There, I said it.
I first read the book when I was a teenager, and yes, my first impression was that of a tragic love story too. But re-reading it and years of watching popular culture tell women that the tortured hero is sexy and “partner material” has convinced me otherwise.
And now I’m going to tell you why Wuthering Heights is not (and never was!) a love story.
This book is a beautiful gothic deconstruction of traditional romances. The two main characters–Heathcliff and Catherine–are self-destructive. In the beginning of the book, they are very close. Some would even think their mutual obsession is actually love. You’d expect them to even marry each other. But because of class rules and selfishness, Catherine chooses the wealthier and whiter Linton instead, despite acknowledging that she loves Heathcliff.
And I see why you think this could be tragic.
Society kept them apart!
They deserved to be together!
Oh, the poor babies!
From the beginning, we’re told that Heathcliff had a horrible childhood. He’s an outcast despite having done no harm. He becomes a cruel person but he’s always been nice to Catherine, hasn’t he?
Naturally, readers tend to recognise him as a love interest, but that’s not true. This is what happens when you romanticise abuse, emotional destruction, and trauma. Years of conditioning has made us idiots as readers. Just a pointer, Carol: When you come across a tortured soul, the emotion you should feel is pity, not love, love.
Wuthering Heights is a mockery of traditional romance.
Heathcliff is Bronte’s sassy answer to Byronic heroes. You read the entire book, waiting for Heathcliff’s redemption arc, but it never comes. He’s just as big a dick as he was in the beginning of the novel.
Take Isabella, for instance. The poor woman is nothing but sweet. Yet, he tortures her both physically and psychologically. Heathcliff is incredibly sadistic to Isabella, and yet, readers don’t recognise him for what he actually is–a grade A asshole.
Quite tellingly, he says this to Nellie about Isabella:
“[Isabella] abandoned [her comforts] under a delusion…picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature.”
In another instance, Heathcliff warns Isabella against “forming a fabulous notion of [his] character”.
That’s not just for Isabella, that’s for you too, reader.
Isabella is not just a character in the novel. She’s also any reader who believes that this horrible, horrible man can be saved and be given a redemption arc.
This excellent use of Isabella to make a mockery of traditional romance is what I love about this book. By showing romantic undertones in the beginning of the novel, Bronte expects the reader to immediately want to save poor, sensitive, tortured, baby-boo Heathcliff. As soon as that feeling is established, she then continuously tries to erase that notion by making Heathcliff even more cruel than he was in the beginning.
…not that this worked or anything. 40 years since its release, people still think this book is a love story.
Why do you want a dramatic love story, anyway?
One thing that confounds me with respect to pop culture is how much it convinces viewers that a simple love story is repulsive. It’s too boring, too vanilla.
Every book, TV show, and movie tries to tell us that it’s the explosive, dramatic, torturous love stories that are worth it. It is this exact notion that also makes people believe that this beautiful deconstruction of traditional romances is actually just a traditional romance, with a tragic love story being the tradition. How retrogressive is that?
All the conditioning aside, why did early reviewers consider this romantic?
When Wuthering Heights was first published, Emily Bronte wrote under a pseudonym, Ellis Bell. Early reviewers, who referred to the author as a “he” in their reviews, did not float around the romance spiel. It was later that the idea that this book was a romance was conceived. Now, I’m not saying it’s because they found out the author was a human woman, but we all know how society treats female authors even now.
Oh wait, there actually is some romance in this book.
Unlike their parents’ generation, Hareton and Cathy do not grow up thinking they’re destined for each other or that they are one and the same.
It’s a romance that slowly grows with no grand gestures, and therein lies the beauty of a love story.
Wuthering Heights does not sell us the “love is pain” spiel, but rather shows us why this type of romance is tripe. That’s why this novel is brilliant. And that’s why this novel should be read.