Whitespace E: To See Or Not To See
Shady hillside in Spokane County, WA

Skreyola's White Pages

- Whitespace E -

Glasses resting on an open book

- To See Or Not To See -

by Lincoln Sayger

945 wds.
First published on September 25, 2000

Emily Brontë's _Wuthering_Heights_ is not, at its heart, a love story. Contrary to the common reading and the portrayals in film, Brontë is writing less about love than about hate, less about romantic events than about society's prejudices, and, as David Sonstroem notes, less about vision than about blindness (27). All of the important characters in the novel use their preconceptions to make decisions about the world around them instead of looking at new evidence. Only a few of the characters ever seem to change their minds about situations as time progresses. David Sonstroem is absolutely correct—indeed, he may have discovered the true theme of the novel— when he states in "_Wuthering_Heights_ and the Limits of Vision." that Brontë "addresses herself less to vision than to blindness: to man's refusal to overlook his prejudices, and his inability to discern what lies beyond his limitations" (27).

Sonstroem notes that Heathcliff tries to ignore everything he dislikes in his surroundings: Edgar, Edgar's love for Catherine and hers for him, Linton, Cathy, and Cathy's relationship with Hareton (30-31). He is unable to deal with the painful things in his life constructively, choosing instead to try to do them over, even though time continues without noticing his efforts to revise it (Sonstroem 32). Heathcliff spends almost the entire book dying "by fractions of hairbreadths" (Brontë 266), not because of a haunting spectre, but because of his refusal or inability to change. When he returns with his new money and his clean, genteel appearance, he cannot or will not change his strategy of seeking happiness by trying to force himself to fit into Catherine's life. When Catherine dies, Heathcliff cannot or will not change his hopes for his blood to overcome that of the Lintons in securing the love of the two Catherines (Sonstroem 32). His "repeated failure to take a child's 'other' parent or guardian into account" disrupts his plans and shows "his inability to cope with the present" (Sonstroem 33) and to see beyond his limitations.

Unlike Heathcliff's, Catherine's shortsightedness stems mostly from her decisions rather than from her observations. She correctly assesses the situation regarding her marriage to Edgar, yet she makes a decision she knows will not work: "I've no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if [Hindley] had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn't have thought of it" (Brontë 73). Sonstroem notes that although Catherine wants harmony in her life, she can't seem to make Heathcliff and Edgar both fit into her view of the world, so she wavers between them, favoring Heathcliff. Her marriage to Edgar appears healthy enough while Heathcliff is away, but when he returns, "it is Edgar who disappears before her eyes, or who unaccountably and annoyingly will *not* disappear" (Sonstroem 31). Finally, Catherine chooses Heathcliff and ignores Edgar, but she chooses a specific Heathcliff who is not Heathcliff as he really is. The Heathcliff she chooses does not possess any of the negative traits that she and Heathcliff share, including relentlessness and cruelty (Sonstroem 31). Catherine's blindness is largely the result of her refusal to grow beyond her prejudices.

Sonstroem points out that Cathy Linton's "sheltered world [is] more injured by [her visit to Wuthering Heights] than [are] her pampered dogs" (30). He is accurate in this statement. Cathy's world is built around the carefully protected conventions at the Grange, where they are sufficient, but she seeks to know a larger world. She sees a world full of wonder beyond the walls of the Grange, but her father, Edgar, has not prepared her for that world. So Cathy's "newfound friend Hareton does not fit her familiar categories of master's son or master's servant" (Sonstroem 29), and she argues with Linton about people hating their wives, though neither she nor Linton has enough information to competently argue the point (Sonstroem 34). One thing sets Cathy apart from the other characters. Their shortsightedness tends to be mostly a decision to ignore people or situations that don't fit their desires. Rather, Cathy's is a lack of discernment created by her inability to know the background required to accurately judge the importance and motives of Heathcliff's interactions with her until it is too late. If her father had been open with her and explained the situation fully, if not all along, at least after she had been exposed to Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights, then he might have saved her many heartaches. Edgar's withholding Heathcliff's past contributed more to the success of Heathcliff's trap than did all of Cathy's willful ignorance of evidence showing Heathcliff's ill intents. If she had had that information, she might not have fallen for Heathcliff's use of Linton to manipulate her. To a great extent, the walls of her sheltered world, rather than her choices, cause her blindness.

The major characters in _Wuthering_Heights_ each approach their blindness from different routes. Heathcliff does not perceive situations and makes poor choices both when he sees and when he does not see. Catherine Earnshaw sees things with reasonable accuracy but makes poor decisions in spite of that. Cathy Linton makes most of her poor choices when she does not see things accurately. Brontë even suggests that the reader is as blind as her characters by using Nelly to speak directly to the reader: "'You'll judge as well as I can, all these things; at least you'll think you will, and that's the same'" (Sonstroem 38). Sonstroem very perceptively and eloquently notes that "for all the windows and books in the novel, no one sees very far or learns very much" (33). Brontë is asking her readers to avoid the same mistakes.


Brontë, Emily. _Wuthering_Heights_. 1847. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Sonstroem, David. "_Wuthering_Heights_ and the Limits of Vision." _Emily_Brontë's_ Wuthering Heights. Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 27-45.

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