1. Towards an Endogamous Union

Decorated initial T

he most puzzling aspect Catherine and Heathcliff's behaviour in Wuthering Heights is the tenacious desire to achieve an endogamous union beyond the bounds of what is socially acceptable and desirable, or even humanly possible.

This can be traced through the whole length of the narrative; but the night of Christmas 1777 is a milestone. This is the scene, and it is a dramatic one: out on the moors one cold Christmas night, on the rooftop of a stout stone house, a child of twelve scrambles between two garret skylights. It is no mere prank, but a venture which illustrates the passionate determination of its perpetrator. The child is the living girl Catherine Earnshaw, whose ghost Mr Lockwood repelled from his window after his first nightmare, earlier in the narrative — but later in her own story. For Catherine's determination is not dulled by time; on the contrary, it grows, and it eventually bears fruit. The adolescent escapade foreshadows another successful entry recounted at the very end of the novel, when her foster-brother Heathcliff's soul is "harried off," as Joseph puts it (365), through the open lattice by his deathbed, leaving a bloodless postmortem graze on the corpse's hand. Every other challenge to our understanding — Catherine and Heathcliff's behaviour towards others included — follows on from this single-minded desire for their reunion.

The desire is widely accepted now as at least semi-incestuous (to those who see Heathcliff as not only her sibling but the Oedipal father as well, it is "doubly incestuous" [Kavanagh 55]). However, it is both more and less than incestuous. It is less because, although the two have been raised together, identify strongly with each other, and are prevented from continuing their relationship by social pressures, they are not blood relatives. This is not a hair-splitting distinction. Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are cousins who are brought up together in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and there Mrs Norris takes it for granted that an unsuitable romantic relationship will not develop; yet when such a relationship does blossom, it is the source of the novel's happy ending. The same possibility is open to Catherine and Heathcliff. When the time comes, Catherine rejects it only on social grounds ("it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now" [121]). On the other hand, their feelings for each other are not based on a simple sexual predeliction, wayward or otherwise. Sex is never even an issue. It is symptomatic of the obtuseness of much modern criticism that J. Hillis Miller complains that "[t]he reader never sees directly ... the moment in childhood when Cathy and Heathcliff slept in the same bed and were joined in a union which was prior to sexual differentiation." Miller goes on to affirm dramatically that "[w]hat is lost ... is the 'origin' which would explain everything" (184). In the first place, such a scene as he imagines is clearly implied: when Nelly looks in on the two children in the early hours of the morning after Mr Earnshaw's death, she is surprised not because the pair are together in what is laconically termed "the children's room," but because they are still awake: "I saw they had never laid down, though it was past midnight" (84). That is likely to be enough for most readers. And in the second place (and more importantly), it is not particularly significant; it is certainly not the point on which the credibility or otherwise of their story depends. The "'origin' which would explain everything" is an emotional and spiritual bonding, such that Catherine says as an adolescent, "whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same" (121); and Heathcliff asserts passionately after her death, "I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!" (204).

Heathcliff's anguish after Cathy's death.

The problem for sceptical readers like Hillis Miller seems to lie in the very intensity of the childhood bond. Yet in one of his late pieces, the now notorious paper on "Female Sexuality" completed in 1931, Freud reiterates his long-held belief in just the kind of "boundless" childhood need to love and be loved that Emily Brontë writes about. Freud describes it in his paper as a love which "demands exclusive possession," and "is not content with less than all" (378). It is, he says, a kind of bottomless hunger, impossible to satisfy and therefore doomed to frustration this side of the grave; and it provokes not only the child's defiant strategies against the world which is somehow other than it should be, but also a profound rage against it. Although Freud's attempts to explore the reasons for this and its consequences in girls (particularly, his theory of penis-envy) were already under attack when he published the essay, and have since been widely discredited, the premise itself was neither new nor controversial. Rather, it was a widely held belief. Tolstoy, for example, characterized childhood love in Childhood, Boy, Youth (1899) as a boundless thirst (52). In fact, in this discussion of girls' difficult maturation (so different in tone from the comfortable assumptions of the Victorians), Freud confidently lays even more stress than usual on the intense quality of childhood feelings. Perhaps this is because he has now been struck with special force by the realization that girls suffer as much as, and (he notes) for as long as, boys.

