Doubling down on Wuthering Heights

I like to preface my teaching of Wuthering Heights with a compulsory screening of Kate Bush crying ‘Heathcliff! It’s me, it’s Cathy I’ve come home now!’ and prancing on the moors in a billowy dress while she moans musically about the sad effects of being outdoors in not much more than a nightie. The reaction of the students is glorious. A mesmerised concoction of horrified fascination, genuine admiration and mild panic. One thing I’m sure of though – and experience proves this to be true – they never forget it.

I’m pretty sure that’s because it’s a brilliant dual coding experience – visual – verbal – plus the additional three-dimensional effect of a cracking tune. At the very least, it ensures a memorable start to proceedings. But then, Brontë begins… or rather Brontë’s first narrator begins… and then the second narrator (reported to us by the first narrator) begins… and then she starts to tell the first narrator what someone else told her that someone else told them… and then the faces around the room all start to glaze a little.

Don’t get me wrong. This is entirely the fault of the book. Brontë deliberately sets out to obfuscate the story. It’s what makes it a brilliant mysterious novel; it’s what makes it wonderfully, typically gothic. But it does also make it a little tricky for the average class of 16-year-olds to digest and I always feel it’s important not to scare them off A Level Literature in Term One.

‘Hang on – who’s speaking now?’ calls out a student at the back.

‘Is this Lockwood or Nelly?’ asks another.

‘I’m confused,’ wails a third.

And this is where the diagrams begin.

Wuthering Heights is a novel made for dual coding. I’ve been teaching it off and on since the turn of the century (imagine, if you can, such a distant past) and I’ve never done it without diagrams, because diagrams make the whole thing a ton easier.

English teachers probably aren’t renowned for our love of diagrams, but I defy anyone to manage Wuthering Heights without them. Why would anyone want to? The beauty of a well-drawn diagram is that it makes clear, logical sense of complicated ideas and of complicated worlds. And this, I think, is the essential message of Oliver Caviglioli’s ‘Dual Coding for Teachers’. It’s our job to make hard stuff easier to understand and remember (and easy stuff too, for that matter). Dual coding means accessing two separate capacities of the brain at once – verbal and visual – and then reaping the rewards as the students have double the power to recall it later. Who would want to argue with that?

Caviglioli talks about the two very different processes of verbal and visual information. The first tends to work sequentially and requires concentration to hold the building of information in logical order; the second demonstrates information synchronously, showing the building blocks simultaneously and presenting the viewer with a pattern – a schema – that helps it all to make sense.

If you want to understand the story of Wuthering Heights using just the words on the page, it’s tangled, tortuous, laborious sequential work – Victorian novels are like that. But if you want to explain the patterns of the novel, then a few well drawn pictures are enough to produce a Eureka moment in the room. Rather than unravel painstakingly which cousin marries which other cousin and who dies when, a family tree tells the story without clutter, freeing up students’ minds to focus their working memory on the delicacies of style, rather than the worry of which character is which.

A second diagram, with a set of concentric circles, neatly illustrates how the narrative works – an important job as at some points in the novel there are more than four layers to pick through. Better still, on top of the visual diagram, I also get them to imagine a spatial equivalent – a set of Chinese boxes, with each layer of narrative concealing another and the heart of the story buried in the centre, like the middle of a literary onion. Somewhere between my language, the diagrams and the mixed metaphors, it all starts to make a bit more sense.

Text Box: The heart of the story

Wuthering Heights is a novel characterised by deliberate pairings and parallels. It’s a novel about dualities, ironically enough. We draw two houses: the dark, brooding Heights and its antithesis – the civilised, stately Thrushcross Grange, on the board. They’re not great works of art, but one has gargoyles and angry trees and the other has multi-paned windows and flowers. That’s civilisation for you. We build two facing columns listing their competing priorities and characteristics – marvel at how perfectly unsymmetrical the whole thing is. And gradually the students build a logical mental structure to contain and explain the story in their heads (I say logical, but obviously only as logical as a book with a scene of psychotic grave digging can be). The clouds of confusion dissipate.

Bronte’s writing draws on three distinct literary traditions – Gothic, social realism and Romanticism. At their intersection lies her own style of female or domestic Gothic. What better to illustrate this than a classic Venn diagram? Around the room, students nod and commit the three overlapping circles to paper and to memory.

I carry on reading.

Dual coding makes Brontë digestible. And so we plough on, making meaning out of mystery and giving students the visual and mental scaffolding that enables them to scale the dizzying heights of literary analysis: something they can only do successfully when they understand what on earth is going on in the story – and why Kate Bush thought it was worth singing about.

C. Savage, English

One thought on “Doubling down on Wuthering Heights

  1. That was a wonderfully enjoyable read. I’ve been immersing myself in the study of something called ‘image schemas’: early primitive logic we pick up as toddlers from our experience in the physical world. Your concentric circle diagram corresponds to the CONTAINER (academics agree to use capitals for image schemas) model, sling with the CENTRE-PERIPHERY one. One year olds constantly explore objects in relation to being either in or out of a container. At the same time, they form ideas about objects being more ‘in’ when at the centre, and less so when near the periphery/boundary. Consequently, your diagram makes immediate sense. It conforms to what we know about how the physical world works.
    Do write more!


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