When two or more witnesses give their account of an event, the story never comes out the same. The differences, as Browning fully realized in The Ring and the Book(1868-69), provide for powerful ironic tensions. Over and over again, in Browning’s poem, the story is told of what happened on the fatal night when Count Guido Franceschini went in seach of his seventeen-year-old bride Pompilia who, in the company of the handsome young priest Giuseppe Caponsacchi, had runaway from his ancient villa and returned home to her parents in Rome.
And in every telling there is another version of the motives and the consequences. Although Browning allows the Pope to serve as arbiter, he also effectively undermines confidence in testimony. Even Guido’s final confession heaves the reader with uneasy qualms about the claims of truth and justice. What is expected of a reader who observes that one truth-claim modifies or compromises another? Is the task to respond to an account delivered with full expectation that it will be disbelieved?
As Clayton Koelb has shown in The Incredulous Reader, dialogical opposition can fold untruth within truth, disbelief within belief, in a virtually endless regress. When Pirandello, in It is so! (If you think so )(1917), takes up the problem of competing claims to truth, he gradually pushes the claims into such extreme contradiction that if one version is true the proponent of the other is not simply mistaken, or lying, but mentally unbalanced.
The claims of Signora Flora and Signor Ponza baffle the efforts of the gossips in a small Italian town, and with them Pirandello’s theatre audience, to determine whether Ponza is deranged and cruelly conceals his wife( according to the tale his mother-in-law tells), or Signora Flora suffers from the delusion that her daughter is still alive, refusing to believe that Ponza has remarried (as Ponza tells the story). Signora Ponza fully understands the bond of affection and mutual dependence that has grown up between Signora Flora and Ponza as each attempts to humor the supposed delusion of the other.
When she at last appears in the final scene, everyone, gossiping neighbors and audience alike, expect the truth to be revealed. Instead, they find that she humors them both, declaring herself to be both the daughter of Signora Flora and the second wife of Ponza. When the local Prefect demands that she must be either the one or the other’she answers that she is whom you believe me to be? The two versions of the story are incompatible, yet, as the stage manager declares when the curtain falls, both are true. “Are you satisfied?? he asks, and bursts out laughing.
The bifurcated novel and the twice-told tale not only allow for variations, contradictions and paradoxical tensions, they also thematize the very act of story-telling. Whereas other modes of narrative necessarily rely on a presumed reality outside of the novel that is mimetically reflected in the telling, the twice-told tale reflects itself. One version of the tale inevitably stands in some kind of mirror-relation to the other. The reader readily observes the differences, but may well be baffled in trying to explain whether one of both of the mirrored images is distorted.
Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn(1799), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein(1816), E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Kater Murr(1820/21), and James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner(1824) are four novels of the earlier nineteenth century which develop their irony through varieties of structural bifurcation. All may have been available to the author of Wuthering Heights (1847), whose own richly experimental novel works with intricate permutations of multiple narrative, unreliable narration, and two-volume structure.
In this bifurcated narrative the social, psychological and economic manipulation of one generation, Catherine and Heathcliff, at the hands of Hindley Earnshaw, is willfully re-enacted, by the latter, upon the offspring of all three. The story of Heathcliff’s tempestuous and blighted passion for Catherine Earnshaw in the first volume of the novel is first perversely replicated in the second. In volume 1, Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is deemed impossible by the Lintons and the Earnshaws, and thwarted by Catherine’s perverse decision to marry Edgar Linton in order to enrich Heathcliff.
In some readings this choice is “forced? by social and patriarchal pressures. In volume 2, a second generation of characters who bear the psychological imprint of their parents, become puppets in the hands of a tormented puppeteer who manipulates their lives to revenge the frustration and blight of his own life. Heathcliff takes his revenge by forcing Catherine’s daughter, Cathy Linton to marry her sickly cousin, Linton Heathcliff, son of his own widowed Cathy choosing to marry Hindley’s son, Hareton Earnshaw, and thus revert to her mother’s maiden name.
