Maryse Conde's famed revision of Wuthering Heights, Windward Heights (1995), confirms my belief that the plots of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are very delicate flowers indeed. By which I mean that the attempts to abstract grand romances from these two novels, whether in tragic mode or otherwise, usually reveal that the romances are not especially grand. (Among other things, Anne Bronte's still-underrated The Tenant of Wildfell Hall comments acerbically on the "appeal" of the Heathcliff/Rochester type.) JE and WH succeed on the basis of their complex narrative voices, which come complete with biases, self-delusions--for example, Jane protests too much about her supposed non-jealousy of Blanche Ingram--distortions, partialities, memory lapses, and contradictions. In the case of WH, one of the great difficulties in "reading for the plot" is that the reader must deal with not one, but two completely unreliable narrators: the hilariously self-important and sexually clueless Lockwood, beset by delusions of personal and erotic grandeur, and the equally self-important, not to mention self-excusing, Nelly Dean, whose attitude to her protagonists is, to say the least, sharply conflicted. Much of the narrative's effect derives from the sheer inability of either narrator to understand any of the people concerned, an effect compounded by Lockwood's and Nelly's comic echoing of their protagonists' flaws. For instance, Lockwood's initial attempt to sound a "sympathetic chord" with Heathcliff, which even he realizes is flawed--"No, I'm running on too fast: I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him" (ch. I)--parodies Heathcliff's and Cathy's self-destructive collapse of self into other. The great mystique of Cathy's and Heathcliff's plot emerges through the narrative process; it doesn't necessarily exist without the very non-transparent narrators.
The first 1/2 or 2/3 of Windward Heights consists of a rather literalistic layering of WH's plot over an entirely different national, political, and racial situation. (I thought the novel's final sections, which crack open WH's potential happy ending, were actually more successful.) What struck me most about the novel was its complete and total allergy to the unreliable narrator. Emily Apter, alluding to the novel's treatment of voudun, reading, and Conde's own language, argues that Conde tries to produce the effect of a "telepathic identification with her Victorian predecessor"; yet, despite Apter's conclusion that Conde's use of the "literacy theme" "problematizes issues of readability that govern the reception of anomalous voices," Conde's narrators try to close down ambiguity far more than Bronte's. Neither the recurring third-person narrator nor the multiple first-person narrators show any of the common markers of unreliability: while the first-person POVs are necessarily subjective, they reveal even self-implicating details without flinching, are conscious of their own self-contradictions, and own up to conflicting emotions. And nearly everything gets explained, including Razye's (Heathcliff's) experiences after he runs away; Razye II's decision not to read the second Cathy's diary is one of the few moments of ambiguity in the novel (and, even there, the reader has a pretty good idea of what the dark secret is). Conde does her best to leave nothing implicit, even at the risk of considerable bathos. When Razye realizes that, once again, his attempt to penetrate the secrets of the next world has failed, the narrator leaves us in no doubt about how he's feeling: "The girl he loved was now out of his reach. How could he live without Cathy? Can a human being live without his soul?" (99). Conde's approach strips the "romance" from the romance--even once the historical explanations for their behavior are taken into account, both Razye I and the first Cathy are horribly unattractive people, and most of the other characters regard them as such--while directing the reader's attention to the greater horrors that condition the lovers' plot.