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Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë, John S. Whitley 'Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? and if not, is he a devil?'

Isabella Linton's questions are my questions. Who and what in the world is Heathcliff? We know he's an orphan found on the streets of Liverpool by Mr. Earnshaw. The family of origin is not known; Heathcliff's last name is never stated. Even his tombstone reads only "Heathcliff".

Is Heathcliff a gypsy? A spawn of the devil? His dark appearance stands in contrast to the fairer complexions of the Earnshaws and Lintons. (Admittedly, linking dark hair and complexion to corruption and dissipation is a very simplistic, often dangerous way of articulating good and evil. Because the novel is so damned interesting, I'll give Bronte a pass here.) Acquaintances and family members sometimes compare his look to that of a demon, goblin or ghoul. Hints are made of his sharp teeth and black, bottomless eyes. The abyss seems to speak through Heathcliff. But really, he's no demon. He's an uber-passionate man with a monomaniacal romantic attachment to one woman—Catherine Earnshaw. Passion holds such sway over Heathcliff that he doesn't think twice about obliterating the lives and memories of anyone he perceives as standing between him and his soul mate.

You need to experience the relationship yourself to believe its violent and codependent nature:

"'I'm trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don't care how long I wait, if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do!'

'For shame, Heathcliff!' said I. 'It is for God to punish wicked people; we should learn to forgive.'

'No, God won’t have the satisfaction that I shall,' he returned. 'I only wish I knew the best way! Let me alone, and I'll plan it out: while I'm thinking of that I don't feel pain.'"

"'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—then 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 not 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 live with your soul in the grave?'

'Let me alone. Let me alone,' sobbed Catherine. 'If I’ve done wrong, I'm dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won't upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!'

'It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,' he answered. 'Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?'"

"'May she wake in torment!' he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. 'Why, she's a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. 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 cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!'"

Good lord man! It's this over-the-top passion that erupts into instances of shocking violence. Knives get thrown into necks, babies get dropped over bannisters, dogs get strung up and maimed, ears get boxed repeatedly, guns are brandished, skulls are bashed. And the sheer hatred! The bile spewed back and forth between characters is impressive. Here's Hindley Earnshaw foregoing niceties with his housekeeper: "'With the help of Satan, I shall make you swallow the carving-knife, Nelly!' ... 'But I don't like the carving-knife, Mr. Hindley, ... it has been cutting red herrings. I'd rather be shot if you please.'" Lovely huh?

In the end, there's really not a likeable character in the bunch, narrators included. Sure, you might sympathize with the victimized at times. But even the victimized prove themselves to be ridiculous or loathsome. My pity was reserved for the dogs, and maybe a smidge for Hareton and Catherine the younger. Otherwise, I hope the whole Earnshaw/Linton/Heathcliff brood will do humankind a great favor and stay locked away on that desolate moor. The story might be well written and entertaining, but I wouldn't treat any of the characters to a pint.

Is Emily Bronte the greatest one-hit-wonder in literary history? Perhaps. Wuthering Heights is a classic. Enjoy the tumultuous ride!