Wuthering Heights
is not a romance

Let the Analysis Begin

The point of this site is to argue that Wuthering Heights is not a romance. To do that, we need to examine three aspects of the issue: first, the argument to be made for reading the novel as a romance, second, how that reading came to dominate at least pop-culture discussions, and, third, what the text itself has to say about romance and romantic heroes in relationship to its characters.

I'll be enlisting some help in my analysis in the form of comics from the brilliantly funny Kate Beaton, taken from her website Hark! A Vagrant.

A Romantic Reading of Wuthering Heights

Why is Wuthering Heights so often treated as a romance? Of course the films play their part, and the first part of the novel revolves around the passionate obsession which Heathcliff and Catherine share, which might be called love. There is, perhaps, a more fundamental reason which must first be explored, though: Emily Bronte's sex.

Because the Brontes all wrote under assumed names, the public tended to assume, at first, that they were male, and most of the early reviews reflect this assumption. Even given that the male pronoun was perfectly acceptable to use universally in the 19th century, many of the reviewers specifically refer to Emily Bronte (under her pen name Ellis Bell) as "he." Romantic interpretations of Wuthering Heights did not come out until well after Bronte's death and the revelation that she was, indeed, a woman.

Though it is unlikely anyone ever thought, "Emily Bronte was a woman, and women all write romances, so Wuthering Heights must be a romance," the expectation that women at least predominantly write romances, combined with the fact that there exists within the novel a relationship that might be called romantic, likely did influence readers, including those who went on to make film adaptations. And this may have been more particularly true for those early film adaptations, such as the 1939 version, which is undeniably a romance.

Of course Emily Bronte's sex has no bearing on whether or not she wrote a romance, so we should dispense with that expectation immediately. Women, including Victorian women like Emily Bronte and Mary Shelley, wrote all sorts of literature and not all of it even contains romantic elements.

Another reason to read Wuthering Heights as a romance hinges on the definition of "romance." Even if one is not convinced that the mutual obsession shared by Catherine and Heathcliff constitutes love—which I am not—it possesses self-evident romantic aspects. Catherine's speech to Nelly in the kitchen after Edgar's proposal, in which she uses that famous quote "I am Heathcliff," is full of romantic allusions, even though Catherine herself doesn't seem to fully understand where the border between romantic and platonic love lies.

This is actually quite a fascinating moment in the novel. Catherine, in believing that she and Heathcliff are in essence the same person, seems to possess no understanding of jealousy. Within the framework she presents, this even makes a kind of sense: how can one be jealous of oneself? She seems to view the bond between them as so fundamental that trifles such as who marries whom hardly even matter. Her viewpoint is reiterated later when she offers to persuade Edgar to let Heathcliff marry Isabella, provided that Heathcliff truly does like and admire her. Catherine's lack of jealousy enrages Heathcliff, and ends up leading to the confrontation between Heathcliff and Edgar a few pages on.

This fundamental misunderstanding is, perhaps, where the most credible argument for Wuthering Heights as a romance lies. The tragedy would not be so much that circumstances—and selfishness—separate Catherine and Heathcliff, but rather that they differ on what love means. For Catherine, it means the two of them united against the world, doing whatever they can for each other and trampling anyone who gets in their way, and this unity does not require legalities like marriage or even, perhaps, an intimate physical connection. Heathcliff's view of love is more conventional: he wants concrete expressions of their bond, like physical affection and marriage.

Even allowing that this interpretation has some merit, however, it does not explain (or make any more romantic) the second half of the novel.

Well, I Watched the Movie (It's Almost the Same, Right?)

I'm an English major and should probably stick with the "books are always superior" posture, but you know what? Sometimes watching the movie is pretty much the same as reading the book.

Sometimes it really, really isn't, though.

Unless one watches a single, very specific, five hour long film adaptation, it isn't at all the same in this case. It's no wonder that the films are more popular than the book, though—Wuthering Heights is not at all a pleasant experience, and it's even less pleasant if one goes in expecting a romance. I couldn't get through it until it was required by a class, in part because I had always heard it referred to as a great romance. I expected at least one sympathetic character and therefore couldn't make it past the first few chapters.

