The genius of Emily Bronte's only novel is all the reason you'll ever need to dive right in, but for this Why Not Wednesday? post I've been mulling over why this most beloved of English classic novels also makes such a wonderful ghost story.
The ghost story is a very conservative form. Certain features are almost invariably present, indicating to the willing reader that a supernatural presence will soon emerge and form the cornerstone of the narrative. Over the centuries that ghost stories have been told (millennia if you include the oral tradition), readers' expectations have been finely honed.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is often discussed within the context of a timeless love story, with wild personalities clashing against a backdrop of nature's untamed grandeur. Critics at the time of its publication focused on its Romanticism and picturesque settings, but the novel also features many of the ghost story's enduring features.
The story is told via the popular ghost story wrap-around medium of the faithful old servant. Nelly Dean, Cathy's nurse and servant at Wuthering Heights and more recently the nurse for Hareton Earnshaw in the generation below Cathy's, tells the tale to the unfortunate tenant of The Grange, Mr Lockwood, after he is forced to take shelter in his landlord's home when poor weather closes in.
Inclement weather is a recurring feature of ghost stories, which very often are set at Christmas, and in Wuthering Heights the tenant from out of the area, Lockwood, lies in bed recovering from a fever and demanding to know more about the mysterious spirit who appeared at his window during the night he spent at the ancient farmhouse up on the moors.
Through the manifestation of Cathy's spirit, Emily Bronte establishes the presence of the supernatural early in the novel. Although Nelly's stoic telling of the tale to Lockwood is rational, stark and sensible, the reader is reminded subtly as the story unfolds that Cathy is dead and that she appeared in spirit to Lockwood as he spent the night resting in the little box bed she slept in as a girl.
Another central feature of the ghost story is the displacement of some years between the narrator (Dean) with their objective witness from outside (Lockwood) and the events that led to the haunting. This is also present here, with Cathy's death taking place some eighteen years earlier, after she gave birth to her daughter with Edgar Linton, who he names Catherine in her memory.
Wuthering Heights' central character, Heathcliff, sustains the ghostly feel right into the present day of Lockwood's occupancy of The Grange. This also pervades Nelly's subsequent refreshing of the story for Lockwood when he returns to the area briefly eight months later and asks to be brought completely up to date.
Heathcliff, who fell obsessively in love with Cathy when they were young and grieves her loss for the rest of his life, pleads with Cathy to haunt him forever. She answers the call, and he subsequently reveals the particularly gruesome fact that he dug up Cathy's body on the night of her death in order to ensure the haunting began.
The ghostly feel can be quite subtle during the twists and turns of romance by Emily Bronte between the two main families: Heathcliff and Cathy from Wuthering Heights and their respective relationships with Isabella and Edgar Linton from The Grange occupy large parts of the novel.
However, it returns with a vengeance for the climax when Heathcliff is at last frightened to death by Cathy's ghost with the intention of allowing the next generation of young lovers (Catherine and Hareton) to be happy together. Peace is found at last up on the moors, too, with the novel concluding with reports that locals claim to have seen the spirits of Cathy and Heathcliff wandering across the uplands, together at last.
A great work of literature sustains analysis on multiple levels without ever suffering from exhaustion of interpretation. It is just so with Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, where the timeless ghost story form is absorbed into the wild tale of love and tragedy of powerful, untamed emotions to provide a seamless whole.
The comment section is open. See you on Friday for another Yorkshire-themed post.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature here. Or you might like to take a look at my article about sub-zero temperatures in horror fiction (It’s Cold Out) here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Psycho by Robert Bloch here.