Moreover, the principal child characters of Wuthering Heights have an especially hard time of it. They are both dealt severe double blows at an early age, in the loss and denial of parental love. Here it should be noted that, although their experiences form a basis for fulfilment which is so disturbingly otherworldy, there is nothing at all "emblematic" about these child characters (pace Buchen 70). On the contrary, they are both very firmly rooted in their particular, earthly pasts. Heathcliff's sufferings begin first. Mr Earnshaw finds the boy "starving and houseless" on the Liverpool streets; another significant aspect of his situation is that "not a soul knew to whom [the child] belonged." In other words, Heathcliff has already lost both his parents when he first appears. The actual cause of that loss, whether by death or abandonment, is not important (see Bowlby 296). What is significant is that he is unable even to give any account of it himself, because language difference has rendered him "as good as dumb" (78). The Victorians knew well what the loss of parents could mean, but it was not until this century that the burgeoning science of psychology drew attention to the consequences of a child's being unable to express his or her feelings about it: "an individual treated thus [that is, not given a chance to express grief at such a loss] is driven in on himself to bear his sorrows alone" (Bowlby 228). Thus, Heathcliff's state when Mr Earnshaw picks him up on the streets of Liverpool is pitiable in the extreme. Indeed, Earnshaw does take pity on him; but Heathcliff is only rescued physically. He cannot shed his own psychic burden — something that relates him closely to Jane Eyre, the glum and inhibited orphan in the Reed household (see Bernstein 118-25). He appears "sullen" and never "shows any sign of gratitude" (79). Nelly's verdict is that he is "simply insensible" (80), but he might be more accurately diagnosed these days as suffering from a psychological disturbance. Children who have experienced such upheavals are now known to exhibit "wariness of relations with adults" and "difficulties with trust" afterwards (Tzeng, Jackson and Karlson 179).

From then on, moreover, Earnshaw becomes the boy's only protector amongst otherwise hostile adults. Of the two females who might have united with Earnshaw in this enterprize, and perhaps drawn Heathcliff out of himself, the older one, Mrs Earnshaw, looks at the dirty little street arab with anger and frank repugnance. As for the nursemaid's daughter, Nelly, she treats him like a stray dog at first: "I put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow" (78), then takes to pinching him. Having nursed him through a dangerous attack of measles, she coolly admits that she did so only under compulsion, and dismisses his patience and obedience on his sickbed as further evidence of "hardness" (79). In the background looms another figure: the elderly servant, Joseph. He is far from being the "comic choric" figure of one critic's description (Craik 168). On the contrary, he is "the wearisomest, self-righteous pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself, and fling the curses on his neighbours" (83), and he casts a deep Evangelical gloom over the whole household. It is scarcely surprising, then, that for all his inability to respond freely to his patron's care, Heathcliff is as wretched as Catherine herself when Earnshaw, his only source of adult affection, dies: at this second orphaning, he sets up a "heart-breaking cry" with his foster-sister (85), and there follow the sleepless hours for which even Nelly has no heart to scold the two children. In fact, Nelly is actually moved to hear them still comforting each other with talk of heaven into the early hours of the next day.

By then, of course, Mrs Earnshaw had already died. This must have been small loss to Heathcliff, but it is likely to have affected Catherine quite differently. There is little doubt that it would have been the first of her great deprivations. Mrs Earnshaw may never have been a mother to her husband's foundling, but her reaction to the "gipsy brat" need not have been indicative of her maternal character in general. In the narrative, her rejection of him only serves to foreshadow Mrs Linton's response to Heathcliff later, and there is no doubt at all that Mrs Linton is an indulgent mother to her "own bairns" (77). In Nelly's narrative, only the mere fact of Mrs Earnshaw's death is recorded; nothing is said about any of the children's reactions to it. But it is often noted that the waif at Lockwood's window appears to be the ghost of a far younger Catherine than the one who dies in childbirth, or even than the one from whom Heathcliff runs away in Chapter 9. Might it not be that when this waif describes herself as twenty years an outcast, she is thinking, first and foremost, of the loss of her mother's love (David Daiches's point, that Emily's motherly elder sister Maria had died twenty years before the chapter was written [20], seems to support this)? Apart from the original shock, such a loss would have had enormous consequences for a girl in Catherine's position (a largely male household) at the menarche. Perhaps no one has imagined such a case more sympathetically and even poetically than Hall, writing just after the end of the Victorian era:

The bark is frail, liable to be tossed by storms of feelings, at the mercy of wind and wave, and if without chart and compass and simple rules of navigation, aimless drifting in the darkness of ignorance, amidst both rocks and shoals, may make the weak or unadvised wrecks or castaways. [I: 507-8; emphasis added]

It is hard not to think of Catherine's own stormy passage through puberty, and "unadvised wreck," when reading this description.

