Many of you know I read along with my friend Kim. She has just reviewed Wuthering Heights at her blog.
It’s now expected that, every time I read a very well known book such as this, I find it somehow very different to that which I had concocted in my mind the book would be like.
Italo Calvino, in his Why Read the Classics?, expresses it best:
8) A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives a lot of pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity. From all this we may derive a definition of this type:
9) The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.
Naturally, this only happens when a classic really works as such—that is, when it establishes a personal rapport with the reader. If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.
And I would love to combine that thought which what I read at the CIRCE magazine for 2016, written by Greg Wilbur, commenting on Flannery O’Connor.
“People have a habit of saying, ‘What is the theme of your story?’ and they expect you to give them a statement: ‘The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machines on the middle class’ or something other such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel like it is no longer necessary to read the story.” Her point is that how a story is told is integral to the entirety of the art. Story cannot be reduced simply to theme or narrative.
And I decided to read Wuthering Heights, without much conviction, but excited nonetheless. Excited because I love reading with Kim, and somehow, I thought I’d be able to articulate why I never thought Wuthering Heights was my type of classic. Hopefully, I love being wrong with books as much as I love being right, so it’s a win win situation with me.
At the time I was reading WH, I read the short and revealing Meditations on Don Quijote, and Ortega’s distinction between Mediterranean and German view of life cut through the whole experience. WH is not in the British Victorian tradition. It’s called ‘Gothic’, and to me, Gothic book means what my friend Kim wrote: unbridled passions and obsessions consume several of the characters in this book as you witness what excessive wealth and leisure allow people to pursue.
In Why Homer Matters, Adam Nicolson qualifies the Greeks as cutting, wild, raw, while the Trojans mean the opposite, weaving, civilized, proper. Bronte would be writing from the Greek tradition, which Ortega calls that Mediterranean spirit of those people unrestrained, who first and foremost register and live life from the senses, through the senses, unfiltered by the ways of reason.
The undercurrent theme in WH could be nature versus nurture. Through the novels, both Jane Eyre and WH explore what true education is. It is also a novel where the tension between the individual, his persona and personality, and the community and society, can be felt. When I read Emma, I saw how Jane Austen weaved a story around the isolation of a young girl and how she tries to escape all the constrains of her situation, and how she tries to expand the oppressive horizons of her life and condition. In WH, the isolation is fought in the realm of psychology and physical control of those who can excise it. All the characters have huge limitations, but all of them have ways to influence each other. Not only the masters, but the servants, possess an inordinate influence in the life of their superiors. Don’t forget that this tale is told by Ellen, the main servant in the middle of all of them. The heights are another character: the storms, the landscape, seem to mimic and imprint their power and attributes over the characters’ feelings, health, and to their comings and goings.
If those are the themes, remember that you, reader, still have to read to see how the story is told.
Hope triumphs. This is why I like the book. It is not a saccharine end, it is just an end full of hope, as it should be, because this was true in Bronte’s times, and it is true today: no matter what our circumstances are, who our parents are, how much evil or injustice we have suffered, we can raise up, we don’t have to perpetuate all the bad, we can turn the tables, if only we choose what’s right, if only we focus on our attitude.