Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rochester vs. Heathcliff

It is tuesday, and my love for the novel makes it imperative for me to write a Jane Eyre related post. It just so happens that just this morning I was conveniently arguing with another lit lover in a very heated discussion. I remember back when I was thirteen (oh yes, three years ago seems like a huge amount of time when you're a teenager) I picked up Jane Eyre on a cozy winter night about two days before Christmas. While the rest of my family sat at the coffee table and played an exciting game of Taboo, I nuzzled myself into a corner and resumed my avid reading of the novel. My sister-in-law came over to me and smiled.

"What do you think of the book?" she asked me. By this time I was already past most of the book and in the middle of St. John's proposal, so I was safely assured of my feelings.

"I absolutely LOVE it!" I exclaimed. She laughed and clicked her tongue at me, which led me to inquire what exactly she found unsuitable about Jane Eyre. 

"Most readers either like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights," she explained. "I could never take Rochester over Heathcliff."

I remember those words still. At that time I hadn't read Wuthering Heights yet. I did on future occasion, however, and after closing the back cover I understood perfectly what she had said. There's something combative about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre that makes it almost impossible for anyone to like them both equally. After coming to this realization, I was quickly exposed to the results. It seemed like everywhere I turned there was some type of debate between readers arguing in favor of either Emily Bronte's masterpiece or Charlotte Bronte's impeccable tale. Which one was more popular? Which heroine was the stronger? But the most reoccurring question was who is the better male hero; Rochester or Heathcliff.

My answer:

Can you really choose either? Asking the question of "who is the better male literary hero" and then mentioning those two names is so contradictory that it's almost paradoxical. Who in their right mind would really define Heathcliff and Rochester as heros? In truth, they could much more easily be categorized as villains. One is an adulterer who attempts to commit bigamy and lead an innocent teenager into a life of sin, the other is a manipulative and resentful rake whose only goal in life is to seek vengeance against those who misused him and torture the woman that loved him. BOTH are intensely gloomy and vicious characters with shady pasts and violent tempers. What good do we actually find in Rochester and Heathcliff besides the intense passion they have for their lovers? And even that eventually leads them to their "demise."

Who is the more resentful of the two? Heathcliff, without a doubt. Who is more manipulative? Arguably, Rochester. I've come to the conclusion that when people ask "who is the better male literary hero", they're really asking who is the more passionate of the two, and THAT is the question that sparks debate.

Of course, as the Jane Eyre lover that I am I would be remiss not to argue in favor of Rochester. How can you get much more passionate than the man who is so in love with a woman that he would risk losing his soul and going to hell just to be with her in life? You can't argue the passion of a man who says, "You are my sympathy--my better self--my good angel.  I am bound to you with a strong attachment.  I think you good, gifted, lovely:  a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wraps my existence about you, and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one."

But Heathcliff lovers would say otherwise. They would argue that Rochester's attempt at bigamy would show a weakness of character, a lack of forethought. They exclaim that Rochester had only known Jane for months whereas Cathy and Heathcliff had been in love since they were mere children. They say you can't dispute the ardor of a man who asks his lover to haunt him so that he might never be without her. All are good arguments. 

So on which side do you stand? And in reality, is there really any way you can choose between two similar but yet completely different characters? Is there some unwritten code that deems one more "passionate" than the other, when even the word "passion" is subject to opinion? Who knows? But for now I stick with Team Rochester!


  1. Great post! And, also being a Jane Eyre fan, I'm inclined towards Rochester as well. Besides which, the first time I read Wuthering Heights I was left with this strong resentment towards Heathcliff and Cathy - I realize their love was so passionate and far reaching that it was destructive but what I didn't understand was why they had to ruin other people's lives as well; I despise it when people seek vengeance against those who didn't commit the original crime against them.

