Rhapsody in Penguins — Seventh Movement: Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights (1847)
by Emily Bronte
edited by Pauline Nestor

(I haven’t read this one for four years, so my recollections of plot details are going to be a little off.)

And here we are, six articles on, entering the final movement of this series. It’s always a bit sad and hollow reaching the end of a series of anything, because you have inevitably gotten accustomed to it, and its departure will leave a hole that your mind will try to fill up silently, but desperately. Sometimes, if the heavens allow, they return for another encore. But often the ship sails, and we’re left wistfully wondering what an encore might have looked like.

For instance: I’ve wondered what might have happened had Emily Bronte written a second book. In October 1848, the 30-year-old Emily (using the first name cause, you know, we’re such good friends and all) forgot to wrap up a bit more and caught a cold during her brother’s funeral. That cold led to a fatal case of tuberculosis, and she died without ever completing a second novel. That, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most regrettable things in literary history. Almost more than I regret starting this series.

There is in fact a LOT of regret in Wuthering Heights; in fact, the entire book hinges on them. Each and every character has things they so desperately want and then regret not choosing in the end. From central characters like Catherine and Heathcliff to slightly more peripheral characters like Isabella and Hareton, everyone realizes sooner or later that things could have been very different. And when that realization comes, emotions inevitably arise. Here is a bit from Catherine and Heathcliff’s final, secret meeting, with Catherine pregnant and teetering on the edge of death.

“Let me alone,” sobbed Catherine. “If I’ve done wrong, I’m dying for it. It is enough! You left me too, but I won’t upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!”

“It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,” [Heathcliff] answered. “Kiss me again, and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love MY murderer — but YOURS! How can I?”

There is no restraint between these two people. Whenever we see Heathcliff he seems moody but defiant, keeping to himself, generally not giving a (censored) about what people think about him. But he’s never afraid to show what he really thinks about something: it’s always defiant, self-righteousness that justifies itself and himself as well. Only now, with the consequences rearing their ugly head, does he realize that he’s might have made some terrible decisions thanks to this attitude.

But here’s the thing: although he knows he’s effed up, he cannot admit that he was wrong. Even as he returns to professing his love for Catherine, he still has to obsess over the fact that Catherine is his very own “murderer”. It’s “what you have done to me”, no mention of the other way round. That one half-sentence of Catherine’s that Heathcliff heard so many years ago has burnt itself into his brain. He chooses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is the betrayed party here. That’s understandable — betrayal is never a good feeling and hard to shake off — but in times like this, when the love of your life is close to death and begging for your forgiveness, surely a little forgiveness could be in order?

But no, he has to fixate on this. One of the truly terrible things about guilt is that when we find that we cannot blame somebody for acts of fate, we heap all the guilt — every single little bit of it — on ourselves, because we think that as the individual, we were the sole factor standing between success and failure, and it was our fault that we made the whole thing crash and burn.

This is what Heathcliff thinks: it was the one sole chance he had for a happy ending, and he can’t get it now precisely because IT WAS ALL HIS BLOODY FAULT. Even after he fully realizes the consequences, his reaction manages to be selfish and self-condemnatory to the point where it transcends negativity and becomes an art form:

“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you — haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always — take any form — drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!”

Admit it, you wish you came up with this line the last time you had a breakup.

Behind all of this, what do we see? Do we see a man consumed by desire and hate for the woman he loves? Do we see a maniac raving for things that he never had the chance to fully comprehend? Yes. Yes we do. But beyond THAT, what else do we see? We see a broken shell of a man who up till now was convinced he could be strong in the face of anything, unwilling to accept, unwilling to let go, because he has realized too late that he needs and wants Catherine Earnshaw, and yet now finally, irreversibly, she is nowhere to be found except six feet underground.

And it is this memory of her that “devours his existence” for the next twenty years, and it is also why everyone around him suffers. His remorse and regret for his foolish behaviour makes him a bastard as he punishes himself, and everything he does reminds him of what the other path might have offered. All this stems from his inability to see the past as past, to see things as irreversible and unchangeable. He thinks that by being an arsehole to those around him, he can somehow bring Catherine back. We on the sidelines can laugh this off as an infantile desire, but it’s very real to him. And he can’t let go. He’s the main character in his own personal drama, so he thinks he has an obligation to mourn for what has passed.

It’s a strange thing that in novels, everything the characters choose seem to be the worst possible outcome. You could have not made that monster, Doctor Frankenstein! You could have ordered your soldiers to go on a diet, Odysseus! HOW HARD IS IT to comprehend that you are going to suffer if you go down that path?! But choose these paths they do — after all, the plot has to move along somehow — and then the rest of the book is often spent with the protagonist picking up the pieces.

Or try to. More often than not, the protagonist does not pick him/herself up and try again. Rather, they choose the Heathcliff route: bemoaning their fate and taking it out on people around them. But who can blame the authors? This is, after all, what mankind itself does. Humans tend to be very self-aware when it comes to things that they themselves could have done. Very often we stop to look back at what might have been: if only I’d chosen the other path, if only I’d eloped with her, etc, etc. And often we berate ourselves for our mistakes and past decisions. (Note to self: stop making these “note to self” jokes, nobody finds them funny.)

But while we’re wallowing in our misery, do we actually do anything to remedy the situation? Not necessarily, instead we just make things worse. And while I don’t necessarily agree with C. S. Lewis that people who spend their time fretting about what could have been are just “submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses” — it is a very large emotional barrier to overcome — it is inarguably dangerous to fixate too much on the past, let alone having it influence what we do.

And yet it is hard. As pointed out above, it is very much human nature to pile the guilt we have for something onto ourselves. I myself have some events in my life — including, I’ll admit, some very recent ones — that I just can’t put down, no matter how hard I try. I keep on revisiting them, and boy, are they a huge fly in the ointment of happiness I keep applying to myself. But can I rid myself of guilt by stewing in them? Can I, heck. Moving on and doing better the second time round is much better at assuaging the pain — after all, I survived the first time, so why can’t I survive another?

It is naturally important to learn from our mistakes. But once the lesson has been learnt, that’s enough. Do we think that we can still change the past? That’s just hogging on the responsibilities, a sort of justification of our own abilities. In the end, it’s best to move on because the road behind us is past. There is only the road ahead, so why don’t we focus on the tasks ahead, start afresh on a new page? As the not-very-great modern poet Noel Gallagher once said:

And so Sally can wait
She knows it’s too late
As we’re walking on by
Her soul slides away
But don’t look back in anger
I heard you say

(I am hip to the musics of today.)

Right, thanks to all of you for sharing this experience with me! Thank you so much for reading what has definitely been an introspective journey through the sea of Penguins! It’s been a lot more difficult to write these articles than I thought it would be, but yay, I survived writing it and you survived reading it! I hope to return in the summer of 2018 for a second rhapsody, but in the meantime I’ll write a couple of articles on some Shakespeare plays for publication in the spring. So, do stay tuned for further writings, and I’ll see y’all in the near future!

(Quotations from the Penguin edition of “Wuthering Heights”, edited by Pauline Nestor and published 2003, featured photo from the cover of the aforementioned book.)

2 thoughts on “Rhapsody in Penguins — Seventh Movement: Wuthering Heights

  1. Alas, one cannot also deny that strong feelings towards the past are an excellent source of motivation. A man who is apathetic to the things that happen to him is missing a lot as well.

    Like

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