When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

Heathcliff’s will to vengeance is explained briefly by his childhood as an adoptee competing with the legitimate son of Mr. Earnshaw, Hindley. But he is also cast as hardened from the time of his introduction. Heathcliff’s disordered will only worsens through his relationship with the rebellious Cathy. However, what corrupts him definitively is Cathy’s ill-conceived marriage to Edgar Linton, which she admits involves no love and which she claims is meant to help Healthcliff. It is the wrongful marriage that sends Heathcliff, Cathy and the Lintons to their final doom, even though Heathcliff and Cathy’s fondness for one another continues. Then, like Original Sin, the disorder of the marriages of Cathy to Edgar and Heathcliff to Edgar’s sister filters down into the next generation, where eventually it is purged at Heathcliff’s death.

Through-out the story, even characters who profess to “love” one another are quite horrible to each other. And Heathcliff is a sour, dour, angry, violent man to all who encounter him.

How often do we do this to one another? Meanest to the ones closest to us, playing out our most intense loves in the worst of ways? And how often do the sins our parents flow down into us and ours into our children? This is why, for example, whether from genetics or rearing, alcoholics tend to pass down the habit. What is striking about Wuthering Heights is how accurately it captures these relationship dynamics as they ripple through two families.

 Yet, through it all, Heathcliff is somehow appealing to Cathy and fascinating to read about. Despite his darkness, Bronte manages to keep him human–a person who feels and loves, but who is marked by that disorder in love which introduces disorder into their social situations and surroundings.
In Wuthering Heights and elsewhere, a good book is one that shows the reader truth about human relationships and reality as a person on this planet under God. That’s the “catholic” that we can find anywhere–because all truth comes from God and leads back to him.
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