Emily Bronte, Dave Chappelle, and #Metoo: What can Heathcliff teach us about monsters like Harvey Weinstein?

November 19, 2018
Emily Bronte, Dave Chappelle, and #Metoo:  What can Heathcliff teach us about monsters like Harvey Weinstein?
Annie Spratt
Earl GreyI saw you close your eyes by Local Natives

Dear Erica,

I am amazed and furious that men in power have been able to get away with such horrific behaviour for so long. How do you think the writers you talk about would respond to the #Metoo movement?

Mad in Manhattan

Dear Mad in Manhattan

Times have improved dramatically in the last hundred years and women are treated far better than they were in much of 19th century literature, but, as the #Metoo movement has made clear, there is still room for improvement. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights provides one of the most glaring examples of a man abusing his power towards women. A nasty piece of work, the hero, Heathcliff, was considered reprehensible even in the 19th century when the novel was published. Charlotte Bronte wrote in the preface for Wuthering Heights, “Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is.” One might say the same thing about Harvey Weinstein.

Although the reader might feel sympathy for Heathcliff’s hard childhood and tragic love-affair with Catherine Earnshaw, the hell he creates for himself and those around him is entirely of his own making. Rage towards his childhood nemesis, Hindley Earnshaw, and resentment towards Edgar Linton for marrying Catherine turns him into a monster, crippled with rage and resentment. All his interactions are tormented and cruel, and while he does not engage in sexual abuse with the young Cathy(daughter of Catherine and Edgar Linton), he effectively kidnaps her from her father, tricking her into marrying her weak and ill cousin. Once in his control, he tyrannizes and belittles the young Cathy as he attempts to ruin another life in his quest for revenge.

Heathcliff’s evil could have continued easily into the next generation. Hareton Earnshaw, his nemesis’s son, becomes his ward and protegee. And under his tutelage, Hareton grows up uneducated, and uncouth. However, the cycle of rage and misery is stopped as Hareton and young Cathy find in each other not only friendship but salvation. And here is a lesson we can take into contemporary times.

In Dave Chappelle’s recent comedy special, The Bird Revelation, he reflects on the #Metoo movement and echoes some of the ideas Emily Bronte touches on in Wuthering Heights. Comparing #Metoo to the end of apartheid in South Africa, he argues, “The end of apartheid should have been a f----- bloodbath by any metric in human history and it wasn't. The only reason it wasn't was because Desmond Tutu and Mandela and all these guys figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to that system and are incentivized by that system are not criminals. They are victims.”

He goes on to say that for the #Metoo movement to succeed, we must work with men. Because if we, ”Go after individuals the system will stay intact. You have to have men on your side. A lot of imperfect allies.”

Like Hareton Earnshaw, there are men who have been twisted and warped by their fathers, their friends, and a system that has for too long remained silent as abuses occurred. But if we can reach out to the men who want to be fixed, who recognize the system is wrong, then we might be able to make a difference. And this is what the young Cathy Linton does for Hareton Earnshaw. In the beginning, their relationship is fractious and combative, but they ultimately become friends as she teaches him to read. As she wins him over, he becomes her champion, an “imperfect” ally but an ally nonetheless. And so during an argument with her tormentor, Heathcliff, she exclaims, “If you strike me, Hareton will strike you. So you may as well sit down.”

Now, this was far from easy. As Emily Bronte writes, “Earnshaw was not to be civilized with a wish, and my young lady was no philosopher, and no paragon of patience; but both their minds tending to the same point—one loving and desiring to esteem, and the other loving and desiring to be esteemed—they contrived in the end to reach it.”

And it won’t be easy for us either. But if we follow the example of young Cathy and Hareton and accept imperfections in our allies, and remember the lessons of South Africa and the need to fight the whole system, we can enact change and make a world that is better for generations of men and women to come.