To celebrate this blogoversary, I thought I'd repost this old favorite of mine, which discusses Wuthering Heights, among other things. The original post (Jan. 10, 2009) is here if you want to see the brilliant, perceptive comments people left then. More great comments are welcome here, as always. ;-)
The Heathcliff-House Theory on the Appeal of Unlikable Characters
I've just finished reading Wuthering Heights, which I probably should've read years ago. You know the situation--somehow a classic (or fifty of them) slips by you, and you just nod knowingly whenever it's mentioned, and hope nobody asks you about specific details. Anyhow, I no longer have to cover my ignorance about WH.
Somehow, before I read this, I had gotten the idea that Heathcliff was a romantic hero. Aloof and mysterious, but mouth-watering nonetheless. Sort of like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice--maybe rather obnoxious the first time we meet him, but proving through his actions that he's made of better stuff. Somehow, I'd gotten the idea this was a love story.
I was mistaken. Heathcliff is generally pretty mean and selfish, and the woman he's obsessed with is just as mean and selfish. There are scenes where the two of them are berating each other, and each is saying the equivalent of, "Don't tell me you're miserable! I'm so miserable that all I wish for you is even more misery!" That's obsession, not love. Heathcliff abuses dogs, women, and servants. He loathes his wife and tells her so.
It made me think about unlikable main characters, and what draws us to them. Something has kept this book alive for more than a century; there's some reason it's a classic. Yes, it's marvelously creepy with ghost-story qualities, but is that enough? What's made Heathcliff appealing enough for people to read his story? Because I admit that while Heathcliff is too unpleasant for me to want as a real-life friend, he has some appeal as a fictional character.
Heathcliff reminds me of a character on a TV show: Dr. Gregory House, from the show House. House is another character who's fun to watch, but you wouldn't really want to know him. He belittles his staff, rants at his patients, behaves as if he's above the rules, and evades every attempt of his friends to help him break a painkiller addiction.
So here's my Heathcliff-House Theory on the Appeal of Unlikable Characters:
1. Vulnerability helps. Heathcliff suffers for his infatuation. There are also a few times when he treats people kindly or at least fairly, when we expect otherwise. (His treatment of his son, though selfish at times, springs to mind here.) He's not unrelentingly vicious. Nor is House, who goes home to a lonely apartment and the comfort of nothing better than a vial of pills. We can sympathize with the pain of these characters, even if we don't admire how they handle it. We can see the gaps in the armor, and the blood dripping through those gaps.
2. Humor and honesty help. Both Heathcliff and House tend to toss out hard-edged comments so blunt and honest they make us laugh. (On House, fortunately, other characters get great lines too, particularly Wilson.) When the characters around them sink into petty squabbles or fussing over trivia, these main characters deliver lines like a bracing slap. In one scene in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff's servant is complaining about the uprooting of some black-currant trees. Heathcliff doesn't even wait to hear whom the servant is angry with. Guessing it to be one of the other servants, Nelly, he says, "What's your grievance? I'll interfere in no quarrels between you and Nelly -- She may thrust you into the coal-hole for all I care." And the complaining servant has been such a judgmental, ill-tempered jerk throughout the whole book that we also would like to see him thrust into a coal-hole. But we would probably be too polite to say so. Heathcliff and House sometimes say what we would like to say if we didn't give a darn what other people thought.
It's a sizable task to make an unlikable character appealing. The obvious risk is that the reader won't want to spend time in such a character's company. But it can be done.