Some of the classic titles have fallen out of favor, replaced by fine, contemporary works, and I agree. The literary canon should move into the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, some of those older titles have helped me learn and understand the human experience, especially when it reveals itself in comparable modern work.
One of the older titles that I abandoned in the classroom is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a nineteenth-century novel that I’ve read at least a dozen times. Sheltered and naïve in the seventh grade, I didn’t fully comprehend the forces that drove Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar, but the passion and longing unfolding on the pages pulled me back year after year for an annual holiday read. In fact, one of the many snippets from my youth is of me, feet tucked up into a wide, high-backed, well-worn armchair, reading in the dim light of an open-gas flame heater, the flames flickering shadows upon the pages and dimly lighting the darker recesses of the human heart.
Photo by Al Griffin
The wild abandon of the moors called to me then as do the rugged, rocky shores where waves crash and threaten. I have yet to walk upon those moors, but one day hope to, and I will think of the exotic foster child, Heathcliff, chasing after Catherine who did not abandon him after his adoptive father passed. She continued to grant him the security of belonging even as Hindley Earnshaw spurned him.
Having been afflicted and spurned as a child myself, I identified with Heathcliff and admired Catherine for making great sacrifices to secure a home for Heathcliff, foreign in appearance and of lowly birth at a time and place in the world when appearance and birthright were more important than character. The drunken, self-indulgent, spiteful Hindley has rights he does not deserve while the put-upon, loving Heathcliff can expect little more than abuse and judgment.
And that inequality tells another tale: oppression and injustice may twist and stunt a child’s promise. Heathcliff is not born cruel and bitter; he’s made that way by intolerance, prejudice, and abuse. Even his beloved Catherine becomes his enemy when she fails to follow her Heathcliff into oblivion and want. She prefers to sell herself into nobility on an estate where she can provide a home for Heathcliff. She will protect him as best she can, pledging herself to love a man who knows nothing of the wild, human heart. Edgar is too refined to comprehend raw desire and unbridled enmity. He possesses Catherine in name only; Heathcliff possesses her soul.
Many years later, I selected this work for an Advanced Placement class as a work from which to examine contrasting settings and themes related to betrayal, love, lust, loss, madness, rage, and grief. Young teens tend to believe that love will right all wrongs and compensate for any deficits; Wuthering Heights tells a far darker tale, one that high students seeking college credit need. But my students were never carried away by the tale. They experienced it as they might an episode of Big Brother where people isolated from the outside world establish a new set of rules by which to live. My students also found the fever-pitched grief that breaks Catherine and tortures Heathcliff as little more than self-indulgent melodrama. Modern in every sense of the word, my students were unable to appreciate a culture in which the invisible lines separating one class from another are as taut as wire between fence posts. Consequently, the students failed to empathize with Catherine’s dilemma and believed Bronte’s characters brought tragedy and hardship upon themselves.
So I left Bronte to the nineteenth century and replaced her with other titles that offer some of the same insights. These were better received and achieved the same ends, but Heathcliff and Catherine are iconic figures, ghosts that drift in and out of my consciousness even as they are said to drift across those fictional moors.
Andre Dubus's House of Sand and Fog and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner are two contemporary novels that offer the same lessons as Wuthering Heights. Each book features well-defined and contrasting settings, dysfunctional attractions, misunderstandings that lead to unnecessary cruelty, tragic losses, and redemption that comes at a terribly high price.
Think of a time and place from your youth when a treasured book was the best companion. Describe that time, place, and book.