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Violent Love: a close reading of Bronte's Wuthering Heights

Updated on May 4, 2016

Violent Love:

The compassion behind the physical abuse in Wuthering Heights

By all accounts it would seem as if the interaction between Heathcliff and Catherine in the passionate scene of their final meeting in Wuthering Heights would seem one of a careless and unthoughtful nature, due to the lack of regard they seem to have for the other’s physical person, “Catherine made a spring, and he caught her and locked her in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive” (162). This does not seem like the way Heathcliff would handle the dying Catherine if he truly loved her, but notice the word “embrace” (160). Indeed it goes both ways as we also see Catherine causing physical harm to Heathcliff, “he attempted to rise, but she seized his hair, and kept him down” and then, “she retained in her closed fingers, a portion of the locks she had been grasping” (160). If we stray away from the literality and delve deeper into the themes that Emily Bronte has presented us with, we will see that this scene represents a true and compassionate remorse, and that these physical abuses are actually acts of love sparked by guilt.

Bronte has laced her novel with a theme that appears time and time again, the idea that Catherine and Heathcliff are one in the same. The first time we are meet with this idea is during Catherine’s emphatic declaration to Nelly that she loves Heathcliff, saying, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff” (82). And then approaching the powerful scene mentioned above, Bronte makes it a point to reiterate that statement, and indeed we see Heathcliff declaring the same thing, “Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you - oh God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?” (163), his “soul” being Catherine.

The idea is that, since Catherine and Heathcliff have both declared themselves to be interchangeable, they are not beating each other, they are instead beating themselves. When Catherine pulls out Heathcliff’s hair in a very brutal way which is made apparent by Heathcliffs reaction, “Wrenching his head free and grinding his teeth” (160), she is in fact vicariously pulling out her own hair due to guilt for not marrying Heathcliff and abandoning him and feels as if she must be punished; so the abuse comes from a place of concern for the abused. “Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy?” (162) - which would be both of their hearts. “I have not one word of comfort - you deserve this. You have killed yourself” (162) - i.e. she has killed Heathcliff symbolically, since after her rejection he became bitter and could not enjoy life even the little that he had before.

Heathcliff also has motives to feel guilt on his behalf, since he in turn abandoned Catherine by leaving Wuthering Heights as an adolescent, “I love my murderer - but yours! How can I?” (163). So the carelessness with which he touches her arm, “so inadequate was his stock of gentleness to the requirements of her condition, that on his letting go, I saw four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin”(161), is in fact carelessness for himself, since he is Cathy and Cathy is him.

While they are living they may act out their remorse in this way, but upon Cathy’s death, Heathcliff’s soul seems to leave her as Nelly remarks, “One might doubt in seasons of cold reflection, but not then, in the presence of her corpse. It asserted its own tranquility, which seemed a pledge of equal quiet to its former inhabitants” (167); notice the plural on “inhabitants,” and notice the term “former.” It is then that Heathcliff must take out his grief on his actual body, “He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and lifting up his eyes, howled” (169).

Which is the better Bronte sisters novel?

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© 2015 Marié Patricia Nicolina Murray


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