In A Nutshell
Published in 1847, Wuthering Heights was the only novel Emily Brontë published, and she died the year after it came out. It is the story of Heathcliff, a dark outsider who falls in love with the feisty Catherine and rages and revenges against every obstacle that prevents him from being with her.
Wuthering Heights is violent even by today's standards and is not only full of references to demons, imps of Satan, and ghouls, but also depicts some pretty disturbing scenes of domestic violence. The supernatural plays a large part: ghosts appear, and Heathcliff, characterized more than once as a vampire, refers to drinking blood, haunting, and all manner of paranormal acts. Though Wuthering Heights is considered a classic, the book wasn't always so popular. In fact, when it first came out there was all sorts of confusion about the author, because Brontë published the book under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Readers thought the book was by the same author who wrote Jane Eyre – which was more immediately embraced by the public because the characters are a lot more likable. Actually Emily's sister Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell.
To set the record straight, Charlotte wrote the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and also took the opportunity to address some of the bad press the book had received. Critics basically thought the book was a downer, and some even characterized it as immoral (oh my!). One reviewer wrote that, "Wuthering Heights casts a gloom over the mind not easily to be dispelled." (Read this review and other early reviews of Brontë's novel here.) In other words, with all of its spirits and gripping obsessions, Wuthering Heights ends up possessing the reader, too. So be careful!
Numerous movie adaptations have been made of the book. The one in 1939 starring Lawrence Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It has also inspired several creative adaptations such as operas, musicals, theatrical adaptations, and even a song by Death Cab for Cutie ("Cath"). Artists love of all the novel's Gothic elements, and the scholarly interpretations are endless. Wuthering Heights appeared after England's craze for Gothic novels had ended, and the book changes all of the rules, taking your standard haunted house performance and turning it into a sinister psychological thriller.
Why Should I Care?
Concerned that you won't like Wuthering Heights? Think you'll get bored reading a book that's over 150 years old? Before you give up on Emily Brontë's one and only novel, ask yourself a couple questions: * Do you like creepy stories about haunted houses?
* How about stories with elaborate revenge schemes?
* Do you believe in soul mates?
* Are you sick of reading stories where the girl ends up with a Prince Charming or a Romeo? If you said yes to any of these questions, we're willing to bet that once you pick up Wuthering Heights, you won't be able to put it down. It's a real page-turner, full of ghoulish behavior, ghosts, passionate love, and revenge. Maybe you've even heard of the main character, Heathcliff, as a dark, brooding, obsessive romantic idol. This guy is definitely no Prince Charming. Emily Brontë changed the tone of the whole romantic hero thing and made Heathcliff nasty and cruel and, in spite of all that, sexy and sympathetic.
Wuthering Heights Summary
How It All Goes Down
In the winter of 1801 our narrator, Lockwood, shows up at Wuthering Heights to make arrangements with Heathcliff to rent the nearby manor, Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff, the landlord, makes no effort to be pleasant and immediately becomes a source of deep curiosity to Lockwood. A snowstorm forces Lockwood to spend the night at Wuthering Heights, and he has crazy nightmares complete with a wailing ghost named Catherine Linton trying to come through the window.
Settled into his new house, Lockwood invites the housekeeper, Ellen "Nelly" Dean to tell the story of the curious inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. Nelly is all too happy to recount the dark tale of the Earnshaws, the Lintons, and, mostly, Heathcliff.
We jump into the past as Nelly recounts the story. Nelly starts to work for the Earnshaws as a young girl. Everything is fine until Mr. Earnshaw takes a trip to Liverpool and returns with a swarthy little orphan child named Heathcliff. Though Earnshaw's daughter, Catherine, takes to the boy after only some initial aversion, the son, Hindley, resents his father's favoritism of the strange, mannerless boy.
Soon Catherine and Heathcliff are inseparable, but Hindley's bitterness has only grown, so he goes off to college. Catherine and Heathcliff briefly enjoy a sort of idyllic, adventurous childhood out on the stormy moors and snuggling in the oak-paneled bed.
When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley returns from college, with his new wife Frances, to claim his place as master of Wuthering Heights. College hasn't altered Hindley's feelings toward Heathcliff, so he decides to make life miserable for his adopted brother by treating him like a servant.
With Hindley acting the tyrant, Catherine provides Heathcliff's only solace. They remain allies and friends. One night Heathcliff and Catherine ramble down to Thrushcross Grange to spy on the Linton children, Edgar and Isabella, who live a pampered and protected existence. When a dog bites Catherine, she is forced to stay at the Grange for five weeks to recuperate. While there, she captures the affections of young Edgar. Back at Wuthering Heights, life without Catherine has been miserable for Heathcliff, but with Edgar in the picture things will never be the same.
Frances dies after giving birth to a son, Hareton. Without his wife to help tone down his rage, Hindley becomes even more vengeful toward Heathcliff. Hindley resents his new son, and he becomes an abusive alcoholic. His primary activity is making life miserable for Heathcliff and, as a result, for everyone else in the house.
Though Catherine confesses to Nelly an all-consuming love for Heathcliff, she still marries Edgar. (Even out on the isolated moors, social class dictates whom you marry.) Heathcliff takes off for three years to who knows where. When he returns, Heathcliff finds Catherine and Edgar married and living at Thrushcross Grange.
Heathcliff is now on a mission of revenge against Hindley, who is in even worse shape than before. Loaded with a bunch of money gained during his mysterious absence, Heathcliff sets into motion his master plan to acquire Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff exploits the fact that Hindley is a drunken mess and engages him in extended bouts of gambling that eventually lead Hindley to mortgage Wuthering Heights to pay his debts. The house now belongs to Heathcliff.
Heathcliff continues to visit Catherine at Thrushcross Grange, though her husband Edgar treats him like a low-born outsider. In order to acquire Edgar's property, Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton, who brings out all of his abusive instincts.
