Book Review

Jane Eyre Vs Wuthering Heights Smackdown - A Guest Entry by CarrieS

Jane EyreThis guest entry from CarrieS is in honor of Charlotte Bronte's birthday, which was last weekend, 21 April. 


OK, Bitches, this is it.  In honor of Charlotte Brontë's birthday (April 21, 1816), it's time to fulfill my long-time goal of establishing what I believe may be a universal truth:

You cannot passionately, deeply, own-multiple-copies-of, take-to-a-desert-island-as-your-one-book, love both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.  Love one, hate the other.  That's the deal.  You may appreciate the quality of the writing in both books and their historical significance, but on a visceral level you will love only one.

How have I come to this conclusion?  Well, to start with, I currently own at least three copies of Jane Eyre, one of which is wrapped in plastic and stored with my earthquake survival kit (along with a copy of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, in case you're wondering.).  Jane is my role model, my friend, my faithful companion and guiding light.  On the other hand, I've read Wuthering Heights three times out of a perverse sense of duty to Literature, and I can't stand that whiny, nasty Catherine with her tantrums or Heathcliff, also known as the king of collateral damages.  I have also noticed that when I sell books at our Library's Annual Jane Austen Tea (check it out if you live in Sacramento, CA) people mention liking either Wuthering or Jane, but not both. This is scanty evidence towards my theory, so I turn to the Bitches to expand my sample size.  Prove me wrong, so we Brontë fans may live in harmony!

Wuthering Heights Twilight Cover Jane and Wuthering are both gothic novels, set in England, written by sisters Charlotte and Emily, respectively.  But despite the shared atmosphere and setting of the books, they could not be more different.  Jane is a romance novel (best one ever, says me).  Not only does it provide an HEA, it provides an HEA that is complex and earned.  Jane (the character) goes through many challenging circumstances but she never loses her sense of who she is  – a human being worthy of respect.  She holds to this sense of self as an abused child, as a shy young woman with a painful crush, as a vagrant and dependent, and ultimately as a woman of means, a wife, and a mother.  Her relationship with Rochester is ultimately defined by mutual respect, affection, and love.  Until he respects her autonomy, no amount of him swooning over her can win the day.  Even when she is most powerless, or when she is at her most romantically passionate, she holds to saying, “”I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

Wuthering Heights with teens on the cover. Seriously. It's like Wuthering 90210 In contrast, Wuthering Heights is all about people who are so obsessed with each other that they have no sense of self as individuals.  Catherine famously says, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”  Heathcliff says of Cathy, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”  Wuthering Heights is not a book I enjoy, but the fact that I loathe it on a visceral level is not actually a criticism of its fine (if somewhat hyperactive) use of language.  If anything, the fact that it inspires such passionate dislike is almost as much of a complement as the fact that I so passionately adore Jane Eyre.  A book that inspires deep feeling must hit a nerve and must strike something in the imagination.  Lord knows I can't stand the book, but it certainly is packed full with vivid atmosphere, gothic psychological horror, desperate passion and, in Heathcliff, the ultimate Byronic Asshat Hero.  It doesn't get broodier than Heathcliff, and emotions don't get any more raw than his do.  If your thing is tragic people wandering the moors wailing in heartbroken anguish and concocting terrible vengeances in gloomy halls, while swept away with consuming passion and being mean to each other and every one around them, then it doesn't get better than this.

As a long-time defender of Jane Eyre, I'm always having to remind people that the point of the book isn't that the poor governess gets the rich guy to marry her.  I hate Wuthering Heights because the characters are universally loathsome with the exception of a few who are simply spineless, and yet I'm constantly hearing about their great love.  I'm thinking maybe I (and, ironically, many of Wuthering's admirers) am missing the point – maybe the whole point of Wuthering Heights is not to glorify the Catherine/Heathcliff relationship, but rather to point out the destructive quality of romantic obsession (in addition to, and arguably as a result of, generations of abuse). 

So tell me, everyone, if you are a huge devotee of either or both of these novels.  Is there room in the human heart for both, or, they say in the movies, can there be only one?  I am desperately curious as to whether my theory is true.  Happy [belated] birthday, Charlotte, and thanks for providing me with a character who has reminded me to stay true to myself from the day we, two ten-year old girls who liked to hide away from the world and read, became best friends.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Joonces says:

    There can be only one.  So say my 4 copies of Jane Eyre.  And my DVDs of every cinematic version.  I hated Wuthering Heights with a fiery passion.  They’re all just so awful to each other—though the book did pick up in later chapters when it was about the kids.  Still, only ONE for me!

