Pull Question: Wuthering Heights

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.”

Pull Question: Dante’s Purgatory

Can the Terrestrial Paradise become Limbo for someone like Virgil?

In canto 28 of Purgatory, Virgil is inside of the Terrestrial Paradise along with Dante and Statius.  This seems like an odd thing to happen, since Virgil normally dwells in Limbo, which is in hell.  Limbo is a place in hell that is specifically for what Dante calls the “virtuous pagans.”  Virgil, along with the likes of Homer, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are all within this circle of hell.  They are not being tortured but they are not enjoying themselves either.  They are merely in an eternal state of never leaving where they are and having no hope of leaving where they are.  The Terrestrial Paradise, for someone who cannot enter the true Paradise, would seem to be a very similar situation.  It would be a place where you would have no hope of leaving, you would not be tortured.  You would however enjoy yourself.  Limbo and the Terrestrial Paradise of quite similar, in those senses at least.

Does anyone ever stay in the Terrestrial Paradise?  From reading Purgatory, it seems as though no one stays there permanently.  It could be argued that Matelda stays there forever, but there is definitely not a focus in Dante on the “people who stay in the Terrestrial Paradise” as there is for people in any circle of hell, purgatory or paradise.  If no one stays in the Terrestrial Paradise, which I would say seems quite likely, then the purpose of the Terrestrial Paradise is to make a person forget all of their sin in the river of Lethe while reminding them of their good deeds in the waters of the Eunoe which prepares them for the Celestial Paradise.  If this is the only point of the Terrestrial Paradise, then it would not make any sense to have it become Limbo for any virtuous Pagan.

It also would be odd if a virtuous pagan dwelt in the Terrestrial Paradise as if it were a Limbo because the Terrestrial Paradise is located at the top of the mountain of Purgatory.  For a person to enter the Terrestrial Paradise, they must purge themselves of their sins (in other words, they must conform their wills to what is good).  This seems to be something that a virtuous pagan would at least be capable of doing.  The problem here is that to enter the mountain of Purgatory, one must have been saved by Jesus Christ.

But somehow, Virgil entered Purgatory, and he entered the Terrestrial paradise.  This is because he believed in Jesus, after his death.  Virgil could not be saved from eternal damnation because he did not believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord during his life, but he is not disqualified from entering Purgatory or the Terrestrial Paradise in this case because he is no longer with any fault.  His fault of not having faith in Jesus Christ is condemning but not restricting when he is called upon by God (or Beatrice in this case) to act.

Pull Question: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

How do real religion and God play into slavery?

In the preface, WM. Lloyd Garrison says that any “country in the hands of a righteous God, who is ever on the side of the oppressed, and whose arm is not shortened that it cannot save” is a country that must abhor slavery.  Any heart that disagrees with this must be a “flinty heart, and be qualified to act the part of a trafficker ‘in slaves and souls of men.’”  God is clearly involved in the affairs of nations.  But when God is involved, slavery should cease, by this line of thinking.  What did this actually mean in times of slavery?  Is God not involved?

Frederick Douglass offers some unique views on the effects of religion on something as oppressive and evil as slavery.  Douglass points out (painfully to those of us that are religious) that religious slaveholders are far, far worse than non-religious ones.  Religious slaveholders routinely use the Bible as a means of justifying their evils.  What seems most interesting to me is that Frederick Douglass does not seem to dislike Christianity.  The primary reason for this is his peculiar understanding that there is a difference between what Christ taught and how Christianity was applied in southern American at the time.  Douglass arrived at these conclusions without having access to a copy of the Bible, in part or in whole.

The difference between what Frederick Douglas saw and what he knew is the primary difference between False Religion and Real Religion.  Frederick Douglass gives us a clear and brutal picture of what false religion and a misunderstanding of God does to something as evil as slavery:  it escalates the evil of slavery to heights nearly unfathomable.  How then can we discern how real religion and God play into slavery?