A violent argument between Edgar and Heathcliff sends Catherine to the sickbed, from which she never really recovers. She does, however, give birth to a daughter, also named Catherine. When Catherine dies, Heathcliff's sorrow and rage increase and he pleads for Catherine's ghost to haunt him.
Unable to take his abusiveness any longer, Isabella flees for London, where she gives birth to a son, Linton Heathcliff.
For the next thirteen years, Nelly Dean stays at Thrushcross Grange to raise Catherine, a feisty daddy's girl. Edgar and Nelly make sure that Catherine knows nothing of Wuthering Heights or its master. But, like her mother, Catherine is drawn to adventure and wants to explore the moors and all of its craggy, windswept spots. When Nelly forbids her to leave the property of Thrushcross Grange, Catherine goes off on her own. She ends up at Wuthering Heights, where she meets Hindley's son Hareton. Heathcliff's despicable treatment of the young man has turned Hareton into a grunting, uneducated oaf. Still, Catherine is happy to have some companionship.
When Isabella dies, Edgar retrieves his fragile, dismal nephew Linton and brings him back to live with them at Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff has other plans, and demands that his son live with him, though Linton did not even know his father existed. The contrast between Linton and Hareton is stark, but Heathcliff can't stand either of them.
Eventually young Catherine encounters Heathcliff on the moors and ventures to Wuthering Heights, where she meets Linton, whom she only vaguely remembers. She and Linton begin a secret correspondence of love letters sent via the milk-fetcher. When Edgar and Nelly become sick and bedbound, Catherine begins to sneak up to Wuthering Heights to visit Linton. The miserable and suffering Linton becomes a tool of his father's plot for revenge – marrying Catherine would mean that Linton inheriting Thrushcross Grange.
At a prearranged meeting between Catherine and Linton, Heathcliff lures Nelly and Catherine back to Wuthering Heights, where he imprisons them and forces Catherine to marry Linton. Soon after, Edgar dies and so does the sickly, young Linton. Heathcliff is now master of both Wuthering Height and Thrushcross Grange. He keeps his widowed daughter-in-law with him at Wuthering Heights so that she can work for him as a common servant. He rents out Thrushcross Grange to Lockwood.
Nelly's story is now complete. Lockwood's fascination with Heathcliff has turned to disgust and he gives notice to Heathcliff that he will be leaving Thrushcross Grange to return to London. Six months later, however, he is back in the neighborhood and visits Nelly, who gives him an update on the dramatic tale.
Despite her initial rejection of Hareton as an illiterate boor, Catherine warms to him and begins teaching him how to read. Heathcliff finds himself too obsessed with the dead Catherine to even care about the younger generation or even to bother eating or sleeping. Instead of continuing his cycle of abuse and revenge, he wanders the moors, stares into the middle distance, and makes broken-hearted appeals to Catherine's ghost. Heathcliff dies in the oak-paneled bed, a water-logged, grimacing stiff.
Hareton and Catherine inherit the two houses. They plan to marry on New Year's day and have created a new atmosphere of renewal and hope. Lockwood leaves the happy lovers and passes by the gravestones of Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar. Heathcliff's grave plot is fresh and not yet covered with grass. Wuthering Heights Setting
Where It All Goes Down
Yorkshire Moors, Northern England; roughly 1750-1802
Set in the harsh and isolated Yorkshire moors in Northern England, Wuthering Heights practically makes a character out of its geography. Gimmerton is the nearest town and provides the location for characters like Mr. Kenneth, the doctor, and Mr. Green, the lawyer. Liverpool is a distant port city associated with the dark, foreign, gypsy child, Heathcliff. But more important than any sense of a city center are the regional markers and sights, such as the "golden rocks" of Penistone Crags, black hollows, bleak hilltops, bilberry bushes, moonlit scenery, miles of heath, and winding roads. It's easy to get lost in this barren landscape, especially in the snow. The feelings of desolation and confusion provoked by the setting strongly contribute to the tone of the novel.
The story spans roughly fifty years, the last half of the eighteenth century, though Lockwood's narrative begins in 1801.
Weather plays a big role and tends to reflect some of the desolate attitudes of the characters. (The fancy term for this literary motif is "pathetic fallacy.") The landscape can be pitiless and forbidding – as with Lockwood's snowbound night at the Heights – or a Garden of Eden-like escape from the tyrannies of the home – as with the rambles young Catherine and Heathcliff take in order to avoid Hindley's cruelty.
The two main sites of action, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, are opposed in many ways: Wuthering Heights is dark and cold, located on a hill high above the more bright and inviting Thrushcross Grange, which is situated in the valley below. The two houses are only four miles apart, and yet characters are constantly getting lost while traveling between the two. There is continuous back and forth movement on horse and foot.
Access to the Grange symbolizes the acquisition of a certain social status. Though there is no social scene as such, Catherine is still gratified by her acceptance into the Linton manor. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is not welcome in either household. So issues of setting, access, and mobility reflect many of the novel's themes of social class, family, property, and estrangement. Wuthering Heights Narrator:
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him? The First Person (Peripheral Narrator)
Wuthering Heights has two main narrators: Lockwood and Ellen "Nelly" Dean. The primary narrator is Lockwood, who begins and ends the narrative and is recording the story that he hears from Nelly. Nelly is Lockwood's inside source of information, though, as he can only directly report what he witnesses in the present time – beginning in 1801, the year before Heathcliff dies. So, Nelly is telling Lockwood her version of the events, which then get filtered and recorded through his perspective. In cases where Nelly was not a witness to the events, she fills in the story with either someone else's eyewitness report to her, or she quotes a letter.
It's important to remember that both Nelly and Lockwood have their own interests, biases, likes and dislikes, so what we read is a highly biased account of the story of the Linton, Earnshaw, and Heathcliff families. With the exception of a few stretches in the novel, we are always receiving information through the double lens of these two characters, neither of whom is objective or detached.
