Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wuthering Heights, Outer Dark

Two dark literary books at once, almost enough to drive a man to drink...

Wuthering Heights is the Gothic novel par excellence, with saturnine householders, surly servants, repressed passions, everything one could want in a Gothic.  Which leads me to think that ultimately the Gothic novel genre is not for me.  Rather than focusing on the book's warts, though, I want to think about its interesting narrative structure.  There's a frame story, where Mr. Lockwood (?) comes to the Heights and meets Heathcliff, Catherine, et al.  Then we're introduced to the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, who tells most of the story, and she occasionally gives us long sections in someone else's first person.

Mr. Lockwood's frame is longer than most, and also more involved.  He interrupts Ellen's story every so often, and gives us his impressions of the characters, sometimes differing from hers.  When she breaks into someone else's account, she also will then sometimes disagree with that person's interpretations.  I think that this is to put us in a frame of mind to question everyone's impressions.  It's not really a standard unreliable narrator, since everyone agrees on the events that have taken place; it's more a matter of interpretation.  Ellen, for example, seems to several times mistake Heathcliff's sarcasm for his actual opinions.  So, while there's no question that he's a villain, I think there's room to debate his motivations.  She's also harsher on Linton than may be warranted.

I loved all the post-Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy books that I read (the Westerns), but I never really got into Suttree, which many seem to consider his best Southern novel.  So I never tried the earlier Southern novels, and, based on Outer Dark, that was a mistake.  Outer Dark has the same strengths as the later novels -- a wonderful ear for the rhythms of dialog and a distinctive narrative style.  He also draws heavily on biblical allusions (the title itself comes out of the New Testament).  I think that one key to understanding this novel is the biblical aspect.  Culla seems to bear a mark of Cain; he can't settle anywhere, and wherever he goes, people's hands are turned against him.  At the same time, nobody actually has the authority to kill him, not even the three wild men who kill almost everyone they come across.

But these men also lead us into non-biblical territory.  At first, they seem to be a personification of the Furies, and, looked at through that lens, it's impossible not to see the Greek Tragedy aspects of the novel.  Culla and Rinthy can't escape from the misdeed that they've done before the story starts.  In the end, there's no redemption for either of them.  Although the three men don't attack Culla physically, by the end of the novel they've cut off any chance that he and Rinthy could find redemption in raising their son.

Against all this crushing darkness, I do think McCarthy leaves us with one glimmer of hope.  Throughout their travels, both Rinthy and Culla find people willing to share what little they have, and especially in Rinthy's case to offer food and drink with no recompense.  I think that these sparks of decency are supposed to illuminate the darkness that is otherwise always threatening to come in and smother us all.

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