For starters, it seems that God had a significant impact on Frederick Douglass himself.  In his own words, “To be the friend of one [of the two forms of Christianity], is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.  I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ:  I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”  Throughout this passage, Douglass explains that the “Christianity of Christ” is the Real Religion, and is a good thing by its very nature.  This “Christianity of Christ” does not seem to play into the slavery of the south, except insofar as it plays into the emancipation of the slaves.  Every person we see who adheres to the Christianity of Christ is at the very least suspected of being involved with encouraging slaveholders to emancipate.

In short:  how do real religion and God play into slavery?  In emancipation.

Pull Question: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

What would you add to or subtract from Franklin’s understanding of virtue?

Benjamin Franklin decides that it was “time [he] conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”[1]  After this decision, he outlines for the reader his plan for attaining moral perfection. He begins by outlining what he views to be the tenets of perfection:  temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.  Immediately after listing this, Franklin outlines his method:  “My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then proceed to another.”[2]  His method, then, was to begin with temperance, and mark down every time he failed at being temperate.  This he would do for a whole week, and then he would add silence, and then the next virtue, working on each for at least a week. These are cumulative, so by the end of his list of virtues, he would in theory be morally perfect.

In analysis of this understanding of virtue, it seems that Benjamin Franklin leaves out a key factor of making sense of virtue:  vice.  While there is an implicit sense in which Franklin covers vice, he never explicitly talks about what vice is.  It seems as though Franklin does not understand what the opposite of virtue is:  “I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short if it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”[3]  It seems as though Franklin is indeed satisfied with his outcome of improving, and does not care much about continuing to seek perfection with much zeal. While he fell short, his explanation is lacking.

To Franklin’s ideas of virtue I would add first and foremost a healthy understanding of vice.  While I am in agreement with the idea that emphasizing the steps to get somewhere is more helpful than always pointing out the negative, it does seem like talking about the negative effects of vice (either on the soul or on the life) is useful and right. But Franklin’s understanding of virtue proper is not where my problem lies, but rather in the method by which Franklin arrived at his virtues.  Franklin says that “It will be remark’d that, tho’ my scheme was not wholly without religion, there was in it no mark of any of the distinguishing tenets of any particular sect.  I had purposely avoided them.”[4]  While this is a noble goal for the sake of marketing his particular set of virtues across religious lines (he goes on to say this in the next sentence), it seems to me that a proper understanding of virtue can come only from a proper understanding of the source of virtue: namely, God.

That is, if we believe the truth of Scripture, that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that God is wholly good and morally perfect, then it seems impossible that we could arrive at moral perfection without referencing or patterning our lives on God. Perhaps we can make some progress–after all, we do bear the image of God–but to achieve moral perfection outside of a reliance on God seems foolish and impossible (though Franklin at least admits he failed).

Furthermore, the reliance on God is not simply a sort of fount that we refer all moral progress to, but an actual and daily reliance on the Spirit of God to guide us and correct us when we do fail. Moral perfection only comes about when we live by the Spirit, provided to use through the sacrifice of the Son.

[1]    The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin p. 63.

[2]    Ibid., 65.

[3]    Ibid., 70.

[4]    Ibid.

Pull Question: Proverbs

As a part of my Torrey Honors Institute education, I was assigned a short writing assignment for every text we read, called a “Pull Question.” The idea was simple: pull together various concepts from a class session, and spend some more time writing or thinking about them. The professor would give a question or two at the end of each class, and you’ve have the semester to write about it (usually). Since old texts are important, and my study of them should not cease, we are starting a new series here at Evangelical Outpost. From time to time, we’ll post some of the Pull Questions we answered in our undergrad years. They’ll be edited, some context will be added, and they may be otherwise tweaked. The idea here is simple: our educations have changed us, and we believe they can change others as well. So without further non-pull-question writing, here is the first entry in the series: Continue reading Pull Question: Proverbs