Brontë provides a few hints that our narrators have their own plans, desires, and interpretations. An example: Remember how Lockwood grossly misjudges Heathcliff on their first encounter? He writes, "Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow!" (1.1). We realize pretty quickly that Heathcliff is a lot of things, but a "capital fellow" isn't one of them, and it takes Lockwood a while to get the hint. Plus, remember how he thought he had a chance with Catherine Heathcliff? Right.
OK, now just one (of many) examples of a problem with Nelly's narrative. She admits that she tells the story "in true gossip's fashion" (8.87). How Nelly sees herself is important because it tells us about the kind of narrator she will be. As she tells Lockwood:
I certainly esteem myself a steady, reasonable kind of body . . . not exactly from living among the hills and seeing one set of faces, and one series of actions . . . but I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more books than you would fancy, Mr. Lockwood. You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into. (8.86)
Nelly wants Lockwood to know that she's not just some uneducated servant. But any time you have narrator who reads a lot, it's a red flag. By adding this detail, Brontë suggests that Nelly likes stories, or fiction, and possibly gets some of her ideas from books. We can tell she likes drama and symbolic detail, as when she tells the story of Heathcliff putting a piece of his hair in Catherine's locket.
While Nelly's story involves less speculation than Lockwood's, her advice to young Heathcliff reveals an active imagination, the result of reading perhaps one too many Romantic novels:
Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week's income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together? [. . .] Were I in your place, I would frame high notions of my birth. (7.44)
The point is, Nelly adds her own creative interpretations to a scene she is too much a part of to describe objectively. The story that Nelly narrates takes place, for the most part, in the past, and the characters cannot refute her version of the facts. Her tendency to romanticize makes her a compelling but unreliable narrator. Wuthering Heights Genre
Gothic Fiction, Romance, Psychological Thriller
Wuthering Heights has just about all the elements of a Gothic novel, but the characters are a lot more complex than your average Gothic protagonists and antagonists. Heathcliff's motivations and responses go beyond the flat character of the average Gothic villain. Catherine is far from the vulnerable, threatened maiden in need of rescuing. And instead of a ruined, crumbling castle, we have Wuthering Heights. Finally, the novel provokes greater consideration of morality than the usual action-driven Gothic novel.
Still, Wuthering Heights has plenty of spooky Gothic qualities, like imprisonment, dark stairways, stormy weather, nightmares, extreme landscapes, melancholy figures, moonlight and candles, torture and excessive cruelty, necrophilia, a supernatural presence, madness, maniacal behavior, communication between the living and the dead – you get the point. In the Gothic tradition, Brontë features tyrannical fathers and a troubled family line. In this case, the threat comes from Heathcliff, the outsider, who causes havoc by usurping the family line and taking all of its property.
Some of the darkest themes of the Gothic novel emerge with the implications of incest (through the romantic love of Heathcliff and Catherine, who may be half-brother and sister – though the marriage of cousins would not have been seen as scandalous) and the suggestion of necrophilia (through Heathcliff's perverse interactions with Catherine's corpse).
The Gothic genre often reveals larger societal anxieties. In Wuthering Heights, it may help to reveal contemporary fears about a foreign presence in the house, threats to patrimony, or an influx of immigration (through places like Liverpool, England) in the form of the so-called "gypsy." It is important to note that Wuthering Heights was published well after the trend in Gothic novels had petered out, so several critics saw the genre, and thus the novel, as tired and overdone. Romance
That Wuthering Heights is a romance is undeniable. The love between Heathcliff and Catherine transcends the boundaries between life and death. While several marriages and sub-romances occur, the one between the two protagonists is far and away the most dramatic and memorable. All the characters are driven by their appetites – desire, passion, lust, and ambition. The plotline is propelled toward the reunion of the two lovers, so that when Catherine dies halfway through the book, the reader really wants to know how the romantic story will be resolved. Heathcliff often shows up in top-ten lists of romantic fictional protagonists – often making number one. Despite being unforgivably malicious, Heathcliff is still a major hunk. (For details, see "Trivia.") Psychological Thriller
Though Wuthering Heights could not be exclusively categorized as a psychological thriller (there are too many Gothic elements), it strongly features the complexities of Heathcliff's character. In the tradition of this genre, Heathcliff's motivations, his tricks and schemes, his revenge and manipulation, are represented in great detail. Brontë creates enormous suspense by making the reader wonder how Heathcliff will calm his troubled soul and resolve his feelings of vengeance. Wuthering Heights Tone
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful? Dark and Stormy
You know how Charlie Brown's Snoopy, sitting atop his dog house with a typewriter, always starts his stories "It was a dark and stormy night"? Well, he may as well be Emily Brontë, because that sort of mysterious atmosphere sets the tone of the novel. As a Gothic novel, Wuthering Heights is persistently dark and eerie. There is not a very wide range of tones: it's either grim or grimmer.
However, you could argue that the ending has more hope and promise, as do certain moments throughout the story, such as the years after Catherine's death. The attitudes of our narrators help shape the tone as the drama unfolds, so that Lockwood's initial curiosity and fascination convey a lighter feeling than after he realizes how sinister Heathcliff is. Whenever Heathcliff is around, the tone tends to grows darker. Likewise, you can tell Nelly Dean really enjoys storytelling, so she tries to sustain a tone of suspense and mystery – that way she keeps Lockwood's, and by extension the reader's, attention. This is what keeps Lockwood up late and what keeps us reading. Wuthering Heights Writing Style
Before she wrote Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë composed quite a bit of poetry, and the urge to write in a lyrical manner really shows in her prose style. Her poems are full of flowers, mountain breezes, frozen snow, thorny briars, and the like. Like Heathcliff and Catherine, she finds inspiration in nature. Some of the only affectionate and cheerful descriptions in the novel concern the heath and the hills, flowers, bees, and moonlight.
Brontë varies the style depending on whether Lockwood or Nelly Dean is narrating, and even further with each character being described.
