Spoiler alert: This post is full of plot and character details from Wuthering Heights.
For Heathcliff and Catherine, is it better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?
Here’s another way to phrase this question: Is it better to live passionately or safely? Better to spend a single day in the sun or to live one hundred years in the depths of a cave, never to experience the bright world?
Heathcliff and Catherine loved and lost—they loved passionately, and both lost their lives as a result. Without their disastrous love for each other, Catherine might have enjoyed a relatively long and content life with her husband, Linton. Heathcliff would have been free to move away and create his own life, instead of remaining at Wuthering Heights to ruin both Catherine and her family.
But comfortable safety and happiness would not have been better for these two than the brief moments of ecstasy they experience in each other’s arms before their deaths. Both Heathcliff and Catherine are innately passionate. They approach both love and hatred with intensity—the word “passivity” is not part of their vocabulary. Because of this quality, they are both capable of a love “deep as…the sea,” and it is much better for them to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.
Heathcliff paints a very clear picture for the reader of love and loss. He cannot bear to move away from Catherine, even when she marries his rival Linton and makes both men’s lives miserable by insisting that she can have them both. When she does die, he pleads with her spirit to “Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” (169) He is so desperate for her presence that he would rather be haunted by her ghost than live alone, cut off from every connection with her. Heathcliff gets his wish: haunted by Catherine’s ghost for almost twenty years, he finally dies from lack of sleep and food because her spirit becomes more visible to him. Although the dead Catherine kills him, Heathcliff dies in joy and ecstasy, with a “frightful, life-like gaze of exultation.” (335) Even in death, Heathcliff is a creature of great passion, rapturous to finally join Catherine.
The picture of Catherine’s love for Heathcliff is a little different, because she is the one who dies first. Her love for Heathcliff is a fact of life—part of her mind is always fixed on him, whether or not he is physically with her. She regards her love for her husband Linton as “the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees—my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary.” (82) She views Heathcliff as inseparable from herself, and even calls him part of “my own being.” (82)
Even though their all-consuming love leads to misery in life and finally death, it is this very ability to love that defines these two characters.
Anyone who has read Wuthering Heights will agree (I hope) that both Catherine and Heathcliff are nasty characters who would not make good role-models. However, they do have something to teach us about living with abandon, instead of protecting our hearts so we won’t get hurt. While Heathcliff and Catherine make many mistakes, the passion with which they love each other is exemplary. Christ loved us with abandon: he overturned tables in the synagogue, ensuring the enmity of the Jewish leaders; he risked being ceremonially unclean in order to reach out to the diseased and mangled; he died a gruesome death out of his passionate love to save humanity. As Christians, we are also called to lives of passionate love for Christ, no matter the cost. The Apostle John says it all when he condemns spiritual safety: “Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”