The Books That Shape Us: Wuthering Heights

From time to time, Bas Bleu’s editors will share with you some of the books that have had a profound impact on our lives. They won’t necessarily be grand literary classics or hard-hitting political tomes. They will be books that have stayed with us over the years and shaped who we are. If you’d like to share a significant title from your own life, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

My high school’s English department nurtured a deep love for the classics—Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare—with an occasional foray into more modern fare—Richard Wright, John Fowles, Virginia Woolf. An avid reader since childhood, I dove readily into most of my school reading assignments, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. My friend Beth promptly became obsessed with the stalwart governess and her mercurial boss/suitor, but while I delighted in Jane’s pluck and her taste for the wilder corners of the English countryside (also, a mad wife trapped in the attic? EPIC!), I wasn’t haunted by it the way Beth was.

But then I met Heathcliff. And Cathy. And Nelly and Hareton and that awful drip Linton. And thus I was thrust onto the windswept moors of Yorkshire, where Emily Brontë’s Gothic masterpiece Wuthering Heights proceeded to blow me away.

Don’t get me wrong: Even as a teenager I knew that Heathcliff and Cathy were mostly awful people. Sure, they’re passionately in love, but they’re selfish and destructive, with little regard for how their actions affect everyone around them. Heathcliff is the poster child for toxic boyfriends: jealous, vengeful, manipulative, and probably physically abusive. Cathy isn’t much better: She tries to change her true nature (unlike Jane Eyre!), and when she fails everyone around her suffers. If she’d survived and gotten back together with Heathcliff, they probably would have torn each other apart. At sixteen, I understood all of this. And yet…

For a girl in the throes of adolescence, Wuthering Heights spoke to me in a way Jane Eyre had not. Where Jane earned my admiration for her intellect, her tenacity, and her self-respect, the soap opera that was Wuthering Heights had something Charlotte’s novel lacked: rage. And not just Heathcliff’s rage. At Wuthering Heights, the weather raged, drunken Hindley raged, Cathy raged while she was dying (best death scene ever!). She even raged after death; no gently tragic spirit was she, haunting Heathcliff and poor Mr. Lockwood to near insanity.

I remember clearly, reaching the halfway point of the novel and stopping to wonder why I’d been in such bad mood all week. It hit me then, just how handily Emily Brontë had drawn me into her world. It was the first book I read for school that struck such a deep emotional chord, shaping and steering my emotions in a way other class assignments had not. I wasn’t angrier or moodier than your typical teenager, but Wuthering Heights threw open its gates to me at the exact time when I needed literature that spoke to my angst. (The Catcher in the Rye was still to come.)

More than twenty years have passed since I first read Wuthering Heights. Thankfully, I have managed to avoid men like Heathcliff, and I hope those who know me would say I’m less selfish than Cathy. But I still have a soft spot in my heart for that high-drama novel, for the unlikable couple I can’t help but cheer for, for young Heathcliff’s desperate need for acceptance and kindness, for Cathy’s struggle against society’s narrow expectations of women, for Brontë’s literary mastery of nature and realism, and for a valuable life lesson about the dangers of all-consuming passion. Wuthering Heights may bear little resemblance to my real life, but it’s a reading experience I will treasure throughout my days. (KG)


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6 thoughts on “The Books That Shape Us: Wuthering Heights

  1. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables grabbed me in college and has informed my entire life and career—for the power of that one moment of grace when the bishop told the police he had given Jean Valjean the silver candlesticks he had in fact stolen—to afford him a chance to make it in the world after release from prison. Not only did he make it, he made it his passion to pay the Bishop’s grace forward by treating everyone in his life with compassion, grace, and forgiveness. It was a memorable example that served me well throughout my 30 year teaching career.

  2. Well, my favorite in this category during my teen years was Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and re-readings have maintained the frisson I feel when Maxim confesses to the second Mrs. De Winter. But my all-time favorite book, from my first reading of it was Lord of the Rings. It has stayed in my heart and mind and taught me the importance of love and compassion, despite the odds, in the face of adversity.

    • Elaine, isn’t it amazing how these little things–sheets of paper printed with inky marks and bound together–can have such an enormous impact on how we see the world? Magical!

  3. I care enough about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre that when my husband and I made our first trip to England in 1987, we planned an entire day’s outing around Haworth and the Brontes. We even hiked 4 hours across the moors to Top Witherns, site of Wuthering Heights and yes, I did yell “Heathcliff” at the top of my lungs. Best college paper I ever wrote was the “Effect of Weather and Atmosphere on the Characters of Wuthering Heights. Guess one may assume I am very much a Bronte fan….love this blog site!

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