Nelly's speech is animated, with lively images and vivid descriptions that reflect her presence at the scenes she describes. She also enjoys ratcheting up the drama, infusing her accounts with her own opinions and attitudes. You can tell she enjoys her position as narrator to Lockwood's listener, and this sense of power influences her style.
Technically we are reading Lockwood's diary, and his style is intimate but more formal and composed than Nelly's.
Above both of them, Brontë's style prevails, and she has something of a rhythmical and elegiac approach. For just about every implication of the sinister and dark, there is a beam of light struggling to emerge. Her prose style is not so heavily under the influence of the Gothic that she denies the possibility of hope and redemption. An example of her striking ability to balance these oppositions can be found in the novel's final sentence, where, standing at the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar, Lockwood observes:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
Brontë crafts the image of the three graves in subtle, graceful terms. Gothic elements are still present, with the suggestion of life after death and the supernatural human-like description of the breathing wind. Even in the face of death, nature is life-sustaining and life-giving. And rather than mentioning dead corpses buried in the earth (which she wouldn't be above doing!), Brontë terms the bodies as "sleepers," a far more poetic characterization, and uses the word "unquiet" instead of "disturbed." Brontë's careful style accommodates both the extreme moments of gothic horror and the interludes and conclusions in which a peaceful romantic scene prevails. What’s Up With the Title?
Wuthering Heights is a house, and with this novel, Emily Brontë takes the whole Gothic haunted house thing several steps further than her predecessors. While the book has all of the Gothic elements made popular the century before by authors such as Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole – and even mocked by Jane Austen in Northanger Abby – Wuthering Heights has a lot more psychological complexity than your average pulp Gothic job. Throughout the story Brontë plays on a whole set of genre conventions – Gothic, romantic, pseudo-psychological – and by naming the novel after the house, she sort of announces those influences to her readers. While the house is the main setting for most of the action, its role is so important that it almost seems like a living, breathing, ticked-off character, reflecting the bad attitude of its inhabitants.
Windows and doors are a big deal in the novel, as people and ghosts are always trying to climb in or out, people are always getting locked in and out, doors are slammed, keys hidden, and so forth. Heathcliff often stands in the doorway of Wuthering Heights controlling who crosses the threshold. At the center of the house, symbolically if not literally, is Catherine's oak-paneled bed, which provides the setting for the more uncanny and chilling events: Catherine's ghost fighting to get in against Lockwood's brutal refusal, and the death and discovery of Heathcliff's rain-soaked corpse.
To Heathcliff, whoever controls the house has the power, so even though he seeks revenge for all of his mistreatment, he does so by acquiring real estate. Being accepted into houses means a lot – Hindley never welcomes Heathcliff into Wuthering Heights, but the Lintons open their doors to Catherine (but not Heathcliff). The house has different meanings for each character – prison and punishment, social class, horror, and nostalgia.
The house is loaded with symbolic importance. It's up on the stormy hillside above Thrushcross Grange, which, by comparison, seems like a sort of Eden with its brightly lit salon and expansive garden. Lockwood notices some of the house's strange details from the very beginning – for example, the inscription over the doorway:
Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door, above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date "1500," and the name "Hareton Earnshaw." (1.13)
This inscription serves as the house's nametag and informs us that the Earnshaws have been there for a long time (the novel is set in 1801). What Lockwood means by "shameless" we can't really know, but the implication is that the image is Gothic and a little sinister. Emily Brontë grew up on the Yorkshire moors, so a lot of critics speculate about the influence the houses in her village of Haworth had on her description of Wuthering Heights. What’s Up With the Ending?
The book is a real page-turner, making you really want to know how it ends. Death? Marriage? Both. With Catherine dying halfway through the novel, finding out what happens to Heathcliff becomes all the more important. The last page of the book has Lockwood leaving Wuthering Heights for Thrushcross Grange, stopping to take one last look at the soon-to-be-married Hareton Earnshaw and Catherine Heathcliff.
Wuthering Heights really shows the difference between "ending" and "closure." Sure the book ends, as does Nelly's narration, and certain threads of the story are neatly tied together: domestic harmony returns to the home, Hareton is able to read his name above the threshold, and his ownership of the house suggests that all is right with property and inheritance. When Nelly picks up the narration one last time, she seeks to provide closure to Heathcliff's story and to the reunification of this generation of Earnshaws. Like a Shakespearean comedy, the story ends with a marriage, as Nelly explains in almost maternal tones: "The crown of all my wishes will be the union of these two; I shall envy no one on their wedding day. There won't be a happier woman than myself in England!" (32.111).
The novel begins with Lockwood struggling to enter Wuthering Heights (with all its vicious dogs, locked gates, and the forbidding landlord) and ends with open windows, sunshine, and lovers. But for all the romantic conclusions and gratification we get from Hareton and Catherine, the lovers we are really thinking about are six feet under ground.
