November : Why the Greatest Love Story of All Time Isn’t a Love Story (a different angle on Heathcliff) (part two : analysis)

For the background to this analysis on Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, click HERE. For The Snot’s lovely review of several Wuthering Heights film adaptations, click HERE.

I don’t think Heathcliff’s intense passion and yearning for Cathy is romantic. I don’t think he’s really in love with here. In this post, I am offering my own humble analysis of this classic story, which I don’t think is a love story at all.

Basically, as I said last time, Cathy was the only experience Heathcliff ever really had with being loved and accepted for who he was. She was beautiful and free-spirited and how could he not fall in love with her; they kept each other from loneliness and despair, they shared freedom playing on the moors. Who hasn’t been infatuated with someone? Who doesn’t know what it feels like for the presence, or even the idea, of someone else, in reality or in imagination, to somehow make everything better?

I don’t think Heathcliff loved the real Cathy. Cathy wasn’t seduced to the dark side by the Lintons; her stay with them led her to discover new parts of herself. The Cathy that loved fine clothes wasn’t a fake part of her, as I’m sure Heathcliff would have liked to think; it was Cathy’s way of growing up. The reality of this shiny Cathy-bird is moodiness, self-absorption and selfishness, arrogance. She is a fair-weathered friend; she wants to have everything; she is infatuated with the idea that marrying Edgar would make her the finest woman in the neighborhood. Like many others throughout the course of human history, Heathcliff discovered that the person he loved was not what he idealized them to be. Cathy was a real, highly imperfect person. But Heathcliff was never able to accept the reality of Cathy. Instead, he clung to this idea of her, this perfect Cathy who made everything better, who would, if only he could have her, make everything better. Like magic.

Heathcliff suffered a lot in his life. He was regularly beaten and bullied all growing up; he was looked down upon, considered inferior, and generally without caring adults. He was often probably painfully lonely. I think Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy was a coping mechanism, clinging in his suffering to this sure idea of a remedy.

Heathcliff and Cathy’s story to me is the sad reality that people are not what you thought they were, what you wish they were.

It is about how someone else can’t really ever fix your problems, no matter how much you want them to. It is about the tragedy of putting everything into longing for something outside of yourself to save you. In a way, Heathcliff was like a Disney princess, convinced that if only he could have his prince(-ess) charming, he would be delivered from all pain. 

The tragedy also lies in all the possibilities. What would have happened if Heathcliff had accepted Cathy as she really was and let go? If he realized that his love for her wasn’t real love at all? Could he have made a nice life for himself with Isabella, would she be able to mature from her infatuation-with-the-bad-boy to have a nice relationship with him? Or could he have let go from his Cathy-preoccupation and become a social avenger, instead of a personal avenger, being the caring father for Hareton he had never had himself? 

A lot of people love Heathcliff’s destructive passion for Cathy. And yes, it is destructive. It’s because, as I see it, it’s not love. Heathcliff’s desire for Cathy is so intense because he needs her to survive. He needs her to be free from himself. He needs her because if he can only, only have her, he will be alright. 

I do not think Wuthering Heights is a love story. I think, by showing all the painful ways human relationships can turn—obsessive, abusive, selfish, etc.—Emily Brontë is showing us a profound story about love. Hareton and Catherine are mirrors of Heathcliff and Cathy, and at first their relationship is almost exactly parallel to their predecessors, with Catherine’s rude treatment of Hareton. Heathcliff’s tragedy is in that he was never able to change; in the very end, after all the problems, change is the antidote. Hareton and Catherine do just that, and Heathcliff finally realizes that he was focused on the wrong thing—this revenge that would somehow be meaningful—the whole time. He gives in to them. 

The Phlox dismounts her soapbox. She takes a drink of water. She fends off the shocked, admonishing Snottor at how long these posts have been. She recalls her manners, and invites the reader to contribute their own views, as she is well aware she is nowhere near right. This is a book she intends on living with the rest of her life, and will likely one day think this opinion-dump a very silly affair indeed, but she did want to share this different perspective she has been considering. Thoughts?

~Phlox 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.