The importance of culture

Books are symbols of education and therefore of civilisation. Cathy takes her ‘nicest books’ and reads to Linton. By doing so she is taking some of the civilisation of Thrushcross Grange to Wuthering Heights. Lockwood later seeks to establish a link with Cathy by appealing to their shared ‘civilised’ appreciation of text:

'No books!' I exclaimed. 'How do you contrive to live here without them? if I may take the liberty to inquire. Though provided with a large library, I'm frequently very dull at the Grange; take my books away, and I should be desperate!'

'I was always reading, when I had them,' said Catherine (Chapter 31)

The key to Hareton’s growth is that he wants to read. Although Cathy’s scorn of his clumsy efforts to read provokes him to hurl his texts into the fire, Lockwood comments:

I read in his countenance what anguish it was to offer that sacrifice to spleen. I fancied that as they consumed, he recalled the pleasure they had already imparted, and the triumph and ever-increasing pleasure he had anticipated from them;

It is his renewed efforts to engage with the culture represented by text, and Cathy’s willingness to lead him into her world in Chapter 32, that marks Hareton out for the gentlemen he has always had the potential to be. Heathcliff’s attempt to reject that culture for his ward (by destroying Cathy’s books) is defeated.

Comfort and escape

Books can also be representative of escape and comfort. Isabella reads romantic fiction and then romanticises her feelings for Heathcliff. As Catherine lies dying, Edgar escapes to his library and reads. Once Cathy is isolated within the Heights, books are her only solace. Seeing this as an incursion into his dominion of the Heights, Heathcliff actively destroys the volumes (Chapter 31), although he has never shown much interest in books previously, perhaps tolerating them because they were precious to Catherine.

However, when Lockwood attempts to use books as a means of securing the window in order to block Catherine’s ghost (Chapter 3), they prove to be an ineffectual barrier. Books cannot displace the reality of violence, which all the female characters of the novel discover to their cost.

The power of story-telling

In Wuthering Heights, texts tell an ‘official’ story but are also receptacles of ‘unofficial’ stories. Catherine seems to write in her books more than read them. As Lockwood discovers in Chapter 3, ‘scarcely one chapter had escaped, a pen-and-ink commentary’, indicating that Catherine is an active creator rather than a receiver of others’ tales. (It also reflects the huge cost of paper during the period of the French wars at the end of the eighteenth century – it was a luxury item few could afford.)

Lockwood’s discovery of these books starts his interest in the ‘real-life story’ of Wuthering Heights. Catherine’s marginalia stands as a metaphor for Brontë’s own power as a novelist to compel our attention.

Both Catherine and her daughter use writing as an assertion of power in the face of powerlessness. Cathy longs to tell her story to Nelly once trapped at the Heights:

'You must tell her,' she continued, 'that I would answer her letter, but I have no materials for writing: not even a book from which I might tear a leaf.'

This is because both Heathcliff and Hareton have taken actions to destroy books. Yet ultimately, though books are physically destructible, Brontë suggests that the power of texts and the transformative stories they contain will triumph.

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