Devoted to Destruction: Love in Bronte's Wuthering Heights

Because everybody loves a Bad Boy, right? 

Firstly, I just want to say that I’m not really a fan of romantic fiction, finding it to be most often tedious and patronising. Now, that said, Wuthering Heights is a novel I have always been more than happy to make an exception for, deciding at the ripe old age of 14 that my life was going to be just as tragic and passionate as Catherine Earnshaw’s. I seem to have the tragic part down pretty good thus far, the passion bit taking a little bit longer than anticipated, but safe to say an older and wiser me hopes that nothing of my existence ever replicates the narratives of the said book’s characters.

I can somewhat defend my love of Wuthering Heights with the assertion that for me, it really isn’t a Romance at all. The theme of love is at the heart of what the book’s about for sure, but it gets very quickly over-shadowed by some gritty portrayals of obsession, malice and manipulation. ‘Love’ is just the excuse for everything else that happens. For me it reads as humanities aptitude for self-destruction, with happiness often offered up relatively easily, but ignored for the sake of pride and arrogance. 

That’s something that the Brontë sisters seemed to have a real gift for; using their novels as an exploration of the darkest and most selfish aspects of human nature, most importantly of all without shoving some sort of moralistic lesson down your throat. As far as the likes of Emily Brontë seemed to be concerned, the book’s aim wasn’t to tell the reader off or shame us, but to make us acknowledge the murkier aspects of our own characters, perhaps even be humbled by recognising their universality. 

Wuthering Heights was a novel so ahead of its time, it originally seeped into the ethers of obscurity, only resurrected relatively recently by academics who were amazed by the superiority of the plot and character exploration. Personally, it is in Emily Brontë’s use of two generations to tell her story that I place my adoration of the book, always somewhat guiltily racing through the first half to get to the second. 

It’s in the second part of the novel, when the next generation of Earnshaw’s, Heathcliff’s and Linton’s appear, that the true mastery and power of Brontë’s writing comes into its own. It’s where the character of Heathcliff truly warps; his most bitter, manic and destructive behaviour all aimed at punishing those around him, seeing as Catherine’s untimely death offered her an early out. Speaking of, the second half also means that the character of Catherine Earnshaw is dead, significantly reducing her grating presence to only whenever Heathcliff’s obsessive lamenting resurrects her ghost.

In her complex storytelling, Brontë manages to take a group of characters who bring a whole new meaning to the term ‘unlikeable’, and fill them with enough truth and relatability, that the reader is forced to become involved. Heathcliff can only be a romantic icon to those who haven’t read the book, his possessiveness and controlling nature making him what we would acknowledge today as an abusive partner. In this sense Brontë was the first to pin-point the darker aspects of what seemingly gets us ladies all hot and bothered (who knew?!) solidified by modern incarnations of Christian Gray and Edward Cullen. Coming from a woman who’s been dead for over 160 years and never married or supposedly even fell in love, I’d say that’s pretty good going.

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz