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Literature Spotlight: The Lightning, The Tree, and The Chimney-Stones

Title choice is an often-overlooked aspect of literature. What the author chooses to call his or her work can serve as a window into their intentions, showing in a subtle way the aspects of the novel to which they wish to draw the reader's attention. As an example, take Emily Brontë's classic novel Wuthering Heights. According to the dictionary, “wuthering” means “blowing strongly with a roaring sound” when describing a wind, and “characterized by such a sound” when describing a place. The word also has close associations with the more common “weathering,” implying enduring harsh weather or coming through a storm. Throughout Brontë's novel are references to this idea of weathering out a storm or withstanding howling winds. Most of the major plot developments take place during thunderstorms, and the various characters are likened to different aspects of a storm. This theme comes to a head during Heathcliff's disappearance midway through the novel – not coincidentally in the middle of a thunderstorm – with an extremely symbolic weather event.

The relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff is complex and volatile, and their actions frequently conjure up images of violent storms. Throughout the novel, Brontë repeatedly associates Catherine with lightning and Heathcliff with thunder. Catherine, the lightning, is prone to lashing out with vicious and destructive attacks, often dealing physical harm to those she strikes. Like the lightning, these attacks are short-lived and sudden, often coming seemingly out of nowhere and with no warning. In one blinding instant she can terrify everyone around her with an outburst of surprising fury, but a moment later it is gone and she weeps over her thoughtless actions. Her similarity to lightning extends to her mental state as well. At one point, she tells Nelly “I have only to do with the present.” (p. 107) She exists in the moment, as the lightning does, with never a thought for the past or the future. As a result, she frequently makes choices that prove to be unfortunate with the passage of time.

Heathcliff, by contrast, gives off an ominous air, filling the others with trepidation at what might happen rather than what is currently happening. Heathcliff rarely inflicts physical damage himself, though his dastardly manipulations do far more mental damage than Catherine's momentary slaps ever could. The family tends to hide when he is in one of his moods, trying to avoid incurring his wrath. The reader gets the sense that he is roaming about the house, rumbling like the thunder portending the oncoming deluge. In this way, he is the thunder to Catherine's lightning. Catherine states at one point, “he follows me,” just as the thunder always follows the lightning.

While on the surface they seem quite different, Catherine and Heathcliff are really two sides of the same coin – just as lightning and thunder are two sides of the same phenomenon. Lightning is the visual component of thunder, and thunder the auditory component of lightning. They present themselves differently, but at heart are the same thing. On some level Catherine seems to know this, saying of Heathcliff, “He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” (p.110) Perhaps this is why Catherine and Heathcliff could never have ended up together; to be successful a relationship must contain two distinct individuals who complement each other. On the other hand, it is often said of lovers that they “complete each other,” in which case Catherine and Heathcliff being two sides of the same event would be a point in their favor. In any case this is left up to the reader to ponder, since Catherine chooses another category altogether: the foliage.

Catherine must choose between two very different men who would cause her to have two very different futures. She states:
“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it,
I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles
the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.” (p.112)
She compares Edgar Linton to foliage – more delicate and requiring more effort to tend and maintain, but with the chance for greater reward. If cared for, her love for Linton will bloom and flourish, perhaps achieving a greater depth and sincerity than she can imagine. With any potential flourishing however comes the risk of withering and dying, as this love must be maintained through its highs and lows or time will take it as winter takes the trees. Heathcliff, in contrast, is depicted as rocks – not as beautiful or lyrical as the foliage, perhaps, but then not in danger of withering either. Her love for him is stable and will never die, but has no potential for growth either. She eventually chooses Edgar and his foliage – but just then, Brontë drops a symbolic bombshell that suggests through ominous foreshadowing that her choice may have dire consequences.

“About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire. We thought a bolt had fallen in the middle of us...”(p.116)

In this paragraph, all of Brontë's symbolic thunderstorm imagery comes to bear at the same time. The violent wind, which of course is “wuthering,” underscores the event. Thunder couldn't have actually split the tree, as thunder is simply noise, so the real culprit must have been a lightning strike, unseen by the family inside the house. That lightning represents Catherine. In her striking she splits the tree (Linton), which falls onto the chimney and knocks some of the stones (Heathcliff) into the fire. The lightning strike has caused physical damage to the tree, which will probably lead to its eventual death. Linton has trouble dealing with Catherine's headstrong nature and tendency to flare up, and is forced to contort himself to avoid her wrath. “It was not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the stood erect, and the others yielded”(p.125) Eventually, Linton would yield so far that he could not maintain his own health, and in this way, Catherine brought about his eventual demise.

The chimney-stones, on the other hand, are damaged indirectly by the lightning, more directly by the tree falling on them. The individual stones themselves probably show less outward damage after the event than the tree does, but they cannot serve their intended function while sitting in the kitchen fire. Linton's marriage to Catherine torments Heathcliff and causes him considerable mental anguish, to the point that he cannot function normally and by the end of the novel is simply starving himself to death while seeing Catherine's ghost everywhere he goes. In this one symbolic event, Brontë summarizes the remainder of the novel and Catherine's role in the family's undoing.

The word “weathering” is a member of the unusual class of the contronym, meaning that the word is its own antonym. Weathering can either mean “wearing down or wearing away” or “making it safely through.” It can be either destructive or persevering. Being in the house with Catherine and Heathcliff is weathering in both senses of the word. It can be like waiting out a storm, staying out of the way as Nelly does and trying not to get hurt in the crossfire. It can also be tiring, wearing down characters' wills until they feel battered and beaten, or simply erode away entirely like Linton. Thunderstorms are terrifying, but they can also be beautiful. By titling her novel “Wuthering Heights” Brontë invites the reader to explore both of these interpretations, experiencing both the wearing-down and the coming-through simultaneously. The question of which one ultimately prevails is a matter of individual experience for the reader – they are both contained within the novel's themes.