Deciding who, if anyone, is morally responsible for this tragic cycle of events is made next to impossible by the novel’s multiplicity of agent-narrators. The primary agents of the story “Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, and Cathy Linton “not only experience and articulate their histories in quite different way, but these histories are for much of the time mediated by an ambiguous agent-narrator, Nelly Dean, who is as much the manipulator as the reporter of events, and whose insights into the central characters of her story are clearly and demonstrably unstable.
In addition to the narrative doubling involved in the shift from Lockwood’s detached yet nave narrative to Nelly Dean’s informed yet opinionated one, the reader has also to negotiate contributory narratives by the long-dead Catherine Earnshaw, in her diaries, by Heathcliff (both in his childhood and shortly before his death), by Isabella in a letter, by Cathy Linton in conversation with her nurse, and by the stout servant Zillah.
The reader of Wuthering Heights may at first suppose that Lockwood is to be the narrator of this novel: for three chapters, indeed, he performs this role, and this device has much to do with the novel’s ultimate significance. Almost all that follows is in some sense foreshadowed in the three-chapter prelude, even though Lockwood is in no position to tell us anything of its primary events. He takes us across the threshold between foppish Southern existence and the earthier ways of the Yorkshire moors; between present and past; between waking and dream, civilized and natural.
His first task is to take us from Thrushcross Grange, where he is tenant, to Wuthering Heights where his landlord lives. These are, bizarrely, the only two houses in the novel, and the contrast between them is brought out with obvious symbolic intent. For one thing, the physical setting itself defines the tensions of wealth and class. The Earnshaws? working farmhouse is on the heights, the provincial designation wuthering suggesting the exposure of the place to the tumult of storms.
Within Wuthering Heights, from start to finish, power relations seem to be in chronic flux: neither Joseph nor Zillah appear to function as domestics, they function as quasi-autonomous power figures in their own right “and Joseph, it seems, ahs always done so. Lockwood’s initial description of the house conveys a place of power and disconcerting spatial perspectives: innumerable dogs haunt unnumbered recesses; immense pewter dishes tower row after row; servants emerge from the depths.
In what is presumably a relatively small house (it seems to very short of bedrooms) there are unplumbed depths into which the kitchen, for instance, has retreated? Thrushcross Grange is not, initially described at all, even though it is where Lockwood is living. We see it first throughout the awestruck eyes of Catherine and Heathcliff as children, and as the residence of the wealthy and elegant Lintons. Its symmetrical, high-windowed architecture, chandeliers and walled park suggest the wealth and settled culture of Augustan England, where servants know their place.
When the narrative commences, however, both properties are in the possession of Mr. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. This Liverpool foundling, abused and insulted by both houses in his childhood, has, by way of revenge, married the daughter of one house (Isabella Linton) and acquired the properties of both. As Marxist critics properly point out, the engine of this novel of passion? is property, and the most telling enunciation of Heathcliff’s brutal campaign of revenge is expressed entirely in such terms: I want the triumph of seeing my descendant fairly lord of their estates!
My child hiring their children to till their fathers? lands for wages? On his first visit to meet his landlord, Lockwood has a cold and curt reception. Heathcliff intervenes only with contemptuous amusement when he sees his guest beset by a pack of snarling dogs. When Lockwood declares Wuthering Heightsa perfect misanthropist’s heaven? and Heathcliff a capital fellow? with whom to share the desolation? he is not only profoundly mistaken in imagining himself and Heathcliff to be comparable beings, but is also (unwittingly) making the first Marxist joke.
On his second visit to Wuthering Heights, when a snowfall renders it impossible for Lockwood to find the paths back across the moors, the servant Zillah offers him what turns out to have been the bed shared in childhood by Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw some twenty-four years before. In the woodwork is scratched a series of names; Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton? clearly the work if a young woman attempting to choose her partner and her identity.
