I recently uncovered a ghastly secret: David Nicholls, actor and writer, thought Wuthering Heights was ‘an insanely over-praised piece of nonsense’. Within seconds, I found myself wide-eyed and tumbling through the over-analytical mind of my early twenties. Surely there was an explanation for his obvious mistake. Surely he must have been in a bad place at the time of reading: Stressed about an upcoming exam? In the midst of a break-up with a particularly narcissistic other? Or perhaps it wasn’t him at all; perhaps it was me. Perhaps I was in a particularly wonderful place at my time of reading (which, upon reflection, I indeed was). If this is really the case, the implications are enormous. Our love of Wuthering Heights has very little to do with the text itself. I found myself revisiting a much-debated concept in the history of critical literary theory: that the author is dead.
“To give a text an author … is to impose a limit on that text.” Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes’ essay, Death of the Author, was very much in line with the zeitgeist of the ’60s. Published in 1967, in the era of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Warhol, he rebelled against literary theorists past. He rebelled against the concept of exploring a text by delving into the writer’s context in the hopes this would provide some kind of explanation for his or her creation. Orwell’s fictions, for instance, are obviously a product of his cold-war context; Remarque, a product of his experience as a young German soldier. Barthes argues that this kind of analysis is grossly oversimplified and, indeed, a little too efficient. “To give a text an author,” he argues, “is to impose a limit on that text.” Barthes asks every literature teacher’s nightmare question: How can we ever truly know what the writer intended? We can not. Every writer knows that there are moments in writing where you lose yourself, where, however nauseatingly romantic it may sound, it seems that the pen controls itself. In Margaret Atwood’s Negotiation with the Dead, she discusses this concept of ‘duplicity’, where “the mere act of writing splits the self in two”. There exist these moments of flow, where we feel we are mere puppets to an unknown force. Barthes argues that this force is not one of context, and that the writer, at these moments, is no longer in control. Thus it is the context of the reader that must be explored.
What is it that makes us love or hate a piece of literature?
Which brings me back to the potential reason why I love Wuthering Heights. This novel had been on my to-read list for almost as long as I was capable of reading, and yet real life continued to get in the way. It was only after we packed up our lives in Australia, crammed all our belongings onto two bicycles and cycled around Europe that I found myself with the time and space to read such a novel. I purchased it in Copenhagen and carried it with me up every single hill between there and Stockholm. Now that is love.
What is it that makes us love or hate a piece of literature? Do I love Ginsberg because he gives me a window in the zeitgeist of 1960s America: Sex, angst and drugs? Yes. Do I love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because she exposes me to a society where the wonder of electricity was something to be feared? Yes. But my love of TS Eliot has nothing to do with his context. It is the rolling nature of his words, the way that they worm their way into my brain and manifest upon my tongue year after year upon the blooming of the lilacs. My love of Wuthering Heights, it seems, has a lot to do with the fact that I lapped up the words each night with a head-torch in the tent, or in that rickety old lake-house, pencil in hand, with my first real cup of coffee in weeks.
By Johanna Sargeant
English and literature teacher, creative writer, essayist and blogger.