The Damaging Myth of Heathcliff

There is a scene in Anne of Green Gables where Anne is talking to Marilla of Diana’s engagement to Fred, who is “extremely good.” Marilla asks if Anne would prefer a man who wasn’t, and Anne says, “I wouldn’t marry a truly wicked man, but I think I’d like it if he could be wicked, and wouldn’t.” Marilla answers, “You’ll have more sense someday, I hope.”

In a bookstore with my girl the other day, our discussion turned to literary “leading men.” The “all-time favorite literary leading men” lists I’ve seen generally have Gilbert Blythe and Mr. Darcy at the top. Almanzo Wilder is usually on the list, too. I have something to say about Gil and Manly in a future post, but this one is going to focus on another man generally on the list, one whose presence there is troubling to me: Heathcliff.

On these lists, comments about Heathcliff say things like “tall, dark, and handsome,” “passionate,” “undying love,” “loyal to the end,” and “worships the ground she (Catherine) walks on.” They also say things like, “brooding,” “original bad boy,” “it wasn’t his fault (because of the abuse he suffered as a child)” and “If only Catherine would have married him, he could have been so good.”

It is true that Heathcliff has strong feelings for Catherine; however, strong, even passionate, feelings do not necessarily equate to true love, and neither does the fact that one feels strongly for a long period of time. Heathcliff’s feelings are unnatural and disturbing. If a girl today dumped a boy and married someone else, then the dumped guy stalked her, broke into her home, grabbed her and wouldn’t let go, and threatened to kill her husband, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, he loves her so much.” We’d throw the brute in jail! Which is exactly where Heathcliff belongs. (If you need further proof that his emotions are unhealthy, remember that he had Catherine dug up twice to look at her decomposing face. If you knew someone who did that, you would probably suggest that they get some help.) If Heathcliff truly loved Catherine, he would have valued her happiness above his own, and his actions would have been toward ensuring her comfort, even if it meant staying away from her, instead of his own desires. His ultimate passion was for himself, not her.

Heathcliff does deserve pity as a child for the abuse he suffers then; the other characters who are also abused deserve as much. Somehow, though, only Heathcliff seems to provoke this sympathy. And regardless of his upbringing, it is clear that he understands and enjoys inflicting pain on others when he reaches adulthood. He feels “intense anguish” when he accidently saves Hareton’s life, and wishes he’d helped kill him instead. He defrauds his family of everything they have, and it is implied that he murdered his adoptive father. He hangs his fiance’s dog. After marrying Isabella (only to provoke her father; he can’t stand her), he degrades her, throws a knife at her, makes her sleep on the floor – even when pregnant, and deprives her of her child. He treats his own son as contemptuously, bringing him to an early death as well. If he is doing any “brooding” (which by definition involves regret), it’s more about not harming others than the pain he has caused. This is not the behavior of someone who should be regarded with romantic ideals.

Why does this matter? Is it really important that some girls consider Heathcliff a romantic figure? He’s just a fictional character, after all.

I believe it does matter, and it’s the last comment people make – that if only Catherine had married Heathcliff, he’d have become a good man – that shows why. Girls think they want a “bad boy,” one who will buck the system for them, one they can “tame.” They ignore the rest of the story: the selfishness, the abuse, the heartache. The love of a good woman does not transform a bad boy. It only hurts the woman, be it emotionally, physically, or both. In making a hero of Heathcliff, the myth of woman-taming-bad boy is perpetuated, and sets up these girls for painful, even abusive, relationships. Sadly, often they don’t know why they end up in those kinds of situations.

I’m not sure when “bad” became “good” and good a thing to be avoided as boring, but for the sake of our children and healthy relationships for them, we as a society should try to turn that around. The idea of Heathcliff as a lover is one place to start the change. We need to make heroes of men who treat others well, and girls should not be encouraged to think love and obsession are the same thing.

“They’ll have more sense someday, I hope.”

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Having not read, Wuthering Heights, I’m at a slight disadvantage, but I have to agree. I vividly recall Anne’s comments to Marilla and her care-giver’s wise response. One should also realize that the burden of having to be the person responsible for changing the bad habits of another human being is very heavy. And in the end, wouldn’t he or she simply revert back to old ways if they are that disturbed?

    Reply

  2. Posted by lauri5567 on October 16, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    I’ve not read Wuthering Heights – and Heathcliff doesn’t sound very appealing.
    Have you seen Grease 2? (I know I like the really good movies 😉 ) Michelle Pfeiffer has a song about how she wants a “Cool Rider” I think the Cool Rider that is created is more like what girls want without seeing the distinction. He’s generally a good guy, and manages to pull off some not really that bad things. I’m doing a really bad job of explaining here, but I see what Anne means. There’s a reason Almanzo is more popular than Arthur Johnson in DeSmet. Almanzo drives the horses he shouldn’t. We need to help girls understand and recognize the good guys aren’t boring, but might be taking calculated risks and that the bad boy might not have a heart of gold.
    Also while I like Gilbert, can we take a moment and appreciate Kenneth Ford from Rilla of Ingleside?

    Reply

    • I haven’t seen Grease 2, but I think I know what you mean. There is such a thing as TOO boring. But while Manly may have been a daring risk-taker, he treated others with respect, and that’s really what I’m trying to get others to think about.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Connie in Colorado on October 17, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Powerful words, Teresa. Thank you. My niece has lived through this very same kind of “saving” relationship in her marriage, ending in a heartbreaking life not only for her but their child. Thankfully she’s getting past it, but it’s not a life of joy.

    Literary characters DO make an impression on readers and act as role models whether good or not. Please keep these observations coming for your daughter and young ladies as well as moms and aunts.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Connie. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned and politically incorrect, I believe that many girls have a maternal instinct that makes them want to save everyone, and that sometimes leads them astray. Hopefully we as a society can do a better job showing them the difference between a malicious person and one who, as Lauri says, is just trying to be “cool.”

      Reply

      • Posted by Connie in Colorado on October 17, 2015 at 9:32 pm

        You’re not sounding old-fashioned at all. It’s in the best interest to caution girls – warn – of danger before they jump in. However, as too often happens, girls won’t listen, cannot see beyond the excitement, or choose to defy their upbringing and parents. Sadly, I’m afraid that’s what happened in my niece’s situation, like a sociology textbook case.

  4. […] That’s true. And that would certainly have been a flaw, if the teasing had been at all malicious (see my previous post on Heathcliff). But Gilbert’s teasing was not mean, and given context I’m not sure it is a flaw. It seems […]

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