Symphonic Imagery in Wuthering Heights: Books, Reading, and Learning
May 11, 1993
Heathcliff and the elder Catherine seem to despise reading — Catherine does say, after all, that she took her "dingy volume by the scroop, and hurled it into the dog-kennel, vowing I hated a good book" [Chapter III, page 26]. The real objects of their resentment, however, are the moral and religious lessons that are forced upon them via books as punishment for being naughty children. To chastise them for going out on the moors, "The curate might set as many chapters as he pleased for Catherine to get by heart, and Joseph might thrash Heathcliff till his arm ached. . ." [VI, 50] Reading and memorizing Scripture passages is placed by Joseph on the same level with a beating: an attempt to tame a wild soul. Catherine and Heathcliff will not be tamed, and so they reject learning, as well. This should not be construed as a condemnation of education, but against the passionless Christian value system of pity and duty and charity that Heathcliff later rails against.
The evening that he sleeps at Wuthering Heights, Lockwood is troubled by a dream of Jabes Branderham, author of one of the holy tracts that Catherine was forced to read. [III, 28-9] Branderham manifests himself as a creature both horrible and boring at the same time. When Lockwood finally denounces the preacher, the congregation tears him apart. Sleeping in Catherine’s bed, Lockwood is having her nightmares, seeing religion as a terrible force that promises to civilize but actually turns people into zombies obsessed with correcting the sins of others — and that force converts through reading. When Lockwood awakens, he blocks Catherine’s ghost’s entrance to her home by piling religious tomes against the window, just as Joseph attempted to stifle her with them in life. She still pushes against these books, intent on her longing to enter.
Nellie says of Catherine in adulthood that "she never endeavored to divert herself with reading." [XV, 153] When Edgar brings a book to her in her malaise, Catherine does not touch it, only allows the wind to flutter its leaves. She is slowly being consumed by her unrequited passion, and it is as if she does not wish to be "diverted" from the business of feeling, however draining those emotions may be. Catherine does willingly use a book as a child: she uses the end papers, the margins, and the rest of the white space to keep a diary of her life at the Heights, until "every morsel of blank" is covered. [III, 25] She employs books to bring her closer to her "real" existence, instead of dulling her senses by calming herself with reading.
This is in striking contrast to the behavior of the Linton family, who abuse books by using texts to retreat from real life and from their real emotions. Isabella, for example, feels trapped by an ogreish Heathcliff after her marriage, and plunges into books for respite: "I dared hardly lift my eyes from the page before me, that melancholy scene [Wuthering Heights] so instantly usurped its place." [XVII, 170] Catherine, as indicated above, would rather feel abject despair than take cold comfort in a created universe. She is a sensualcreature who can exist only in the sensual world. Edgar also uses reading as an avoidance technique. When Catherine falls ill and grows distant from him, he prefers not to deal with the problem, but to "shut himself up among books that he never opened." [XII, 119] This is not what Heathcliff would be doing, had Catherine locked herself away from him. Heathcliff would be battering down her door in a fit of passionate rage. Catherine finds Edgar’s coolness unendurable, shrieking at Nellie, "What, in the name of all that feels, has he to do with books, when I am dying?" [XII, 121] The implication is that Edgar does not feel, that he has chosen abandoning his emotions over giving in to them, and Catherine finds this inhuman and incomprehensible. He prefers the society of books to the society of his lover. Edgar is too self-contained to be loved by Catherine.
Edgar’s nephew, Linton, has also learned this evasive device all too well. When the younger Catherine [hereafter referred to as "Cathy", for the sake of brevity and clarity] pays him an unwanted visit, she reports, "I beheld Linton laid on a little sofa, reading one of my books. But he would neither speak to me nor look at me. . ." [XXIV, 242] Young Linton understands as well as his mother that one can use books to blot out unwanted sensibilities, and this withdrawal makes him intolerable to Cathy. His love-letters to Cathy are indicative of his dispassion; Nellie finds his notes "singularly odd compounds of ardour and flatness, commencing in strong feeling, and concluding in the affected, wordy way that a schoolboy might use. . ." [XXI, 217] Linton’s education has not furthered his ability to express love because his passion is so blunted in the first place. He feels he ought to write letters, and so he does, but he is unable to put any heart into them.
Hareton and Cathy are very different from all the characters that precede them. They alone understand that books are not necessarily penalties for sin or elusions from life. Cathy describes a stack of books as "all old friends . . . written on my brain and printed on my heart!" [XXXI, 285] She implies that it is impossible to sustain an active imagination without the use of books when she asks the illiterate Hareton, "Do you dream?" [XXXI, 295]
Cathy reads because she loves to read. She can recite numerous ballads by heart, and feels a great loss when Heathcliff attempts to demoralize her by taking away her treasured volumes. Books augment her real life. Her pursuit of reading is the pursuit of desire, and the struggle to achieve one’s desires is the only noble calling in Wuthering Heights. Hareton pursues his desire through learning, as well, not only for its own sake but also to become on a level with Cathy, for whom he yearns.
The act of reading is a "civilizing" one. When Nellie reads, it is with the idea of raising herself beyond the level of a mere servant. (She boasts to Lockwood, "You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also." [VII, 65]) Hareton’s only means of expressing himself are cursing and physical violence before Cathy instructs him with books. However, the escape from animal sensibility is only desirable if it is a reaction to a personal craving for learning; otherwise it is merely forcing others to rein in their own wants, to deny their individual desires.
This conclusion is supported in that doing the opposite of what was done to Catherine — forcibly restricting those who wish to learn from learning — is held in just as low regard as imposing an unwanted moral education on a child. Heathcliff procures a tutor for Linton but not for Hareton (in fact, Heathcliff threatens to dash the curate’s teeth down his throat should he try to educate Hareton [XI, 110]), and this is not construed as malevolence toward the former but the latter. Heathcliff remembers the pain of being cut off from knowledge as a child: "Continual hard work . . . had extinguished any curiosity he once possessed in pursuit of knowledge, and any love for books or learning. . . . He struggled long to keep up with Catherine in her studies, and yielded with poignant though silent regret." [VIII, 70] He gleefully says of Hareton, "He’ll never be able to emerge from his bathos of coarseness and ignorance. I’ve got him faster than his scoundrel of a father secured me, and lower; for he takes a pride in his brutishness." [XXI, 211] Heathcliff realizes that brutishness is terribly isolating, and the seeds of brutality lie in the withholding of the pleasurable.
Cathy, with her schooling, emerges as a restrained version of her mother. She "could be soft and mild as as dove; her anger was never furious, her love never fierce — it was deep and tender." [XVIII, 183] Catherine despised the tender-heartedness which the dove represents, declaring that she could not sleep on a pillow that had been stuffed with one’s feathers. Cathy tries to love the weak Linton, and not for the same savage, selfish reasons that her mother tried to tolerate her father. Young Cathy is a woman who could probably get along tolerably well in society, because she is more civil, not having resisted her education. She gentles Hareton with her books.
The elder Catherine and Heathcliff shared a fantastic loyalty untempered by any civilization. Their dedication to one another to the exclusion of all other society is alluring, but unworkable in real life. In the end, their unchecked ardor is consumed by its own fire: Catherine wastes away on Thrushcross Grange, and Heathcliff turns his thwarted passion on everyone who reminds him of what he has lost. We admire him at a distance, like any dangerous animal, but are not meant to emulate his dangerous devotion. The difference between the younger couple and the elder is reading, and the seeking beyond oneself that reading suggests.