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Wuthering Heights: The Romantic Ascent

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 2, October 1996
pp. 362-382 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0076

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Philosophy and Literature 20.2 (1996) 362-382


"If I were in heaven, Nelly," she said, "I should be extremely miserable."
"I dreamt, once, that I was there. . . . [H]eaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy."

Cathy's soul cannot live in the Christian heaven. For her soul, she explains, is the same as Heathcliff's soul, and the heavenly soul of Linton is as different from theirs "as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire" (p. 95). Much later, as she lies on her deathbed, now the wife of Edgar Linton, thinking the Linton thought that what she wants is an escape into "that glorious world" of paradise and peace, Heathcliff watches her with burning eyes. At last she calls to him:

In her eagerness she rose and supported herself on the arm of the chair. At that earnest appeal he turned to her, looking absolutely desperate. His eyes, wide and wet, at last flashed fiercely on her; his breast heaved convulsively. An instant they held asunder, and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive: in fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat, and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species: it appeared that he would not understand, though I spoke to him; so I stood off, and held my tongue, in great perplexity.(pp. 188-89)

Brontë's description alludes to the imagery of the Christian ascent tradition. As in Augustine and Dante, love is a flame that animates the eyes, a lightning bolt that pierces the fog of our obtuse daily condition; as in that tradition, love's energy causes the lover to leap away from the petty egoism of the daily into an ecstatic and mutually loving embrace. But we know we are far from the world of the Christian ascent, even its erotic Augustinian form. Cathy's spring is not an upward, but a horizontal movement -- not toward heaven, but toward her beloved moors and winds, severed from which she would find heaven miserable; not toward God but toward Heathcliff, the lover of her soul. Nor is there redemption into heaven in this work; there is, if anything, a redemption from a world dominated by the imagination of heaven, into a world that the pious Ellen Dean can recognize only as an animal world, a world inhabited by creatures of a different species, who probably do not understand language, so thoroughly are they identified with the energy of the body. A few hours after Cathy's death Heathcliff, as Ellen Dean tells us, in a sudden "paroxysm of ungovernable passion," dashes his head against the knotted trunk of a tree, splashing the bark with blood, "and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears" (p. 197). It is in his world alone, it would seem, that flame is truly found. As Cathy said to Edgar Linton, "Your cold blood cannot be worked into a fever: your veins are full of ice-water; but mine are boiling, and the sight of such chillness makes them dance."

Brontë's novel situates itself within a long tradition of writing about love and its ascent or purification. This tradition, inaugurated by Socrates' description of the ladder of love in Plato's Symposium, is continued by later Platonists, and radically reformulated by Christian thinkers, who stress, against Plato, the soul's receptivity and vulnerability to the inscrutable operations of grace. In both the Platonic and the Christian pictures...

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