Fri
Apr 1 2011 4:00pm

Team Heathcliff or Team Rochester?: Choose Your Favorite Bronte Hero

Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff in Wuthering HeightsYet another reason to be glad there's a new version of Jane Eyre: a good excuse to pledge our allegiance. Because when it comes to the Bronte sisters, most people are either on Team Rochester or on Team Heathcliff.

On the surface, Rochester and Heathcliff have a lot in common: Both are dark, brooding men with secrets who do questionable things, both fall in love with women of a different social class.

But on closer examination, there is one big difference between the two men:  Heathcliff, as far as I'm concerned, is a dick or a demon—take your pick.

I know there are women out there who will disagree with me, who think that Heathcliff and Cathy are soul mates, but Cathy picks conformity and safety in the form of Edgar Linton over the passionate, animalistic passion she feels for Heathcliff. Whatever! Heathcliff is not only verbally abusive to Edgar's sister Isabella, whom he marries after Cathy dies, but he also takes out his anger on a whole new generation, including his own son, at which point I was done with both Heathcliff and the book.

Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and CathyI don't mind my hero being tortured; I do mind him being sadistic. As far as I'm concerned, Cathy should have gotten the Victorian equivalent of a restraining order. Cathy and Heathcliff have this weird co-dependent thing going on that would make some psychiatrist rich. They can't be together, but they can't be apart, so they ruin other people’s lives in the process. Ick!

I used to think that my feelings about the book were colored by the fact that I saw the film version of Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as a kid long before I read the book. The 1939 film is lushly romantic, and out of all the Heathcliff's I've seen (apart from maybe Ian McShane), Laurence Olivier looks like he could be that gypsy child grown up. The chemistry between him and Merle Oberon is tangible and the scene where he carries Cathy to the window when she is dying is heartbreaking.

And then I read the book and I felt gypped. The Heathcliff in the book was a sadistic asshole who tortures puppies. Yes, I said puppies. And no matter how many delicious actors play the role (Timothy Dalton, who's been both Rochester and Heathcliff on through Tom Hardy), or how many times I reread the book, my opinion never falters: Heathcliff is definitely not a hero.

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester in Jane EyreRochester, on the other hand, treats Jane Eyre like an equal; he's genuinely interested in what she has to say. And he's a single dad; despite not even knowing if Adele is his, he takes her in and hires a governess to teach her.

I'm not saying that he's perfect, there's the little matter of having a wife tucked up in the attic. Some people seem to have a problem with that, but hey, at least he didn't commit her to an insane asylum which would have been far worse. The insane were contained like animals at a zoo; asylums like Bedlam in London were tourist attractions. There was no real attempt at treatment. Nor did he arrange a little 'accident' for her. And yeah, okay, committing bigamy is not very heroic, but in his defense, he loved Jane and wanted to make her his wife. He knew enough about her character to know that she would never accept being his mistress. It all would have worked out if that wretched Richard Mason hadn't showed up and ruined everything.

When Jane leaves, Rochester lets her go; he doesn’t follow her and force her to change her mind. I read a review of the new film where the critic called Rochester creepy. Really, compared to the puppy torturer? Jane and Rochester are soul mates; you root for them to get together in the end. I’ve always felt that they actually have a chance to be happy together, whereas Heathcliff and Cathy would only have made each other miserable, in between the hot sex.

When it comes to a choice between a potential bigamist or puppy torturer, I’m Team Rochester all the way!

Speaking of Mr. Rochester, Focus Features' 2011 Jane Eyre is slowly rolling out in theaters across the country—once you've seen it, come share your thoughts at our review post, I Came, I Saw, I Swooned: Thoughts on Jane Eyre.


 

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon loves to write about Scandalous Women & the men that loved them. Visit her at scandalouswoman.blogspot.com.

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28 comments
Nita Gill
1. gillnit
Right on! I could never understand the attraction of Heathcliff. He is a dick, as you say. I enjoyed Jane Eyre much more because I could see the attraction of Rochester. I rooted for Rochester and Jane having a happy ending.
Mo
2. Mo
I read Wuthering Heights before reading Jane Eyre, which when I look back now, is a bit surprising. Heathcliff is dark and tortured and it was Heathcliff who taught me that love is not insipid; it demands of you and when two souls who are meant to be together are not, it can damage people in very very nasty ways. Heathcliff may be a puppy torturer, but let's not ignore Cathy's role in all this. She was certainly no saint and she emotionally tortured Heathcliff. It's not like he didn't have a whole lot of help to get where he ended up. That said, he is no longer the hero in my eyes that he once was.