The reader cannot know it, any more than Lockwood can, but Bront? as here encrypted both plots in her two-generational novel. For this is the story, in volume 1, of a young woman called Catherine Earnshaw who spurns the name Catherine Heathcliff because it would degrade her, and destroys herself by becoming Catherine Linton. At the start of volume 2, in a nervous illness brought about by this inauthentic choice, she gives birth to a daughter called Catherine Linton. This daughter, having lost her mother at birth, is later forced to become Catherine Heathcliff, before choosing to become Catherine Earnshaw “and take her mother’s place at the Grange.
The first generation tale, concerned with the rebellion of the passionate and unconventional Catherine and Heathcliff, is for many readers and some critics the one that matters: it evokes an archetypal adolescence, the ultimate rebellion against the adult world. The subsequent tale, concerned with the eventual union of Cathy and Hareton, and their earned liberation form Heathcliff’s scheme of revenge, may, nonetheless, hold the novelist’s deeper purposes.
Before sleeping, and unable to make anything of this cryptic love-knot of names, Lockwood reads in the journal of the first Catherine Earnshaw an account of how she and Heathcliff experienced the combined tyranny of Hindley Earnshaw, Catherine’s elder brother, and the grim servant Joseph, who subjected them to endless sermons. Lockwood falls asleep and dreams of being taken by Joseph to a similar sermon at the local chapel, where he defends himself stoutly when set upon by the congregation: his dreamwork compensates amply for his actual humiliation by the dogs and rescue by Zillah.
So this first dream arises in a perfectly ordinary way out of elements in his experience and his readings. Next, however, he has a very different dream, not rooted in his own experience. Thinking that a branch is rattling against the window, he breaks the glass in his attempt to unhook the casement. As he reaches out, his fingers close on a small ice-cold hand, and a weeping voice begs o be let in, saying that she is Catherine Linton, and has been a waif for twenty years. Why did I think of Linton? I had read Earnshaw twenty times for Linton?
When the nocturnal presence tries to climb through the broken casement, Lockwood screams. Heathcliff enters in a state of agitation, forces open the window (which has not in reality been broken: Catherine has manifested herself only in Lockwood’s dream) and begs the spirit to return from the stormy darkness. The function of Lockwood’s two dreams in triple. First, they establish a link between the foppish Lockwood and the rough occupants of Wuthering Heights. In his dreams Lockwood is capable of as much aggression as Heathcliff, and more cruelty.
Second, they exhibit the transfiguring effect of Wuthering Heights “foreshadowing, for example, how the timid Isabella, in chapter 13, will, within moments of arriving in Wuthering Heights, covet Hindley Earnshaw’s weapon, reflecting how powerful I should be, possessing such n instrument? Her metamorphosis is anticipated in the transformation of the passive Lockwood, in his dreams, into someone capable of combating an entire congregation, or of rubbing a child’s wrist on a broken windowpane. Third, they initiate the plot.
At the beginning of chapter 4, a convalescing Lockwood turns to his housekeeper Nelly Dean, to satisfy the curiosity Catherine’s specter has aroused, about the events of that night and the occupants of Wuthering Heights: Catherine, that is to say, has commanded Lockwood to learn her story. He will learn eventually that the figure he so unaccountably dreams, and who thus sets the story in motion, has been dead for eighteen years, and that at the time of her death she was not a child, but a married woman. In Lockwood’s second dream she uses her married name, but appears as an eternally homeless child, waifed? y her decision to become Mrs. Linton not Mrs. Heathcliff.
We might reasonably expect that Lockwood’s first introduction to the events of the past will be from Nelly. In practice, however, Lockwood’s first experience of Joseph in his prime, and of Heathcliff in his childhood, and of relations between Hindley and Catherine, comes though the medium of Catherine the Elder “who is dead. The most vivid facets of the narrative of the 1770s will be divided between Catherine (whom we read face to face) and Heathcliff (reported by Nelly).
