CATHERINE OF “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of you beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. 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 a mighty stranger. I should not seem part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware as winter changes the trees -my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath- a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff-he’s always, always in my mind-not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself-but as as my own being….” Wuthering Heights Ch. 9

When I first read Wuthering Heights I found Catherine irresistible. Many students, I later found, shared my feeling. She combines a winning charm (who can forget her response, as a child, to her aging and often impatient father complaining of her mischief ” Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” to which she answers “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?”), with courageous rebelliousness ( when Joseph seeks to make her read a “good”- that is deadly boring, book suitable for Sunday reading, she “took my dingy volume by the scroop , and hurled it into the dog-kennel, vowing I hated a good book”), as well as acting like a free spirit, ranging the moors with Heathcliff. For a bookish, shy teenager like myself she was what I dreamt of being.

The quoted speech is perhaps the most central of the novel. It has been much referred to and debated by critics. It comes from the time when Catherine, having decided to marry Linton, uses Nelly (the narrator) as her sounding board for convincing herself that she is right to choose him before Heathcliff.. For Nelly the distinction between the two possible lovers is clear. Edgar is a gentleman of property and also in quality. Heathcliff at this stage of the novel l has been degraded by Hindley ( now master), brutally treated, an outsider whose doubtful background is made to justify his treatment as an outsider.

In the earlier part of the scene Heathcliff has been a listener. He has heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff and after this Nelly becomes conscious of him leaving the room. (Thence he leaves the area for years before returning completely altered from the gauche brutalised adolescent he has been). His later behaviour in relation to Catherine indicates his passion for her is as necessary to him as hers for her.

The intensity of the speech is made to sound religious. She is clearly thinking hard to get the words right: “What were the use of creation if I were entirely contained here?” We see her pointing toto herself trying to make clear to Nelly what she means. Yet what she identifies herself with-her extended self-is not God but Heathcliff. The contrasting imagery of foliage and rocks brilliantly contrasts the nature of her feeling. “Foliage” has the potential to be beautiful and attractive but it is temporary; it dies back in winter. The rocks made “eternal” last permanently.

Some see the deep bonding of Catherine and Heathcliff as a kind of solidarity formed out of their mistreatment after Hindley takes command of the house. I noted above the passge from Catherine’s diary desribing the rebellion of Heathcliff and she against the oppressive Sunday atmosphere under the assigned control of the bigoted Joseph.

It could also be seen as a primitive kind of religious bonding. There is the freedom they share scampering over the moors as adolescents. Is the feeling sexual? Despite the passion and though Catherine speaks of marriage there is little sign on her part of sexual love. As children they slept in the same bed (she refers to this in the delirium scene) so sexual feeling would be close to incest. On Heathcliff’s side the description of digging up the corpse to hold her has been linked to necrophilia. What it underlines perhaps more , however,is Catherine’s pronouncement “if he were annihilated the universe would turn a mighty stranger” To Heathcliff death must not be allowed to separate them. Existence continues-he has known for years her troubling presence as a ghost-and in death, both physically and spiritually they continue together.

What do you think?

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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