As for Catherine's father, the man who at first is eager to bestow gifts on his children (asking them what they want when he sets out for Liverpool), and who is so kind to Heathcliff, not only favours his foster-son over his natural son, but at the same time seems to develop a blind spot for his little daughter's charms. Like a number of other Victorian heroines (George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver, for example), she is worryingly tomboyish; besides, Joseph's encouragement to Mr Earnshaw to rule his children "rigidly" seems to focus on her: "he regularly grumbled out a long string of tales against Heathcliff and Catherine; always minding to flatter Earnshaw's weakness by heaping the heaviest blame on her." That she has "the bonniest eye, and sweetest smile, and lightest foot in the parish" now seems lost on her father (83): her "fondling" attempts to make up to him are met with harsh rejection ("Nay, Cathy ... I cannot love thee") and hurtful reproofs: "Go, say thy prayers, child, and ask God's pardon. I doubt thy mother and I must rue that we ever reared thee!" At first, Nelly recalls, such treatment makes the girl cry; but later she becomes, to use one of Nelly's favourite words, "hardened" (84) to it. As in Heathcliff's case, this apparent absence of feeling might be recognised now as a self-defensive ploy, symptomatic of vulnerability rather than insensitivity. For, as Freud pointed out in dealing with the problem of anxiety in "Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety": "at a certain period of life [the child's] most important interest really is that the people he is dependent on should not withdraw their loving care of him" (305). Freud also shows in this essay how the self-protective mechanism of defensiveness can in itself lead to neurosis, describing the neurotic individual, at the end of Chapter 9, as one who cannot outgrow the traumas of childhood. It is also significant that in this long investigation, towards the end of his career, Freud has given up his insistence that such childhood trauma are necessarily sexual in origin (see Richards 232).

But Earnshaw's withdrawal of affection and death are by no means the end of Catherine's early sufferings in Wuthering Heights — or Heathcliff's, either. On the contrary, the two children soon come to know the worse neglect and ouright tyranny of Hindley, himself driven by a sense of his father's injustice to him in having taken in and given preferance to Heathcliff. The dangers of "differential parental treatment" are now well known, and they issue here as in modern child samples in "more conflicted and hostile sibling relationships" (Dunn 5) — at least, between Hindley and his sister and foster-brother. Such is her brother's treatment of them both that Catherine writes in her makeshift diary, "I wish my father were back again. Hindley is a detestable substitute"(62). Because he turns against both of them, what could be more natural than for such "unfriended creatures" to seek out each other's company all the more desperately, and to become "more reckless daily" of whatever punishments their elders might inflict on them for doing so (87)? More recent research has found that although family discord does not necessarily unite siblings (as the case of Hindley and Catherine so clearly illustrates) "close and protective sibling relationships ... can develop when children are in adverse family circumstances" (emphasis added) and that these relationships "although positively compensatory in some ways, may be too symbiotic to allow for ultimately healthy individuation" (Jenkins 125). This is more likely to occur between siblings (and to all intents and purposes, Catherine and Heathcliff are siblings at this point) who are close in age as well as neglected or abused: "The co-occurence of these conditions increases the opportunity for children to seek a variety of intense and disturbed relationships with each other." A disturbed relationship in this context includes one which is "compulsive in its clinging quality" (Bank 145), as well as possibly erotic. At this point in Wuthering Heights, it seems clear that the relationship which was established between Catherine and Heathcliff "prior to sexual differentiation" becomes not only much more intense, but also more dangerous to normal psychological development.

Once its intensity is fully accepted, and the special factors which encouraged and reinforced it are understood, the extreme actions taken by each of the two characters to accomplish their adult union (or, more accurately, reunion) become understandable too. Indeed, even when their efforts to reach each other pass beyond the bounds of earthly experience, these efforts do not greatly strain credibility. The down-to-earth and now "matronly" Nelly serves as the reader's representative here (51), when, for all her own inclination to do so, she is unable to dismiss the shepherd lad's report of seeing the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff on the moors. That this even seems a satisfactory conclusion may be because it is, in effect, an adolescent fantasy come true. A term is put to all the confusions and stresses of the earlier part of the narrative (from which Heathcliff has so patently never recovered), and the goal which could not be realized then is finally achieved:

The assumption that life could actually be made to end with the end of adolescence or at tentatively planned later "dates of expiration" is by no means entirely unwelcome, and, in fact, can become the only condition on which a tentative new beginning can be based. [Erikson 170]

It is not so strange that the "new beginning" for Brontë's troubled protagonists should actually occur after their deaths: by the end of the narrative it is clear that there is simply no other way in which it could be managed.

Created 8 December 2017