Monday, September 30, 2013

Wuthering Heights

During Yom Tov, I had the opportunity to read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. I had never read any of the works of the Bronte sisters, leading me to feel culturally deficient, so I finally bit the bullet and read this one.

At first, I couldn’t stand the book. Every character – save the twin narrators, Mr. Lockwood and Nelly Dean – is a villain, some through malevolence and some through weakness of spirit and some through caprice. Not only that; these villains are far over the top, painted in such forceful colours as to be fairly unbelievable.

But the book has grown on me since I finished reading it. I tend to agree with Rabbi Shalom Carmy's thought, expressed in a Tradition article last year last year (45:2, As We are Now is Not the Only Way to Be: On the Place of the Humanities in Contemporary Religious Culture): Our religious identities can be greatly enriched by exposure to the humanities. This book has given me much to think about along those lines.

In particular, Wuthering Heights offers a vivid portrayal of the effects of scorn on human beings.

  • Experiencing even mild scorn and contempt drives certain characters to radical selfishness, to abuse of others, and to malevolence that endures across years and generations. (Think of Heathcliff's response to Hindley Earnshaw, and Isabella's son Linton's response to Heathcliff.)
  • Other characters respond to scorn with equanimity, even if they are troubled. (Think of Heathcliff's responses to Nelly Dean.) 
  • This is a book of villains, and so it is hard to find someone driven by scorn to deeds of greatness – but on some level this may be seen, I think, in Nelly Dean, and perhaps in Catherine Earnshaw as well.
  • And then there is Joseph and his contrarian response to scorn, I suppose, but I'm not sure how to read him; he is really presented as more of a caricature.

The characters' responses vary as broadly as do the natures of the characters, and their situations in life.

At the other end of the relationship spectrum, affection at times drives a character away (Heathcliff and Isabella), and at other times has a humanizing effect (Hareton and Cathy). There is more to be said here, but in the interest of space I'll leave this be.

So how might this influence my religious identity? I'd rather leave this as a general comment, because the ideas are bigger and more abstract than any application I would give them, and applications will necessarily shrink them – but think about the various ways people response to biblical criticism [as in, criticism that leveled by the bible, not criticism of the bible...], or to harsh disapproval and mussar, particularly by parents.

Wuthering Heights is, on some level, a cautionary tale about the hazards and potential benefits of scorn; neither can promise a positive response, neither is entirely negative, and the intensity of the response to each will not necessarily be commensurate with the intensity with which they are applied. It has much more to do with the natures of the characters themselves, and their personal situations, and sensitivity to both is warranted when deciding how to instruct.

ואכמ"ל.

3 comments:

  1. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)September 30, 2013 at 9:25 PM

    Based on Wuthering Heights -- http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=323

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  2. I prefer Jane Eyre.

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