Friday, August 10, 2012
Does the ending of Wuthering Heights make sense?
So Emily Bronte softens up at the end of "Wuthering Heights" and gives us a sentimental, happy ending - much more in line with conventional, Romantic English fiction of her era, in which the ultimate, final, highest goal is assimilation into the society rather than, as in America, rebellion and striking out for the territories of floating across the ocean clinging to a coffin. Improbable as it may seem, Catherine in the last chapter becomes sweet and solicitous and builds a kinship, then a friendship, then a romance with her one-time antagonist Hareton; and even Heathcliff seems serene, visionary, and beatific as he ponders his end and - at last - is quietly buried beside Catherine, where, as he'd said earlier, he'd opened the side of her (and ultimately his) casket so that their bodies could entwine in death (poor Linton on the other side of her excluded for all eternity - the only character in the novel that, weak though he may have been, never deliberately hurt anyone). Do we buy this ending? Not on the surface - the characters are not true to who they were and how they behaved throughout the course of this harrowing novel, but the strangeness of the ending is very apt: the fixation on death and on the decay of the corpse, and, even more striking: that last lonely character, poor Lockwood, the narrator and the window through which we have seen the whole story of Wuthering Heights. Lockwood is like one of the characters in almost all Shakespeare comedies, at the center of the action throughout but alone and somehow sorrowful at the end: Antonio, et al. He returns to the extremely isolated WH and makes a difficult trek out to see Cathy, hoping to win her affection, but he is too late - he missed his chance, he didn't act when he could have helped her, and maybe won her - he seems very old, Prufrockian, at the end. Strange what an isolated world Bronte has created here: she famously lived with her creative siblings pretty far from the center of action in England, but obviously had ambitions of her own, which pushed her and her sisters to try really hard to publish their works. The characters she's created, however, live as if apart from everything and everyone else: it's obvious, in that sense, why Cathy would fall for Hareton: there's no one else, in their world the choice among mates is limited to two or three possibilities, and most of them are your cousins, or even your half-brothers. The Bronte world may have been sufficient because of the great creative talents of the sibs, but WH itself is a strangely encapsulated minuscule society - a horrible place to live, and difficult to escape. That's perhaps why we know so little about Hethcliff's life in his three-year absence or about Earnshaw's fateful visit to Liverpool: there is no world, within this novel, beyond the confines of this tiny settlement: the moors, Thrushcross Grange, the village of Gimmerton (which we never really see) and Wuthering Heights itself.