"The Dead Are Not Annihilated": Mortal Regret in Wuthering Heights
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Journal of Narrative Theory 34.3 (2004) 373-406

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"The Dead Are Not Annihilated":

Mortal Regret in Wuthering Heights

Regret is essentially generative of narrative. It is an emotion that engages the mind in a story-making process that seeks to correct a past experience. Regret can be formulated mentally and verbally through the conditional phrases "If only . . ."; "I wish I had . . .". In my larger work, I examine three types of regret: martial (regret over killing), marital (regret over marrying), and mortal (regret over the death of a loved one). Here, I will be looking at the psychological, structural and generic features of mortal regret. Although regret is an experience that crosses historical boundaries, my main focus is on the nineteenth century: I will be using Brontë's Wuthering Heights as an exemplary text of mortal regret.

I. Agent-Regret: character and plot

Catherine Earnshaw Linton's death halfway through Wuthering Heights makes an accommodation to her loss a structural necessity. The young Catherine, Brontë's narrator Nelly explains, "was much too fond of Heathcliff. The greatest punishment we could invent was to keep her separate from him" (40). The separation of Brontë's lovers is the motivating event of the novel. Death, the greatest separation of all, is redefined by Brontë as a generative state. Her frustrated lovers not only reunite in the grave (defying extinction), they also leave behind a second generation of [End Page 373] survivors to persist in their absence. Even as nineteenth-century society is grieving in epitaphs and mourning practices, Brontë inscribes the wound of mortal loss with words that act as sutures to both mark and repair psychic injury. Her novel incorporates and repudiates two main cultural forms of consolation: the genre of elegy, and the concept of the Christian afterlife, both of which require an acceptance of the limitations of mortality. Instead, Brontë's particular expression of mortal regret in Wuthering Heights is generated out of a complex of remorse, grief, and resistance that testifies to the persistence of life in the face of loss.

The social historian Philippe Ariès designated the nineteenth century as the "era of mourning." In a revival of excesses not seen since the Middle Ages, mourning was "unfurled with an uncustomary degree of ostentation . . . it claimed to have no obligations to social convention and to be the most spontaneous and insurmountable expression of a very grave wound" (67). According to Ariès, as "survivors accepted the death of another person with greater difficulty," the fear of death shifted away from one's own death to "the death of another, la mort de toi" (68). The feeling of intolerance to a loved one's death that historically gave rise to the mourning industry and the modern cult of tombs and cemeteries is the same feeling, I would argue, that motivated the production of a new kind of novel based on what I call mortal regret.

Emily Brontë published her only novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847. Brontë's history is replete with the losses that motivate mortal regret: Brontë's mother, her two older sisters, her aunt, and her beloved brother Branwell all died during her lifetime. Emily 'catches her death' at Branwell's funeral and within weeks was desperately ill. Dismissing all remedies and refusing to take to her bed or nourish herself properly, she died of tuberculosis soon after. Unlike her sister Charlotte, who seemed to find a religious consolation despite her mounting losses,1 Emily rejected the God and the church of her father (Patrick Brontë was a Evangelical clergyman) in favor of what she calls "the God within my breast." Emily refused to teach at Sunday school and did not attend church regularly. According to Stevie Davies, her attitude towards Christian piety "varied from the cool to the contemptuous" (19). As Christianity could not assuage her mourning, the novel became the medium of Brontë's reparative work.

Authors of mortal regret are deeply interested in the act of putting together a narrative that both contains and expresses intense grief. In...