Lockwood can't resist passing by the graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff, whose plot is not yet covered in moss, grass, and turf because he was just buried. Looking over the peaceful scene, with moths fluttering about, Lockwood can't imagine that they won't all three rest in peace. What?! Has he not just heard the whole story? We can be pretty sure that anything involving Catherine and Heathcliff will not be peaceful. It's almost as if Brontë teases us with this serene image of the moors after detailing several hundred pages of conflict. So, while Lockwood interprets closure in his narrative, we as readers have become more savvy than him knowing that there are many ways to read the novel's ending. Wuthering Heights Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice. Initial Situation
Lockwood meets Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights and, forced to spend the night, describes mysterious happenings in the house. Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights to become a tenant at Thrushcross Grange, owned by the surly but provocative Heathcliff. He is recording all of these events in his diary so, in a sense, we are reading his private notes. Lockwood reveals that he had a failed romance at the seaside. That's pretty much all we ever find out about him, because he is way more interested in the goings on in the two houses. He sleeps one night at the Heights, where a ghost named Catherine Linton haunts him. Then he establishes himself at Thrushcross Grange, where he eagerly listens to the story of the Lintons and the Earnshaws, as told by his housekeeper, Nelly Dean. Conflict
Mr. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff home to live with his wife and two children, who are not happy about their new brother. Mr. Earnshaw brings home a little child whom he claims to have found in the streets of Liverpool – though it's possible that the boy, Heathcliff, is his own illegitimate son. His own children, Cathy and Hindley, do not like the boy. In fact, no one likes him. He is labeled a "gipsy," an "imp of Satan," and all sorts of other cruel names. Finally, Cathy warms up to him, and they console each other after Mr. Earnshaw dies and Hindley becomes a raging jerk. Complication
One day Catherine and Heathcliff venture down to Thrushcross Grange to spy on the Linton children. Upon discovering the intruders, they embrace Catherine and reject Heathcliff. While Heathcliff has always been treated like an outsider, at least he had Catherine. But when she meets the Lintons, she becomes socially ambitious. She wants to be a lady of the house – something that would never happen if she married Heathcliff. So even though she really loves Heathcliff, Catherine decides to marry Edgar. Heathcliff disappears for three years, and it's never entirely clear where he goes. Climax
Heathcliff returns as in love with Catherine as ever, but he marries Edgar's sister Isabella so that he can get their property. The climax lasts a long time, because Catherine gets a "brain fever" from all of the stress of Heathcliff and Edgar arguing, and the fact that she is not with the man she really loves. After a wrenching reunion with Heathcliff, Catherine gives birth to Catherine (Cathy) Linton, then she dies. Heathcliff begs her ghost to torment him for the rest of his days. Suspense
Now what? Catherine is dead, so what does Heathcliff have to live for? With the love of his life dead, Heathcliff dedicates himself full-time to revenge, most particularly on Hindley, the brother who made his childhood a living hell, always reminding him of his status as swarthy interloper. Part of his revenge consists of getting his sickly son to marry Catherine Linton; that way he will get Thrushcross Grange too. Denouement
Heathcliff achieves his goal of becoming master of the two houses. Then he dies. Having spent every last ounce of energy driving Hindley into the grave and gaining control of the house (and losing his wife and son along the way), Heathcliff is left with two housemates – his nephew Hareton Earnshaw, and his daughter-in-law Cathy Heathcliff. He admits to Nelly that all the vengeance has exhausted him and, after some seriously strange behavior, he dies in Catherine's bed. Conclusion
Hareton Earnshaw and Cathy Heathcliff inherit the houses.
The whole nasty property and inheritance tangle is sorted out when Heathcliff dies and the houses revert to their proper owners – Hareton Earnshaw and Cathy Heathcliff. Brontë offers some nice, neat closure with the impending marriage of these two youngsters. She also offers some unsettling conclusions by reuniting Heathcliff and Catherine Linton in death, and suggesting that they will haunt the moors together. If this were a movie, we'd almost expect a sequel. Wuthering Heights Theme of Revenge
Even though the novel is a great romance, Brontë doesn't follow the strict guidelines of the genre: the revenge plot is just as powerful, if not more so, than the love that pulls Catherine and Heathcliff together. Without revenge as such a predominant theme, Wuthering Heights would just be a thwarted love story.
When Heathcliff cannot have the woman he loves, he turns his attention to revenging his childhood tormenter, his adoptive brother Hindley. Because Hindley never lost an opportunity to demean Heathcliff, the "gypsy" grows up determined to destroy Hindley and become master of the two houses. The fact that Hindley already has a tendency to drink and gamble to excess makes Heathcliff's vengeance all the easier.
Without this desire for revenge, Heathcliff would have had nothing to do but pine after Catherine, so revenge becomes a major motivator for his character. On paper, he succeeds in his revenge: thwarting property and inheritance laws, he manages to become owner of the two houses. But by his own admission, revenge loses its thrill in the end.
But not everyone is bitter in the novel. It is noteworthy that even though he is sorely abused, Hareton rises above it and becomes a decent person. Wuthering Heights Theme of Love
It's tough to really call Wuthering Heights a romance, since the two lovers spend so much time making each other miserable. Still, we know Catherine and Heathcliff experience some sort of transcendent romantic and erotic connection. Catherine's love for Edgar Linton, however, is so tied to her desire to be "the greatest woman of the neighborhood" (9.59) that their love hardly seems to include any romance at all. Meanwhile, Catherine is so derisive of Heathcliff's social standing that early on in the story she questions his capacity to love at all, asking Nelly Dean, "I want to cheat my uncomfortable conscience, and be convinced that Heathcliff has no notion of these things – he has not, has he? He does not know what being in love is?" (9.97).
Still, Heathcliff and Catherine's fanatical, impassioned affection connects to the nostalgia of their childhood and reaches beyond the grave into the afterlife, so there's definitely a love connection going on. All of the other examples of love – or, more precisely, marriage – are diminished in comparison, except perhaps that of Cathy Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw, who seem to enjoy a rare experience of genuine affection and mutual respect. Wuthering Heights Theme of Family
Talk about dysfunctional. Does anyone really like each other in this book? Instead of bringing comfort and peace, families in Wuthering Heights are a source of violence, alienation, jealousy, and greed. The whole mess starts when Mr. Earnshaw tries to expand the family by bringing another child, Heathcliff, to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff's new siblings won't share their beds, and they welcome him by making faces and spitting at him. Many critics suggest that Heathcliff is Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate son. After all, his name – as Nelly tells Lockwood – comes from the "name of a son who died in childhood" (4.51). But they never dub Heathcliff with the last name Earnshaw.
