By Letitia Coyne
Posted October 11, 2012
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Plainly it is a book that divides readers. For my part, I love it. It’s not a five star read, maybe a four and a half, but I don’t mind the unlikeable characters. Happy endings are not the norm as far as I have seen in real life; people are rarely wholly ‘good’ and fewer actually develop the redeeming characteristics we like to see in our fiction.
Heathcliff and Cathy are not nice people. They are sociopaths at best, psychopaths at worse. Heathcliff feels no human bonds and has no empathy for any other person. He is driven by revenge, and we can only use our imagination to provide the awful details of his methods as he rose to power in the wild places of the world.
Cathy is no better. But none of the characters of Wuthering Heights, except perhaps for Nelly Dean, are.
I think that is one of the reasons I do like it so much.
No one in this story is virtuous and no one learns a great life lesson. That is real life. Wuthering Heights is a train wreck, and that is why many other readers hate it.
We like to see, as a general rule, character growth and development in the fiction we read, not the spiral descent into suffering that is the reality we live and prefer to ignore. Not many of us as individuals, or the multitudes around us, reach an enlightened state where love for all creatures great and small helps us overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. People, ordinary people who are not heroes and heroines of fiction, tend to make their mistakes and keep making those same mistakes throughout their lives without ever realizing their own complicity in their suffering.
Yet in fiction we like to find a world where the light is bright at the end of the tunnel, and characters find their way to happiness.
The idea of imperfect and driven heroes moving toward an inevitably bad ending is common in yesterday’s fiction. All through the classics: Moby Dick and Anna Karenina, half the plays of Shakespeare, Russian and German literature as a whole.
It probably still exists in the fiction of today, but titles escape me for the moment. What we do see all too often when truly flawed characters appear in modern fiction, is a miraculous healing of dangerous traits. Characters like Heathcliff and Hamlet do not get better. They do not forsake their misogyny. And yet, the half-understood badass hero of modern fiction can be turned from drinking, gambling, violence, misogyny, masochism, narcissism, etc by the love of a good woman. That I do not like. I can read and enjoy unlikable characters, but unlikeable characters that turn into paragons of virtue to suit a plotline are loathsome.
Wuthering Heights is a good point of discussion on this subject because most people have read it, by choice or otherwise. And whether readers enjoy it or not, whether they like Miss Bronte’s writing, or her characters, or her bleak world, or even Joseph’s laboriously accented English, or not, at least, AT LEAST she understood her characters and she allowed them to live their lives on the page as they should.
That’s what I think, anyway.
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