Popular Classics

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Emily Bronte would have loved Game of Thrones.


No, this isn't going to be another blog post on the HBO smash hit series; rather, I would like to share some of my thoughts upon my recent rereading, purely for my own pleasure, of Bronte's weird classic, Wuthering Heights—thoughts which happen to have a significant bearing upon teaching popular cultural semiotics.


The foremost point to raise in this regard is that, in spite of its long enshrinement in America's high school curriculum, Wuthering Heights was not written to be studied in schools: it was written to be entertaining—to its author, as well as to its reader—for, after all, Emily Bronte had been writing to entertain  herself and her sisters and brother since her infancy.


More importantly, as a novel bearing the influence of everything from the Gothic literary tradition to the revenge drama to the star-crossed romance, Wuthering Heights is there to entertain, not mean.  This is where generations of literary critics striving to figure out what Bronte could possibly be getting at, and who (or what) Heathcliff is supposed to be, are missing the point. Wuthering Heights, like the movie Casablanca in Umberto Eco's estimation, is an absolute hodgepodge of often-conflicting literary cliches—a text, as Eco puts it, where "the cliches are having a ball."  And that is what most really popular stories manage to do.


How do we know that Wuthering Heights is popular, and not merely for school-room force-feeding?  Let's start with the fact that some forty (yes, forty, but it's hard to keep precise count) movies, TV dramas, operas, and other assorted adaptations have been made of the enigmatic novel over the years, not to mention the biopics about the Brontes themselves that continue to be churned out —most recently the 2016/2017 BBC/PBS production To Walk Invisible.


How do we know that it is a cornucopia of cliches?  Well, we can start with Emily Bronte's take on the star-crossed lovers theme, putting Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in the Romeo and Juliet predicament.  But it doesn't quite feel like Romeo and Juliet because of Heathcliff's absolute ferocity.  This is where the revenge theme comes in.  There is not a little of Hamlet in Heathcliff, and there is probably a lot of the Count of Monte Cristo (Emily Bronte could read French, and Dumas' novel was published in 1844-45—in time for Bronte to have read, or at least known of it, before writing her novel).  This is one reason why Heathcliff is such a mystery: he is embodying two very different narrative traditions: that of the revenge hero and of the romantic hero.  Trying to reconcile these traditions is not only a hopeless task for critics, it appears to have overwhelmed Bronte herself, who, just as Heathcliff is about to perfect his decades-in-the-making revenge on the Lintons and the Earnshaws, suddenly decides to call it a day and kill himself (like a very belated Romeo) only pages from the conclusion of the story, in one of the worst-prepared-for denouements in literary history.


But let's not forget the ghost story element.  Like The Turn of the Screw a generation later (and James may well have gotten the idea from Bronte), Wuthering Heights is a ghost story, or not, because there may be no ghosts at all, only Heathcliff's feverish psychological projections.  But even as we ponder the ghost element (or lack thereof) in Wuthering Heights, there is the wholly Gothic goulishness of Heathcliff, which puts him in the class not only of vampires (Bronte herself teases us with that possibility) but of the necrophilic monk Ambrosio in that all-time 18th-century best seller, The Monk


Then there's the way that Wuthering Heights eventually employs one of the most common conventions of the entire English novelistic tradition:  the actual, and symbolic, marriage that reconciles the fundamental contradictions that the novel dramatizes.  Indeed, one wonders whether Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables (1851) owes something to Emily Bronte, but Bronte hardly got there first.


Finally, there is the character of Catherine Earnshaw Linton, which may be the most popular element of all in the novel today. A likely projection of something of Emily Bronte herself, Catherine is a strong-willed, beautiful woman with masculine as well as feminine characteristics, and who may well prefigure the ever-popular Scarlett O'Hara.  Something of an archetype of the emancipated woman, Catherine, to adapt an old New Critical slogan, is there to be, not mean.   She doesn't point to a moral: she just is, and readers love her for it. 


See what I mean?  Wuthering Heights is simply teeming with literary formulae.  And so, just as with any artifact of popular culture whose primary purpose is to entertain, our best approach to it is not to ask what it means, but, instead, to ask what it is in all these conventions and cliches that is so entertaining, generation after generation, and what does that say about the audience (and culture) that is entertained?


I won't attempt that analysis now.  Perhaps I'll come back to it some time.  But my point here is that by studying "literature," we often lose track of the role that entertainment plays in literary production, just as in enjoying entertainments we often lose track of the significance of that which is entertaining in entertainment.  Popular cultural semiotics is, accordingly, not only something for self-declared, "mass cultural," entertainments: it can illuminate what we call "the classics," as well.


About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.