Essays Literature

Libidinal Heights: Love, Lust, and Redemption in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is considered a passionate love story, a “tale of love that is stronger than death,” centering around the generational story of Catherine Earnshaw, an orphaned young man turned tyrannical master, Heathcliff, and a young headstrong Cathy Linton who uncovers the tragedy of Wuthering Heights in her dealings with an older Heathcliff that entangles her in a multi-generational struggle of love, lust, and redemption. The reading of Wuthering Heights as a love story, however, is deeply misconstrued and dangerous—especially when focusing on Catherine and Heathcliff. There is a love story that moves the plot, the love of Cathy toward Linton and Hareton—the compassion and mercy and forgiveness that she exhibits in those relationships—not the erotic demons of Heathcliff and Catherine which cast their destructive shadows over the Welsh moorlands. The so-called love of Heathcliff and Catherine serves as a warning to the reader, the love of Cathy, meanwhile, serves as the healing and redemptive antidote to the original sin of Heathcliff and Catherine: and two different types of “love” the story tells with degenerate moderns falling in love with the warning Brontë was preaching.

Echoes of Adam and Eve

It is fashionable for postmodern and feminist critics to laud the love of Catherine and Heathcliff. They also highlight the headstrong confrontational spirit of Cathy to Heathcliff in the second half of the novel (if they bother to go that far at all). The reason for these ideological readings are obvious: Catherine, as a woman, acts on her own agency regarding love (though she dies) rather than remaining submissive to the structures and forces surrounding her; Cathy, as a young adult, acts on her own agency in confronting Heathcliff—the toxic male overlord—and comes out victorious. Furthermore, the romanticization of the eros exhibited by Catherine and Heathcliff allow one to brush aside the more obvious critiques and warnings Emily Brontë inserts into the storyline. In an early encounter between Catherine and Heathcliff, for example, Heathcliff rebuffs, ‘You needn’t have touched me…I shall be as dirty as I please: and I like to be dirty, and will be dirty.’” This declaration is hardly something to ignore, but ignore our critics do in focusing on Catherine and Heathcliff.

What does “dirty” mean here? Heathcliff is a sinner. He is darkened soul. Not later in life, but as early as a child. Heathcliff’s “dusky fingers” and “dirty” self-confession reveal his character and soul. He is a danger to Catherine and will be the death of Catherine. His dirtiness, among the dirtiness of many characters, will cast its destructive spirit over Wuthering Heights.

Catherine’s inability to control her passions and Heathcliff’s manipulative ability to turn Catherine’s spirit of compassion into a maelstrom of emotions, is what leads to her early death. But focusing on how the false love of Heathcliff and Catherine is a form of dirty lust and sin, and how the merciful compassion of Cathy Hinton is the redemptive antidote that breaks the original sin of Heathcliff and Catherine smacks of too much theology and implicit Christianity for modern interpreters who would rather the story be a tragedy about erotic love (Heathcliff and Catherine) and the triumph of the militant feminine (Cathy) rather than the merciful compassion of Cathy’s agency which breaks the curse of Heathcliff. For Cathy to fall into a feminine model of merciful compassion, to postmodern readers and feminist critics, means that she would lose her agency; au contraire, it is precisely Cathy’s freedom to exert her merciful compassion against all the forces working against her that is her greatest triumph and Emily’s point in the progressive characterization and development of Cathy’s storyline. Emily Brontë’s “feminism” is in female agency as agency, not necessarily in the combative and headstrong spirit of voluntaristic equity or female ascension over male subjugation. Cathy’s freedom to choose mercy and compassion and break down the walls and barriers that restrict her is her ultimate triumph.

I find Wuthering Heights (not to mention Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë), to be a triumph of the modern feminine reality: the elevation of female agency against male and social institutional subjugation (which is self-evident) while retaining that desire for family, marriage, and consummated love in two flesh brought together to bring life into the world (which should be also self-evident by the story’s conclusion). The stories are triumphs of feminine compassion emerging despite all the forces and individuals arrayed against it…

Read my essay at VoegelinView: Libidinal Heights, Love, Lust, and Redemption in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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