Still, themes of family run throughout. Almost every character is either an Earnshaw or a Linton, or in some cases both. And because Heathcliff is never accepted into either family, he gets revenge by taking everything that they own. Brontë suggests that the family recovers in the end: the house once again becomes the property of Hareton Earnshaw, whose distant relative built it in 1500. Wuthering Heights Theme of The Supernatural
As discussed in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory," supernatural elements permeate Wuthering Heights, as does a general sense of the mysterious. From beginning to end, there's no avoiding the supernatural. When the ghost of Catherine Linton attempts to come into Wuthering Heights through the window, Lockwood's fascination is piqued. The moors, the people, and Wuthering Heights itself are all infused with supernatural elements so that we have much more than your conventional haunted house. As a child, Heathcliff is teased by others for being a dark and unnatural representative of the supernatural (e.g. an "imp of Satan"). And late in the novel, Nelly wonders whether he is a ghoul or a vampire, before dismissing the thought. The supernatural vibe extends far beyond Heathcliff to the moors and surrounding village, all of which seem to be touched by something sinister. Not even the local chapel is exempt: "No clergyman will undertake the duties of pastor" (3.35) there, as the place basically seems to be a lost cause. The book ends with the suggestion that together Heathcliff and Catherine will haunt the moors for ever after. Wuthering Heights Theme of Suffering
Just about everyone in Wuthering Heights suffers physical and emotional trauma, and many of them even die from it. Heathcliff avoids physical illness, but his love for Catherine causes an extraordinary amount of suffering, both for himself and others. He seems to enjoy the suffering, pleading to be haunted by her after her death.
No one really wants to take responsibility for the misery that results from his or her own foolish decisions – including silly Isabella, who marries Heathcliff knowing he doesn't love her. No suffering surpasses that of Heathcliff and Catherine, and still they blame each other. One of the last things Heathcliff says to Catherine, as she lies dying in his arms:
"Misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart – you have broken it – and in breaking it, you have broken mine." (15.37) Wuthering Heights Theme of Society and Class
Even though Wuthering Heights' two families live out in the middle of nowhere, they still abide by the constraints of class. Brontë lets us know through Catherine's aspirations to marry Edgar Linton that Thrushcross Grange is a far superior manor to the sprawling farmhouse at Wuthering Heights. Now, the Lintons and the Earnshaws are both members of the middle class – between the working class and the elite – as they have servants running the house. But marriage to Edgar Linton is still the means through which Catherine becomes the "greatest woman of the neighbourhood" (9.59) while, as she tells Nelly, "Did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise and place him out of my brother's power" (9.99).
Being an orphan with no family ties and no land, Heathcliff is the lowest on the totem pole. That Hindley denies Heathcliff an education implies that he is trying to force him to become a servant (which is how he, in fact, refers to him several times). So it makes sense that Heathcliff's revenge is tied directly to the novel's class issues, because property ownership is one of the privileges of the middle class and above. Heathcliff, in turn, seeks to punish Hindley's son, Hareton, by keeping him in a low station and denying him an education. Wuthering Heights Theme of Foreignness and the Other
Heathcliff is made to feel like an outsider by his own adoptive family, which fuels his desire for revenge. It's never clear where he is originally from, although Mr. Earnshaw says he picked him up in the streets of Liverpool, a port town where immigrants entered England from foreign lands. Much is made of Heathcliff's appearance by everyone who sees him; the contrast between his swarthy, brooding looks and Edgar Linton's creamy soft skin is dramatic.
So Heathcliff is a double outsider: not only is he not related to anyone at Wuthering Heights, he is also marked as racially different. He is described dozens of times as a "dark-skinned gipsy" (1.15). Even the kindly Mr. Earnshaw, when he presents Heathcliff, says "it's as dark almost as if it came from the devil" (4.45). Nelly basically sums up the regional biases of the Yorkshire inhabitants when she says, "We don't in general take to foreigners here, Mr. Lockwood, unless they take to us first" (6.7). Heathcliff's foreign appearance, although it contributes to his segregation and mistreatment, may partially explain Catherine's attraction to him. Wuthering Heights Theme of Betrayal
Considering that Catherine unceremoniously bails on Heathcliff by marrying Edgar Linton, Heathcliff goes pretty easy on her. Heathcliff does disappear for three years, but when he finally accuses her of betrayal, he frames it as disloyalty to herself. Brontë offers all sorts of smaller examples of treachery – such as when Isabella runs off with Heathcliff and Edgar disowns her, or when young Cathy violates Edgar's prohibition against leaving the grounds of Thrushcross Grange. The novel presents more examples of people doing what they want than examples of people abiding by the dictates of loyalty. Betrayal, like revenge, drives much of the plot. If Mr. Earnshaw had not brought Heathcliff to Wuthering Heights in the first place – violating the family's boundaries and possibly even betraying his wife – the whole mess would never have started. Protagonist
Character Role Analysis
Brontë twisted the nineteenth-century male hero/love interest convention with Heathcliff, who is both a lover and a hater. He is without a doubt the protagonist, but he works very hard at being an anti-hero. He enters the story as a mystery and we never really learn much about his character, and nothing about his past (or where he has been when he's "off-screen," so to speak). We do know that he is super intense, moody, dramatic, vengeful, violent, and loyal. But who is he? Throughout the course of the novel he is labeled a gypsy, imp, ghoul, and even a vampire. But try as we might, we cannot entirely dislike Heathcliff. After all, he grew up being treated like dirt. His undying (at times pathological) love for Catherine reveals his humanity and helps earn our sympathy. When he dies, we hope he will reunite with Catherine and get some well-earned rest.
Character Role Analysis
Hindley is nothing but a bitter jerk from the very get-go. First, he won't share his bed with his new brother. Then he communicates a desire for his horse to kick Heathcliff's brains out. Hindley is the great thwarter, deeply loathing Heathcliff long after Catherine has embraced him. He is jealous, petty, and demeaning and schools Heathcliff to be that way as well. The only love we ever see him express is for Frances. As Nelly puts it, "he had room in his heart only for two idols – his wife and himself: he doted on both [...]"(8.7). When Frances dies, that's it. Hindley even repudiates his own son. His embrace of booze and gambling (with a little encouragement from Heathcliff) does not earn him much sympathy. And doesn't the fact that his own son refers to him as "Devil daddy" say it all?
