Heathcliff, Who Cares?

         If Heathcliff, the "hero" of Wuthering Heights, has any legit reason to be mad at any one, I contend that it should be Emily Brontë and Laurence Olivier. These co-conspirators ruined his life. They ruined a character. They have given us one of the most pathetic, defeated, and least accessible characters to ever roam film and literature.

         In her 1847 novel, Emily Brontë tries to paints us a portrait of a man incapable of dealing with his circumstances, a man filled with hate and vengeance, a man we should have loved or hated. We got nothing. He whines, and moans, and continues to love a woman who has apparently destroyed what he was and ever would be. After he leaves Wuthering Heights and makes his fortune, I should have been rooting for him: "Here is a man who has risen from horrible circumstances to make something of himself." I was not. He comes back and mires himself in the muck that is Wuthering Heights. He could have been somebody. He could have gotten what he deserved for being strong enough to leave. He wastes his life. His revenge leaves him as empty and broken as he was to begin with.

         To take a different approach, I should have hated him for destroying everyone around him. But whom does he destroy? He ruins people who had already ruined themselves, people I could not sympathize with less. What is there to hate? Emily writes these people into their narrow little world and will not let them leave, just like Heathcliff. They are all the same, pathetic and broken. Let him destroy them all. He is like an exterminator who kills the cockroaches in your home; you do not care that they are dead. But, unlike the cockroaches, you are not glad they are gone. So, Emily's Heathcliff does not even rate as heroic as an exterminator, but we are suppose to connect with him. Well, I for one cannot.

         As I settle down, with low expectations, for Wuthering Heights Hollywood style, directed in 1939 by William Wyler, I think that seeing these people brought to life may bring some emotional connection. Then I see Laurence Olivier practically yawn his way through the entire picture. Here is Heathcliff's moment of triumph, his smirking revenge; and Laurence is practically asleep. I do not doubt that every once in a while, one of his cast mates had to poke him in the ribs to let him know he had a line. Heathcliff had a chance; Laurence Olivier could have brought emotional depth, something we could care about. He could have shown us the struggle, the inner turmoil, that was Heathcliff. He showed us what Heathcliff would be like if he were in a coma. Maybe Laurence Olivier was as bored by the character I was. It is the only excuse I can think of. But if that is the case, why even bother taking the role?

         Poor Heathcliff never had a chance. His "mother" and "father" would not let him have one. Let this be a lesson to literary characters everywhere: choose your parents carefully.

Devin Wilber

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