Rochester, on the other hand, starts out as a not so nice guy. He's gruff, brusque, dismissive, and oddly drawn to Jane. His love for Jane is no less toxic than Heathcliff's for Cathy. He would ask of her things she could never give. I'd say that now, I am Team Rochester.

But I follow that up with a caveat. These are not just romances to look at through the lenses of our modern world. They are also morality plays. Rochester and Jane cannot be together until he has paid - literally with his hand and his sight - for his sins. Love, social status and revenge are the underpinnings of Wuthering Heights and we see what dire consequences are meted out because of them.

In the end, while childhood imagination was captured by the endless what ifs in Wuthering Heights, as an adult, I feel that both books ended on a hopeful note and that for both men, the sins of their pasts are washed away by the endings.
Cheryl Sneed
3. CherylSneed
I've enver understood why some women see Heathcliff as a romantic hero and sigh over him. The man is a psychopath. Not at all romantic. Now, Rochester can be a dick, but compared to Heathcliff, he's Sir Galahad.
Lisa Cox
4. brontëgirl
Team Rochester, totally. He also recognizes Jane as his intellectual equal, hence his comment " . . . the fire and the chandelier were not sufficient company for me" (Chapter 14) and comments about intellect in other chapters. She is aware of that, as in a later scene she describes life at Thornfield: "I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communication with what is bright and energetic and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in--with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind" (Chapter 23).
Mo
5. Marleen Gagnon
I vote for Mr. Rochester even before I read your post. He is a jerk in the beginning, but you see how he changes because of Jane's love. And in the end I can sit and cry because I'm happy for them. I would like to think Heathcliff might have been different had he found someone like Jane, but alas that would have been a different book.
Mo
6. Bridget M
Excellent post! I totally agree with you and am Team Rochester all the way. As you put it, Heathcliff is simply an absuser whose sadistic manipulations start with Cathy and continue onto her daughter.

As much as I love Rochester, I can't however dismiss his sins. Sometimes I think he can be just as cruel as Heathcliff. I've always felt icky about his false flirtations with Blanche. He causes Jane real pain and I don't think he feels any remorse about this.
Lisa Cox
7. brontëgirl
@BridgetM, yes, he's way too casual about it. Jane does kinda get her own back: "And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you" (Chapter 23) and refers to it as "bitter pain" (Chapter 24). But yes she doesn't get anything remorseful in reply.
Mo
8. Jenny Brown
The only way you can make Wuthering Heights a love story is by changing the plot, which is what they usually do in movie versions. It's a story about obsession and self-destruction, both of which Emily had had all too much opportunity to observe in her beloved brother Bramwell. It's a great work, but it should be compared with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--an unjustly neglected work--not Jane Eyre.

Am I alone in HATING the ending of Jane Eyre? I can still remember how mad it made me the first time I read it in my teens. Jane deserves more than a life spent nannying the wreck of her marvelous Byronic hero.
Mo
9. Traxy
Team Rochester! :) And to everyone else out there, I strongly suggest "Jane Eyre's Husband" by Tara Bradley (e-book, available on Amazon) if you're a purist, and "Rochester" by J.L. Niemann if you're not too bothered about JE and EFR getting WAY too friendly before marriage.
The only thing I've taken away from WH (aside from "they're ALL deranged! What a bunch of unlikeable baxxtards!") is that Heathcliff is a sociopath. And I'm not keen on those. Tom Hardy nearly swayed me in parts, but no, that character has no redeeming features. Rochester, on the other hand, has plenty.
Mo
10. Bridget M
@Brontegirl: I am in awe of your ability to call to mind JE quotes so quickly!

