Emily Brontë’s sole novel, a gothic romance set in late 18th century England, gave me the same terrible feeling I had watching the Sam Peckinpah movie Straw Dogs (1969) for the first time: dread that is increasingly supplanted by irritation as the plot careens toward what seems inevitable from the very beginning. In both tales, we witness a presumably decent man feebly cling to his betrothed as a starved wolf prowls in tighter and tighter circles around her, licking its lips with ever greater fervor. Instead of slaying the stalker outright, our man in each story keeps his honor in tact while losing the object of his affection. Hence the irritation. But this is all very intentional in both Straw Dogs and Wuthering Heights.
Brontë is a writer on par with the excellent cast of romantics that defined her era. For all the “realism” that defines modern literature (in terms of style), I find that the romantics had the better grasp on reality (in terms of nature).
Brontë’s wolf, Heathcliff, is an orphaned gypsy boy who is taken in by Mr. Earnshaw, the magnanimous patriarch of an old aristocratic family that resides in the manor at Wuthering Heights. Naturally, not everyone in the family takes a liking to the intruder – and this introduction of a foreign virus into the family is the domino that launches the rest of the whirlwind plot of tragedy, vengeance, and destruction.
Where the modern author would inevitably succumb to the temptation to believe that Heathcliff was an innocent who was wronged by his keepers for no good reason and was shaped into a wolf by their inhospitable deeds, Brontë makes no such clear-cut assertions; Heathcliff is indeed treated unfairly, but rarely without warrant. He is filthy, mischievous, and more than occasionally cruel, even as a boy. His cruelty is consecrated by the hatred he engenders among the Earnshaws, and although his life of vengeance is certainly driven by the “wicked wind” that twisted him, it is not without some very dark working material that was part of his character from the start.
Heathcliff’s only humanizing characteristic is his undying love for his foster sister, Catherine. This love is what drives his vengeful narrative, but in Brontë’s telling, it is hard to ascertain whether it is truly love that Heathcliff feels toward Catherine. Rather, Catherine to him seems more like a valuable possession, like a neat coin or pocket watch, that was stripped from his grasp, and the ignominy of the loss is what propels his villainy, and stokes her continued attraction to him.
After concluding the book, I immediately perused the film adaptations of the novel. The 1939 version with Merle Oberon seems to have garnered the best reviews. But beyond that, the remaining adaptations seem to have slipped into the modernist trap that demands villains of dark complexions be depicted as victims of circumstance, and never as victims of character. The 2009 PBS version, which I begrudgingly skimmed on YouTube, casts Tom Hardy (of Bane fame in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)) as Heathcliff and, in just the first 40 minutes, shows him as a loving and resilient man who simply broke into madness under the degrading treatment of his foster family. The artsy 2011 “minimalist re-imagining” casts Heathcliff as a black man, and again “softens” his character, likely warping the prolific Heathcliff merely into a gentle victim of wealthy white people (I have not yet found the patience to watch it.)
The laziness, the predictability, the suggestibility of modern writers is what keeps me from reading their boring a derivative works. Nothing’s shocking, nothing is subversive. If The New York Times is calling you an iconoclast, you can be rest assured you are anything but. It might be that the romantics were also not subversive in their era – but today, they could not even be published. Their view of humanity is not just innocently antiquated, but viewed today as hopelessly ignorant and therefore dangerous. Even a liberal like Victor Hugo, who was exiled by Napoleon III for 20 years for his divergent beliefs, was probably too respectful and deferential to religious tradition to be accepted today.
Do we wonder why modern classics are so hard to come by without some publishing houses and their lackey critics telling me what’s supposed to be good?