Romanticised abuse | Heathcliff and Cathy in WUTHERING HEIGHTS

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Emily Bronte’s classic Gothic novel, Wuthering Heights, is as popular today as it ever was. The complexities of the characters, the raw ferocity of emotions, the depth of the tale itself, make the book a rich example of the Gothic literature of the time.  Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship, especially, has captured audiences and readerships all over the world. 

But is Wuthering Heights truly a story of beautiful romance and love between Heathcliff and Catherine? Is that how Emily Bronte intended their relationship to be perceived? Today I'm taking a closer look. 

About the story of Wuthering Heights. 

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 under Emily Bronte’s male pseudonym, Ellis Bell. It only became famous after Bronte’s death in 1848, and its legacy has spawned numerous film adaptions and plays.

The story is relatively simple, although its connotations are not. The tale revolves around the turbulent relationships of Heathcliff and Cathy and the numerous other characters affected by their story. Its landscapes and atmosphere are rich, the characters complicated and deeply flawed, and the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy almost otherworldly. We read about the relationships between families; about Heathcliff and Cathy growing up and about the harsh childhood they both endured; we see Catherine marry a childhood acquaintance, and Heathcliff’s resulting jealousy; we see Heathcliff marry, and subsequently father a child; we see the children of these  compelling characters grow and mature; overall, it’s a story about love and it’s a story about hate, and how both are often intertwined.

At the very forefront, however, Wuthering Heights is about Heathcliff and Cathy. It’s about the tragic consequences of their relationship.

About the character of Catherine/Cathy.

Cathy Earnshaw’s childhood is difficult. Her father shows her little love, she’s dismissed as a wild little girl who can’t be tamed, and she’s lonely. She finds comfort in a kindred spirit - in Heathcliff - but even that friendship is fraught with the harsh influences of external forces and uncontrollable young hormones.

Cathy is violent. On one occasion she slaps and pinches her maid, Nelly, but then denies it: ‘and pinched me {Nelly}…very spitefully on the arm…..{then said} “I didn’t touch you, you lying creature!”……then slapped me on the cheek a stinging blow….”. She even hurts her nephew and her husband: ‘she seized his {her nephew, Hareton’s,} shoulders and shook him until the poor child  waxed livid, and Edgar {her husband} thoughtlessly laid hold of her hands to deliver him. In one instant one was wrung free, and the astonished young man felt it applied over his own ear in a way that could be mistaken for a jest.’

Cathy is passionate and volatile, much like Heathcliff, and having spent most of her childhood neglected, it’s easy to see where her rage and strong feelings come from. She’s lonely, and she’s unloved.

Heathcliff and Cathy fall out as Cathy begins to return Edgar Linton’s obvious romantic attentions. She’s mad at Heathcliff and he’s mad at her, but Cathy is so angry and hurt and desperate to make him suffer, that she decides to marry Linton. As of their relationship:
‘“First and foremost, do you love Mr. Edgar?” I ask.
“Who can help it? Of course I do,” she answered......
“Why do you love him, Miss. Cathy?”
“Nonsense, I do – that’s sufficient.”
“By no means; you must say why?”
“Well, because he is handsome, and pleasant to be with….and because he is young and cheerful…..and he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband….I love the ground under his feet, and the air over his head, ad everything he touches, and every word he says – I love all his looks, and all his actions, and him entirely, and altogether….My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware….”’
Cathy admits she would probably ‘“pity him {Linton}”’ and ‘”hate him”’ if he were ugly. When Nelly points out the dangers of that, Catherine confirms she is only concerned with the present, and considering that Linton is handsome and rich now, there is nothing to worry about. 

Perhaps by marrying Linton, Cathy’s trying to prove to herself as well as to Heathcliff that it’s a good, true match. She’s ignoring the darkest parts of herself that Heathcliff brings out, and deluding herself into believing she can be happy with someone who is everything she is not: calm, restrained, sensible, and attractive. Linton is the safe choice. He is not Heathcliff, and considering that Cathy will not allow herself to love Heathcliff, Linton is the right choice.

Cathy is also proud. I think a great part of her decision to marry Linton comes from the fact she would not be satisfied to stoop so low as to give herself to Heathcliff. He is, after all, a social outcast and pariah. He’s an embarrassment. With Linton, she has social standing. She even admits it would ‘”degrade me to marry Heathcliff.”’

