24 February 2011


Character Connection 21

Read about Swede Land
and other great characters
in this week's Character Connection!

This post was conceived during a struggle with my tutee Rain Dancer, who was having a bit of trouble with a book report. Her English teacher had given the class the sink-or-swim instruction to write a "critical analysis" of the novel they were assigned. Each girl was free to choose her own focus. This kind of assignment is fun only when one has first learned how to focus.

Rain Dancer was more than a little lost. Remember that she had been unable to read the text and was feeling pretty down about it--and that she has had trouble writing about texts she was able to finish. I saw right through her when she asked, "Teacher, if you had this assignment, what would you write?"--but I answered her anyway, because I knew there was no way she could "steal" it without my help (which I would, of course, withhold, should it come to that) and it helped me make my point that we write best when we follow our own fascinations, not those of others.

It took a while longer, but she finally found her own fascination . . .

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Bronte

"Then you are not afraid of death?" I pursued.

"Afraid? No!" he replied. "I have neither a fear, nor a presentiment, nor a hope of death. Why should I? With my hard constitution and temperate mode of living, and unperilous occupations, I ought to, and probably
shall, remain above ground till there is scarcely a black hair on my head. And yet I cannot continue in this condition! I have to remind myself to breathe--almost to remind my heart to beat! And it is like bending back a stiff spring . . ."

He began to pace the room, muttering terrible things to himself, till I was inclined to believe, as he said Joseph did, that conscience had turned his heart to an earthly hell. I wondered greatly how it would end . . .

I got the idea to focus on Heathcliff's character after Rain Dancer, who had just been looking at all the "children" of the novel--Hareton, Catherine and Linton--remarked that each of them was a perfect mix of their parents. It made me counter, "Why, then, does Hareton seem to be more like Heathcliff than Linton?" One thing led to another, and soon she had her focus: Heathcliff as a father figure.

And he is a father to them all, isn't he? The biological father of Linton, the foster father of Hareton, and the father-in-law of Catherine. And once he has a claim to them all, he insists that they all live together at Wuthering Heights, remarking, "I want my children about me, to be sure." If nothing else, he is the father of their misery. Or if you prefer, they are the children of his revenge, conceived or adopted that he might punish their other parents.

I've remarked elsewhere (I think) that Heathcliff is a completely alien element in this story. His personality dominates the entire novel--but he doesn't actually belong in the small, rather tidy world of the Earnshaws and the Lintons. He is like a large stone that crashes into the bed of a small stream, hinders the once easy flow, and forces the water to find another way around it . . . but that ultimately changes nothing because the stream manages to continue as it always had, once it reaches the lee side of the arrogant interloper.

Which is to say that if Mr. Earnshaw had never taken pity on the young Heathcliff and brought him home to Wuthering Heights, well, we wouldn't have English literature's most famous vengeance saga . . . but we'd still have the ending. Cathy Earnshaw would still have married Edgar Linton, so Catherine would still have been born. And after the death of Cathy's brother Hindley, she and Edgar would certainly have taken in his orphaned son Hareton, so Hareton and Catherine would have grown up together as well as fallen in love. (And fallen in love much faster!) Granted, Heathcliff's own son Linton would never have been born . . . but we can argue that he doesn't do anything that matters to either the original ending or my Heathcliff-less AU ending.

It is very sad, I think, to come into the world as a rootless orphan and to leave it without a single heir. In one sense, you might as well have never existed.

But there is more to any person than where he comes from and what he leaves behind him, and even the alien that is Heathcliff is not so easily erased from the memory of a place that never wanted him. After all is set to rights again and the stream of the Earnshaw and Linton histories flows unobstructed once more, the villagers say they still see him--"would swear on the Bible that he walks . . . on every rainy night since his death."

And now it seems I have a new answer (sort of) to Rain Dancer's question of what I would write in my own "critical analysis." Forget "Heathcliff as a father": the real gold is in "Heathcliff as a ghost."

Image Source: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte


Connolly-Ahern (Col Reads) said...

This is a great take on Heathcliff -- I never saw him as a father figure, but it works! Loved it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thank you! His "children" also don't seem like much of a family, but if we start thinking of them that way, then there's only one father they could possibly have!

I appreciate your visit and comment very much. =)

IntrovertedJen said...

It has been 15+ years since I read Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff left such a bad taste in my mouth, I have no desire to repeat the experience! I remember next to nothing about the book, but I do remember that Heathcliff was one crazy, screwed-up guy. I love your metaphor of their lives as a stream and Heathcliff only a rock in it. Puts him in his place a bit!

Enbrethiliel said...


LOL! It does, doesn't it? =P I feel a bit bad for him when I remember that Hindley was very mean to him and that Cathy ultimately used and rejected him: neither of them cared to let him be anything more than a rock in the stream of their lives, and I'm sure that had its effect on his emotional state.

He does try to be more than a rock later on, first by tricking Cathy's daughter into marrying his son (which would make him part of the stream at last) and then by toying with the idea of destroying both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange so that Hareton and Catherine end up with no inheritance at all (which would dry up the stream completely). But as we know, he was utterly ineffectual at the end.

Nevertheless, we can't completely dismiss him. I find the idea that his ghost is still wandering the moors around Wuthering Heights to be as haunting as Emily Bronte must have intended.