GILBERT AND HEATHCLIFF, AGAIN: PREVENTING ROMANCE

About a year ago I wrote an entry (20-X-2011) connecting Anne Brontë’s Gilbert, the hero of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Heathcliff, the hero-villain of her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I still think that Anne bore Emily’s novel in mind as she wrote her own and that Gilbert is a more civilised version of Heathcliff. What puzzles me, and this is the question I asked my students, is why Gilbert is not a more obviously attractive character, like Heathcliff himself or Charlotte’s Rochester.

One of the girls answered that she found him soft, or bland; my personal view is that his manifest passion for Helen and even his brutal attack against her protector Frederick Lawrence belies this view. In the end, we agreed that his moderate attractiveness is the inevitable result of Anne’s choice to narrate the story through first-person voices (or, rather, written documents). This makes it impossible for Gilbert to qualify himself as attractive (it would be ridiculous for him to comment on his own appearance in eulogising terms). Helen’s diary is interrupted precisely at the point when she meets him, for she tears off the pages she’s written on Gilbert before giving him the diary. She does describe her falling in love with a handsome man, but he turns out to be the villain of the piece, her abusive husband Arthur; thus, we female readers are prevented from forming the deep emotional attachment with a male character that Emily forces us to face in Heathcliff’s case. Anne made the choice of not allowing Helen to narrate her falling in love with Gilbert and, so, without the expression of her desire for him we, as readers, cannot love him. It’s either that or, as another girl said, we women actually prefer the bad guys, an opinion that, nevertheless, clashes badly with the fact that no reader loves Arthur.

As a female reader I must confess that it’s embarrassingly easy to manipulate our desire for a male character, as I have found out when reading Iain M. Banks’s new Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata (see next post). The female protagonist, Vyr, is accompanied in her adventure by the organic avatar of an AI, the Mind that runs a spaceship. The avatar, Berdle, assumes a male human appearance that Vyr perceives as “handsome”, strikingly so. Despite Berdle’s annoyed response that he’s not male, female or anything remotely gendered, Banks’s omniscient narrative focalised through Vyr insists that he is desirable. She’s hooked and so are we as readers female (I’m not sure, but I’ll assume that gay readers, I mean men, also react to this manipulation of readerly desire). In contrast, nobody tells us in The Tenant that Gilbert is sexy.

I believe this is Anne’s deliberate choice. Her novel deals with the dangers of falling in love for the wrong reasons and with the wrong person. Through Helen she advices us (female) reader to make choices based not only on irrational desire but on a rational examination of our prospective partner’s behaviour. This diminishes no doubt the romantic substance of the story and the hero but stresses Anne’s point: that true love may be kindled by desire but can only survive if fed by solid companionship. I agree. Still, I miss the sexiness… of the good guy.

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