But, inevitably, Cathy is not satisfied with her marriage to Edgar Linton. They have nothing in common, and Cathy admits to feeling bored. He’s devoted and affectionate, but ultimately, he’s not Heathcliff. She’s unhappy because Edgar cannot give her the passion Heathcliff gives, and he cannot match her wits. He’s a bore to her. Her mental and physical health suffers because of it. Cathy feels everything tremendously, but her desire for Heathcliff is killing her.

When Heathcliff re-enters the picture, he puts a strain on Cathy and Edgar’s marriage. Cathy is torn apart by indecision, and Edgar is jealous and hurt: ‘'It is disgraceful that she should own him for a friend, and force his company on me... Catherine shall linger no longer to argue with the low ruffian - I have humoured her enough.”’
To Edgar, Heathcliff is still the dirty gypsy who belongs on the streets. He cannot understand Cathy’s affection for him, and he doesn’t appreciate how she enjoys Heathcliff’s company. 

Cathy eventually dies. Edgar is distraught, as is Heathcliff. Nelly Dean observes: His {Edgar’s} young and fair features were almost as deathlike as those of the form beside him, and almost as fixed: but his was the hush of exhausted anguish, and hers {Cathy’s} of perfect peace. Her brow smooth, her lids closed, her lips wearing the expression of a smile; no angel in heaven could be more beautiful than she appeared. And I partook of the infinite calm in which she lay: my mind was never in a holier frame than while I gazed on that untroubled image of Divine rest.’

About the character of Heathcliff

On page 3 of the novel, we get a description of Heathcliff from the point of view character, Mr. Lockwood: ‘Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman – that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure – and rather morose – possibly some people might suspect him of a degree of under-bred pride – I have a sympathetic chord within that tells me it is nothing of the sort; I know, by instinct, his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling – to manifestations of mutual kindliness. He’ll love and hate, equally under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence to be loved or hated again…’

Heathcliff is brought to the Heights by Cathy and Hindley’s father and immediately forms a bond with a Cathy starved for company and affection. They become playmates – one as wild and untamed as the other, and to say Heathcliff influences her would be an understatement. However, not even Cathy’s presence can make Heathcliff’s life with her family endurable.
Almost immediately upon arriving, Heathcliff is bullied and abused by Cathy’s brother, Hindley. As Nelly narrates, ‘Hindley hated him…..and we plagued and went on with him shamefully….. he {Heathcliff} seemed a sullen, patient child; hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment: he would stand Hindley’s blows without winking or shedding a tear, and my {Nelly’s} pinches moved him only to draw in a breath…’ Heathcliff even blackmails Hindley on one occasion and threatens to tell his father about the abuse: ‘“I shall tell your father of the three thrashings you’ve given me this week, and show him my arm, which is black to the shoulder.”’
Hindley threatens him, beats him, and treats him like a servant. As Cathy sobs to her maid, ‘“Hindley calls him {Heathcliff} a vagabond, and won’t let him sit with us, nor eat with us any more; and he says, he and I must not play together, and threatens to turn him out of the house if he breaks his orders.”’ Hindley even cries to Heathcliff, ‘“Off, dog! I pray that he may break your neck... be damned, you beggarly interloper! I hope he’ll kick out your brains!”’ When at their Christmas celebrations Heathcliff tosses hot apple sauce over Edgar Linton after the latter insults his long hair, Hindley takes the opportunity to beat Heathcliff: ‘He administered a rough remedy {beating} to cool the fit of passion, for he reappeared red and breathless…’

His abuse begins a feud between the two men that lasts until Hindley’s death, and Heathcliff makes no secret of his desire to get even with Hindley: ‘“I’m trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait, if I can only do it, at last. I hope he will not die before I do!”’ 

