So, lately I’ve been feeling like some of the joy has gone out of my teaching. That might be because I’m trying to do way too much stuff simultaneously, but it might also be because I’m starting to get in a rut. It’s hard to convey enthusiasm for my subjects when I’m tired and scattered and feeling like I’m just repeating myself. But yesterday, I had a mini-epiphany about Wuthering Heights (one of the novels I’m teaching) and I couldn’t believe what an infusion of joy I got just from this small moment of discovery. I was writing a timeline of the novel’s events on the board, and I accidentally skipped over Catherine’s death. My students love to make sarcastic comments almost as much as I do, and one young man piped up, “Yeah, you probably don’t want to miss that. It’s a little bit important.” I laughed in response and said, “Yeah, it’s not THAT important. It’s only the turning point of the whole book on which all the other events revolve.” I stopped and repeated in my mind what I had just said. Suddenly I realized that it was indeed a turning point: just like in a five act play.
Allow me a teacherly digression. Five act plays have the most important event come halfway through the play. Everything in the play either leads up to the turning point or is a consequent of the turning point. In Julius Caesar, it’s the murder of Caesar. In Macbeth, it’s the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. In Wuthering Heights, it’s the death of Catherine Linton. But Wuthering Heights is a novel, not a five act play. What was Emily Bronte trying to do?
Keep in mind that I was thinking all of this out loud to my bewildered students. So I had the students open their books to the halfway point. Sure enough, most of them opened right up to Catherine’s death. I knew what I was seeing, but I had no clue what it meant. After school, I looked again at the key events of the plot and realized that Bronte’s masterful novel is almost perfectly symmetrical. The book opens with a good relationship (Heathcliff and Catherine as children), moves to a failed relationship (Edgar and Catherine), hinges on Catherine’s death (which is also simultaneously her daughter Cathy’s birth), proceeds to another failed relationship (Cathy and Linton Heathcliff) and ends with a good relationship (Cathy and Hareton). The mother and daughter also have inversely repeated lives. The mother starts as an Earnshaw, states in a crucial scene that she IS Heathcliff, and ends her life as a Linton. The daughter starts as a Linton, becomes a Heathcliff, and then becomes an Earnshaw. The mother starts her life happily and ends up miserable. The daughter starts out miserable and ends happily. Perfect, beautiful symmetry.
I know I’m probably not the first person to discover this, but I really did feel like a detective on CSI Miami who’s just cracked a really important case. On days like today I remember why I love teaching, why I love literature, and why I love high schoolers. It’s like my teaching gets a fresh, strong infusion that keeps me going through the long periods of drudgery (like grading finals, for example). I wish every day could bring an epiphany.