Cathy and Hareton choose peace over remembrance.

It’s always a surprise, re-reading Wuthering Heights. It’s one of those stories (Robinson Crusoe is another) that has been so pruned and planed down in its cinematic retellings, and the countless homages and parodies thereof, that even being acquainted with the lopped-off parts, it’s easy to deprecate them in memory. So I was surprised again to discover how monstrously Heathcliff behaves toward everyone.

wuthering heights kate beaton hark a vagrant

From Hark, A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton.

I remembered the above episode because of Kate Beaton’s comic, but I’d forgotten how when running off with Isabella Linton, purely to torment her, Heathcliff takes the time to hang her little dog by a handkerchief from a hook outside her house. (The dog is rescued just in time.)

And I’d forgotten how soon Cathy dies. The oft-overlooked back half of the story concerns Cathy and Edgar Linton’s daughter, also called Cathy, and Heathcliff’s progressively more unscrupulous efforts to persuade and then force her to marry his and Isabella’s detestable son, Linton Heathcliff. (Emily Brontë seems to have deliberately chosen her characters’ names to maximize reader confusion.) Having succeeded in his aim, the elder Heathcliff imprisons young Cathy in Wuthering Heights to nurse her sickly husband until his death.

Meanwhile Heathcliff has been taking his revenge on Hindley, the elder Cathy’s deceased brother, by raising Hindley’s son to be a coarse and illiterate farmhand. Although young Hareton is at first enchanted by his beautiful and lively cousin, the genteel Cathy despises him and ridicules his clumsy attempts to be kind to her. Hareton soon decides that she’s an impossible brat and goes out of his way to be offensive when she’s around.

After her husband’s death, Cathy goes on living with Hareton and Heathcliff in an atmosphere of general surliness. Luckily, Heathcliff is increasingly absorbed in his communion with the elder Cathy’s ghost, and loses interest in prolonging his vengeance on the children of his enemies. This slight remittance in the toxicity level is enough to revive young Cathy’s innate good nature. She humbly apologizes to Hareton, and when he at first scorns her overtures (assuming them to be a new ploy to torment him), persists in her efforts to win his friendship.

But she almost blows it by speaking frankly about her loathing for Heathcliff, whom Hareton improbably regards as his benefactor:

Catherine was waxing cross at this, but he found means to make her hold her tongue, by asking, how she would like him to speak ill of her father? and then she comprehended that [Hareton] took [Heathcliff]’s reputation home to himself, and was attached by ties stronger than reason could break – chains, forged by habit, which it would be cruel to attempt to loosen.

She showed a good heart, thenceforth, in avoiding both complaints and expressions of antipathy concerning Heathcliff, and confessed to me her sorrow that she had endeavoured to raise a bad spirit between him and Hareton – indeed, I don’t believe she has ever breathed a syllable, in the latter’s hearing, against her oppressor, since.

The novel ends with Heathcliff dead and Cathy and Hareton happily betrothed, having finally ended the previous generation’s cycle of recrimination by the simple expedient of agreeing not to talk about it.

I realize that this moral is at odds with today’s conventional wisdom, which is that victims should never stop dwelling on their victimization. I don’t claim that letting sleeping dogs lie is always the best strategy for fostering peace, but perhaps it’s better than poking sleeping dogs and demanding that they recite their grievances.

Cathy and Hareton are relics of the Victorian sensibility; we live in a Heathcliffian age.


Quibbling readers might have noticed that my previous post concluded with a Father Brown quote that conveys a moral opposite to the one above. So be it. I make no claims to intellectual consistency.


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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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