You"re right. Jane does get her a nice retort in there, but for me that whole plot point it something I've just never been able to resolve. How do you feel about the scene where Rochester pretends to be the gypsy fortune teller? I just get so terribly angry with him every time I reread the novel and get to that part!
Lisa Cox
12. brontëgirl
@BridgetM, Thanks! I wrote my dissertation on C. Brontë's novels, practially memorized the BBC '83 adaptation of Jane Eyre where I got
my diss idea (never told my profs, lol), and have a copy of the novel in my office which I referred to to get the quotes right :).
Yeah Rochester as gypsy is just too smug, but I think he gets the smugness taken out of him later. 'Course that was one way of getting Blanche Ingram to ditch him, but then flirting w/ her to make Jane jealous was insufferable too.

@Evangeline Holland, :) or Team Edward Weston . . . or, for the
very . . . brave . . . or something, Team Paul Emmanuel.
Mo
13. cabepfir
Team Rochester. He's one of the few literary characters I'd like to live with, actually - he likes to discuss, has a sense of humour, and knows he can love a person despite her look. He would make a good husband (well, Bertha Mason was another kettle of fish, being imposed on him and then turned mad).

This is if I apply "Jane Eyre" to a realistic situation, or rather if I imagine myself into its universe. From a literary point of view, I believe Heathcliff to be a great character, and "Wuthering Heights" to be a great, as well as complex, novel. It's just that I wouldn't like to live with someone like Heathcliff, but of course I enjoy reading a book about him.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
14. tnh
I love Wuthering Heights, but I wouldn't touch Heathcliff with the proverbial ten-foot pole. He's had a rough life, but knowing that about him doesn't magically turn him into someone you could share your life with. He really is savage. He knows far too much about using force and manipulation on the people around him, and far too little about getting along with them on a day-to-day basis. His idea of telling the truth is the verbal equivalent of throwing bricks.

Is it appropriate to call Wuthering Heights a romance? Such romantic love as exists in it is as much a catastrophe as anything else. The primary shaping force in the characters' lives is money, inheritance, ownership, and class. When real, functional, everyday love and civilization happen, they do so in spite of all the crises.

Other favorite observations about Wuthering Heights:

A first novelist who uses multiple nested unreliable narrators may justifiably be called fearless. What's even more remarkable is that she made it work.

It takes place in a pocket universe whose boundaries are defined by Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, and Gimmerton Kirk. The characters talk as though the outside world doesn't exist, or at any rate has no effect on them. Anyone who crosses its boundaries ceases to exist until he or she comes back again, and whatever happened to them while they were outside is of no interest.

A surprising number of the drama's important entrances and exits take place via windows rather than drawers.

Never give young readers the idea that Wuthering Heights is a classic, or that reading it might be good for them. Mention that it's short, and that it's full of adults behaving badly. Act a little uneasy about it.

Jenny Brown @8:
Am I alone in HATING the ending of Jane Eyre? I can still remember how mad it made me the first time I read it in my teens. Jane deserves more than a life spent nannying the wreck of her marvelous Byronic hero.
Jane is superfluous and valueless to her society and family, and they don't hesitate to let her know it. She's also small and plain. The book is about her nevertheless holding on to her right to be a human being with real desires, real conscience, and real dignity.

It's hard to explain how little value she has. When Saint John Rivers makes his offer to her, he's aware that it's no prize: duty rather than romantic love, hard work in a foreign land, and a probable early death. I question whether he'd even have made that offer to a woman who had other options, and no visible inclination to seek martyrdom as a missionary. However, it's what he has, and he offers to share it with Jane on the chance that she'd prefer it to her other non-options.

Rochester's relative social privilege isn't a prize either. The inequality of their positions is in fact an impediment to a true marriage of souls, because it means the power relationships are always going to be unbalanced. Jane knows how hard that inequality is on truth and human dignity. That's why it makes her so uncomfortable, even before she finds out about the first wife. The accident that maims Rochester makes them something much closer to equals. If he can love her as she is, she can do the same for him, and know it's real.
Mo
15. SillyJaime @ Jaime 2.0
I can't make my choice, as I've not yet read Jane Eyre (it's in my To Read pile), but I adore Heathcliff. I love him.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
16. tnh
Each to his or her own. I've been married for 30+ years to a man who tidies up, makes travel arrangements, backs up my computer, and never runs out of conversation. Heathcliff is so not my type.
Jenny Brown
17. Jenny Brown
tnh,

Other people's valuing of Jane is irrelevant. Bronte makes it crystal clear that Jane is of immense value and that Rochester is a suitable mate to her because he DOES value her. To say that Jane can only feel more equal with him after he is crippled and dependent seems to me to be saying that Jane is as valueless as hypocrits like Brocklehurst or Mrs. Reed believe her to be.