    However, have you thought about how Rochester and Heathcliff would act if they were both put in each other's shoes? I have a feeling their actions would be very similar. It just happens that the love story in Jane Eyre is decidedly different than that in Wuthering Heights. I have no doubt that Heathcliff would be equally manipulative without any regard for bigamy etc and Rochester would definitely wreak havoc on those who, he felt, had kept him away from his love. I can definitely see him asking his lover to haunt him.
    And, I guess, what you say is true, because for me, it'll aways be Rochester. I don't know if it was the twisted revenge plot or the overall dark pessimism of WH but I just resent Cathy and Heathcliff - they're just a package deal to me. One dark, twisted package deal *shudder*
    And just a side note, I was talking with a friend who'd just recently finished Jane Eyre (o how I envy her first reading of it, wish I could relive mine) and she noted that Rochester seems abusive. And I was forced to admit, it's true - while he doesn't really hit Jane he is a very physical man, always grabbing her, and shaking her even when she resolves to leave. But I console myself with the fact that he never actually hit her.

  2. You have some VERY good points. I never really thought about what either character would do in each other's shoes, but I suppose that they really WOULD act in the same way. Rochester and Heathcliff both have very intricate mental processes and both are extremely complex characters.

    I agree with you on Heathcliff and Cathy. Both characters struck me as extremely narcissistic even though they shared this burning passion. Even in Cathy's last moments when the two are professing their love for each other, each is debating as to which one is hurting more, and it struck me as very "woe is me." They give absolutely no thought to the others that they've damaged. Some people accuse Rochester of being rather narcissistic as well with the way he disregarded Jane's morality and his marriage to his wife. But neither Heathcliff or Cathy apologized for their actions. Rochester admits his mistake, saying that God tempered judgment with mercy.

    As for Rochester's "abusiveness", there are multiple ways one could look at it. He has such a strong passion that it might easily come across as violent. But we also must remember that the story IS told from Jane's perspective...the small and little Jane who is easily physically overpowered by him. I try not to think that Rochester grabbed her as a violent gesture, but rather that his natural strength might indeed seem violent through Jane's eyes.

  3. I was going to say "you have GOT to read Jane Eyre's Husband!" but I just remember you already have! :D

    Funnily enough, the very same topic is what Kay Woodward guest blogged about today. She's also holding a count over Twitter ... so far Rochester's in the lead. :)

    I don't get Heathcliff. The man's a psychopath. At least Rochester has a conscience!

  4. Ooh! I'm excited. I'll have to check out that post ASAP. I'm glad to hear that Rochester's in the lead. I too could never understand Heathcliff. Maybe it's just the fact that I never really warmed up to "Wuthering Heights" as a whole. Something about the intricacies of Cathy and Heathcliff's relationship was just SO depressing that it took away from the enjoyability of the novel.

  5. I'm definitely Team Rochester. In spite of his manipulations, etc he clearly loved Jane and he did learn from his mistakes at the end. Granted, he had to be purified but in the end, he was redeemed and became a better man and a worthy husband for Jane. As for as Heathcliff, I never could warm up to him. He is honestly very nasty. Much more than Rochester. I understand the anger that Heathcliff had to have but he took it too far.

  6. I completely agree. I guess we all say Rochester because he ended up being punished for his actions and learned to admit mistakes. What I really wish is that someone on Team Heathcliff would step forward and give me a detailed explanation as to why they like him so much because none of us Rochester fans can understand it.

  7. Edward Fairfax Rochester for me! I've tried to read Wuthering Height numerous times but I could never finish it because it is so depressing and I dislike the characters. Heathcliff is a mad man and he is horrible to everyone. At least Edward, despite all his flaws loves Jane for who she is and he is deeply passionate and romantic. Love him.

  8. Kate's right, Heathcliff IS a mad men, but if despite Rochester's flaws he can be redeemed for his love of Jane, then can't the same be said of Heathcliff? He does love Cathy, too, in his own way. A lot Heathcliff fans state that as his redeeming factor but, for me, his cons are stacked up too high against him.

  9. Very wise words. I've been brushing up on my "Wuthering Heights" adaptions and actually started to reread the book so that I might understand a bit more of what Heathcliff fans see. I think that at the core of both characters' rather flawed exteriors, there is a pure kind of tenderness. In Heathcliff, that tenderness is just a little harder to find.

  10. Heathcliff for sure!

  11. Heathcliff is not Heathcliff without Cathy. He is just wounded.

    In the beginning, when he has Cathy, he is gentle and tender. That is truly Heathcliff, and why I will always choose Heathcliff.