Is Heathcliff a Vampire? In Defence of Emily Bronte

Is there a more commonly misunderstood novel than Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights? I can’t think of one, yet it’s been one of my favourite books for a long time. It’s come to my attention that Stephenie Meyer based her Twilight series on Wuthering Heights, and ever since it’s been almost impossible to overlook the irony of this association – especially since I found out about these special Twilight-themed Wuthering Heights reissues, which is about as appropriate as slapping the Fifty Shades of Grey cover on Anna Karenina.

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For those of you unfamiliar with either novel (unlikely), Twilight is about a teenage girl’s crush on a vampire, and Wuthering Heights is the story of a doomed 19th century love affair.

I hear many people don’t actually like Wuthering Heights much, not so much for its style or the language it’s written in, but (probably) more because it defies people’s expectations of a love story along the lines of Pride and Prejudice, for instance. If Wuthering Heights is a love story, it is a very peculiar one. The main characters, Catherine and Heathcliffe, are wild and selfish and love doesn’t exist in their universe, unless it’s paired with obsession, violence, and jealousy. The story is characterised by its all around brutal nature, shaped by the English moors that the characters are doomed to wander around in, with Cathy and Heathcliffe as the central embodiments of these vices:

“On that bleak hill top the earth was hard with a black frost, and the air made me shiver through every limb.”  (Wuthering Heights)

I think this makes people uncomfortable not only because of the sense of alienation the book purposely creates between the reader and the character, but because the love affair it describes is really quite unsympathetic- because fundamentally, it’s not love as much as obsession. Yet, as we shall see, it’s surprisingly close to the version of romantic love Twilight idealizes.

“ I felt a thrill of genuine fear, raising the hair on my arms. The look only lasted a second, but it chilled me more than the freezing wind.” (Twilight)

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In fact, those of you who have been unhappy enough to read the books( like me) will know that Bella, the main character, is obsessed with a guy named Edward. He is perfect and beautiful in every way- except for the fact that he’s also a vampire. Edward, in turn, can’t resist the smell of Bella’s blood, and fosters a bit of an obsession with the girl in turn. When Edward leaves her, Bella is so heart-broken that is purposely starts putting herself in dangerous situations for the sole purpose of convincing him to come back to rescue her. The idea of Twilight, then, is of course that literally not being able to live without your significant other is the height of romance:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.” (Wuthering Heights)

But in Wuthering Heights, this quote spoken by Catherine about Heathcliff doesn’t speak of love as much as obsession. I think Wuthering Heights is so interesting and controversial because it operates on such an odd relationship between the two characters, which in more ways than one confuses normal boundaries: it’s unerotic, yet full of references to the breaking down of Cathy and Heathcliff’s individual identities. It is unequal in the sense that Cathy is wealthy and Heathcliff, being described as a ‘gypsy orphan’ is not. It even touches on the possibility of an interracial relationship (Heathcliff is described as very dark in appearance and it has been wondered whether he was actually black) or even somewhat incestuous, since the two are together from such a young age.

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Cathy and Heathcliff form a bond that runs so deep they consider the other a natural extension of their own person. It is not a healthy love, because they are full of jealousy and violence to the other person, which I think derives mostly from self-loathing, pride and a rage against the class circumstances that make it impossible for Cathy to marry Heathcliff. However, being apart from each other they realize that neither can hope to make any claim to life or indeed, to any form of peace of mind and mental stability without the other to love and torment.

While the subject of Wuthering Heights is debatable, I have no doubt in my mind that it is mainly a picture of obsession and its poisonous effects on love. I doubt anyone in their right minds would give up so much to a lover that the universe itself would turn “a mighty stranger”, if they decided not to call you up some day or moved towns.

 “I couldn’t allow him to have this level of influence over me. It was pathetic. More than pathetic, it was unhealthy.” (Twilight)

So apparently this occurred to Stephanie Meyer at some level, too- her Twilight certainly captures the idea of her obsession with her lover as alien and dangerous, however the idea got left hopelessly behind when she went on to explore the many perks of her vampire as opposed to Bella’s own sense of insignificance:

“I wasn’t interesting. And he was. Interesting…and brilliant.. and mysterious… and perfect.. and beautiful… and possibly able to lift full-sized vans with one hand.” (Twilight.)

Bella’s obsession with Edward not only drives the plot of the books, but also fills up her perceived lack of personality and talents, or perhaps even an identity of her own: there is no need for one as long as she has Edward to worry about.

Of course, I must take my comparison all the way to the end of both stories: the main story of Wuthering Heights is mostly told in the memory of its narrators, and so Catherine is already dead by the time the book begins, mostly from the grief of an unhappy marriage to the wrong man and the loss of herself to Heathcliff.
The narrator sees her ghost slowly driving Heathcliff insane up to the point where he dies himself, cursing Cathy’s memory and yet ordering his body to be buried with her, as to be reunited with the object of his obsession in the end.

The twilight series on the other hand sees Bella painstakingly choosing between her two love interests, in the end getting married to Edward. However, to be with him properly she herself also becomes a vampire and thus dies. Is it too dramatic of me to claim a parallel of deaths here? At the very least, her transformation to vampire is a symbolic death, because it is the end of her own individual life and relationships as a human girl, from now on to be merged with Edward’s vampire identity.

Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” (Wuthering Heights)

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5 thoughts on “Is Heathcliff a Vampire? In Defence of Emily Bronte

  1. This is a really interesting comparison! I’d never really linked the two in my mind, although I get a surge of anger when I see those classic covers labelled ‘Bella & Edwards favourite book’. Ugh. *grabs hair* It certainly could have been something that subconsciously influenced Meyer. Although I would also have to argue that it’s to a certain extent a formula that many story lines follow, (Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast etc) so it could also be a result of inner desires built into the human race.

    Very interesting and enjoyable post! 😀

  2. ellynvv says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment! 🙂 I absolutely agree with you that it might be part of a bigger pattern or formula, I hadn’t thought of it yet but beauty and the beast is a good example. If so, it’s probably one of the less pleasant aspects of human nature though!

  3. Haha agreed! I think it’s because we all somewhere inside us have this secret dream of an all consuming love, as well as a desperate want to feel needed unconditionally against all reason because as social creatures we have a fear of being alone. Then the danger aspect adds to the adrenaline and makes the whole thing a lot more exciting. I think that’s why these stories are so popular and why there’s been such a big rise in paranormal romance. 😛

  4. ellynvv says:

    Definitely! think it’s not only the fear of being alone so much as a paranoia about being left alone by one’s partner, which maybe leads to the desire for a kind of shared or merged identity? After all the more you’re bound up with them the less likely they are to be able to leave- which is pretty creepy really 😛

    I agree on the paranormal romance thing, I also think their popularity is in part due to the difference between a regular person that readers identify with, and a literally supernatural love interest that picks them over everyone else- feels more special than when a regular guy asks you out, I guess 😛

  5. Haha that’s very true, good point!

    Haha, yeah, it’s like the equivalent of going out with the hottest guy in school + superpowers! 😛

    Thanks for the chat. 🙂

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