The Portrayal of Obsessive Love in Film and Literature

     Hardly anyone would argue that love is one of the most important emotions inherent in human beings. It is a very complex emotion--it can take many forms, can be motivated by various reasons, and can have profound effects on all parties involved. Humans are, in fact, the only animals that experience this particular emotion to the degree that it may produce extreme happiness or complete misery. Through time, love has been the prevalent subject of poetry, plays, music, literature, and--the most modern medium--film. It is through film that I would like to examine two specific characters, their experience with what I term "obsessive" love, and their similarities and differences as they are portrayed in the films in which they appear. The first character, Heathcliff, is one of the main characters from Wuthering Heights, the 1847 novel, written by Emily Brontė, and the 1939 film, directed by William Wyler, in which Laurence Olivier plays this part. The character to which I would like to compare him is Finn, played by Ethan Hawke, the main character of the 1998 movie Great Expectations, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Finn is known as Pip in the nineteenth-century novel Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens,on which this movie is based.

     There are several similarities between Heathcliff and Finn--the most obvious being that they are desperately in love with the same woman since childhood. Through trials and separations their love remains solid, even though both watch as their "true love" marries another man. When most people would accept this painful event, deal with the emotions involved, and get on with their lives, these two men remain committed to these women in a way that, in my opinion, expresses obsessive, unreasonable love.

     Pertinent questions that come to mind about Heathcliff and Finn are as follows: "Why did they not simply seek love in another place?" and "What factors made them susceptible to this kind of emotionally damaging feeling?" If one allows that these two men are merely characters, an examination of the early life of both Heathcliff and Finn may yield answers to their personalities and single-minded love for one woman.

     One aspect to consider is that both came from "nothing"--which is to say that they had neither parents nor material wealth. Each, in his own way, was searching for his identity. Heathcliff, a supposed orphan, is taken in by Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway) but is only accepted into the household by himself and Catherine (Sarita Wooten/Merle Oberon). Finn, also an orphan, is raised by his basically uncaring sister (until she leaves him, unannounced, with her more conscientious boyfriend) in a world of poverty and unscrupulousness. These two men, therefore, had little or no genuine love from a family setting as children and would, most probably, cling to the first person that showed them the attention and affection that they most desperately needed.

     For Heathcliff, this affection came from Catherine, first as a playmate and later as a lover, although not a physical one. However, Heathcliff was made, even by Catherine herself, to feel as though he was not--and never would be--good enough for Catherine. Finn, on the other hand, was continually rebuffed by Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), although he was struck by her beauty and cold, unreachable manner. Estella's aloof manner may have served as a sort of challenge to Finn--outlining something not of his world that he must have--spurred on by the crazed Ms. Dinsmore (Anne Bancroft). In short, the effects of the early lives of both Heathcliff and Finn created a deficient sense of self-worth in both men. Seemingly, they each tried in their own way to prove themselves worthy--with the attainment of the woman as the "golden prize."

     Whether to spite their brutal past or because of it, both men "come up" in the world. Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights to make his fortune on his own, vowing revenge--which is eventually fully realized--because of the brutality that he suffered at the hands of Hindley Earnshaw, Catherine's brother (Hugh Williams). Of course, Heathcliff also wants to be a "gentleman" in hopes that Catherine will consider him worthy of her. Finn, who lacks revenge as a motive, is given the opportunity to become a successful artist, gaining fame and wealth in the meantime. This chance is bestowed upon him by a secret benefactor (Robert De Niro), a violent escaped convict that had introduced Finn to brutality in his youth. Unfortunately, the increase of wealth and/or fame does not secure the desired relationship for either Heathcliff or Finn. As Catherine dies rather young in her life, Heathcliff is only reunited with his love after death. Finn, although the end of the movie leads us to believe that he and Estella eventually "get together," must wait many years for this to happen.

     Both Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations portray "true" love as the willingness to do anything for any length of time for the object of one's affection. While this is certainly a romantic notion and makes for an excellent story line--I must maintain that neither Heathcliff nor Finn were emotionally healthy and could have spent many happy years with someone else rather than chasing a woman that did not consider them worthy of their affections.

Melody L. Enoch

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