I first read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I was eighteen, more than two decades ago. And, until recently, I’ve never wanted to repeat the experience. My recollection of that initial reading is not pleasant: a winter-dark moor; a disappointed, malevolent lover; a lot of death.
However, when my two eldest children were assigned the novel for school, I began to wonder if a second reading might change my opinion. As a fiction writer, I figured Bronte had plenty to teach me, whether I enjoyed her book or not. Also, I wanted to know why it’s considered such a great work of literature. So I read it again, and began to find the answers to my questions within the first few paragraphs.
From the hearty enthusiasm of the narrator to Heathcliff’s glum countenance and his aged servant’s cranky piety, the characters immediately engaged my emotions. As a reader, I was, in turn, curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages. Character after character was introduced, each as distinctive as the last, and I heartily despised most of them, yet still found myself interested in the resolution of their stories. In fact, my interest held–no matter how I felt about each character–long after the final word was read.
As a reader, I was in turn curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages.
Yet, Bronte was more than just a clever portraitist. Nearly every principle character suffers and reacts accordingly, changing in appearance, attitudes, and actions. She has wrung from them any contribution they could make to the themes and progression of her story. Yes, there is a background character or two that serve little more than to nudge the plot forward, but considering the depth of more than a half-dozen characters, the insipidity of an occasional minor role is hardly worth mentioning.
As a writer, I found myself wondering if the characters in my current work are as vivid. Would they grip a reader’s attention like Bronte’s cast? Are they really changing as the story progresses, like Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley, or are they just propping up the plot? I recalled equally potent characters from other works and made a note to examine them as well: evil Cathy Ames from East of Eden; despicable Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; the virtuous and stalwart heroine of Jane Eyre, by Emily Bronte’s sister, Charlotte.
Bronte’s use of setting is just as skillful as her characterization. Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption. As a reader, I enjoyed the sensuous details because they did more than supply helpful images. They complemented the complex characterization, unifying the whole story.
As a writer, I marveled that Bronte endowed her setting with as much emotional heft as her characters. I realized that I too often use setting as a frame for my narrative–a pretty but simple bit of orientation for the reader.
Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption.
I’ll risk the accusation of hubris to venture one criticism. Bronte’s narrative technique was sometimes distracting. She uses a first-person narrator to relate the story, but he reports most of the narrative as it is told to him (in first-person) by another character, who at times relates to him what has been told to her by several other characters, both in person and by letter. (Yes, it was rather confusing.) More than once I had to look back a page or two in order to remember which character had taken over the first-person voice. As I writer, I think I would look for an alternative way to overcome the limits of first-person narration or choose a different perspective altogether.
In the end, Bronte won me over completely. Her settings are masterful and communicate nearly as much to the reader as the characters. That is significant indeed because even the most disinterested of readers will not remain impassive when encountering her characters. A reader may groan, laugh, despair, exult, or throw down the book in disgust, but they will respond. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for more.