The Last Book I Loved: Wuthering Heights


What is wrong with Emily Brontë? I want to make a house in her brain. I’m scared! I can’t tell you too much, because my sister is reading the book now and I don’t want to spoil anything.

I hope you’re like me. I hope you have put off reading Wuthering Heights forever for some vague reason. Maybe you figure it for weak tea. You’ve heard things. Costumes. A period piece. A love story for the ages. Just pick it up. Don’t read the back. Don’t read the introduction by a noted scholar. Especially don’t look at the cover.

Remember that part in the Bible when the rich man gazes up from hell and begs for just a drop of water on his tongue? Spoiler alert: He doesn’t get it. I guess you get a drop of water from Emily Brontë, but just a tiny one, and not before she pulls it away again and again – most awfully and exhilaratingly near the end, when the narrator tortures you by saying (I’ll paraphrase) “Too bad this didn’t end up the way it would in a book.” My jaw dropped cartoonishly, which doesn’t happen often in real life, and it wasn’t the first time. The reading is propulsive, fueled by the adrenaline of helpless dread.

Brontë’s structure is ingenious, her language fresh and vivid. But most of all it’s her people, coo coo bananas down to the very last one. She isn’t easy on anybody, let alone you. Just when you think you’ve pinned down a character or two, Brontë reveals something new, tweaks your boring conventional assumptions about them, and not in a cheap way. They become more human, often by practicing cruelty. It’s an amazingly cruel book – not a cruel story, or a story of cruel people merely, but a cruel book – and a mad book, and nobody tells you it’s jeweled with poisonous humor. One vibrant young woman falls in love with a whiny little phantom who lies on a couch coughing weakly and sucking on a stick of sugar candy! He’s a gruesome little number, and there’s some sick fun whenever he’s around (until Brontë pulls the rug out from under that too). I’m glad she didn’t workshop it.

The overall tone is blasphemy and damnation. I guess the thing that gave me the worst shudders was when the housekeeper goes back to visit a sweet little boy she used to take care of, and in the short intervening time something has happened to him. He throws a stone at her head and curses. She tempts him with an orange:

‘Who has taught you those fine words, my barn,’ I inquired. ‘The curate?’

‘Damn the curate, and thee! Give me that,’ he replied.

‘Tell us where you got your lessons, and you shall have it,’ said I. ‘Who’s your master?’

‘Devil daddy,’ was his answer.

Well, no, I take it back. The book is just getting wound up at that point. The good news is that there’s lots worse to come.

Jack Pendarvis is a columnist for the Believer and the author of three books. He currently writes for the TV show Adventure Time. More from this author →