Self-Betterment, Self-Destruction, or Scattered Thoughts About Heathcliff and Jay Gatsby

The staple of high school reading lists, and an enjoyable Gothic Romance, Wuthering Heights is a lovely walk through the moors, with a fascinating monster: Heathcliff. He has no last name, really. He is just Heathcliff, emerging from the clothes of a troubled nobleman like a fairy child into the house where Catherine and Hindley each respond to their resident monster. He is a monster, of course, because he is ugly, an orphan gypsy of dark complexion, and because he is a wedge that divides the family. Some members are accepting of him, and even love him. Others hate him, and would throw him out if they could.

The thing about Heathcliff that I find interesting is that in an American novel of a similar period of time, Heathcliff would be a hero, not a villain. He is the rags to riches story. He is the one who climbs up to the height of society until tragically, he loses his life and fortune in his vanity. With a different narrator, a different attitude, Heathcliff is a sympathetic figure of progress. In the society of Yorkshire, for example, no one ever tries to change their situation. The housekeeper and narrator is always a housekeeper, whether in one house or another, old or young. She never marries, never aspires. Even in old age, when she is handling the affairs of the family, she does so as a servant with no expectation of being a “gentlewoman”. The brutal farmer with a thick, near impenetrable accent, is always the worker on the grounds, regardless of who takes over the place. He is a servant, and remains a servant, and never aspires to so much as a new house to live in when the troubled owners battle alcoholism and violent despair. The world of Yorkshire is seasonal. It is cyclical. It is a brilliant summer day and brutal winter. The gentlefolk remain in their manors for generations. The serving folk and farmers remain, as well, as if breeds of wildflower instead of breeds of men, intermarrying and recreating a generation after another and another. Heathcliff, alone, attempts to rise in society from the orphaned, homeless boy left to die in the streets, into the leading landowner and gentleman of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. In his actions, he behaves in a manner quite like a nobleman should. He aggressively pursues landownership, rents from his tennants, and advantageous marriages. And, the community hates him for it all. They resent him, fear him, and cast aspersions upon him that may or may not be valid.

Certainly, during Hindley’s drunken rages, the nobility do not appear to be as noble as Heathcliff, who takes advantage of a terrible situation. In that state, Heathcliff would appear to be an improvement as a father figure for young Hareton, and eventually created a situation for Hareton’s success in marriage and life. The narrator of a different novel than the one written, with a different and more tolerant view of Heathcliff, would not have to abandon his failings to tell a success story that leads a man from the bottom of society to the top of it, re-establishing a healthy and united community in his own actions and demise. If he is a fae creature, and he might be, he is one that managed to root out and heal the community in a manner not unlike a wolf culling the lame and the weak to strengthen the flock. I prefer to think of Heathcliff as a spirit of the land, itself, a red cap or troll or fae, captured by the hand of man and left to wreak havoc in the household. In a story so rooted in ghostly apparitions, there is room for many readings of Heathcliff.

Compare him to Gatsby, if the supernatural comparison does not feel apt.  Gatsby, the self-made man who climbed to the height of society to impress a girl he loved, only to learn too late that she is lost to him. In the American story, he is a beautiful tragedy, pining always for the past, and the losses of the past. It drives him to great success (in a criminal undertaking, but success, nonetheless). The American version celebrates the audacity of a man who comes from nowhere. The established order of the wealthy are corrupt and wicked and their ability to shake away all the evil that comes as if throwing off a dirty jacket to reestablish the order of the day is a tragedy, not a happy ending at all. In the great book of American letters, all of society thrilled to be in the presence of Gatsby, a topic of gossip and admiration and desire, a blank canvas upon which the American Dream is painted of his past and future. In England, in the mid-nineteenth century, people fled Heathcliff in terror, castigated him, prayed for his comeuppance, and surrounded him with a wall of words and ideas that told him, repeatedly, that he did not belong. I picture Heathcliff at Catherine’s own, tiny birthday party, after her death, sitting alone by the fire, refusing to tell anyone what it was lest it be used against him as a weapon, eating an oat cake and toasting to her memory, while everyone around him tried to keep him down.

Heathcliff did monstrous things. But, one can read the novel and see how his nurturing pushed him to it. Gatsby also did monstrous things, and the narrator is so dazzled by the man that we only get word of them through the most veiled of innuendo and the association with monsters. Gatsby should be an anti-hero: a rum-runner, an adulterer, etc. Heathcliff should be a Gothic Romantic Lead, of darkness and ghostly apparitions in the moors. Instead, the nature of the narration alters how they are viewed by the reader.

This is the power of a narrative lens, perhaps. It creates a layer of culture upon which to view the events in the text, wherein the reader can interpret events per their own culture and ideation. It is also the unique nature of anti-heroes and tragic heroes to carry the confusions of a culture in the places where static segments of society are challenged by an individual who attempts to instigate change.

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