From No-Man's-Land to Validation

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et, now very close to the end of their teenage years, neither Catherine nor Heathcliff is actually able to forge a separate identity. Catherine has not in fact forgotten her first love, and has been calm largely because of her new husband's solicitude and forbearance; while Heathcliff, who apparently ignored the high probability that she would indeed marry Edgar, has striven only to fit himself for her. Thus, when they meet again, they draw an "undisguised delight" from each other's eyes and are too "absorbed in their mutual joy" to care or even be conscious of Edgar (135). There is a clear danger, now, that their childhood symbiosis will continue to be the governing factor in their lives, in that the hopeless drive to reestablish it in the present circumstances will stunt any capacity they might still have for their growth as separate individuals.

At this point, Heathcliff still has no definite plan of revenge: he explains to Catherine, to whom he has no reason to lie, that he had called at the Heights simply to enquire about her, and that he now hopes to take up residence as a paying guest there to be near her. Catherine's own feelings are positive, and not only as regards Heathcliff himself: she places Linton's hand in his in the touching belief that the two might be friends.

But the situation is impossible. As each perceives it to be so (and the realization dawns very quickly), frustration sets in, turning predictably outwards against others in Heathcliff's case, and inwards against her own self in Catherine's. Catherine herself realizes that Heathcliff acts as he now does because the sole satisfaction he can find is in "inflicting misery" (151): taking advantage of Hindley's (and then Isabella's) own weaknesses gives him some outlet for the frustration of his passional life, as indeed does his fierceness towards Catherine. Finding her own situation — as the wife of a man she cannot love, and the lover of a man she can no longer be one with — quite intolerable too, Catherine suffers an episode of nervous agitation, and on her recovery stops eating. "The spirit which served her was growing intractable: she could neither lay nor control it" (151-52). The crises of their shared earlier adolescence, which in better circumstances might have been overcome, here give way to symptoms of neurosis and psychosis which rob them of inner calm and vitiate all their relations with external reality. Ordinary people, suggests T.S. Eliot in "Hamlet and Other Problems," batten down the intense feelings which are apt to be experienced in youth. Hamlet cannot; neither can Catherine and Heathcliff. Although Catherine is already pregnant with Linton's baby, and Heathcliff is now enough of a man in appearance for Nelly to pause in her account here, and say in an aside, "Heathcliff — Mr Heathcliff, I should say in future" (139), neither of them ever attains the relative equilibrium of adulthood.

They pass instead into a no-man's-land of self-inflicted physical pains and (in Heathcliff's case) sadistic attacks on others as well. Two details serve to illustrate the former: the blood on Catherine's lips after Edgar has managed to eject Heathcliff from the Grange, and she has been "grinding her teeth, so that you might fancy she would crash them to splinters" (156); and the "several splashes of blood" around the ash tree after Catherine's death, bearing witness to the force with which the grieving Heathcliff has dashed his head against it (204). These are danger signals indeed: Freud noted at the beginning of this century (1901) that "in the severer cases of psychoneurosis instances of self-injury are occasionally found as symptoms and ... in such cases suicide can never be ruled out as a possible outcome of the psychic conflict" (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 233). As for Heathcliff's violence to others, perhaps the worst instance is when he almost kicks, tramples and batters to death the already wounded and unconscious Hindley in Chapter 17 — though perhaps the attempt to hang Isabella's pet springer spaniel would have upset Victorian sensibilities even more. Such behaviour is indeed grotesque; but it is Gothic only insofar as the Gothic mode is itself an exploration and expression of psychological aberrations which result from tracable causes within the characters.

William Holman Hunt's illustration for "At Night," a story in Once a Week (1860)

