Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Why Heathcliff causes heart palpitations

I was fourteen when I first read Wuthering Heights.  It was the second text that my English teacher at the time had chosen for coursework (the first being Under Milk Wood which I’d detested) and so I wasn’t feeling too excited.  We were sent home with instructions to read the first chapter for the next day.

I read the entire novel.

Being fairly well renowned for my speed-reading abilities, I surprised even myself.  I literally devoured the novel.  For some reason the complexities of heartbreak, unbridled passion and star-cross’d lovers appealed to me, despite the fact that I’d never had a relationship, been kissed, or even had any idea what the word orgasm meant.

One my best friends, V, highlighted the fact that in all actuality it was Victorian melodramatic trash – for some reason she wasn’t as moved as I to read of Heathcliff’s anguish at Cathy’s death:

He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears.

But in rereading it recently I find myself a little discomforted by Heathcliff; far from being the brooding hero that I once imagined, I see him as a manipulative and physically abusive obsessive, who’d be branded persona non grata by any self-respecting jury.

And yet, when I read it now, there’s a small part of me that still thinks it’d be utterly thrilling to be adored in this way.  Plus the passion and torment in his words – there’s something terrible about the idea of living in a world without your love.

‘May she wake in torment!’ he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion.  ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end!  Where is she?  Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where?  Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings!  And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then!  The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe.  I know that ghosts have wandered on earth.  Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!  Oh, God! it is unutterable!  I cannot live without my life!  I cannot live without my soul!’

There’s an Arabic word that, in some ways, evokes a similar sentiment:  Ya’aburnee.  This literally translates as ‘You bury me’.  Pamela Haag argues that it’s ‘a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person, because of how difficult it would be to live without them.’  And it’s the intensity of this feeling that makes Heathcliff – psychopathic tendencies and all – into a romantic hero.

I may no longer have teenage yearnings for a Heathcliff of my own – for which my actual boyfriend can be infinitely grateful – but there’s still a small part of me that swoons at the thought of him.

1 comment:

  1. Frankly I blame my early exposure to Heathcliffe for turning all the heroes in my books into bad boys of one description or another... Totally bonkers, but also totally compelling.

    You should hear what Julie Cohen (great romance novellist and former English teacher) as to say about the sexual symbolism in this book (all of which passed me by when I read it at 14) something my English teacher totally failed to mention I might add.