Character Role Analysis
Edgar Linton to Heathcliff
Heathcliff and Edgar are perfect foils for one another – opposite in just about every way. To use a cliché, they are like night and day: Edgar is blue-eyed, fair, mild-mannered, and tolerant to the point of being a pushover. Heathcliff is dark, overcast, and full of rough edges and seething anger. As Nelly reports, "Doubtless Catherine marked the difference between her friends as one came in, and the other went out. The contrast resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly, coal country, for a beautiful fertile valley; and his voice and greeting were as opposite as his aspect." (8.53). The only thing they share is a love for Catherine, and even the nature of their love is sharply contrasted. The fact that they are buried on either side of Catherine really drives the adversarial thing home.
Heathcliff and His Reputation
Forget most of the romantic nonsense you have heard about Heathcliff. Sure he's in love with Catherine, and you can't question his loyalty, but he has a serious mean streak. Brontë is at her best when she is describing him, and his looks garner a lot of attention from her and the other characters. Numerous polls have voted him literature's most romantic hero, which says a lot about the kind of men we like – tortured, brooding, and obsessive. Heathcliff is the embodiment of what is known by literary types as the Byronic hero – a dark, outsider antihero (kind of like Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre or Edward Cullen from Twilight). He is swarthy, lonerish, and little demonic, but definitely sexy. Heathcliff's Childhood
Heathcliff enters the Earnshaw home as a poor orphan and is immediately stigmatized by questions of parentage. He is characterized as devilish and cruelly referred to as "it" in the Earnshaw household. His language is "gibberish" and his dark otherness provokes the labels "gipsy," "wicked boy," "villain," and "imp of Satan." This poor treatment is not much of an improvement on his "starving and houseless" childhood, and he quickly becomes a product of all of the abuse and neglect. Racially different, he can and will never be accepted by his adoptive family or the villagers of Gimmerton. That Heathcliff should be given the name of an Earnshaw son who died in childhood confirms the impression of his being a fairy changeling – an otherworldly being that takes the place of a human child. Plus, he is never given the last name Earnshaw.
Heathcliff's arrival is seen as a direct threat to just about everyone, but mostly to Hindley. As Nelly Dean tells it, "from the very beginning, [Heathcliff] bred bad feeling in the house" (5.55). Her choice of words is suggestive, since there is so much preoccupation with his racial background (breeding). Coming from Liverpool (a port town with many immigrants), Heathcliff very likely is of mixed race. Some critics have suggested that he is black or Arabic. Could he be Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate child? This would explain his father's strange insistence on including him in the household.
Victorian England was fascinated by gypsies, and they appear in novels like Jane Austen's Emma and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, among others. Gypsies, who were thought to have come from Egypt (which is where the "gyp" part of the word comes from), were objects of discrimination, partly because their traveling lifestyle made them people without a nation or land (like Heathcliff), and partly because they just looked so different from the typical Anglo Saxon. In nineteenth-century novels, gypsies often steal children. They are never the hero (or anti-hero) of the novel. So Brontë really mixes up our expectations here. Heathcliff's Appearance
Though the mystery of Heathcliff's background is never solved, there is endless speculation and fascination about his appearance. Mr. Earnshaw introduces him to his new family by saying that he is "as dark almost as if it came from the devil" (4.45), and he is called a "gipsy" by several different characters.
Looking as different as he does makes it impossible for Heathcliff ever truly to fit in. His determination to gain control of both Wuthering Heights and the Grange is driven by his desire to become master in spite of being so much an outsider – economically, familially, and physically. His envy of Edgar's light-skinned handsomeness is part of what fuels his anger about Catherine's choice.
During a three-year absence, Heathcliff is physically transformed. No longer a beaten-down street kid, he has become, as Nelly puts it:
. . . a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom my master [Edgar] seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton's; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued […] (10.53)
By the time Lockwood meets him, Heathcliff is still dark and swarthy, of course, but now embodies the social status that he has gained over the last 25 years. Lockwood notes:
Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire [. . .] (1.15)
At this point in Heathcliff's story he contains oppositions: his ethnic background presents a strange contrast with his master-of-the-house look. Though he acquires the property, he can never change his appearance and what it implies socially. (For more discussion of Heathcliff's race, check out "Themes.") Heathcliff and Violence
Heathcliff can be a real beast, which comes across through his numerous threats, violent acts, and symbolic association with that unruly pack of dogs (Throttler, Skulker – what names!). In some ways he is the supreme depraved Gothic villain, but his emotional complexity and the depth of his motivations and reactions make him much more than that.
Heathcliff often falls back on violence as a means of expression, both of love and hate. Having been beaten on by Hindley for most of his childhood, Heathcliff is the classic victim turned perpetrator. His rage is tied to the revenge he so passionately seeks, but he also undertakes small "extracurricular" acts of violence, like hanging Isabella Linton's dog. Whether he is capable of sympathy for anyone but Catherine is highly questionable. As Nelly recounts:
[Heathcliff] seized, and thrust [Isabella] from the room; and returned muttering – "I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain." (14.39-41)
That pretty much sums up his attitude – and he's talking about his wife! He treats his son, Linton, no better. Linton's sickly demeanor is a contrast to his father's strong and healthy physique, and Heathcliff has no tolerance for the little bugger.
