Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Cult of Perfection: Reflections on Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte
I am certainly not the first to observe that writing workshops can sterilize one’s writing.  People like to point to Kafka or Woolf or any number of unconventional writers and laugh at the thought of them showing up to a workshop with their manuscripts.  The poor workshop comes out, in these portrayals, as never able to appreciate the genius before them.

I couldn’t help but indulge in that same thought as I re-read Wuthering Heights (my last reading was my freshman year of college, roughly eight years ago).  What if Emily Bronte had brought this to a writing workshop?  Immediately, people would comment on how the bulky narratorial structure leads to some contrived conversations.  The first-person narrator, Mr. Lockwood, hears the tale of Wuthering Heights from long-time servant, Nelly Dean, whose own first-person narrative fills most of the book. 
But why Heathcliff, who has consistently held himself apart from the inmates of Wuthering Heights in evil brooding, indulges in telling Nelly his inmost thoughts and feelings (which she, in turn, tells Mr. Lockwood) can only be answered by the author's desire to shed light on Heathcliff’s motives.  Bronte even seems aware of this contrivance: Heathcliff says to Nelly, “But you’ll not talk of what I tell you, and my mind is so eternally secluded in itself, it is tempting, at last, to turn it out to another.”  And again, in that same unbelievable speech, “My confessions have not relieved me—but, they may account for some otherwise unaccountable phases of humour which I show.”

From a certain remove, I can see this unnatural narrative structure is a flaw.  But when I’m reading the novel—and I’d be willing to bet this is not a phenomenon peculiar to me—I don’t care that the situation is contrived or that Nelly Dean narrates her life to Lockwood in a way that sounds like the prose of a novel, not like a servant speaking.  I don’t care because beneath this construct, the engine of passion that animates these characters and, in fact, pulls the entire narrative forward is so powerful that my aesthetic sensibilities might as well be a penny on the tracks.  With all the primitive longing for story, I want to hear Heathcliff’s speech; the character fascinates me and his speech is the more vivid for its rarity in the novel.  Who cares, then, if it doesn’t organically arise?

Wuthering Heights is not a “voice” novel in the sense of the craze that has contemporary literature in its clutches.  Everything is Illuminated, The History of Love, even what I know of Water for Elephants (I confess I haven’t read beyond a few pages yet)—these are all in the voice of a certain character.  In fact, some writers use voice these days as a substitute for substance, and many contemporary readers buy it.  But as I said, Wuthering Heights is not in the “voice” of Nelly Dean, per se, though it is in her perspective; but it is a voice novel in that it advances largely by dialogues and confrontations between the characters in the tale Nelly tells, and each of the impressively large cast of characters is distinct.  They speak in their own characteristic—and characterizing—ways.

Yet another miracle to behold: the bulky and, as we have seen, contrived narrative structure is actually part of the book’s genius.  It struck me this time around that Wuthering Heights has a graceful economy to it that is rare; the only other immediate example that comes to mind is The Great Gatsby.  By graceful economy, I mean that the interactions between characters are just the ones that reveal the characters and the story; no scene is wasted, and even within the scenes themselves, the description is simple but vivid.  In part, this is because both Gatsby and WH are told from a near observer’s point of view, and not from that of the protagonists themselves.  This allows the author, through the narrator, to portray only the most pertinent scenes. And as for simple but vivid description, listen to these sentences from the most climactic, passionate scene of the book—the last meeting of Heathcliff and Catherine senior.  “After a pause and a prolonged gaze, she resumed, addressing me in accents of indignant disappointment”; or “Heathcliff groaned a curse, and strained Catherine closer—she never moved”; or again, “He would have risen, and unfixed her fingers by the act—she clung fast, gasping; there was mad resolution in her face.”  A lesser writer would belabor the descriptions; a writing workshop would advise, Make us see her face; show us, don’t just tell us there is mad resolution in her face.  Perhaps you have to read the scene itself to appreciate what a mistake such detail would be here.  We don’t need it—the characters themselves and their dialogue have made it clear to us what it means for Catherine to have mad resolution in her face and for Heathcliff to groan a curse.  Economical, spare, but evocative.

The poor writing workshop might also have encouraged Emily Bronte to give Heathcliff’s backstory.  The mystery of his origins would not satisfy the well-intentioned critics.  Neither would they see sufficient reason for him to become the evil character that he becomes, and they would suggest Bronte write another scene or two setting up why he’s so bad.  Or worse, they might encourage Bronte to tone him down all together so that he would be more “believable.” 

I don’t mean to slam writing workshops here.  I only mean to marvel the more at how, despite all these “flaws,” Wuthering Heights doesn’t feel flawed at all.  The experience of reading it is so vivid—and yes, the characters are unbelievably harsh and passionate to one another, and yet anyone who has experienced family dynamics at once recognizes the often inexplicable ways people in close proximity treat one another.  Even flaws cannot contain a book so true, huge, haunting, and passionate as Wuthering Heights.

1 comment:

  1. Your last paragraph is magnificent! Loved this post. Wuthering Heights is my all-time favorite book. I rarely find someone who even knows what I am talking about - let alone loves it too!

    So nice to reconnect with you! :)