I am currently taking an English senior seminar. It’s a literary theory class about “vitalism,” which I could take the time to explain, but as it is slightly complex, let’s just say that it’s kind of about zen energy flow and some other whirly bits.
Our second book this semester (following up on William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which I LOVED) is Wuthering Heights. Like many people who have experienced the joys of public high school, I have already read Wuthering Heights. And I didn’t like it the first time. I thought it was boring, dull, dry, exposition-heavy, etc.
Part of the problem is that I just really don’t like old novels. Is it because I’m a young technology addict with no attention span? Probably. Older writing techniques aren’t particularly conducive to reading with a mind like that.
It’s like before the 20th century they had no concept of fully engaging the reader. When I read books written in days of yore, it seems to me that rather than seeing what’s happening, I’m seeing a narrator tell me about it. And the narrator is sitting behind a pane of frosted glass. And mumbling.
Before anyone decides to fight me (Stephanie will probably be at the front of that angry mob), I DO realize the merit of these novels, okay? I just don’t happen to like them. And so faced with another tedious reading of Wuthering Heights (because I sure as heck don’t remember much of it, and am in fact going to assume I relied more on SparkNotes than the actual text the first time around), I’ve been searching for a way to keep myself entertained.
Lucky for me, it’s all there in the book. If you know what to look for.
Desperate for something to grasp onto amidst Lockwood’s extensively detailed narrative, I began to pick up on WH’s innate hilarity.
For example, as Lockwood attempts to ingratiate himself to the lovely young Cathy, who is a huge bitch to him in return, he makes the following observation: “‘They are not mine,’ said the amiable hostess more repellingly than Heathcliff himself could have replied.”
See what he did there?? He called her AMIABLE, when she was actually being REPELLING. This is comic genius, guys. I can just imagine the families of the 19th century, reading this aloud as their nightly entertainment. The children titter as their parents exchange a hearty “Aa ha ha!” at our loveably ironic narrator.
…Okay, so it’s not actually funny. But what it SHOWS is that this book has potential! And just after the previous quote, that potential is realized.
In this scene, Lockwood is trying to engage Cathy in conversation about her pets, and, not being able to see it clearly, assumes that a pile of dead rabbits is actually some living creatures cuddling on a cushion:
‘“Ah, your favourites are among these!’ I continued, turning to an obscure cushion full of something like cats.
‘A strange choice of favorites,’ she observed scornfully.
Unluckily, it was a heap of dead rabbits.”
When I read these few lines, I paused. I went back and read them again. And again. I began to giggle. I read it again, and then I began to laugh. Our cunning narrator, rather than saying something boring like, “…turning to an obscure cushion that appeared to have some cats on it,” decides to keep us guessing and have the cushion be FULL of the SOMETHING LIKE CATS.
If you still don’t understand why I find this so humorous, imagine the following scene:
There is a cushion, and on top of it is a pile of dead rabbits.
Someone asks, “What’s on that cushion?”
His companion looks at the pile of dead rabbits and responds, “Something like cats?”
Here’s another one of my favorites. Lockwood observes Cathy moping by the fire:
“[she] seemed absorbed in her occupation; desisting from it only to chide the servant for covering her with sparks, or to push away a dog, now and then, that snoozled its nose over-forwardly into her face.”
Snoozled. I actually almost spit out some of my drink at that one. Have you ever seen a word more ingenious? It’s not even a real word (at least not these days, anyway), yet I know EXACTLY what it means! I’m not a huge fan of wet dog-nose in the face either, ESPECIALLY when it’s “over-forward.” Which brings me to the other reason this makes me laugh: not only is Cathy getting some unwanted snoozling, but Lockwood makes sure to describe it in a ridiculous way. Well, this is 19th century speak, so it’s possible that by “over-forward” Lockwood means the dog was literally too forward, as in, in Cathy’s face. But I like to think that the dog was being intentionally impolite.
Then again, is it ever polite to snoozle?
As you may have gathered, I’m not actually that far along into the book yet. And I will admit, from what we’ve discussed in class, that there are some parts of this book that don’t require finding distractions in the form of outdated vocabulary. The sweeping, wild landscapes. All the drama and tragedy, those raging VITALIST emotions…
“My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff. He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, anymore than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
I’m not going to deny that it’s beautiful. Even crazy enough to be entertaining in its own right at times. I’m just saying, for the times when I feel like I’m trapped behind the frosted glass, something like cats can help with seeing through it.