A miserable childhood eventually becomes a turbulent adulthood. Heathcliff finds himself competing with Edgar Linton for Cathy’s affections, and then is forced to watch as she eventually marries him. Not to be left out, Heathcliff marries Edgar’s sister, Isabella, more out of revenge than anything else, and takes out his pain and hurt on her. However, he appears furious that she’s falling for him because he sees her devotion as a sign of weakness, considering how badly he treats her (‘“She degenerates into a mere slut! She is tired of trying to please me, uncommonly early – You’d hardly credit it, but the very morrow of our wedding, she was weeping to go home……{she} 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…”’), but seeing how Cathy favours Edgar over him, he decides to use Isabella to get back at her and Edgar. He inflicts emotional abuse, humiliation, and physical violence on her; Isabella relates her situation in a letter to Nelly: ‘“Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil? I shan’t tell my reasons for making this inquiry; but I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married…..I told him {Heathcliff} the cause of my staying up so late – that he had the key to our room in his pocket. The adjective our gave mortal offence He swore it was not, nor ever should be mine; and he’d – but I’ll not repeat his language, nor describe his habitual conduct; he is ingenious and unresting in seeking to gain my abhorrence! I sometimes wonder at him with an intensity that deadens my fear; yet, I assure you, a tiger or venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakens. He told me of Catherine’s illness, and accused my brother of causing it; promising I should be Edgar’s proxy in suffering, till he could get hold of him.”’

Heathcliff is relentless in his abuse of Isabella. In one scene, he even throws a knife at her. But eventually, Isabella finally manages to escape the house and flees to safety, although now pregnant with Heathcliff’s child. She says of Heathcliff: ‘“He is not a human being…..and he had no claim on my charity _ I gave him my heart, and he took and pinched it to death; and flung it back to me – people feel with their hearts, Ellen, and since he has destroyed mine, I have not the power to feel for him…”’ 

Heathcliff doesn’t only abuse Isabella. On a number of occasions he takes his anger out on Cathy and Edgar’s daughter, Catherine (‘Heathcliff lifted his hand, and {Catherine} sprang to a safer distance, obviously acquainted with its weight’, ‘He seized her with the liberated hand, and pulling her on his knee, administered with the other a shower of terrific slaps on both sides of her head’, ‘“Keep your eft’s fingers off; and move, or I’ll kick you!” cried Heathcliff, brutally repulsing her’,) he’s verbally abusive towards Nelly, the maid, and even abuses animals (‘“You’d better let the dog alone,” growled Mr. Heathcliff…checking fiercer demonstrations with a punch of his foot.’).

Heathcliff suffered through a painful upbringing as a victim of physical and emotional abuse. While it might account for some of his adult inclinations, it should not excuse them. Heathcliff suffered, yes, but he made others suffer, too.

Cathy and Heathcliff’s Relationship

When they were children, Cathy took Heathcliff under her wing. They were inseparable.  He was lonely and being bullied by her brother; she was lonely and feeling neglected by her family. The maid, Nelly, observes their childhood relationship: She was much too fond of Heathcliff. The greatest punishment we could invent for her was to keep her separate from him: yet she got chided more than any of us on his account.’

While still a child, Cathy leaves home to go stay at the Linton estate. Heathcliff is heartbroken by her absence, and even more so when she returns and he sees how she's matured.  He’s hurt by how she seems to have forgotten him and the fun they used to have, and he’s especially offended by her growing friendship with Edgar Linton. Heathcliff and Cathy both refuse to apologise to each other for who they are and what they want, and perhaps because of her stay at the wealthy Lintons, Cathy realises the importance of marrying well.  She even tells Nelly: ‘”It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…..”’

The above quote is worrying; not only because Cathy is putting social standing before real feeling, but because it confesses the unsettling depth and instability of Cathy’s feelings for Heathcliff. “More myself than I am” hints at obsession and blind devotion, rather than true love. She and him are much alike, but the above quote doesn’t sit comfortably. It’s disturbing. 

When Cathy eventually marries Edgar, her relationship with Heathcliff worsens. She’s tormented by indecision as her feelings for him refuse to subside, and she’s clearly unhappy in her marriage. Heathcliff, for his part, refuses to let her go so easily. He is torn apart by her actions: “You teach me now how cruel you've been - cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you - they'll damn you. You loved me - what right had you to leave me? What right - answer me - for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will did it. I have no broken your heart - you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live?What kind of living will it be when you - Oh, God! would you like to lie with your soul in the grave?” 

