When Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, under the name of Ellis Bell, it received mixed reviews. Although some critics saw the potential evident in the cyclical plot and other literary devices, many others were shocked and dismayed by the unashamedly dark storyline.
Different for the Era
To be sure, Wuthering Heights was a very different book than what was generally considered acceptable during that era. In direct contrast to Emily Bronte's novel, Susannah Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1828) tells the story of a young lady who permits her beau to steal her away in the middle of the night. Predictably, he impregnates her and then abandons her, after which she dies of a broken heart. As was common in novels of the era, Charlotte Temple used a fictional story to instruct its readers―primarily young ladies―in what was expected of them.
In Wuthering Heights, one of the main female characters dies of what could also be considered a broken heart, but the effect is a very different one from that of Charlotte Temple. Instead of presenting an overly sentimental worst-case scenario meant to frighten its readers onto the straight-and-narrow, Wuthering Heights seduces its readers with its dark passion and misguided characters. Both Heathcliff and Catherine are flawed characters, but their flaws intrigue the reader just as surely as they repel. If there is any lesson to be learned after Catherine's death, it is the folly of denying your heart's greatest passion―a mistake completely at odds with the cause of Charlotte Temple's downfall.
Controversy & Obscurity
Due to the novel's tumultuous passion, the book received a mixture of responses. Eventually, those who were scandalized by the book's inappropriateness won out, and Emily Bronte's only novel was buried in literary obscurity. Decades later, when Wuthering Heights was revived by the interest of modern scholars, the unique literary devices used in the work began to earn more attention than its soap opera-like tale of obsession and loss.
Although the second part of the novel―the part that chiefly concerns Catherine and Heathcliff's respective children―is frequently overlooked in retellings and screen adaptations, many contemporary critics believe it holds the key to Emily Bronte's real literary genius. The first generation of children―Catherine, her brother Hindley, and the gypsy child Heathcliff―had led miserable lives, and both Catherine and Hindley died young as payment for their misguided passions. As a result of Heathcliff's scheming prior to Hindley's death, he has inherited the Earnshaw home, as well as the care of Hindley's son, Hareton. After the death of Heathcliff's estranged wife―Catherine's husband's sister, his own son, Linton, comes to live with him as well, setting in motion his final push for revenge.
The highlight of the second part of the book is when Heathcliff effectively kidnaps Catherine's daughter, who is called Cathy. With the three children now all under one roof, the latter half of the book parallels the beginning, when Catherine, Hindley, and Heathcliff were all children together in the same house. However, whether by a twist of fate or Heathcliff's mistreatment of the boy, Hareton's demeanor and place in the household resembles Heathcliff's childhood persona more than that of his own father, while Linton is so weak and sickly that he is the perfect opposite of Heathcliff.
Despite the clear similarities to the old rivalries, though, the children begin to converge, rather than to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Maddened by a desire for revenge, Heathcliff attempts to play them against one another, forcing Cathy to marry Linton so that he may inherit the neighboring property that belongs to his rival, Catherine's widower. Linton dies soon after. After Heathcliff's own death, the tale comes full circle: the estates return to their rightful heirs, Hareton and the younger Cathy fall in love, and Heathcliff's legacy of revenge disappears almost without a trace.
Despite its early reception, the combination of unbridled passion and a complex storytelling form makes Wuthering Heights a favorite in many modern literary circles. The darkness of the story and the lack of accompanying moral teachings shocked many of its contemporaries, while the intricacies of the cyclical plot―the destruction and ultimate reunification of the families―were overlooked until recent decades. A novel that combines masterful literary devices with all of the scandals of a soap opera, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights was a drama far ahead of its time.