The ending of Jane Eyre betrays how a Victorian parson's daughter came to terms with her own far too passionate sexual nature--by denying it. That she had to was her tragedy. We should not validate it! Jane deserved a strong, sexually compelling mate whose passionate nature matched her own. So did Charlotte.

There are thousands of novels that have retold the Jane Eyre story in one form or another. All of them change the ending. That tells us all we need to know.
Lisa Cox
18. brontëgirl
Yeah Jane never feels that she isn't his equal, tho' her take on equality is different as she speaks to an equality that is not based on Victorian middle-class domestic ideology . . . cf. her impassioned speech in Chapter 23.
They did travel . . . or at least she did--cf. Ch. 34: " . . . since those
days I have seen paysannes and Bäerinnen; and the best of them seemed to me ignorant, coarse, and besotted, compared with my Morton girls"--so she wasn't stuck in Ferndean forever.
Mo
19. dollylori
I was team Heathcliff till I divorced my abusive husband. Abuse is abuse whether it's in a different century or now. Heathcliff has probably caused many a girl to marry the wrong guy in hopes LOVE would conquer all. It doesn't!!!
Rochester was a man born before his time. His love and acceptance of Jane as his equal elevates him to the status of HERO! This is the man I'd want my daughter to marry. This is the man I found after my "Heathcliff" was given a restraining order.
Mo
20. Noelle
I'm late here, but Team Heathcliff. I'm not sure if this counts, though, because I would never marry let alone date the guy. I thought he and the horrible Cathy were perfect for each other, but I remember being swept up in their psychosis. I love Rochester, but he's the "bad guy who isn't really bad," sometimes manipulative and cruel, but good at heart. There aren't too many of those. Heathcliff, for me, is the more dynamic character, at first sexy but in fact straight up crazy. He is very dark indeed, and I prefer that edginess. (However, I think I prefer the novel Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights.)
Tara B
21. box5angel
I haven't read Wuthering Heights or seen the movies so I can't really make an comparison but I love Rochester. :) Puppy torturer - that turns me off right there. Ugh! @Traxy - Thank you for the book recommendations. I'm going to check them out. :)
Olivia Waite
22. O.Waite
Team Rochester -- because for all his faults, he would A) happily agree those faults existed, and B) come up with crazy romantic metaphors for how passionate he feels about Jane. My favorite is when he claims there is an invisible string that is tied at one end to her ribs and at the other to his, and if she travels too far away, he says, "I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly."

At which point, in a moonlit garden, I would jump him at once.
Mo
23. HistoricalRomanceJunkie
TEAM ROCHESTER!!!!
#ThatIsAll
Mo
24. AnnaM
Dark and brooding and edgy is one thing, but Heathcliff goes so far beyond Byronic hero into the land of flat out @sshole-ery. Puppy torturing, baby bird starving, wife abusing @asshol-ery!
Mo
25. quinn
I'm sorry but I love Heathcliff. He's passionate he's alluring he's exciting he's dangerous and in a way he's deeply romantic. He loved Cathy so much it killed him. I would choose Heathcliff
Mo
27. hihellohi1234567
I once adored Heathcliff and his dark sexiness...but then I read Jane Eyre. Mr.Rochester was dark with a sexiness as well as had a sweet more normal side. I'd rather be with St.John Rivers than Heathcliff now that I think of it.
Mo
28. Leaping Squirrel
I loved Wuthering Heights, but let's remember there's a huge difference between the film (gorgeous to look at) and the book (much longer, more complex, and quite brutal). Heathcliff in the book is definitely a monster. It may have been partly racism on Bronte's part--remember, he is a swarthy gypsy. I agree he's still rotten in the film, but his rottenness is much more refined, if that makes any sense.
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