A Note on Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights


I discovered Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy last year and fell head over heels for the steampunk London she created and the characters inhabiting it, so much so that I barely cared about the anachronisms and inconsistencies in details of the story that are supposed to be realistic–something that usually strikes me like nails on the proverbial chalkboard.

One detail of the story really did bother me, though, and it isn’t something Clare alone is guilty of. When the heroine, Tessa, is falling for the boy of her decidedly literary dreams, she envisions him more than once as Heathcliff, from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

When and how did Heathcliff get turned into a figure of romance and desire?

Wuthering Heights is a phenomenal novel, one of my personal favourites and one of the greats of English literature. If you haven’t read it, do, it’s amazing. The thing is, it’s not a romantic, bittersweet love story. It’s a story about a boy who is tormented by his adopted family who grows up into a violent, bitter sociopath. Heathcliff is not a nice man, and he is not written that way. I am endlessly confused as to where this idea that he belongs among the ranks of Mr. Darcy and Pip from Great Expectations came from; why it persists is less of a mystery, but it’s still frustrating.

It must have happened before the 1970s, for Heath Ledger’s parents to name him and his sister after Heathcliff and Cathy. Was the soppy 1939 film version responsible? Are people reading the Cliffs Notes version and skipping the actual book? I would love to start a conversation about this, because it isn’t the sort of thing one can find an answer to in any volume of criticism on Emily Bronte, and unless I know where to read for the answers I want I’ll be trailing around in the dark for who knows how long. If you have any insights, please please please feel free to leave a comment.

(P.S. if you’re looking for a more faithful adaptation of the story, the 1992 version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche and the 2011 version by Andrea Arnold are both excellent, although Arnold’s only covers part of the story. I love Tom Hardy and all, but the 2009 version was a disappointment–particularly because he would have made a brilliant Heathcliff if the script had been better. )

One thought on “A Note on Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights”

  1. You know, it’s been so long since I read Wuthering Heights that I don’t feel qualified to comment on it…but I remember finding EVERYONE abhorrent in that book (which is why I never read it again; why endure a Heathcliff when you can have a Rochester?). But the “tortured soul” who just needs a woman to fix him certainly became a staple of mid-twentieth century lore–not that there aren’t plenty of instances of it before that time period, but I feel like that’s when it became A Thing (movies help, of course). I wonder if it was partly a post-WWII response. I can see the trauma of war (a real thing needing compassion and “fixing”) as well as a cultural push to put women back in the home, nurturing, instead of working as had started to happen during the war. Anyway I’m just musing. You’re much more the literary critic than I am! It does seem that no matter what, movie adaptations must have driven the romanticization* as they discovered that putting the real Heathcliff on screen would be rather a turnoff for the audience.

    *Apparently Google does not know this word, and now I have just spent ten minutes spelling it in different ways and have gone cross-eyed and don’t trust anything anymore.

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