Why the hate for Catherine Earnshaw?

“I hate her.  I just wish she’d hurry up and die,” said the sweet-faced girl in my class as she shuddered with disgust.

“Why do you hate Catherine Earnshaw so much?” I wanted to know.

And she gave me reasons, with others chimming in their shared or contrasting opinions.   What was it about this heroine from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights that was causing my ordinarily calm and reasonable students to have such a reaction?

It’s hard to pinpoint because I realize that I have a love/hate relationship with Catherine myself.  Despite empathizing with her, she remains an unsympathetic character for me and many others.  The worst part is that I want to like her.

Maybe the fact that the two main narrators don’t tell a favourable account may have something to do with it.  Lockwood hasn’t  seen her alive and was terrified when he saw or thought he saw her ghost.  Nelly Dean was her friend, playmate and servant and she didn’t seem to have anything nice to say about her.  In fact, from Nelly’s recollections, it would seem that Catherine treated her very poorly.

I led a discussion as to why she was so unlikeable and I think it’s fair to pinpoint ten main reasons.

Ten reasons why we dislike Catherine Earnshaw:

1. She can be a brat and isn’t nice to the servants.

2. She seems oblivious to the sufferings of others.

3. At first, she doesn’t care for frilly feminine things and then she does, and seems to turn on Heathcliff all of a sudden (after her stay at the Linton house).

4. She never seems to do any kind gesture to anyone besides Heathcliff and then it’s out of passion, thus self-interest.

5. She marries Edgar Linton although she is mad for Heathcliff.

6. When Heathcliff returns, she greets him like a long-lost love and doesn’t consider her husband’s feelings of exclusion or jealousy.  Behaves as if she can have both men in her life on her terms despite both suffering for it.

7. She is unkind and downright cruel to her younger sister-in-law, Isabella Linton, who really seems like she needs guidance from an older friend.

8. She is so selfish that she seems to want Heathcliff to die with her, if not physically, at least emotionally when she taunts him about his future.

9. She seems to only take from her surroundings without giving anything back.  Not a kind word.  Not a kind gesture towards a stranger, not even her own brother and nephew, who so desperately need her.

10.  She doesn’t seem to care about the emotional pain she is inflicting on all around her.

Yet, I still want to like her.  She is, after all, Catherine, a character from a novel the world of which I still love and hate.   One of the reasons the novel was at first so poorly received by critics was because many at that time were uncomfortable with how both Catherine and Heathcliff were portrayed.

I really would like to know:  What was Emily Bronte thinking when she invented Catherine?   Did she know that this character could still illicit such strong feelings from readers?

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