When I was younger, Wuthering Heights was my favorite novel, and I often dreamed of being obsessively loved just as Heathcliff yearned for Catherine Earnshaw. The man whom I one day married, I supposed, would be so enamored with me that he would sit outside of my window, and watch me all day long. He would gaze at me fitfully, his eyes full of meaning. We would have plenty of long make-out sessions, with him lying on top of me in the mud, grinding against me.
But he would probably never take my virginity. I would probably marry someone else just to make things more difficult. When I died young—of some tragic circumstance, which no one anticipated, but everyone regretted terribly—he would fling himself in my grave, and threaten to be buried alongside of me. In other words, he would be my soul mate, impossibly connected to me from birth to death.
I suppose that I never much thought about how much I would love my Heathcliff, or what he would do when I was gone. Because really, my fantasies, as I write this, were really more of a childish—and selfish—hope for immortality.
My Heathcliff would love me absolutely until the day I died, and when that day came, he would live on, forever my vessel, forever holding me within him. Or, as Emily Brönte’s Catherine says in the novel, much more eloquently:
“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 to a mighty stranger.”
Until right now, I never thought of myself as being very macabre as a child, and I’m pleased to know that all of this time, I’ve been wrong about myself. I was a little weirdo, wasn’t I? Obsessed with death and psychopaths. Because when you look at the character of Heathcliff as an adult, he is one sick motherfucker. Today, if Heathcliff was sitting outside of my window watching me with binoculars while I put on my nightgown, and I found out about it, I would probably call the police. Ok, fine, I’d also be secretly pleased.
Because Heathcliff didn’t start out as such a lunatic. He turned out that way because he emerged in Wuthering Heights a beat down little boy, who needed to be loved; he found that love in Catherine, and Catherine, in turn, rejected him, knowing that he would still be forever hers.
Theirs was the simple sort of childhood melding; in adulthood, it became complicated by more pressing concerns. Money, status, and stability. Catherine chose the material world over Heathcliff. In doing so, she became a monster. Heathcliff, her reflection, became a monster in return.
That’s a neat fucking Marxist reading of the book, isn’t it? I’m gonna put it in a nice frame, and hang it on my wall.
I thought the movie, Wuthering Heights (2011), currently playing at Film Forum, was almost as neat, plus a lot of unnecessary acting flourishes—a little NYU student filmy in execution, shall we say. It tells the first part of the novel—before shit gets boring with the advent of Catherine’s daughter, Cathy, upon her deathbed—faithfully to the original story, and tries to add inner psychological dimension with long, irritating passages of Heathcliff beating his head bloody on a dirty wall.
Heathcliff, in the novel, is dark-skinned. In the movie, he is a young, strapping black boy. Catherine is vaguely Scottish, and very freckly white. They meet when Heathcliff is brought by Catherine’s father, Mr. Earnshaw, a good Christian, who commands his family to accept him. They all live together at Wuthering Heights, a squalid little farmhouse set high up on a moor.
The film, I think, does a good job of depicting the filth and horror of life in the early 19th century, even if you were noble born. The mud that accrued in the courtyards. The way that animals lived in close quarters. The bugs, the shit, the diseases. The filth that you could not, even if you were to float 2 inches above the ground, avoid.
The corporeality of it all.
The Brönte family, apparently, lived in a parsonage right below a cemetery. The filth from the decaying bodies flowed into their water. Because of it, they were frequently sick; Emily, perhaps, died of disease as a result.
Even on the moors, which in the film are devastating beautiful—sweeping views, high winds, ochres and burnt siennas, craggy cliffs, ribbons of silver—life is sordid. Catherine and Heathcliff, both on the verge of puberty, spend many a dramatic afternoon playing together on the bogs.
Rather than emerging ruddy cheeked and wind-swept, they return covered in dirt, their clothing so filthy that it needs to be burned. Upon these moors, however, they begin to find each other. Tripping in a puddle, one afternoon, Heathcliff climbs on top of Catherine. He holds down her arms. She looks at him helplessly; her gaze clears. It becomes defiant, assured.
Her performance, set alongside all of the curdling bullshit that sits on top of the meat of the plot—lots of focussed, then unfocussed shots of trembling buds, lots of handheld camera moments—carries the movie. It is believable that one such as Heathcliff—or anyone, really—would be attracted to her wildness. She is today’s defiant and confident young woman. She is contained fury. She is passionate love being birthed.
Watching her, I thought a lot about Emily Brönte. What sort of wackadoo wrote such a character? Such a “high-spirited” young lady, to use a Victorian nonsense term. Such a modern girl, really, one that I could relate to. I’ve read that Brönte was a hermit, and perhaps had Asberger’s. I’ve read that she never married. Perhaps, in her isolation, it was possible for her to imagine that such passion as that which she wrote between Catherine and Heathcliff was sustainable.
That a girl such as Catherine could marry Edgar Linton, the delightfully vanilla fop who is Heathcliff’s polar opposite—and move to his gorgeous mansion on Thrushcross Grange, where her life was easy, and clean—but still yearn to return to Heathcliff. Even as he reveals himself to be boorish and violent. Even as he beats his young wife.
An adult, ideally, would look at both options—the beastly Heathcliff, and the boring Edgar—and say to herself, “I can do better.” An adult might find a partner who has a both polarities, and even more. An adult might settle down, once, many times, and find happiness. An adult might reject the notion of soul mates, and say to her friends, “There are millions of men in the world for you.”
There’s something of Catherine in me, still, however, something of Emily Brönte, something childish, even, that wishes to believe in Heathcliff.
Not in the movie version—that Heathcliff bangs his head against the wall, and even worse, fucks the dead corpse of Catherine, an unnecessary flourish. In the movie, he digs up Catherine from her grave, unveils her corpse, and then walks out, a madman, onto the moor.
In the book, he is less of a psychopath. He merely lives on, for many years after, raising Catherine’s child and his own, maintaining Wuthering Heights. Furious. Yearning. When he dies, he has his coffin buried in a grave site between Catherine and Edgar, his final resting place at her side.
Is it so much to ask to be kept so safely, so passionately? Can you have one great love in your life, all other romances living in its shadow, measuring out passing time? Or, as you get older, does love become diluted, spread among many lifetimes, many lovers, until the concept of one soul mate becomes merely an echo of childhood? There’s a deep, sad part of me that hopes for the former.