On the page, Cathy Earnshaw is one tough female:
“She was never so happy as when we were all scolding her at once, and she defying us with her bold, saucy look, and her ready words.”
“Edgar had a deep-rooted fear of ruffling her humor.”
“You are acquainted with the Earnshaws’ violent dispositions, and [Cathy] caps them all.”
So how did Emily Brontë’s taut, ferocious novel of love and loss, Wuthering Heights, get labeled as a bad romance, misogynistic Heathcliff ruining poor Cathy’s life? I’ve met that interpretation more than once lately, almost exclusively from young women: “Oh, that book’s so sad—Heathcliff’s an abuser, and Cathy’s his victim.” Or “Heathcliff’s such a bad boy, that’s why Cathy loves him.” And that drives me crazy, because those misreadings drive away the story’s natural readers—self-questioning, passionate young people.
Adapting Wuthering Heights for nerve proved again what I knew was true: this narrative belongs to Cathy, its tragedy her own willed betrayal not of Heathcliff, but of herself.
From the start, she’s in charge. Befriending the orphan boy from nowhere puts her at serious odds with Hindley, her bully brother, but Cathy is determined to keep Heathcliff literally at her side: sleeping in the same bed, roaming barefoot on the moors, getting pinched while terrorizing the rich neighbors’ kids.
It’s those neighbors, the Lintons, Edgar Linton in particular, who offer the crossroads where Cathy takes the wrong turn. Her decision to marry Edgar is a choice not between two men who love her, but between the only two futures she sees available: “If Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars . . . [I]f I marry Linton I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.”
Yet that move toward a sheltered and smothering, inauthentic life, can never be a good one, and at her core, Cathy already knows it: “I dreamt once that I was [in heaven] . . . the angels were so angry that they flung me . . . on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. . . I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven.” Later, ill and heartsick, she speaks of being “converted at a stroke into Mrs. Linton, the lady of Thrushcross Grange, and the wife of a stranger: an exile, and outcast, from what had been my world . . . I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free!”
Cathy makes the wrong turn for the right reason: to try to shape her life using the only tools available. We can wish for her a better toolkit, better alternatives than marrying a guy she kind of likes to free herself and her soul mate from the bitter, alcoholic master of their house, but everything that follows—Heathcliff’s shattered departure into grief and revenge, their painful reunions, even Cathy’s death—grows from that sorry seed.
Heathcliff knows it. In their last moments, he asks, “Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.”
Even as she leaves this world, she stays in charge: Heathcliff, trying to prevent a deathbed confrontation with Linton, says, “I must go. For one hour,” but “Not for one minute,” Cathy insists. “You shall not, I tell you.” And he does as she says, he stays; and Linton enters to find the man he hates holding the woman he loves; and she dies.
What Heathcliff does next, for the following eighteen years, while he mourns and excoriates and yearns for his soul’s companion—what Cathy does next, as Heathcliff reveals how “I felt her by me—I could almost see her, and yet I could not! She showed herself, as she often was in life, a devil to me”—how she seeks, with a will stronger than the life she left unfinished, to bring their stories back together, to one eternally-united tale . . . Again, and even more powerfully, Cathy turns the wheel.
Her famous (and famously misunderstood) statement, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff,” finds its equivalent in Heathcliff’s cri de coeur about her: “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul”—Heathcliff who loves as fully and furiously as Cathy does, beyond any pretense of “masculine” emotional distance.
But it’s Cathy who says “Be content, you always followed me!”—the real Cathy, nobody’s bitch but her own: the fierce little girl who grew to be a fiercer woman, Cathy Earnshaw at the Heights, where she belongs.
[Illustration: Fritz Eichenberg.]