The childhood of both is thereby made, in many respects, more present to us than the present life (in 1801-2) of any of the characters. Moreover, Catherine is an agent in Lockwood’s direct experience before Nelly has said a word. So the feeling of most readers that the story of Catherine and Heathcliff is somehow a transcendent one “transcending normal experience, and to do with things out of space and out of time, having reference to a metaphysical realm of ideal love “is as much the effect of the narrative structure as it is of anything the characters themselves say.
It is the capacity of the heroine? of the book to transcend the narrative to which she belongs (that is, Nelly’s reminiscences of life almost twenty years back) and feature as an agent in the narratives of 1802(including of course Heathcliff’s final share of the narrative at the end of the novel) that gives a sort of transcendent authority to her speech. Whereas Mr. Earnshaw, Mr. and Mrs. Linton, Hindley, Frances, Isabella, and Linton Heathcliff cease to act as agents when they die, the testimony of the prosaic, imperceptive and unimaginative Lockwood persuades us that Catherine does not.
Lockwood does not know it, and will never understand it, but his encounter with this sprite or child-woman is a major interpretive crux: does Catherine Earnshaw represent an ideal extra-social passion, the very embodiment of romantic love, or simply an inability to grow up? The story-telling, however, is now handed over to another no less fallible narrator. Lockwood’s fallibility arises from his ignorance of all social mores in this community; he is, as chapters 2 and 3 make clear to the point of comedy, wholly out of his depth.
Nelly Dean’s fallibility is more problematic. How reliable is she? Is she merely a reporter or is she a major agent? Should we accept her judgments of reject them because of (a) she doesn’t understand what’s going on, or (b) she is prejudiced and moralistic? As Carl Woodring points out (? The narrators of Wuthering Heights? 1957), she keeps secrets, tells tales, intercepts letters, tries to encourages Heathcliff to run away, and indeed gives him the idea he might be master of Wuthering Heights.
In chapter 5 she can be seen as instigating the growing childhood rivalries she narrates. In chapter 9 she could short-circuit the entire plot by warning Cathy that Heathcliff has overheard her remark that marriage to Heathcliff would be degrading (though the reader might have mixed of feelings about such an outcome). In chapter 10 she engineers the confrontation between Edgar Linton and Heathcliff which she deplores, and which is, in some degree responsible for the subsequent illness of Catherine.
In volume 2, having allowed the relationship between Cathy and Linton Heathcliff to develop, contrary to Edgar Linton’s wishes, she reflects on her own complicity, passing harsh judgment on my many derelictions of duty; from which, it struck me then, all the misfortunes of all my employers sprang. I thought Heathcliff himself less guilty than I? When Nelly lies, meddles or manipulates, she usually tells us when she is doing so.
In one sense this openness and self-criticism (Nelly is almost the only character in the novel able to contemplate that she might bee in error) encourages the reader to believe Nelly’s narrative, but the knowledge that she lies must affect our reading of her moral judgments. At the same time we encounter deeper problems still: one is that as a reflecting moral agent, breaking her own strict codes, Nelly is more guilty than Heathcliff as an impulsive natural force. Another is that Nelly, though closer to events, may understand her story as little as Lockwood does. Indeed it is not at all clear that anyone in this novel understands anyone else.
The multiplicity of expert opinion and testimony within the novel places the reader in the position of saying yes, but’to almost ever judgment offered on the conduct of Catherine and Heathcliff by Nelly, Edgar, Isabella, Zillah. At times, indeed, the novel invites its readers to become advocates for behavior (that of Catherine and Heathcliff) which probably almost everything in our socialized psyche (or superego) would normally reject almost as emphatically as Nelly does. Nelly may be properly read as embodying moral averageness rather than villainy, but that very averageness pushes us towards endorsement of the morally reprobate?