Saturday, March 19, 2011
Professor Sutherland's literary puzzles
The first book in the series, Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, was written as an antidote to the deadening effect of literary criticism on the enjoyment of the ordinary reader. Sutherland is a well-known academic & critic with a lively sense of humour & fun. He has edited many 19th century classic novels for the Oxford World's Classics series & is obviously as intrigued as any common reader by the mistakes, errors & unanswered questions in these books. The questions he asks in Is Heathcliff a Murderer? range from What is Jo sweeping? (Bleak House) to Is Will Ladislaw legitimate? (Middlemarch) What does Arabella Donn throw? (Jude the Obscure) and Why does the Count come to England? (Dracula). He looks again at questions that have puzzled many readers & critics. What sex is Lady Bertram's Pug in Mansfield Park? At different times in the book, Pug is referred to as He & She. Then there are the obvious mistakes like the apple blossom in June in Jane Austen's Emma.
Of course, there's also the title essay where Sutherland examines the evidence of Hindley Earnshaw's death in Wuthering Heights & speculates whether the beating he received from Heathcliff contributed to his death. There's also Joseph's evidence that he was sent for the doctor & Heathcliff & Hindley were left alone for some time when anything might have happened. As Joseph says, '... he warn't deead when Aw left, nowt uh t'soart'. The joy of these essays is that Sutherland discusses the characters & situations as though they are real. He discusses the improbability of a 27 year old man like Hindley drinking himself to death in a single night. Although Joseph is not a sympathetic character, he is invariably honest & Heathcliff had a motive in wanting Hindley dead - his ultimate aim of triumphing over the Earnshaws & taking control of the Heights. This is Sutherland's conclusion,
Whether or not Heathcliff is guilty of capital crime remains a fascinating but ultimately inscrutable enigma at the very heart of the narrative. For what it is worth, I believe he did kill Hindley, although for any unprejudiced jury it is likely that enough 'reasonable doubt' would remain to acquit him.
I often dip into these books when I'm reading a 19th century novel & enjoy all over again Sutherland's close reading of the books & his ingenious solutions to the many mysteries he investigates.