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February 2017

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The Heathcliff-House Theory on the Appeal of Unlikable Characters

Giveaways abound. A few of the latest:

A chance to win advance copies of five different novels from the Class of 2k9. (I recommend signing up to "watch" their community, since they'll be giving away books all year long!)

Saundra Mitchell is giving away a signed copy of her ghost story, Shadowed Summer, plus a bagful of other goodies!

Deva Fagan is giving away an advance copy of her middle-grade fantasy novel, Fortune's Folly.

Now on to writerly business.

I've just finished reading Wuthering Heights, which I probably should've read years ago.  You know the situation--somehow a classic (or fifty of them) slips by you, and you just nod knowingly whenever it's mentioned, and hope nobody asks you about specific details.  Anyhow, I no longer have to cover my ignorance about WH.

Somehow, before I read this, I had gotten the idea that Heathcliff was a romantic hero.  Aloof and mysterious, but mouth-watering nonetheless.  Sort of like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice--maybe rather obnoxious the first time we meet him, but proving through his actions that he's made of better stuff.  Somehow, I'd gotten the idea this was a love story.

I was mistaken.  Heathcliff is generally pretty mean and selfish, and the woman he's obsessed with is just as mean and selfish.  There are scenes where the two of them are berating each other, and each is saying the equivalent of, "Don't tell me you're miserable!  I'm so miserable that all I wish for you is even more misery!"  That's obsession, not love.  Heathcliff abuses dogs, women, and servants.  He loathes his wife and tells her so.

It made me think about unlikable main characters, and what draws us to them.  Something has kept this book alive for more than a century; there's some reason it's a classic.  Yes, it's marvelously creepy with ghost-story qualities, but is that enough?  What's made Heathcliff appealing enough for people to read his story?  Because I admit that while Heathcliff is too unpleasant for me to want as a real-life friend, he has some appeal as a fictional character.  

Heathcliff reminds me of a character on a TV show: Dr. Gregory House, from the show House.  House is another character who's fun to watch, but you wouldn't really want to know him.  He belittles his staff, rants at his patients, behaves as if he's above the rules, and evades every attempt of his friends to help him break a painkiller addiction. 

So here's my Heathcliff-House Theory on the Appeal of Unlikable Characters:

1. Vulnerability helps.  Heathcliff suffers for his infatuation.  There are also a few times when he treats people kindly or at least fairly, when we expect otherwise.  (His treatment of his son, though selfish at times, springs to mind here.)  He's not unrelentingly vicious.  Nor is House, who goes home to a lonely apartment and the comfort of nothing better than a vial of pills.  We can sympathize with the pain of these characters, even if we don't admire how they handle it.  We can see the gaps in the armor, and the blood dripping through those gaps.

2. Humor and honesty help.  Both Heathcliff and House tend to toss out hard-edged comments so blunt and honest they make us laugh.  (On House, fortunately, other characters get great lines too, particularly Wilson.)  When the characters around them sink into petty squabbles or fussing over trivia, these main characters deliver lines like a bracing slap.  In one scene in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff's servant is complaining about the uprooting of some black-currant trees.  Heathcliff doesn't even wait to hear whom the servant is angry with.  Guessing it to be one of the other servants, Nelly, he says, "What's your grievance?  I'll interfere in no quarrels between you and Nelly -- She may thrust you into the coal-hole for all I care."  And the complaining servant has been such a judgmental, ill-tempered jerk throughout the whole book that we also would like to see him thrust into a coal-hole.  But we would probably be too polite to say so.  Heathcliff and House sometimes say what we would like to say if we didn't give a darn what other people thought.

It's a sizable task to make an unlikable character appealing.  The obvious risk is that the reader won't want to spend time in such a character's company.  But it can be done.


You've touched on a literary pet peeve of mine, which is people thinking Wuthering Heights is some kind of great romantic novel. I think it's a brilliant novel, BTW. Absolutely warped, but brilliant.
In another comment here, Kelly Fineman quotes Cleolinda opining that WH is horror, not romance. I would buy that.
OMG, this is too hard. MANY years ago, I did my master thesis on this book, and I love it. I could go SO on and on, but I'll restrain myself. :)

Basically, my premise was that Bronte shows the extreme deprivation (from connection and affection) H & C suffer through as children--their "romance" is more of a resulting extreme attachment to the only person who even TRIES to return the feeling. And, of course, they have NO skills in that area (never having been taught), so they do a truly lousy job at it.

Wow--that took 40 pages last time! :)
Admirable conciseness! :-) And I agree with you about why Heathcliff and Cathy were so passionately attached to one another.

The funny thing is that even those of us who don't admire Heathcliff and Cathy, or the things they do, still admire the book. If you ask me, Hareton is the real "hero" of the book--he's had as many disadvantages as Heathcliff, yet still has a nobility of character. But nobody seems to remember him. Whatever the reason, Heathcliff and Cathy are the ones we remember.
Re: Wuthering Heights - How funny! I bought a copy last week and am partway through it now. I read it years ago, and like it ever so much better than Jane Eyre. Yes, even though Catherine and Heathcliff are flawed and twisted. Probably because of that, really. Obsession is so much more interesting that disfigurement and preachy proto-feminism. Plus, I think it hammers home the rigid class structure at the time, and shows what happens when folks are left in isolation (oh, the moors!) for long periods of time without anything all that happy in their lives.

