Sunday, 8 November 2015

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

I read a review of this book which stated that it was 'arguably the greatest book ever written.' That sounds, to me, an invitation to disagree. My disagreement spurs from two separate points: A. It's not the Gruffalo and B. It is quintessentially an awful read. As the writer of the Cultured Yeti, I know an awful lot about bad stories and this tops them all. An explosion of exposition, pointless characters and non coherent plots, the only amazing thing about Wuthering Heights is that it got published in the first place. I hope that the following review will explain why I am of this opinion.

To start with, let us talk about the terror this book inflicts upon the reader. In my pursuit to become a better writer, I have learnt about many faux-pas that ruin a perfectly good piece of work. The first of these is, of course, bad dialogue. For a book that consists entirely of dialogue, more on this later, you would expect this not to be a problem. Sadly, that is not the case. Throughout the novel, we are blasted with absolutely awful dialogue. Characters do not speak normally, nor do they speak in a way which matches their class. The main character Ellen Dean is a housekeeper and maid, yet she constantly disrespects those in a higher class than she. Perhaps this is the author trying to remind us that she is feisty and brave. I see it, personally, as awful writing. Even the most feisty and brave person would surely be respectful to those she respects, but not Ellen Dean. She is rude to everyone alike, and then has the great cheek to describe others as impolite.
More on the subject of dialogue, told you we'd get to it later. We must consider the fact that the book is quite antiquated. I am sure many of you Brontë fans reading this- I would be surprised I am getting any readers, never mind Brontë fan readers- will be angrily shouting, "But the bad dialogue would have been good when it was written!" Well, let me remind you of this: others books written in same time have produced dialogue which would easily feel at home in the modern day. I invite you to read Scrooge and Fred's exchange from Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol, where both characters use language that I could imagine using myself. It is a sad truth but one true nonetheless that Brontë is awful at writing dialogue. What a good job it is that she isn't awful at writing anything else! Oh, hang on...

The novel is written in the first person. This is a brave move; writing in the first person is difficult. The author loses the ability to write the book from other perspectives, limiting the story to a single stream and reducing the overall length of the novel dramatically. It is worth doing, however, as it can bring a much more personal and involved style to the novel. I would recommend Killing Floor by Lee Child as a key example of this. If an author can pull off first person by keeping to its strict conventions, it can improve the book over all. Shock horror, Brontë doesn't manage this. We begin the book with Mr Lockwood, an awful character who personifies the book perfectly: He achieves nothing and doesn't need to exist. Soon enough, we cross to narration by Ellen Dean. Then, over the rest of the book, we are narrated by both Catherines, Heathcliff,  Isabella and a selection of other characters. Throughout all this, the reader can't help but wonder why the novel couldn't have just been written in the third person with the events actually taking place, rather than being recounted. It is one of many angered thoughts that come to mind when reading this novel.
Another problem with the narration is, in part, the most celebrated thing about the novel. I have read a great many reviews that tell me it is quite incredible how we never actually learn the truth of what is going on, that it is brilliant how we only ever learn things from other people's opinions. Well, in all honesty, if I didn't want to know the truth and instead wanted opinions I would indulge the gossip quarters of the school I attend. When I read a book, I want to know what is happening, not speculation from biased people. It doesn't make the novel interesting, it makes the novel annoying and confusing. Luckily, this is one of only a couple of things that Brontë get's wrong. Oh, hang on...

Now onto the problems with the characters. (Don't worry, we will discuss the positives eventually.) The primarily problem is yet another thing that some claim is brilliant. Here is a list of some of the characters: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, Isabella Linton, Mr Earnshaw, Mr. Linton, Mrs. Linton, Linton Heathcliff, Mrs Earnshaw, Heathcliff.
Now, you may be thinking, okay, so some of the characters are related. What's wrong with that? Well, let me explain. If we have the characters of Heathcliff, Edgar Linton and Linton Heathcliff all referred to in the same scene, then the only eventuality is that we're going to be confused. Is it Heathcliff being referred to or is Brontë referring to Linton Heathcliff by his surname? Is it Edgar Linton being referred to or is Brontë referring to Linton Heathcliff by his first name? Don't worry, Brontë will have written the dialogue so that it is possible to differentiate via simply reading, like any good author would have. Oh, hang on...
This may sound like petty nit picking, but what I must remind you is that this is 'arguably the greatest book ever written.' It shouldn't have anything wrong with it.
Another problem with the characters is also connected to the chronology. Due to the fact that the story takes place over several generations, with each generation having similar if not the same names as the generation before them, we constantly jump through time. The character of Catherine Linton, or at least I think it's that Catherine, ages thirteen years in two paragraphs. Due to these sudden and inconsistent spouts of ageing, it can be hard to actually care for any of the characters. They are suddenly thrown at us, with no emotion or care. It annoys the reader, if anything, which makes the novel even worse. Another problem of this bad writing is that it breeds poor chronology. What, it is worth asking, is Heathcliff doing for the entirety of those two paragraph in which Catherine grows up? How come it takes seventeen years, because four of Catherine's years just happen without us knowing, for Catherine Linton to meet Heathcliff, or Linton Heathcliff for that matter? Whilst I'm on the topic of asking questions about things that don't really make sense regarding this novel, I must ask a few more.

If Isabella is renouncing Heathcliff, why is Linton Heathcliff not called Linton Linton? Answer: Because Emily Brontë probably thought she'd spare the reader a little bit of confusion.

If Catherine Earnshaw and Hindley Earnshaw are the same age as Heathcliff, if not younger, why does Heathcliff live to almost twice their age? Answer: Because it serves the plot.

What did Isabella die of, anyway? And also, how come Heathcliff never went after her? 

How did this book ever get published? Answer: Because her sister was already famous?

So, even if she couldn't write good characters, stop confusion or make the reader care, she can write other things well. Oh, hang on...

Now for those long awaited good things. The most brilliant part of the novel is, of course, the very end. The feeling of relief and happiness as the words 'The End' appear fills the reader with such happiness at the premise that they will never need to read any Emily Brontë again that they can't quite contain themselves. 
There are some genuine positives, however. I think that key amongst these things is that the book is successfully gothic. All the key conventions are present; a slightly disturbing love triangle, a bit of domestic violence, a lovely helping of both physical and mental disease and a desolate, abandoned location that appears even more horrific in the black and white melancholy fog of Victorian solitude. All of those are present and help to enrich the novel. The sad thing is that the setting has more character than the characters themselves.
Another good thing about the book is the way certain characters, such as Hareton and Joseph, speak. Sometimes authors put the phonetic accents in just for the sake of it. For once, Brontë does something because it enriches the plot. The idea that Joseph, of the lower class, can't speak as well as someone of the upper is a clever  move that actually makes sense. The same can be said of Hareton, who was never been taught to speak. I thus appreciate that in this context. 

In conclusion, Wuthering Heights has a couple of redeeming features, literally. It requires redeeming features, however, because the rest of it is completely and utterly awful. Every type of literary mistake imaginable is made, be it the misuse of punctuation, bad dialogue or exposition. I believe the term 'greatest book ever written' is as out of place as a vegetarian in an abattoir. I would be more likely to use a phrase like, 'One of the worst books I've ever read.' It is not captivating, the characters are utterly one dimensional and the plot is mediocre at best. I would never wish to recommend this book to anyone, including the Devil himself.
If I was to choose any quote from it to describe the novel, I would probably go for this one. I believe it was Isabella who said this, and when I read it I couldn't help but completely agree. The quote I agreed with was "And far rather would I be condemned to a perpetual dwelling in the infernal regions, than even for one night abide beneath the roof of Wuthering Heights again."


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