1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I love this book because I struggled to love it. At one point I disliked it. I used to teach 10th grade English and the book was part of the curriculum. When I started the job, I was none too thrilled by the book. I found it ridiculous, improbable, belabored and confusing – and I felt guilty asking my students to be responsible for the details of a book that baffled me. But over time, after teaching it year after year, Wuthering Heights took a firm hold on me. By the fifth or sixth time reading the book, I was an unabashed lover of the book. Brontë inhabits a kind of demonic mania in the love and hauntedness of Heathcliff and Catherine; but she constantly refracts our sense of this mania through layers and layers of framed narration. It is a tour-de-force of voice and design, and yet it never feels classical or academic or formulaic. I can’t even begin to explain how much I admire this coupling of a fierce, fiery, romantic imagination with a labyrinthine, intelligent, unpredictable structural design. The narrative design is as twisted as the plot, as twisted as the incest, as twisted as the transgressions and cruelty and violence and hypocrisy at the root of the novel; and in a sense, it is the vine from which all of these ghoulish elements sprout.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
The first time I read the book I was a sophomore in high school. I had to do a book report on it. I don’t remember very much about the experience, probably because I didn’t get the book at all. As a male teen growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, the rugged terrain of the Moors and the violent and erratic passions of Heathcliff and Catherine didn’t speak to me. The second time I read Wuthering Heights I was in my late 20s teaching sophomore English in New England. To an extent, my experience teaching high school was pivotal to my gradual love of the book because it was, for me, an experience of uncanny repetition: every year the rhythm of the academic calendar would evoke memories of my time as a high school student. As a result, that raw, emotional and awkward time in life was constantly re-animated in my psyche. Well, Brontë structures Wuthering Heights as a narrative of uncanny repetition, so I feel like it’s vital that my reading and teaching of the book was infused with these personal repetitions. Just as the second generation of characters repeats the first generation, with all their monstrous mutations and degenerations, so too did I repeat my teen years, year after year, day after day, with all the monstrosity and mutation (and sweetness!) of memory and sentiment.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Wuthering Heights has influenced me in many ways, more so in my thinking and sense of the world than in my writing, though it has opened up thematic territories to me as well. It has affected the way I think about place, the self, being haunted, cruelty, and repetition. Wuthering Heights has also influenced the way I think about race and the rampant social hypocrisies that persist in Christian communities that are supposedly based on love. When Mr. Earnshaw brings home Heathcliff, this “thing” who is “dark almost as if it came from hell,” he is an orphan; but as much as Mr. Earnshaw is attempting an act of charity, it backfires and Heathcliff is basically re-orphaned into this isolated Yorkshire community where even the one person with whom he has a spiritual bond turns on him. And in a sense, most of the major characters, from Lockwood to Nelly Dean to Isabella to Catherine Linton, experience a kind of orphaning as they move between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, the two estates of the novel. So despite the closeness of the novel’s intimate community, there is a constant sense of abandonment and personal isolation, as if every single character were a freakish outsider. Brontë enhances these feelings through all the atmospherics of the text – the storms, the descriptions of the Moors, the haunted enclosed spaces, the frenzied and hallucinatory narrations.
And a great deal of power comes with that outsider status. Like a potent contagion, Heathcliff radically contaminates the hypocritical purity of the novel’s privileged and reclusive society. And as with all contagions, the process is basically copied in a myriad of ways: for example, Catherine Earnshaw, after marrying Edgar, contaminates Thrushcross Grange and the entire Linton sense of propriety; or in an ironic reversal, Catherine Linton, contaminates the degeneration that has taken root at Wuthering Heights, altering the mindsets of both Linton and Hareton. You can trace this zigzagging of contamination, mimesis, repetition and reversal all over the novel. It’s dizzying.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
‘Disturbed her? No! She has disturbed me, night and day through eighteen years – incessantly – remorselessly – till yesternight – and yesternight, I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep, by that sleeper, with my heart stopped, and my cheek frozen against hers.
‘And if she had been dissolved into earth, or worse, what would you have dreamt of then?’ I [Nelly] said.
‘Of dissolving with her, and being more happy still!’ he [Heathcliff] answered. ‘Do you suppose I dread any change of that sort?’
Here Nelly, the housekeeper and principle narrator, is questioning Heathcliff about his graveyard pastimes. Heathcliff tells her that he bribed the sexton to give him a peak at Catherine’s yet decayed body (it’s been fifteen years since her death, but the body hasn’t decayed, apparently, because of the unique chemical composition of the peaty soil in the Moors). Nelly, horrified, asks if he is worried that he has disturbed her spirit. Heathcliff’s narration of digging up Catherine’s grave is one of the memorable transgressions in the book. Not only is he unearthing the dead, a big no-no, but there’s also a hint of necrophilia because we all know there’s no place more erotic than the grave.
I used to ask my students if this was the meaning of true love, loving someone so much that you want to decay with them. Imagine putting that in your wedding vows! Traditionally, death is the limit of the vow (“until death do us part”), but here we have to wait until death for the ultimate consummation, the long co-decay. But it’s powerful, too, because for all the improbability of the novel, Brontë is confronting the hard facts of our material existence. The dissolution of the body here basically mimics the dissolution of the self in the novel’s variation of romantic love. What you get is this unsettling blend of the macabre image of bodily decay with the ecstasy of romantic-erotic love. Death marries sex and transgression leads to a sanctimonious union.
There’s also a wonderful ironic sense that the living is haunting the dead, as if life itself (for Heathcliff) were a kind of ghostly act of haunting since his imagination and entire psychology is basically focused on a dead woman for the better part of 20 years. He becomes more otherworldly, less human, more of a “goblin” in Nelly’s words, until his final transfixion and death. Catherine’s ghost is reported throughout the book, and once Heathcliff dies, sightings of his ghost are also reported, but the living Heathcliff was already a ghost-in-life. There is a truth to this ghosting in that memory makes ghosts of us all.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
All the Catherine’s I know, namely my sister, and two fantastic poets Catherine Theis and Katherine Hollander.
*** Nathan Hoks is the author of Reveilles, which won Salt Publishing’s Crashaw Prize in 2010 and The Narrow Circle (Penguin, 2013). His poems and translations have appeared in Crazyhorse, Lit, Circumference, and Verse. He is an editor and letterpress printer for Convulsive Editions, and lives with his wife and son in Chicago.