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‘I am Heathcliff’ review: ‘Wuthering Heights’ characters in a modern setting

Unquiet spirits: A scene from Andrea Arnold’s movie adaptation

Unquiet spirits: A scene from Andrea Arnold’s movie adaptation  

Catherine’s cry resonates in these stories that take off from Emily Brontë’s classic

In one of the most chilling scenes in Emily Brontë’s turbulent tale of obsession and betrayal, Wuthering Heights,the ghostly figure of a child taps her bony fingers at the window of her home, Wuthering Heights. Hers are the repressed yearnings of every woman buried by patriarchal culture and customs under the earth until they burst forth in legends.

In the case of the Greeks, it was the mythical figure of Persephone who was dragged underground, to reappear every spring. Indian myths tell the stories of river maidens like Cauvery who jumps into the water pitcher of the sage who has kept her in his hermitage and laughs her way to freedom as a shining river. Or of Mahi the young woman who dives into a pot of curd to escape too ardent a wooer and becomes the River Mahi. All this begs the question, has rape been a way of life in our divided society?

Always in my mind

‘I am Heathcliff’ review: ‘Wuthering Heights’ characters in a modern setting

The violence that rages through Wuthering Heights includes child abuse and neglect, whippings and beatings, perhaps even marital rape. And yet it is celebrated as a story of undying passion that knows no gender, as exemplified in Catherine’s anguished cry, “I am Heathcliff”, where she claims an absolute oneness with the man she loves. This cry resonates in multiple registers in this collection of short storied curated by Kate Mosse to mark the bicentennial year of the birth of Emily Brontë (1818-1848).

For those of us who are already in the thrall of Brontë’s brooding masterpiece, we don’t need to be told by Mosse that the characters are both ‘Familiar Friends” and archetypes. What is interesting is how very varied their treatment has been at the hands of the authors featured here. Part of these writers’ challenge has been to re-imagine the Brontë oeuvre in a modern setting. As the title suggests, many of the short stories focus on the question, “Who is Heathcliff?” — his centrality to the novel itself is underlined when Catherine confesses to her nurse and confidante, Nelly Dean, “He’s always, always in my mind; not as a pleasure, any more that I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

Heathcliff in Sudan

Not everyone clings to the romantic idea of a merging of social unequals, of the dark and brutish but always passionate Heathcliff and the delicate Catherine. Two authors, one originally from West Asia, Hanan al-Shaykh, and the other, Leila Aboulela, from Sudan, trace a magical trajectory of the story to their own cultures that suggests some of the power of the Heathcliff character.

Is Heathcliff the ultimate outsider? Like the misshapen Quasimodo in Les Misérables? Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath’s delicate American sensibilities? Someone who may have belonged to the mass of refugees now threatening to overthrow Western societies by flooding their carefully marshalled streets?

Because of Heathcliff, Emily Brontë still lives in these short stories, as she perhaps does too in the West Yorkshire countryside where she grew up and which provided the setting for her novel.

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.

I am Heathcliff: Stories Inspired by Wuthering Heights; Curated by Kate Mosse, The Borough Press, ₹599

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 5:22:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/i-am-heathcliff-review-wuthering-heights-characters-in-a-modern-setting/article25796645.ece

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