Essay / Literature

Wuthering Adoption: Emily Brontë, Christ’s Atonement and Adoption

The families in Wuthering Heights only recover from the adoption of Heathcliff when, like the Israelites after their refusal to enter the Promised Land, everyone of that generation was dead (Num. 14:20-23). But adoption is a beautiful representation of the work of Christ—or even better, it IS the work of Christ—that which God does in his Son to bring us into his holy life as adoptive sons and daughters, and co-heirs with Christ (Gal. 4:4-7). How is it that such a beautiful act by Mr. Earnshaw unleashed such disastrous consequences for everyone involved?

To be sure, adoption is a beautiful act. Or, rather, it is a beautiful way of life, for bringing someone into your family is far more than a decision, or event. It is a new way of life—a sacrificial, gracious, and loving way of life. Beyond that, it is woven into the way God loves us. As Paul writes to the Galatians:

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem these under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (Gal. 4:4-7)

And what could be more beautiful than witnessing to God’s work, even participating in it, by receiving sons and daughters into our families by adoption, making heirs of those left without resource?

But in this case, in the story of the Earnshaws and Lintons, something goes horribly wrong. Mr. Earnshaw’s fateful decision to adopt little Heathcliff, while still a beautiful and gracious act, effectively destroyed his family. Only when the two families are united in the characters of Hareton and Catherine (Jr.), and all the family members alive at the time of Heathcliff’s adoption were dead, was peace restored. And just to be clear, this is not at all an event relegated to Wuthering Heights, for adoptions abound which cause great pain to the families and adopted children, and I can recall a family in which the mother had adopted a child essentially as a pet, where the rest of the family had little or nothing to do with the child, other than resent it.

To my knowledge Emily Brontë doesn’t answer our question, but this is where theological interpretation of literature—that is the use of theological categories as a hermeneutical tool in understanding literary texts—might lend a hand.

Scripture does not present adoption as an unconditional good. The adoptive work of God is an unconditional good, but a gap remains between this and any attempt to replicate such an act on our part. So what is it that makes God’s act good? This is where an account of divine simplicity plays its role. Into what are we adopted? The short answer is: into the full life of the Triune God, into everything that God is, without part or reservation. God, who has no parts or divisions, has offered us his whole self in this work of adoption, as we become co-heirs with Christ. The reason God’s adoption is good, is that it is an adoption into the full, whole and complete life of God.

What of Heathcliff’s adoption? From the outset there are problems. It is a work of Mr. Earnshaw alone, without support and unity on the part of the family. And the family itself is isolated on the wuthering heights, distant from any interaction with society. Conflict and jealousy quickly rear their heads, and death is the long-term result.

What is it, then, that makes adoption a good thing? In and of itself, it appears as likely to unleash heaven as to unleash hell, as likely to be an act of selfishness or hatred, as an act of true love (compare Heathcliff’s adoption to his accidental “salvation” of Hareton as he was falling to his death in chapter 9).

Our participation in God’s work of adoption must be an adoption into the life of God and into the life of the community. It is a work of God, community, family and individual, in which we share the peace, harmony and joy which we have in Christ and therefore with each other, with a child in need. What makes adoption a good, rather than neutral or even perverse act, is what reality the child is being adopted into. The work of God was not mere adoption—it was adoption into the life of the Trinity, and only as such are our imitations of this act good.

To conclude, salvation by Christ is salvation into the whole life of God. Countless forms of partial salvation exist, and anything less than that whole salvation, as close to heaven as it might be, is just as likely to be a “salvation” into hell from which the only escape is death. Does this in any way dissuade us from the work of adoption? May it not be (Rom. 3:4)! Adoption remains a beautiful work which we have the privilege of participating in: but it is a good work only as part of a larger whole, and one factor we do well to consider is that adoption is adoption into a family—a family which includes the larger community (or church) into which the child is adopted—and ultimately, the family of God. The flip side of this reflection is that we, as the church, ought to consider ourselves and give of ourselves as vital participants in the adoptive work of the families in our respective churches.

To transpose this line of thought into the categories of love: Is love an unconditional good? Not in the least—for it can be a great evil. Only the love of God, self-sacrificial and self-giving love within the context of the mutual self-giving and self-receiving of the Trinity, is love a good thing. And the same is true for us; only that love which is characteristic of the life of God is unconditionally good for us: a self-giving and self-receiving love within the context of our love for, and being loved by, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For instances of perverse and demonic love, we need not go far: Wuthering Heights awaits re-reading.

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