running your own business rather than catering to rich children. GASP. You had moods. They weren't all sunny. DOUBLE GASP. How on earth could a perpetually sunny person ever conceive of the plot or characters of Wuthering Heights? They couldn't. Isn't it time that we stop expecting women to be pleasing and accommodating? Would we ever debate whether a famous male was "nice?" We wouldn't. Nasty women unite! Let's keep creating and innovating and not waste our time trying to please everyone! First of all, it isn't possible to do so and when we try, we stifle our potential. Emily, you already knew this. Thank you.

 

What we don't often speak of, is that Wuthering Heights is comedy gold. As a reader, one must struggle to understand who is narrating. It's a classic farce. Is Lockwood narrating? I like to imagine him as an uppity noble type. He was probably from Cheltenham. Lockwood is an especially enjoyable narrator because he has absolutely no clue who anyone is or what is going on. But he is going to tell you about it nonetheless. Or perhaps Nelly is narrating, she is the most knowledgable choice, as she is always around, doing all the chores whilst the principle characters behave as idiots. Much like a mother. She is too busy to to overanalyze or explain. This leads to reader confusion but the rewards as you sort things out on your own are that much greater for it. It is ludicrously improbable that people would behave this poorly to each other, over multiple generations. Yet perhaps it happens all the time in North Yorkshire. Was Ellis Bell's social commentary tragedy or comedy, laugh until you cry or cry until you laugh? Strong emotions exist in tandem. 

 

When reading Wuthering Heights one is both lost and trapped and yet not sure of where they are. Yes, the books take place at the Heights and at Thrushcross Grange, but there is a dreamlike nightmare quality to the moors and no one is permitted to leave. The setting of Wuthering Heights is a character in itself. A character that makes the reader feel both unsteady and claustrophobic. Quite the feat as all the action takes place in a sprawling barren landscape. Once again, we simultaneously fall in love with and detest the hostile environment. Perhaps you felt this way Emily as you loved your North Yorkshire home and family, yet were held to their entrapments. You were close with your brother Branwell and forced to face his drug and alcohol addiction as well as poor decisions and illness in close quarters. Alternative surreal comedy to be sure. Much like those moments in life when you wonder how the heck you got to where you are at this present time. Then you write a song such as "Once in a Lifetime," by the Talking Heads, which results in a truly hilarious video. It's a cool song Emily, you would enjoy it. 

The most obvious bit of farce in Wuthering Heights is the fact that everyone shares the same three names. Maybe four names. Classic misunderstandings arise, mainly in the mind of the reader. Which Catherine is this? Which Linton? Virginia Woolfe famously scribbled the family tree in the margins of her copy of Wuthering Heights, which really makes me smile and feel better about my intellect as I definitely had to do the same upon my first reading. For those of you hoping to cheat and watch one of the many film adaptations, I have seen them all, excepting a made for MTV adaptation that looks completely awful but I totally want to watch now wherein Heathcliff is a misunderstood rock musician. NONE of the adaptations are true to the book. Even if they are close, they choose to focus on either the younger or the older generation, so you are really only getting half the story. Cheating won't do you any good. Just accept your confusion. It's part of the fun!

 

I really enjoy reading beautiful descriptions of food. In this, Emily, you did not disappoint! If you are often pining for a crust of dirty bread, or not quite enough wine, Wuthering Heights is the book for you. Often food is made and then rejected as the characters are too emotional for sustenance. At one point, Hareton drinks milk from the fresh gallon pitcher of new milk before it is to be shared and Nelly says, "that [she] could not taste the liquid treated so dirtily." It's like she took the words right out of my mouth and then said them in a more confusing order. Drinking out of the milk carton, or any shared vessel, is disgusting. Sometimes there is confusion as to what food even is, such as when Heathcliff demands that Nelly make food for their guest Linton (which one, are you confused) and asks what his favourite foods are, this is a surprisingly tender moment for Heathcliff, although it's short and most certainly holds ulterior motives. Nelly suggests boiled milk or tea, the housekeeper is then given instruction to prepare this thing THAT IS NOT FOOD.  There is a lot of angry crust eating and tea being drank out of vessels that are not tea cups. It's fascinating. And it makes me feel hungry and sad at the same time. 

Many would classify Wuthering Heights as a great romance. I think of it as more of a cautionary tale. One of the most romantic lines from Wuthering Heights, is Cathy saying, "he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same." That's lovely, there's nothing funny about soulmates. However, she prefaces that with, "He shall never know I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, but because (he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same.)" Not quite as romantic. Utterly cruel actually. And what exactly are their souls made of? Something quite competitive and vindictive it would seem. They literally both die prematurely for each other, but not at all in heroic manner. I suppose the fantasy is to have someone obsessed with you, but I would also hope for kindness. My love language is cleaning up the kitchen, not revenge marriages and self imposed madness. The second generation of Cathys and Lintons was more hopeful. They seemed to like each other and build friendships, rather than dislike each other and feed obsession. If you gather all of Heathcliff and Cathy's best lines to each other, it's quite dramatic and entertaining. I find their awfulness fascinating, at times comic at times tragic. 

 

Let's not forget ghosts. Emily, you did a magnificent job of letting the reader choose for themselves if the ghosts were real or imagined, with enough evidence to support either claim. They are not exactly Casper the friendly ghost, as they only care for their obsessive soulmates. The novel starts strong with a ghost and an unreliable narrator. It's so dramatic, right from the beginning, that as a reader, I need to take breaks, yet at the same time am compelled to continue reading. 

To celebrate your 200th Birthday Emily, it might be time for me to finally host that Wuthering Heights party I've been talking about for years. I will send out half of the invitations from myself, and half will be from my partner. We will not communicate at all regarding the details of the party, and just hope that all our guests figure it out on their own. We will do our best to invite many people with the same names. There are always a lot of Danielles, so this is highly accomplishable. We will serve dirty bread, tea from basins, milk with germs, not quite enough cake, and spoonfuls of wine to facilitate compliments, (“He bid her add a spoonful of wine from a bottle on the table; and having swallowed a small portion, appeared more tranquil, and said she was very kind.”) We will dress in period garb and hope for poor weather as our main party activity will be long walks, with much trespassing, bonus if one or more of the party goes missing for a period of time ranging from hours to years. We will be unkind and fanatical and verbalize our hope to connect with ghosts as much as possible. Obviously, "Wuthering Heights," by Kate Bush will be played on a loop for the entire festivity. We will shout your fantastic poetry, Emily. There will be no party ending time, you may stay as long as you like, overstaying your welcome is encouraged and expected. 

 

Dear Emily,

 

I don't care if you were nice or not. You wrote my favourite book and my life is richer for it. Thank you for being true to yourself and for sharing your genius with the world, comic or not.

 

Yours obsessively,

Danielle

 

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