Whenever I think of the word “antihero,” I automatically think of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. He’s romantic and passionate, but also vengeful, and cruel. One word I would never use to describe Heathcliff is “mellow.” Heathcliff is never mellow. Never. His emotions are all to the extreme. One moment he is blissfully in love with Catherine, the next moment, well, he’s ready to sacrifice his sanity to get revenge.
It’s as if he has a new emotion for every day of the week.
You’ll have to excuse my poor drawing skills.
And as usual with these “on reading…” posts, there are a ton of spoilers ahead. So, if you haven’t read Wuthering Heights, please stop here and come back later. (Or check out my other “on reading…” posts.) Why should you take my advice? It’s an amazing book (it’s in my top ten).
I read Wuthering Heights for the first time when I was in my early teens. And, like any teenage girl, the only part of Heathcliff that I saw was the romantic and passionate version. It’s not as if I skipped all the parts of the book where Heathcliff wanted revenge (with a capital R). When you’re a teenager you can sometimes see only one desirable trait and ignore the rest. But I think teenage Alice was onto something. The younger we are, the more we idealize people. And if Wuthering Heights teaches its readers anything, it’s that idealizing a person can be dangerous (don’t believe me, just look at Isabella Linton, or Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy).
There’s something about Heathcliff that is both enticing and repulsing at the same time. At the beginning of the novel, you just can’t help but feel bad for him. He’s just an orphaned gypsy boy who is brought into a family that doesn’t want him.
Then, he begins a relationship with Cathy, the only one around him who understands him. But what does Cathy do in the end? She abandons him for the rich Edgar Linton. Arguably, Cathy is in an even worst position than Heathcliff because she is female and has little choice.
You teach me now how cruel you’ve been – cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you – they’ll damn you. You loved me – what right had you to leave me? What right – answer me – for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will did it. I have no broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you – Oh, God! would you like to lie with your soul in the grave?’ –Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
You just can’t help it but feel for Heathcliff in this moment. Cathy becomes undecided and strings Edgar and Heathcliff into some sort of 19th century love triangle. Not only does Cathy want stability and wealth, she wants a bit of passion on the side.
Then, Heathcliff starts to lose our sympathies (at least he does for me). When he takes over Wuthering Heights and drives Hindley mad, I feel like telling Heathcliff “okay, you can stop now. You’ve got your revenge. You’re rich, he’s not. You’ve got the power, he doesn’t.” But it’s not enough for Heathcliff. He is an excessive character who goes to each extreme. This guy has no happy medium. He is one large vortex who is unhappy and wants to take everyone down with him. And don’t even get me started on how he mistreats his son, Linton, and his wife, Isabella.
My sympathy returns for Heathcliff near the end of the novel. He can only try to take from other people in order to feel something inside. He is destined to be unloved by everyone. Even Catherine leaves him in the end, and he is burdened with the ghost of her.
Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!” – Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
For someone who can be downright detestable, Heathcliff’s redeeming characteristic is his love for Cathy. As problematic as these feelings are, it is easy to empathize with him. The reason why I appreciate Heathcliff as a character is because of his complexity. He is neither the hero nor the villain. He is neither good nor fully evil. And, he is human to the extreme.
Did you enjoy Wuthering Heights? Do you like Heathcliff? Do you have more sympathy for Cathy or for Heathcliff? Let me know in the comments below.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Until Next Time,