“This is a strange book […] it is wild, confused, disjointed and improbable.”
Anon (Examiner 1848)
“[I]t is quite impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it.”
Anon (Douglas Jarrods Newspaper 1848)
The two contrasting reviews, printed in newspapers in the winter of 1848, illustrate well how opinion was varied when Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was first published. But these could also be opinions shared by many today. With modern readers Wuthering Heights is probably one of those books only read as part of a course syllabus or by those interested in literature of the Victorian period. Some may find Wuthering Heights too confusing and all over the place, like a disembodied figure, and struggle to get through the whole story. However, there will be those who cannot put it down. Like me.
I fall into the group who came across Emily Bronte’s work through a literature degree but once I got into it I was amazed at the different points of view, the use of varied narrative voices which enriched and layered the story. It made me think differently on how I can approach my own writing. What follows is a re-edited version of an essay produced as part of the degree. It examines those narrative voices and helps us all realise how important point of view is within a story’s narrative. I hope you enjoy mine (and others) thoughts.
A literary theorist, Terry Eagleton has suggested the narrative of Wuthering Heights‘ is one of ‘Chinese Boxes’ in that there is a story within a story with multiple narrators each telling their portion mainly from a first person perspective. From Lockwood through Nelly Dean to the housekeeper Zillah, each adds their own voice, and often opinion, to the story allowing the reader too to shift perspective and opinion.
Lockwood provides the outer framework but he also, as the main narrator, colours the narration of the other voices within the story. For example Nelly’s speech is often that of a much more educated lady of that time. Another commentator, Terence McCarthy, notes that Nelly uses words such as ‘pertinaciously’ when referring to Catherine’s eating habits and suggests this has the effect of reminding the reader that Lockwood is the main narrator. However, he is the framing narrator by starting and ending the story like bookends. He is not there, though, just to provide narration, he is involved and provides contrast.
There is general agreement that Lockwood also represents the reader, the representation of the norm in society, whatever that means. Like the society he represents this version of the norm is often unbalanced and contradictory. For example, at the beginning of the story Lockwood comes to the North for solitude and yet fervently seeks out company even with the likes of Heathcliff. What is clear is that Lockwood is from the South and his speech is flowery and he seems to have a superior attitude. There was a greater North/South divide, in Victorian times, than could be said of today.
Because of this Lockwood’s narration cannot be trusted as he is relating a story he barely understands about people he judges according to his own background and principles. An example of this comes later in the book when Lockwood calls some of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights ‘misanthropes and clowns’. From a readers perspective, assuming Lockwood is a version of the reader, Emily Bronte is challenging each of our own judgements and challenging perceptions of normality by contrasting Lockwood against the characters he meets and hears about.
Alternatively Nelly Dean (or Ellen) is the inner narrator and operates in direct contrast to Lockwood. Her world is opposite to Lockwood as she is a servant of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Much of the story is told by Nelly, in fact one wonders how she managed to retain so much information and have the ability to share it in detail despite the fact she is just a partially educated servant.
The scene where Nelly compares Heathcliff’s entrance into Thrushcross Grange, having taken possession of it, to the first time he entered the dwelling as a young lad with Cathy is so full of remembered detail. Another thing to note is that despite being from the North she has no dialect (as opposed to Joseph or Zillah) and seems well spoken. This, however may have more to do with Lockwood’s narration rather than Nelly’s. As with Lockwood’s judgemental position, Nelly’s narration is full of opinion and changing ideas of those around her. She is often seen as a go-between and the voice of reason (though mixed with religion and superstition) in the midst of unreasonableness even though her protestations and actions come to nothing.
Other narrators appear throughout the story though only to provide another point of view where either Nelly or Lockwood are not present. For example Heathcliff narrates his adventure to Thrushcross Grange with Cathy and much later retells of dealings at older Cathy’s grave. Of course this adds depth and perspective on events only the teller can relate. Again there is Zillah, who, in a short narrative shares with Nelly what has been going on while Nelly was incarcerated at Wuthering Heights. Once again this allows the story to continue whilst the narrator (in this case Nelly) is out of the picture.
With all these voices, we have to consider: are they all necessary? The story could have been told from a third person omniscient narrator and therefore share the views and stories of each character. However, this can cause the writer (and therefore the reader also) to be detached from the story as if he or she were a casual observer.
The first person narrative puts the reader at the centre of the action. The different voices add tone and depth. Emily Bronte could have used just Nelly to tell the entire story (Lockwood being slightly irrelevant to the main tale) but then she would have had problems relating Heathcliff’s, Isabella’s or Zillah’s accounts. She could have used Lockwood alone as a third person but as he comes across aloof from the characters then Bronte’s readership (like Lockwood) would not be able to relate.
This then becomes, arguably, the greater reason for the format she chose. In writing for a generally middle to upper class audience it could be that she had to find a way for her audience to get into the houses she presents. This could only be done through first person, and multiple first person at that.
However there are problems with this. First person narrators can be unreliable and untrustworthy. As already noted earlier they can be prejudiced and will colour the story with their own idiosyncrasies. It could be argued that the use of multiple narrators makes the story confusing as we struggle to determine who is speaking now.
The story acts out much like a scene or scenes from a courtroom. Lockwood and Nelly are, figuratively, the barristers driving the testimonies along and the others are witnesses to certain events. The problem for those in the jury is that opinion changes according to whose testimony is being heard. The same is true for the reader of Wuthering Heights. The many narrators give the story a strange or other-worldly feeling. Because we do not know who to trust or even feel about, we are left feeling unsure and uncomfortable. It is possible that this is exactly the feeling what Emily Bronte wanted to produce.
However we approach Wuthering Heights and feel about it in the end will largely depend on how we cope with the multiple narrators. But if we see them as a guide, as a way of traversing through a tricky but romantic story line then maybe, just maybe, we can say with the reviewer, this is one story difficult to put down.
I do hope my thoughts cause you to visit, or perhaps revisit, the world of Wuthering Heights.