“MORE MYSELF THAN I AM”: SEEING DOUBLE IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS
Early editions of Wuthering Heights were split into two volumes, dividing the text to reflect how the narrative spans two generations of characters, but doubles abound in Emily Brontë’s novel of love and revenge.
He said she said
The novel begins when its narrative is nearly finished, events coming to an end after a period of thirty years. It begins with the date “1801”, anchoring the narrative in a present that really belongs to the second half of the novel with most of the first half of the novel is something of a lengthy flashback, Mr Lockwood telling us what Mrs Dean told him (while Mrs Dean, in turn, sometimes talks of events related to her by someone else, such as Isabella). This protracted example of analepsis means we have a story that mixes both past and present together, one linked to the other and brought to us through a doubling of narrator via Mr Lockwood and Mrs Dean.
Lockwood comes to Wuthering Heights as an outsider so makes for a first-person narrator with whom the reader can easily identify. Brontë knew Yorkshire would seem strange to some of her readers and Lockwood was her way of addressing this, for it would appear strange to him too. He acts as a filter through which Mrs Dean’s account passes, a convoluted process of ‘he said she said’ but also a doubling of narrator that puts more distance between the reader and the events. He provides our introduction to Catherine, first through her diaries as a child and then, perhaps most memorably, as a ghost at his window. It makes for a very dramatic beginning, but Lockwood isn’t necessarily a trustworthy source. He very quickly proves to be naïve and somewhat out of his depth at the Heights, misreading the situations he finds himself in. Take, for example, his error in thinking a heap of dead rabbits were favourite pets of the young Catherine. Rather quickly he is forced to alter his first impressions of his host, “I no longer felt inclined to call Heathcliff a capital fellow”, and he mistakenly identifies the “amiable lady” of the house to be Heathcliff’s wife. It’s “a blunder” that has us questioning his reliability, a caution to bear in mind with any first-person narrator.
Our other narrator is Mrs Dean, her account reported to us through Lockwood. In being witness to past events as well as present ones, Mrs Dean is a narrator who binds both together and while critics might question her ability to remember so much so clearly, she does offer the advantage of having had an active part in the narrative (is even threatened and kidnapped in its course) and this makes her far more than simply a bystander relating who said what to who. As a simple housekeeper, a very ordinary role, she is also in a position to make the extraordinary more credible and can protect a cautious or sensitive reader from the full impact of the novel’s violent passions, (and prevent the story from falling into melodrama). However, as a participant, and as someone in a role of care, we need to be wary of her reliability, too, due to personal bias. That said, she is very much a narrator on the inside, and having worked at both the Heights and the Grange she is in a position to offer an apparently balanced view of both.
Reflections of a unified self
The two households in Wuthering Heights offer another example of doubling in the text and provide an element of opposition. The Heights, for example, exposed to the elements, stands as a symbol of passion, whereas the Grange is sheltered in the valley and more restrained, a contrast evident in the resident families. The families, too, supply more doubling in that both have a set of children that are brother and sister, with Heathcliff an adopted extra at the Heights. It marks him as something of an oddity, his existence disrupting the potential harmony.
This is something that severely affects Catherine, and once she has spent time at the Grange she suffers a confusion of identity and adopts “a double character”, polite and lady-like with the Lintons but maintaining her wildness with Heathcliff, at least for a while. Brontë prepares us for this confusion early in the text, Lockwood discovering “a name repeated…Catherine Earnshaw here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton” each scrawled into the paint of the window ledge where her ghost will appear.
Catherine might go from Earnshaw to Linton in the process of the narrative, but her identity is inextricably tied in with that of Heathcliff. “Nelly, I am Heathcliff” she says, “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” and as Mrs Dean points out, “The greatest punishment we could invent for her was to keep her separate from him”. Theirs is perhaps the most obvious doubling in the novel, one that is balanced rather than opposed. The pair are “two non-identical doubles, reflections of a unified self” says Rosemary Jackson in her book, Fantasy and essentially it is their separation that drives much of the novel; without Heathcliff, Catherine is fragmented, just as Heathcliff is without her, but whereas Heathcliff is sustained by active revenge, passive Catherine has nothing but her own regrets and eventual madness. She becomes afraid of being alone and, more tellingly, becomes afraid of her own reflection, a doubling of herself that contains no Heathcliff.
