sympathy for Heathcliff

A RETURN TO ORDER: MORAL LESSONS IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS

                                 

                              “So put aside every trace of malice” (1 Peter 2:1)

Critics have mentioned that Wuthering Heights is ambiguous when it comes to providing an over-arching moral to the harrowing tale, and argue that this ambiguity might have been deliberate by the author. Thus, one famous critic of Wuthering Heights speaks to the “absence of anything” in the tale “one could confidently name a moral.” The critic continues: “…it is not a moral tale. The author’s preferences are not shown” (G.D. Klingopulus). And a very early review of Wuthering Heights makes the same point: “What may be the moral which the author wishes the reader to deduce from her work it is difficult to say; and we refrain from assigning any, because to speak honestly, we have discovered none but mere glimpses of hidden morals or secondary meanings. There seems to be a great power in this book but a purposeless power” (a review in the 1848 Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper).

Nevertheless, from my own reading of Wuthering Heights I find very strong moral themes, and whether these themes flow from my personal subjectivity or were actually intended by Emily Bronte is something I do not intend to dwell on. Moreover, I intend to keep my comments short and to the point.

First and foremost, what a valuable moral lesson we gain from the life of Heathcliff. I mean, who would ever want to be like Heathcliff? : confirmed in evil, ruthlessly vindictive, full of malice, a menace to the community, and impenitent to the end. If there is one giant lesson I learn from Wuthering Heights it is NOT to be like Heathcliff. The life of Heathcliff teaches me to set aside all malice, and all thoughts and temptations to revenge, and to move in the direction of mercy, renewal and forgiveness. What tremendous harm Heathcliff caused to the people around him –  becoming more a demonic presence than a human one as Chesterton points out. Heathcliff’s life is a wonderful model of the person you don’t want to become.

Secondly, the love between Heathcliff and Catherine is not rooted in reality. It is a moors love, infecund as that land, incapable of being for the greater good of the community. I mean, would you want your daughter to marry Heathcliff! A relationship based on fanatical Romanticism and occult salvation may make you one of literature’s most famous couples, but it is not a good foundation for a marriage. Their love is a delusive, destructive love incapable of producing true peace and happiness.

Third, there is no Jane Austen moment of self-discovery for Heathcliff, where he might have said: “Look what a son-of-a-bitch I have become. Who can save me from my wretchedness?” There is no redemption for Heathcliff as there was for Mr. Rochester (another brooding land-owner in the Byronic tradition) in sister Charlotte’s competing Gothic tale, Jane Eyre. Both Heathcliff and Rochester have women problems, the kind of problem that occurs when you love a woman other than your wife! And yet Mr. Rochester undergoes a significant conversion after the devastating fire at Thornfield, a conversion not unrelated to his prayer and penitence (“I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance, the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were but very sincere”). In reality, Mr. Rochester underwent the most painful of purifications, losing everything, as his entire life is essentially purged in the devastating fire at Thornfield, wiped out so to speak, burned up. He emerges from this holocaust as a new man, humbled, repentant, blinded and maimed. And yet in God’s Providence, which is an underlying theme in Jane Eyre, he and Jane will be reunited, and will experience true happiness, true communion of souls (which is not the case for Heathcliff and Catherine).

There is no conversion for Heathcliff, no change of heart. He is set in his ways. The only salvation for Heathcliff is the salvation he confers on himself. He will do it “my way” to the end, defiant and resentful. Now who do you want to emulate: Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff?

Next, there is the matter of Heathcliff’s final impenitence of which Emily Bronte does not leave in doubt.  Heathcliff is in fact offered a final chance to reconcile his life to God, but his is a deathbed without faith. “A deathbed without faith,” says F.W. Faber, “oh what a very wilderness it is – nothing can make up for it – all other beauty only darkens it….” It is Nelly who attempts to rescue Heathcliff from his “godless indifference” as related in the final pages of the novel. The scene unfolds as follows:

‘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. You must have forgotten the contents of the book, and you may not have space to search it now. 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?’

‘I’m rather obliged than angry, Nelly,’ he said, ‘for you remind me of the manner in which I desire to be buried. It is to be carried to the churchyard in the evening. You and Hareton may, if you please, accompany me: and mind, particularly, to notice that the sexton obeys my directions concerning the two coffins! 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.’

You may want to do better on your deathbed than Heathcliff did. He shows no contrition, no sorrow, no repentance; his heart is hardened by malice, his revolt against God is complete. His death will be a good one, only in the sense that with Heathcliff gone order and peace can return to Wuthering Heights.

Finally, we come to the end of the story and the reestablishment of order. As mentioned above, it is not until Heathcliff is dead that the tranquility of order can be reestablished in Wuthering Heights.

The shutting down of Wuthering Heights, the blessing of a marriage that will take place on New Year’s Day between Cathy and Hareton, and the fearlessness of Cathy and Hareton (a fearlessness more powerful than evil), all of these things (mentioned in the final paragraphs of the novel) point to the reestablishment of order and goodness in Wuthering Heights. The “garden gate” that Cathy and Hareton pass through has swung wide open, and peace and happiness have returned to its inhabitants.

“Augustine of Hippo defines the term “Tranquillitas Ordinis” (tranquility of order) in Book 19 of the City of God as ‘the peace of all things’ or ‘well ordered concord’. Augustine links peace with his meaning of order, in which all things in the universe have their proper place established by God, their creator. Peace is therefore the state a person or thing achieves when it is in accordance with the larger created order” (Wikipedia).

The novel ends, then, not on the side of disorder and chaos, but on the side of order and true love, that is to say, on God’s side!

CONCLUSION:

Is there to be no sympathy for Heathcliff in this note? Yes, there is sympathy for Heathcliff. Although he was loved by Mr. Earnshaw, Heathcliff suffered ongoing abuse and cruelty at the hands of Hindley (who, himself, felt unappreciated by his father), all of which had a deleterious effect on Heathcliff and spurred his lust for revenge. A Catholic psychiatrist observes: “Biological birth is not enough. Psychic birth through authentic affirmation is an absolute necessity for a man to be capable of finding true happiness in this life. Affirmation is at the root of all happy human existence” (Conrad Barrs, M.D.). Thus, another lesson to be learned from Wuthering Heights is the obligation of kindness (brotherly love) that we owe to our neighbor, and the harm that is done to another person when we fail in this obligation and tend towards contempt, derision or even hatred. The harm caused to others by the deprivation of love is a major theme in Wuthering Heights, and we see, by way of contrast, that the kindness of young Cathy is so very helpful to both Linton and Hareton. The key point here is that every person’s life touches the lives of many others – either for the good or bad. This is all about the solidarity that exists between human beings.  How we treat others really matters. “The worst kinds of unhappiness, as well as the greatest amount of it, come from our conduct to each other” (F.W. Faber). Thus, “if our conduct…were under the control of kindness” we would live in a vastly happier world.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

References:  The quotes in the first paragraph are in Theresa M. Kenney’s helpful essay, “Compassion and Condemnation in Wuthering Heights,” in the Ignatius Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights. She says, “Heathcliff needed to be saved, and he was not saved.” The quote from Conrad Barrs is in his book, Born Only Once.

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