Heathcliff and Cathy: Platonic Lovers
No amount of psychological criticism has been spared on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847. The bond between Heathcliff and Catherine is a knotological wonder, but the characters themselves state it in spiritual, and much simpler, terms evoking a concept of love that is not unmodern but dates back to at least ancient Greece. In Plato’s Symposium, we find an explanatory myth for the mystery of love — even that of lovers as sadomasochistic as Heathcliff and Cathy.
In Plato’s Symposium, the poet Agathon hosts a gathering at which the guests, exhausted from drinking heavily the night before, make encomia to Eros. The result is a discussion of the nature of love that touches upon everything from carnal relations to spiritual connections. The philosophical height of the dialogue is when Socrates comments on love as a yearning for the Beautiful, but the speech most likely to capture readers’ imaginations is the playwright Aristophanes’ playful telling of the sex myth.
According to Aristophanes, human beings once had three sexes, each with double bodies: male-male, female-female and male-female. With their two faces, four arms, four legs, two privy members and so on, humans were a powerful and fearsome race, and two of them, Otys and Ephialtes, even threatened the gods. For this reason, Zeus decided to cut the race in two, resulting in our bodies as we now know them. Each one of us, according to the myth, is descended from an all male, all female or male-female being and longs to be whole again through union with the missing half, whether of the same or opposite sex:
“ And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together…”
Certainly Catherine and Heathcliff retain the primordial ferocity mentioned in Aristophanes’ myth. Heathcliff’s surliness in the opening pages of the novel, when Mr. Lockwood seeks shelter from the storm, is almost comical. Catherine too is a rebellious spirit. Nelly the servant describes her as a “wicket slip” whose mischief “put all of us past our patience fifty times and oftener a day.” And the two of them together are too much for anyone, especially Catherine’s brother Hindley and their tutor the curate. As Nelly puts it, “Together, they would brave Satan and all his legions.”
Catherine herself provides an eerily similar, but inverse, portrait of herself. She relates a dream in which she was in Heaven, but she couldn’t stand being there and wept so bitterly that the angels cast her back to earth and onto the heath near her home — and she sobbed for joy at this. Like Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Cathy’s idea of the afterlife is this life. And like Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is from earth that Cathy will effect her rebellion.
Heathcliff and Catherine also resemble Aristophanes’ half-people in their longing to be together. They take an immediate liking to each other, swear to “grow up as rude as savages,” and are especially fond of rushing onto the moors, where they stay until after dark, forgetful of everything but each other. This provides film versions with their most picturesque moments of romance, when the lovers lie side by side in the grass, gaze into the distance amidst wind-weathered rocks, and read their futures in the clouds.
“And like Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is from earth that Cathy will effect her rebellion.”
No mention of Plato is made in Wuthering Heights, but Catherine and Heathcliff repeatedly use his language, talking as if they share one heart, one life, one self, one soul. One of the clearest examples is when Catherine explains to Nelly that she intends to marry the wealthy Edgar Linton even though the man she truly loves is Heathcliff:
“…he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”
And later, as she lies dying, Heathcliff uses similar language to cast recriminations:
“I have not broken your heart — you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you — oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?”
If Heathcliff and Catherine are soulmates, they’re fractious ones. Her treatment of him is cruel in its caprice, passionate one moment and cold the next. And Heathcliff doesn’t react well. After Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar, he carries out a plan for revenge that reaches Max Cady levels of obsession. He accrues a fortune, buys their childhood home and moves in, situating his brooding self near to Catherine’s new home so he can steal her back or, failing that, destroy her new life.
Catherine and Heathcliff’s behavior is so disagreeable that it’s a wonder anyone can find romance in them. Today, there is little society reviles more than inappropriate behavior towards women, but Heathcliff is inveterately abusive toward the women in his life, verbally, psychologically and physically. The 1939 film version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon skips much of the worst in the last half of the tale, but the 1992 version starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche does not, making it clear that Heathcliff beats his wife Isabella.
At odds they may be, but Heathcliff and Catherine always return to one another. In terms of Aristophanes’ myth, they were, before existence on this mortal plane, one of the male-females, and they know this at every level of their psyches, from subconscious drives to conscious thought. Fate may work to separate them through class divisions, happenstance and their own contrary natures, but their spirits — their spirit? — will have none of it. They are like the souls in John Donne’s early 17th-Century poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”:
“If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the’other doe.”
Donne’s invoking of celestial spheres elsewhere in that poem is in keeping with the symbolism of Plato’s myth. In the Symposium, Aristophanes says there were originally three sexes because the sun, moon and earth are three. The entirely male sex was of the sun, the entirely female was of the earth, and the hybrid was of the moon, which is a union of sun and earth. These heavenly bodies orbit one another and, according to the science of our day, astronomical forces will one day bring them crashing together. Do not lovers experience similarly irresistible forces?
Indeed, so strong is the attraction between Brontë’s lovers that even death cannot separate them. After Catherine dies, Heathcliff hears her voice on the wind and sees her ghost. He survives her by years but eventually wastes away. The 1992 film shows Catherine’s spirit welcome him to moors gauzy with heavenly light, but this is all wrong, because Heaven would be a torment for him as much as for Catherine. The 1939 film does better in showing the two, semi-transparent, walking near Penistone Crags, the summit of their earthly paradise. Nelly, however, refuses to believe witness accounts of them walking the moors.
Either way, one thing is for certain. Having once been one if only in myth — be it Plato’s sex myth or the myth they have created of their own lives — Heathcliff and Cathy are at last rejoined. Whether that is in Heaven, on earth, or merely in death without afterlife, their suffering is over.
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