One of the reasons I picked it up again is because the MC in my sooper sekrit YA project is definitely going to be talking about her summer reading, and WH is on a lot of Honors lists. (I've done some computer research to see what texts are still being assigned, and when, and at what level.) I don't think it's going to fit the bill, however. Another is that WH is specifically reference in Eclipse, which I've read 4 times in the past 6 weeks or so (again - please. send. help.).

Here's what cleolinda said about WH, which was actually in her comments about New Moon: "Wuthering Heights is not romance but actually horror, about two emotional sadomasochists who lay waste to everyone around them, using them as pawns in their own personal war of attrition? Because, I mean... that's pretty much the whole theory."

Wuthering Heights is both specifically mentioned and quoted in Eclipse. At first, Edward says, "The characters are ghastly people who ruin each others' lives. I don't know how Heathcliff and Cathy ended up being ranked with couples like Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. It isn't a love story, it's a hate story." To which Bella replies, "Well, I hope you're smart enough to stay away from someone so selfish. Catherine is really the source of all the trouble, not Heathcliff." (One could argue that Bella's not all that far from Catherine, really, but that would be giving the Twilight series far more literary weight than it's actually due.
It's funny, though, that you mention the Twilight series and WH together (and, I guess, that one references the other) because it's always seemed to me that Edward isn't really a romantic hero but rather, at the heart of it, pretty much an abusive boyfriend. It's been ages since I've read WH so I can't remember all the details, but perhaps part of the reason people remember it as being a romance is that whole idea that seems to be driving teen girls to Twilight - the idea that it's super-romantic to have somebody obsessed with you...
I can't argue with Cleolinda's assessment of horror v. romance re Wuthering Heights.
I think of Twilight as romance rather than horror, however--whether it's a healthy romance is a matter of frequent debate. (I must caveat here that I've only read the first of the Meyer books.) But I don't find Bella and Edward as dark or violent, or selfish for that matter, as Cathy and Heathcliff. From that quote of Eclipse, it sounds to me as if Meyer herself was consciously drawing a line of distinction between her stories and WH--that it is at least not her intent to emulate WH.

It's also striking me, from the fascinating comments here, how much a text becomes open to interpretation and reinterpretation by its readership, once it's out there in the world!

And, Kelly: "I've read 4 times in the past 6 weeks or so (again - please. send. help.)": Put the book down. Step away from the book. :-)

Thanks for mentioning the give away, Jenn! I appreciate your spreading the word!

I had the same preconception broken when I read Wuthering Heights relatively late in life! I think there are a LOT of people out there who think he is a romantic hero not having read the book (or even having read it).

I have a theory of appealing villains that relates to this -- it goes something like, a villain (even while doing horrible things) can still be appealing and even sympathetic if they love something or someone (a person, a pet, a garden, whatever). That's not to say it's the only thing that can make a villain appealing, but it's one that works on me pretty regularly. In fact, it almost makes their villainy worse, because you contrast it to their care for whatever it is that they love.

Anyways, that's my little tidbit to throw into the discussion! I will be interested to see what other commenters say on this topic.
Yes, we can sympathize with characters who WANT something badly. Good point!
could part of Heathcliff's romantic reputation be because Laurence Olivier played him in the movie? That's my theory.

I have a character who could become Heathcliff - the same "humble" origins, the same drive to show everyone, even something of an obsession with an unattainable woman. He's not Heathcliff, but I'm seriously considering giving him some of Heathcliff's faults. He doesn't have enough faults.

Movies certainly do influence how people see famous books, I think. But I haven't seen any movie version of WH myself, so I don't know how it might've influenced the public view of WH.

One important thing about Heathcliff's flaws: they were entirely understandable, given who he was and how his life developed. They sprang naturally from his character.
That's obsession, not love. - I think this is the key to WH. I don't think Bronte ever set out to write a love story, but rather what obsessive, destructive love can do to people and those around them. Cathy and Heathcliff are two of the most unlikeable creature I have read about, and I am not one who believes that their love was their only redeeming feature, quite the opposite, their love brought out the already dark and twisted parts of them and made them worse by trying to justify that it was in the name of love. I think the reason the novel has endured so long is because it shows us the darkest parts of our souls and what people are capable of if ever given free reign.

It's quite interesting that some people believe Heathcliff is based on John Milton's Lucifer, which should key people in :) if your character is based on the devil, he is not going to be the most lovable puppy in the store

sorry for rambling, but like most of the people commenting WH is one of my all time favourite novels and I too hate that people assume it is another love story so it is nice discussing other aspects of it.


Edited at 2009-01-12 10:23 pm (UTC)
Not a Love Story seems to be the consensus in this little corner of the blogosphere. Interesting point about Milton ... I did notice that Nelly urged Heathcliff to turn to God a couple of times, and the last scene occurs in the churchyard.


Bad Blood

What about the social sensibilities of the time, the belief that there was such a thing as "bad blood"? Our contemporary minds wonder why Heathcliff was so bad because we believe so deeply in cause and effect. Perhaps readers of the time did not wonder such a thing; they believed some people simply are bad for no particular reason other than that's how they were created.

Re: Bad Blood

I wouldn't be surprised if "bad blood" held some sway with readers of the time, since much is made out of the fact that H. is of unknown parentage, and was found living on the streets.