After Catherine's self-sought death ("I'm tired, tired of being enclosed here" [196]), Heathcliff is left with nothing but his own desperate unfulfilled need and the thoughts of revenge which have always been consequent to it — even after the most appropriate object of the latter (Hindley) has gone. His punishment of the young people of the next generation — "I know how to chastise children, you see" he tells Nelly bitterly (303) — hints strongly at the cycle of domestic abuse which is now familiar to social workers. In particular, as Heathcliff was mistreated by Hindley once, so now he deliberately mistreats Hareton, making the connection crystal clear himself: "we'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!" (222). It is only at the very end of Heathcliff's life that feelings of need override those of revenge again, in a reversal of the original process of cause and effect. "[W]hat does not recall her?" he says piteously to Nelly "(353), longing for the final reunion with Catherine: "I have a single wish, and my whole being and faculties are yearning to attain it." Now at last he realizes that it has been useless to try to deal with his anguish by turning destructively on others, and that his aim can be accomplished only by turning on himself instead: "I am swallowed in anticipation of its[his wish's] fulfilment," he cries, as impatient to escape this world as Catherine once was (354). His death, after rejecting Nelly's meals just as Catherine had done so long ago, is of course a form of suicide. On one occasion, he sweeps away his untouched breakfast, staring with rapt attention at something which seems to be moving just in front of him. The implication is that Catherine appears, and is drawing him after her.

Erikson's discussion of a real person — the young Hitler — is quite enlightening here. It reveals how a severe disappointment in late adolescence may indeed profoundly colour a whole life, with the most dreadful repercussions for those unfortunate enough to fall within that embittered person's sphere of influence. In Hitler's case, it was the disappointment of his deeply-cherished ambition to be a city planner which seems to have been the key factor: "it was when he finally sent his plans for a new opera house in Linz to a prize committee which paid no attention to them that he really broke with society and disappeared, to reappear only as an avenger"(192). However, frustration in love has been cited by social psychologists as "one of the major sources of distress, strain, and perhaps psychiatric disorder in adolescence" (Larson and Asmussen 38). In other words, Heathcliff's case is more typical, more understandable. Erikson points out not only the dire results of such a youthful crisis, but also demonstrates convincingly through his chosen example that the original disappointment and the desire to compensate for it in a more positive way are never forgotten. In his very last days, he explains, Hitler was not only recognizing the hopelessness of his current situation, but also

putting the last touches on the opera house ... which he had almost come to build. To such an eerie extent does a late-adolescent commitment persist even in a person of excessive destructive needs. [192]

As for Heathcliff, his commitment to Catherine has never faltered, and it eventually overtakes all other considerations, even the instinct to live: he himself claims that he hardly remembers to breathe (354), and Nelly bears witness to it (360). While the nature of their disappointments and commitments are so entirely different, and the scale of the damage inflicted bears no comparison at all, the parallels between this century's most hated leader and the last's most notorious literary hero/villain, are clear enough.

Perhaps it is precisely because Heathcliff attains such a malignancy that it is tempting to develop elemental interpretations of Wuthering Heights. Described with a kind of fascinated revulsion by Isabella as having "sharp cannibal teeth" (212) and "basilisk eyes" (215), Heathcliff does come to stand for all that challenges an optimistic reading of human nature. Moreover, there is the paradox that at the end, the shepherd lad's vision of his ghost strolling on the moors with that of his beloved Catherine is a strangely satisfying one. One might indeed wish to explain this in terms of the gratification of the amoral id, whether Brontë's, Heathcliff's, Catherine's or the reader's. However, Heathcliff is not demonic in and of himself, but as a result of the pressures to which his particular personality has been subjected at critical periods of his life; and the reader who has felt the pathos involved in that process will surely respond positively to the suggestion of a final reunion. Thus, before losing touch with the detailed texture of human experience in Emily Brontë's novel, and expanding into the wider domain of the metaphysical — or before loosing the "psychic energy" from the social, moral and aesthetic form in which the author herself has so painstakingly contained it (see Hoffman 322-23)--the reader might usefully consider the psychological insights offered by this extraordinarily perceptive author.

Finally, as suggested earlier in this essay, the picture of the ghostly Catherine and Heathcliff at the end of Wuthering Heights may also satisfy the reader because it is an adolescent fantasy come true. Writing of that other great work about growing up, Barbara Everett has found in the profusion of references to Hamlet by Shakespeare's contemporaries "the response of human beings to a literary work that went deeper ... than any aesthetic work of their experience: deep in a way that was slightly out of their control" (6). The same might be said of this novel, which concludes by validating rather than condemning the dangerous intensity of youthful feeling, giving it the kind of precedence over the rational and adult world which many readers might themselves like to grant it (if they dared). Nothing could better explain the rise in popularity of the novel which so baffled its early reviewers, for, as Phillipe Ariès has pointed out, "our society has passed from a period which was ignorant of adolescence to a period in which adolescence is the favourite age" (28).

Created 8 December 2017