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    I’m not voting but can I just say how hilarious I find that MTV cover for Wuthering Heights? Every time I look at it, I start laughing.

  3. 3
    alysonli says:

    I, um, hate both of them?  Not sure where that puts me.  OK, for full disclosure: I couldn’t get through Jane Eyre.  I got through Wuthering Heights and while I believe it to be a brilliantly written story about a bunch of self-absorbed douchenozzles and not at ALL the romance some people believe it to be (I actually classify it more as a dark, dark satire of gothic romance), I don’t ever want to read it again.

  4. 4
    LauraN says:

    I hate, loathe, and detest Wuthering Heights.  It’s a story full of hateful, selfish people and I’m not into that.  I don’t adore Jane Eyre in equal measure, though.  I like it, but it’s not a favorite.  Still, I support your theory.

  5. 5
    Marissa Fortin says:

    There can be only one.  In my life, that is Jane Eyre.  She is my heroine.  Wuthering heights is a story of hateful, horrible people with few if any redeeming qualities.

  6. 6

    Wuthering Heights, all the way. This does not mean, however, that I think WH is a great love story. It’s a SICK love story. But Emily’s use of supernatural tropes to get at extreme psychological states is BRILLIANT. And her complete rejection of orthodox Christian piety? REVOLUTIONARY. Name another Victorian lady author who can match Emily’s irreligiosity. YOU CAN’T! And Emily’s formal craft—framing narratives, unreliable narrators, complicated timeline—UNTOUCHABLE.

    Jane Eyre, I just kind of want to punch—the book, not the person. And I give Charlotte props for Villette, but largely because it reminds me so much of WH.

  7. 7
    Eternity 20 says:

    Its Jane Eyre all the way! The whole revenge factor of Heights just makes me crazy.

  8. 8
    Olivia Waite says:

    Jane Eyre all the way: “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you — especially when you are near to me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land, come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.”

    A nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.

    Game—set—match.

  9. 9

    Oh, and the MTV WH IS hilarious through and through—not just the cast photo. I showed it to high-school students, and even they found it ridiculous. I also gave these same high school students a test with this essay question: You’ve won a dream date with one of the super-hunks of Wuthering Heights. Do you choose Linton or Heathcliff. Not a single kid chose Linton! I roundly berated my students for making terrible life choices, a harangue that probably included TMI regarding my own dating history.

  10. 10
    Jessica_HookEm says:

    I concur.  I absolutely loathe Wuthering Heights.  I read it as a freshman in high school for fun, if you can call anything that dark and dramatic fun, and didn’t think much of it and then I read it again as required reading as a senior in high school and realized that it was terrible!  So my vote is firmly for Jane Eyre.  I could relate to her far more than I could any of the characters in Wuthering Heights and I abhor unnecessary drama.  Drama for the sake of drama is insulting to my intelligence.  The whole drama for the sake of drama thing is also why I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy.  Anyway, I loved Jane Eyre so I completely agree with your hypothesis.

  11. 11
    Ruthie Knox says:

    Jane, Jane, all the way. I love weird little Janet.

    Of interest—Jane Eyre is a first-person POV story with a straightforward narrative line. Wuthering Heights is one of those strange nested creations (see also: Dracula, Frankenstein) in which you start with a first-person narrator and he ends up telling you a story filtered through another person, plus a vast stretch of time.

    Very different narrative techniques, very different characters, very different stories. It’s really wild that they were written by sisters. They seem more like they were written by different species.

  12. 12
    Mirandaflynn says:

    Jane all the way! I always wanted to shove the entire cast of WH off of a stony cliff into a surging, turgid sea.

  13. 13

    All right, you’re wrong. :) I adore both books, though for vastly different reasons. Wuthering Heights is an incredibly modern book, with the story presented through the prism of multiple unreliable narrators, and deals with so many questions that are still relevant today: Catherine’s identity (which we never really see, we only get to see her through the eyes of others—the closest we get to see her is when she’s already a ghost, made unreal by everyone’s expectations of her), the choices she has (marry for security or remain true to herself and lose her position/disappoint her family), the search for balance between the unbridled desires/following instincts vs. listening to your head (finally found in Catherine II) etc. etc.