The violence between Heathcliff and Cathy escalates under the turbulence of their situations. Both their mental states deteriorate. They scream, they shout, they provoke each other, and yet they are unable to be apart. Cathy continually declares how she cannot be without Heathcliff: ‘“Nelly, I am Heathcliff - he's always, always in my mind - not as a pleasure, any more then I am always a pleasure to myself - but, as my own being.”’  -‘ “If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”’ 

Whatever they feel for each other, it does not look like love. Their feelings range from passionate adoration to furious hatred, and they are frequently violent with each other.  It’s a toxic, abusive relationship, with both of them to blame. Quotes such as ‘”If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave”’ and ‘”I have not broken your heart – you have, and in breaking it you have broken mine”’ show an unhealthy relationship. They do not know of any other way to cope with the hurt dealt on one another by one another, so their feelings run wild.  

After Cathy dies, Heathcliff becomes even more unhinged. He is so broken by her death that he even goes as far as to dig up her corpse: ‘Her presence was with me, it remained while I re-filled the grave, and led me home. You may laugh if you will, but I was sure I should see her there. I was sure she was with me, and I could not help talking to her.’
Life without Cathy, from Heathcliff’s perspective, is not life at all: Two words would comprehend my future—death and hell: existence, after losing her, would be hell. Yet I was a fool to fancy for a moment that she valued Edgar Linton's attachment more than mine. If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn't love as much in eighty years as I could in a day.

Emily Bronte's writing, and the story's narration.

Bronte writes in first person past tense. Her narrators alternate between Nelly Dean (the maid) and Mr. Lockwood, a visitor to the Heights, and in both cases the perspectives are deep and personal. We only know what the narrators tell us and we can only observe what the characters say or do – there is no head hopping into any of the other characters’ heads. We are allowed no one else’s perspective, not even the author’s. In other words, the story’s themes are implicit and we must make judgments for ourselves based on evidence. 

I think Bronte’s choice to write from the point of views of two characters so intensely and intimately involved in the story was a clever decision.  By doing so, she removes herself almost completely. Her skill as a writer is obviously there, but the story and characters unfold without her intervention or judgement. She offers no opinion in regards to anything that happens. Even as narrators, Nelly Dean and Mr. Lockwood offer very little judgement of their own as they tell the story. They recount, they observe, and remark infrequently, but they cast little to no opinion. The characters speak for themselves. The story plays out. The author is independent of it.

Cathy and Heathcliff often call their affection for each other “love”, but the author makes no such judgement herself. The words come from two fallible human characters, and we as the readers are left to interpret their feelings for ourselves. The characters are unreliable because they’re people with flaws and misconceptions. We cannot claim that Bronte is romanticising an abusive relationship because nowhere does she claim to support the relationship. She lets the actions of her characters speak for themselves. We are left to deduce what we can.    

The legacy of Wuthering Heights.

Emily Bronte did not romanticise Heathcliff and Cathy’s behaviour. So why am I writing this post? Why do I need to prove that their relationship isn’t one of romantic love if the author herself never claimed it is?

I’m writing this argument because nowadays Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship is called a romance. I’m writing it because Heathcliff’s character is swooned over, adored, and his behaviour is romanticised in pop culture. I don’t need to tell you that Wuthering Heights has been called an epic romance, or that Heathcliff and Cathy’s “love story” is up there with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, and even Titanic’s Jack and Rose. Amazon and Goodreads consider the Gothic novel a love story, and readers are drawn to the dark passion between the central characters so much so that they’re quick to call it love.  Passion becomes synonymous with love. Violence becomes acceptable as long as both characters are doing it. It’s disturbing, because what we see between Heathcliff and Cathy is more about obsession than pure, true love.

What is love? “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). What we see between Heathcliff and Cathy is a tidal wave of uncontrollable emotion, raw desire, and manic pain, selfishness, and cruelty. To call it love is dangerously misguided. 

In conclusion.

If Cathy had had the influence of a loving, doting mother, or another female role model, perhaps she wouldn’t have been driven to do the things she did. Perhaps if Heathcliff had felt more love and acceptance, he wouldn’t have constantly felt the need to prove himself. Both characters are victims of their circumstances, but they are not bound by them.

When we consider Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship as one of true love, or when we idealise Heathcliff as a romantic hero, we are romanticising toxic behaviours, unhealthy relationships, and abusive characters.  I do not believe Emily Bronte wrote Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship as a romance. She, through her narrators, was a mere observer of these characters and their tragic, passionate story.  It’s up to us to make a decision based on what we’ve read.  And when we call their relationship one of love, we are romanticising abuse.

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