If it sounds as though I'm blaming the movie adaptations for my attitude going into the novel, that's only partially accurate. I hadn't ever seen a film version and knew Wuthering Heights by reputation rather than any kind of direct experience. I am, at least, blaming a cultural attitude that holds films as "pretty much the same" as a book simply because they, perhaps, share a title.

I don't know, maybe we shouldn't allow films to take titles from books unless the film accurately portrays the book. I do know that I don't want to be the one to administer the nightmare of a purity test that would inevitably result, though.

The final piece of blame probably lies in a mixture of Emily Bronte's sex and the fact that she was related to Charlotte Bronte, who did write a romance—with, perhaps, the addition of the long-held belief that Charlotte was, in fact, the author of both her own novel and Emily's.

Romance as Delusion

The most damning mockery of romance in Wuthering Heights is undoubtedly given to Heathcliff when he informs Nelly that Isabella "'abandoned [her comforts] under a delusion...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.'" Perhaps here we ought to mark the difference between "romance" in the modern sense and "Romance" as a literary and artistic movement, however. While there is certainly overlap, Heathcliff is referring specifically to "heroes of romance" as they were portrayed by writers such as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. While those archetypes are certainly still in use today, they are usually less overwrought. Though perhaps some modern romance authors might advocate a passionate love so vast that it can only be fulfilled in death, we generally don't regard romance novels as great works of art anyway. Those espousing 18th and 19th century Romantic ideals would probably be labeled particularly trashy and contrived.

When Heathcliff mockingly refers to "heroes of romance," then, we can understand that he is not speaking of all protagonists who find themselves in the middle of a love story, but rather the kind of hero so consumed by love for a woman that he would rather die than live without her. Ironically, Heathcliff actually does profess to feel this kind of love for Catherine, even if it takes him half the book and sixteen or seventeen years to die without her. Heathcliff's mockery of the Romantic ideal on the one hand, and his embodiment of it on the other—especially an embodiment which is so destructive to everyone around him—provides an implied critique of the ideal. The hero Isabella dreams of is a myth; the reality is Heathcliff, a genuine sadist who cannot even love the object of his obsession without destroying her.

The critique is bookended by Lockwood, who, unlike Heathcliff, does fancy himself to be the sort of romantic hero Isabella believes in:

"He is a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman...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...his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling...No, I'm running on too fast: I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him."

—Chapter I

Lockwood's description is the very picture of the Byronic hero (a Romantic hero of the sort Heathcliff mocks), which, by the last sentence, we understand Lockwood identifies with himself.

Lockwood is, of course, an ineffectual idiot, which perhaps tells us something about what Emily Bronte thought of those who considered themselves "heroes of romance." If Wuthering Heights contains some of the trappings of romance, it is more likely because the novel is a deconstruction of the genre rather than an addition to it. That obsessive love so admired by Romantics (as evidenced by Werther in The Sorrows of Young Werther or Haidee in Don Juan) is treated by Bronte as the horror which drives her Gothic novel rather than a laudable pursuit. Lockwood, who seeks the Romantic ideal (or professes to seek it; even Lockwood seems to recoil in dread at Nelly's descriptions of Catherine), is a fool, while Heathcliff, who has attained the ideal, is a monster.

At the end of the novel we seem to finally catch a glimpse of what Emily Bronte sees as the proper form for romantic love: Hareton and Cathy never felt themselves destined to be together, disliked each other while they treated each other poorly, and only came to like each other again through kindness, humility on both sides, and forgiveness. They act as though they are equals. Hareton, though impatient with his reading lessons, shows no sign of shame at receiving them from Cathy. She, meanwhile, seems to love and admire him all the more for being willing to learn.

Unlike their parents' generation, Hareton and Cathy do not imagine that their souls are one or that their love is predestined—instead it is built by both, piece by piece and moment by moment.