    At the same time, Jane Eyre deals with many of the same issues, only in a different manner. In a way, you could say that the difference in approaches is, at least partially, due to the difference between the sisters themselves. Where WH is labyrinthine in its construction, JE is straightforward, despite the very gothic storyline. But both heroines are equally strong. Jane Eyre, of course, wins in the end, because of her quiet and patient strength, where Catherine has to lose because the world’s been set up that way. But still, both of them have to find their own identities and fight to keep them. Both are very feminist, and, unfortunately, both are often misunderstood. Saying that WH or JE is a love story is the same as saying that Romeo and Juliet is a love story. Yet, I love all three. And apologize for the long comment. 

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    Milena: You do not ever have to apologize for long comments! We are a long winded group up in here.

  15. 15
    Julie Cohen says:

    I am in love with this post and that we can still discuss these novels today as readers, not just as literary critics or students. Thank you, CarrieS.

    Emotionally, I prefer Charlotte Bronte. Her emotions are truer, her characters are more real, her endings are happier (well, for Jane anyway. Lucy Snowe didn’t fare so well). When I was in high school, I loved Jane Eyre and hated Wuthering Heights for exactly the reasons you mentioned. The people in WH are all horrible and they do horrible things. Cathy is spoiled rotten, is thoughtless, capricious and cruel. Whereas Jane…well, Jane is great.

    (Though thinking about it, what’s worse behaviour for a hero: keeping your crazy wife in an attic, or digging up the only woman you ever loved once she’s dead? Now there’s a discussion point.)

    But the more I read WH, the more I can appreciate it for its raw power. I like how it refuses to take a moral stance, instead clouding the narrative with many contrasting voices. I love how OTT it is. I agree that provoking hatred in a reader is as powerful as provoking love. So—as a bit of a contrast to the JE-is-rational-and-WE-is-irrational stance, JE appeals to my heart, and WE appeals to my head. I like them both.

    I do agree that people who praise WE for its great love story are sort of missing the point, though.

  16. 16
    Paulina says:

    I recently had to read WH for my English lit class, and I hadn’t read it before, I was familiar with the story and went into it with prejudices set to maximum. Surprise, surprise, that attitude was entirely justified. I seriously wanted to set Heathcliff on fire. And while Jane Eyre is not without its problems, I gotta say, Jane all the way.

  17. 17

    The formal techniques Emily used are one of the reasons I’m a Wuthering Heights girl. And you make a good point about the importance of biography in Bronte criticism: They are not books we’d likely spend a lot of time comparing if they weren’t written by sisters.

  18. 18
    Sara says:

    Jane Eyre, hands down. I’ve read it multiple times and have seen most of the adaptations. I cannot stand Cathy.

    Any Villette fans out there? Every time I come across a Bronte vs. Bronte debate like this, there’s usually one person who says that book beats both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I haven’t read it yet, but being a Charlotte fan, I’m intrigued.

  19. 19
    Barb in Maryland says:

    Add another Jane fan to your informal tally.  In support of your theory, I also loathe WH.  I can agree with all of Jessica Jernigan’s praise of the technical and literary merits of WH and still hate the book.  I will never re-read it; I re-read JE every couple of years.

  20. 20

    Jane Eyre all the way; one of my favorite books ever. I own at least 3 copies, I’ve probably read it a dozen times. I love the part when Rochester asks, “Do you think me handsome?” and Jane says, “No.” I love the scene when Jane thinks Rochester is firing her to marry Blanche Ingram, but really he wants to marry her. I even love the crazy bit toward the end when Jane is staying with St. John and thinks she hears Rochester calling for her (because she totally does—it doesn’t make any sense, but who cares?). And I love how complicated Rochester is—I think we’re not supposed to like him (I feel like there was some scholarship indicating Rochester was based on someone Bronte didn’t like much? am I making that up?) but he gets all the best lines. He’s sort of the classic alpha-hole, but he’s depicted in a really clever way. (That happens in Wide Sargasso Sea, too; I read that book assuming I was supposed to hate Rochester, but he was the most compelling character in the book as far as I was concerned.)

  21. 21
    Kdkm57 says:

    Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre…. from the owner of 30+editions of said book (I collect them!).  I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of Wuthering Heights…. it was painful for me.  I do own 2 copies of WH (they are in sets with Jane Eyre…. can’t break up the set!).  Apparently it is “one or the other” for me.

  22. 22
    Julie Cohen says:

    It does. Read it!