Arriving as a mysterious orphan, much has been speculated about Heathcliff’s past but the only past we can be sure of is the one he experiences at Wuthering Heights. His given name comes from a son who died during childbirth, but this doubling is not enough to integrate him into the family fully and his difference provides much of the novel’s conflict. Indeed, his very name is one of contrast, the pleasant heath juxtaposed against the hard cliff. But while Lockwood might think “he’ll love and hate equally”, Heathcliff goes on to prove himself a bitter and vengeful character, striking out at those who oppose him and continuing his acts of cruelty into the next generation in a relentless repetition of revenge that far outweighs any love we may have seen in the novel. It leads to another doubling of sorts, Heathcliff creating the same harsh home environment as the one he had to endure, making others suffer as he has in losing his beloved Catherine.
“if people be right to marry only for the present…”
Heathcliff loses his double when Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton. Edgar may be “as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire” but Catherine takes him as a husband and this union goes some way towards uniting the Earnshaw and Linton families, Heights and Grange. It’s a partnership Heathcliff mirrors upon his return in quickly marrying Isabella, though it also emphasises Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s separation.
It is Catherine’s marriage to Edgar that sets Heathcliff on his “arrow-straight course to perdition” (as Charlotte Brontë’s put it) but Catherine’s path is no less unfortunate. As a ghost, Catherine laments she has “been a waif for twenty years” but a careful reader will note she has been dead for only seventeen. In a novel that is otherwise carefully constructed it seems unlikely that this is an error on Brontë’s part, but rather a deliberate time reference and counting back twenty years from this point we find Catherine telling Mrs Dean of her intentions to marry Edgar; it is in denying her love for Heathcliff that Catherine becomes this waif doomed without her double. Only when her daughter marries do we finally get a Catherine Heathcliff.
“a second edition of the mother”
Just as Heathcliff takes his name from another, so young Catherine takes her name from her mother to give us another example of doubling in Wuthering Heights, though she is referred to as Cathy, “a distinction from the mother, and yet a connection with her”. As if the text cannot support two of them, the older Catherine dies shortly after the birth of the second. It marks the halfway point in the novel and essentially splits the narrative in two; indeed, this is where some versions of the text separate the novel into two volumes.
Cathy is the one Lockwood meets first at the Heights and incorrectly assumes is Heathcliff’s wife. When he learns who she is he becomes wary of her, lest “the daughter turned out a second edition of the mother”. There is even a scene in which the young Cathy sits “in a little chair that had been her mother’s when a child” as if to highlight how one is taking the place of the other, especially as this chair is at the Heights rather than the Grange.
Continuing the doubling, the relationship between Cathy and Linton shares some similarities with the one Heathcliff and Catherine had briefly enjoyed, though whereas Heathcliff was strong and passionate, Linton is weak and petty. Nevertheless, Heathcliff encourages, and eventually forces, a union between the two, inheriting Cathy’s property through the marriage to finally possess both the Heights and the Grange, completing his revenge.
“the dead are not annihilated!”
Their marriage does not last long, and it is up to Cathy and Hareton to continue the story of Wuthering Heights, a younger generation that provides a certain symmetry of narrative but also reflects a revising of it. Theirs is a life without the oppositions or conflicts that troubled the previous generation, something Brontë highlights by having Hareton struggle with the word “contrary” when learning to read. It makes for a hopeful conclusion in which one story is the potentially positive result of the other.
It’s a conclusion from which Heathcliff is absent. In his essay ‘A Future of Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature’, Leo Bersani claims that “narrative structure works towards the expulsion of difference” and in Wuthering Heights this means expelling Heathcliff. Not only does he represent difference in being the “cuckoo” of the novel but he no longer has a place in the narrative without his double. Catherine is now merely a ghost at the window, an outsider at the Heights just as Heathcliff once was, but while marriage has been denied them in life the two can be reunited in death.
Divided into two volumes or not, Wuthering Heights is very much a novel of two parts, each laying side by side and collapsing into each other like the bodies of Heathcliff and Catherine in their shared grave. And like them, phantoms together forever on the moors, it’s a novel that seems likely to endure.