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Monday, March 3, 2014

Emily Bronte & the Will to Live

There's nothing like illness to give you a new perspective on life.  As I've been reading Wuthering Heights lately, it struck me that many of the characters in Emily Bronte's novel suffer from long, sustained illnesses. Here are a few examples.

Catherine loves Heathcliff, but marries Edgar Linton.  She wants the two men to get along, but each detests the other.  Following a quarrel which makes any further interaction between the two impossible, Catherine seems to waste away.  

After her death, Mr. Linton confines himself to his books, raising his daughter, and running Thrushcross Grange.  But he never stops mourning her death.  One day, while walking across the moors, he catches a cold and never recovers.  Instead, he longs for death, which will reunite him with his wife.  

Mr. Linton Heathcliff is a sickly boy.  During his youth, his body absolutely refuses to gain any strength.  He struggles on into his teens like an elderly man, needing to be supported, or even carried around.

The most noteworthy sickness of all is that of Mr. Lockwood. At the beginning of the novel, he rents Thrushwood Grange for a year. He visits Wuthering Heights, where he meets Heathcliff, his new landlord.  But he gets caught outside during a storm, and the resultant cold confines him to his rented house for months.  To help him pass the time, his housekeeper, Mrs. Dean, tells him about the people who have lived on the two estates, and her retellings constitute the bulk of the novel. Through her, we learn about Heathcliff and Catherine, their tragic love affair, and how Heathcliff, soured on life after her death, seeks his revenge on all those he believes have wronged him. Unlike the other examples, Mr. Lockwood summons the will to live, and recovers his health.

My first thought on all this is that the story is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, long before the invention of modern medicines such as vaccines and antibiotics.  But another thought is that most of these characters have little to live for.  Nearly all of them set their hearts on one particular thing, and when it is taken from them, they lose the ability to derive further enjoyment from life.

As with her characters, Emily Bronte's life was cut short by illness.  Like most of her characters in Wuthering Heights, she had no major career goals or work toward the end of her life, aside from her writing.  Like Heathcliff, when she caught a cold at her brother's funeral, she refused medical assistance. Three months later, her housemaid declared that she had died of a broken heart.  

In the last few years, I've reasoned that, as there's one particular thing I want to achieve more than anything else, then other activities count for little or nothing.  But my recent illness, and Emily Bronte's life and novel, suggest that a revision of my thinking may be in order.  By all means, I shall continue working toward my primary goal.  But those lesser goals still linger in my mind, tugging at my will, year after year. So are they so little after all?  Should I not devote some time on a regular basis--each day, each week, or each month--to their accomplishment?  If I were to do so, might I discover that pursuing those lesser tasks compliments my primary work?  

I have my loving wife, and my work. I don't want to fill up my workdays with too many lesser goals.  But I suppose we all need more than just one or two primary things (persons, goals, whatever) to bolster our will to live. I wish Emily Bronte had lived past the age of thirty.  Given the enduring power of Wuthering Heights, I wonder how many more novels she might have written, if only, like Mr. Lockwood, she had possessed the will to carry on.  

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
An Introduction to Wuthering Heights
Wealth, Poverty, & Happiness in Wuthering Heights

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