  23. 23
    Charlie says:

    I love Jane Eyre to bits, and my feelings about Wuthering Heights are like yours – don’t like it but the writing is excellent.  I see that WH is about obsession and makes an interesting study but it is just so difficult to read.  I do think one can love both, however, and that’s because they are so different.  There is room for both books.

  24. 24
    Ruthie Knox says:

    Yes. I can appreciate WH intellectually. I just don’t enjoy it. Whereas I appreciate JE viscerally and get bored and wander off when people start picking it apart. So I’d rather write a scholarly paper on WH (“Narrative Frames and in Bronte, Shelley, and Stoker: Verbing the Noun in the Noun of Nineteenth-Century Noun”), but I’d much prefer to read JE.

  25. 25
    R.Savage says:

    I can’t cast a vote up above there because I like them both. Nothing that has to do with romance or anything along those lines, as I’ve never associated such thoughts with either book, but because of the wonderfuly screwed up people they contain between the covers.

    Though, it has been a while since I read WH….might have to see that it finds a spot somewhere in the TBR pile I haven’t made any smaller lately.

  26. 26

    I think CarrieS perfectly described why Jane Eyre still makes my hear soar, even though I’m into double-digit readings, and why Wuthering Heights starts some angry-Uma-Thurman-in-Kill-Bill action in my head. What I find most interesting about this post, however, is that I read stupid Wuthering Heights FIVE TIMES for school—once in high school and four times in college for different lit courses—and yet I don’t remember anyone ever suggesting that the book is illustrating the destructive power of obsessive love! I’ve participated in discussions about narrative structure, religious overtones, psychological metaphor, passionate love story, literary archetypes…all of it. But no one ever said, “Maybe everyone’s been reading it wrong for 165 years.” That interpretation doesn’t make me like it any better, but it certainly makes me respect it a little more.

    Thanks, CarrieS!

  27. 27
    grad_grrrl says:

    What about Agnes Grey?  by Charlotte Bronte. 

    (Who shares the Bronte obsession for dark brooding men, although she’s slightly less obsessed with it.)

  28. 28
    Brooklyn Ann says:

    Jane Eyre kicks ass. That is all.

  29. 29
    Terrie says:

    Another (apparently rare) vote for “you’re wrong—it is possible to love them both.”  But, as has been noted by others before me, for entirely different reasons.  Jane Eyre is a romance novel and it is just plain fun.  It has been made any number of times into excellent and enjoyable miniseries because the story really lends itself to it.  So, yes, I love Jane’s strength of character, her backbone which refuses to allow herself to be less than what she knows herself to be.  Rochester is perfectly wonderful dark brooding hero fun.  But I also watch Jane Eyre more than I read it.

    On the other hand, I think Wuthering Heights is an absolutely genius piece of literature.  There isn’t a decent movie version of it out there and I doubt there ever will be because of Emily’s manipulation of pov—which is frigging brilliant.  Those multiple narrators nestle one inside the other like those little Russian dolls—and not a single one of those narrators is reliable when it comes to either Catherine or Heathcliff, especially Heathcliff. Multiple narrators all of whom are inherently incapable of understanding Healthcliff means he moves further and further away from our ability to peg him.  Remember our opening narrator is called Lockwood.  Nellie is absolutely conventional in her thinking.  Isabella hates him. He is profoundly unreachable and unknowable and that, I believe, is central to our experience of the novel.  I don’t think the book is a romance, though love is certainly one of its subjects.  The book is a profound mystical exploration that steps way outside the bounds of the typical religiosity and conventional attitudes of the time. And the ending gives me goose bumps every single time.  I don’t know of a better demonstration of a writer getting to have her cake and eat it too—well earned, at that.

    So, yes, I enjoy Jane Eyre but if you ask me who is the better writer, Emily or Charlotte, to me it isn’t even a contest.  In her brilliant manipulation of pov, in the sheer brilliant pared down elegance and power of her prose, and in the complexity of her assault on conventional thinking, Emily is a cake walk winner. 

    I’ll watch Jane Eyre to get carried away and I’m not saying it is without depth either.  I’m talking comparison here.  So, I’ll watch Jayne Eyre for the same reason I’ll watch North and South or Pride and Prejudice.  It’s not that I don’t recognize the intellectual content but it’s easy to go adrift in some Timothy Dalton, Colin Firth, or Richard Armitage love.  Wuthering Heights is for when I want to snuggle up next to genius instead.

  30. 30
    Claire says:

    This is a discussion best kept in quiet rooms but if we’re going to do this then I say – Jane Eyre -by a mile.

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