Though Heathcliff expresses and often enacts violence against just about everyone in the two houses, he would never hurt Catherine. However, his love for her is violent in the sense that it is extremely passionate and stirs a brutal defensiveness. Importantly, by the end of the novel Heathcliff admits to Nelly that he no longer has any interest in violence. It's not so much that he is sated as that he is just over it. As he tells her:
"It is a poor conclusion, is it not . . . An absurd termination to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished! My old enemies have beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don't care for striking. I can't take the trouble to raise my hand!" (33.59) Heathcliff and Catherine
As readers painfully recall, Heathcliff leaves his beloved Cathy after overhearing her say it would degrade her to marry him. That moment really hurts, because if anything is obvious, it's that Catherine is Heathcliff's soul mate and his only ally against the brute Hindley. In a sense, their love remains immature, since they were only ever "together" as young children. The moments of joy that haunt Heathcliff for the rest of his life occur over just a few pages. Many of them take place as an escape from violence, as in this memory recounted in Catherine's makeshift journal:
"Hindley is a detestable substitute – his conduct to Heathcliff is atrocious – H. and I are going to rebel – we took our initiatory step this evening." (3.13)
And soon after:
"We made ourselves as snug as our means allowed in the arch of the dresser. I had just fastened our pinafores together, and hung them up for a curtain, when in comes Joseph, on an errand from the stables. He tears down my handiwork, boxes my ears, and croaks…" (3.19)
Without her, Heathcliff quickly turns from mythic hero into well-schooled brute.
Heathcliff and Cathy are haunted by each other; each sees the other as inseparable from his or her being. As Catherine tells Nelly Dean:
"Nelly, I am Heathcliff – He's always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but as my own being – so, don't talk of our separation again: it is impracticable." (9.101)
This confession is one of the novel's most famous lines, because it so poignantly expresses the nature of Heathcliff and Catherine's love: it is beyond the physical, transcending all else. Heathcliff tells Nelly:
"I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day . . . my own features mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her." (33.62)
Heathcliff and Cathy see themselves as one and the same, which is interesting considering how big of a deal everyone else makes about Heathcliff's "otherness": his swarthy complexion and low social standing. Cathy doesn't care about any of these differences; her love renders them meaningless.
But this closeness also leads to one of the biggest problems in the novel. Because Catherine considers Heathcliff to be a part of her, she does not see her marriage to Edgar as a separation from Heathcliff. For Heathcliff, though, soul mates should be together. Her death only increases his obsession, and he goes so far to have the sexton dig up her grave so he can catch one last glimpse of her.
While he can be a horrible brute, it's easy to pity Heathcliff. After all, he finds his perfect love and she marries a stiff like Edgar Linton. Does Brontë intend for us to like Heathcliff as much as we do? It's hard to tell. Emily's sister Charlotte wrote that "Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition" (Charlotte Brontë, "Editor's Preface to the New Edition of Wuthering Heights"). Catherine Earnshaw Linton
We first see Catherine Earnshaw through a brief glimpse at the pages of her diary – "detached sentences [. . .] scrawled in an unformed, childish hand" (3.4). Soon after, we meet her ghost, longing for reentry into Wuthering Heights (3.7). So from the beginning, Catherine is surrounded by mystery. Unlike Heathcliff, we never meet her; she died long before the story begins.
All that we come to know about Catherine is filtered through Nelly Dean, who, surprisingly, is not that much older than Catherine. Though Nelly tends to Catherine up until her death (and then takes care of her daughter, the second Catherine), she doesn't always discuss Catherine with great affection. Apparently, Nelly is really the only character ever to try to set Catherine straight, as when she questions Catherine's absurd logic about marrying Edgar. Often Nelly admits to extreme irritation with the young woman. Through the course of the novel, we come to know Catherine as an unruly and adventurous rebel, and the only Earnshaw besides her father to give a lick about Heathcliff. But Brontë doesn't make her simply the nature-loving wild child Lockwood reads about; Catherine is also a status-conscious social climber whose marriage destroys Heathcliff.
There are basically two sides to Catherine: Catherine Earnshaw and Catherine Linton. (She also fantasizes about a third, Catherine Heathcliff [3.3] – which her daughter will eventually become.) These two Catherines are very different: one is Heathcliff's Catherine and the other is Edgar's. But even when Catherine Earnshaw becomes Catherine Linton, she still maintains traces of her former self. Heathcliff longs Catherine Earnshaw; her decision to marry Edgar means that she and Heathcliff will never be together, as they were as children. Catherine's choice of husband is the pivotal choice of the novel, changing everyone's destiny and bringing the two houses – the Grange and Wuthering Heights – together.
During her weeks of recovery at Thrushcross Grange, Catherine is made into a groomed and civilized young lady. She returns to Wuthering Heights a true prima donna. This is the future Catherine Linton: a privileged and indulged lady of the house.
At one point, Nelly explains how the doting Edgar almost fears Catherine, never wanting to ruffle her feathers or contradict her. Despite his higher social status, Edgar idolizes Catherine. Her beauty and unruliness appeal to him because they are so unlike everything he has known. And let's not forget that they become an official couple after she hits him – kind of sets a tone, doesn't it? Edgar even lets the despised Heathcliff lurk around the Grange after the marriage just to keep Catherine happy.
Now Heathcliff never really calls Catherine out on her behavior either, although his obsession with revenge does indicate that he has motives that reach beyond fulfilling her needs. Still, the memories of their shared rebellious childhood recorded in Catherine's "journal" are some of the only moments of true friendship, unity, and intimacy in the novel. The novel's early pages depict Catherine and Heathcliff's childhood affections and their efforts to survive Hindley's raging abuses and Joseph's mad rantings. Roughly the next 250 show the two obsessed by a haunting nostalgia about those few fleeting moments of joy.
Everything changes when Catherine marries Edgar: not only does she commit romantically to another man, she also leaves Wuthering Heights and raises her social status far beyond Heathcliff's reach. While the essence of their love does not change, its structure and appearance do. Catherine believes that with Edgar's money she can help Heathcliff get out from under Hindley. Heathcliff sees the marriage as a rejection of him and an embrace of an entirely new life. On her deathbed, Catherine raves about the idyllic moments with Heathcliff that are now far in the past.
Though Catherine is important to the story (after all, Heathcliff is willing to die for her), she's only around for about half of the novel. She is more of a ghost, a fixation, and a memory than a character we get to know well. Buried between Edgar and Heathcliff, Catherine is in death, as she was in life, stuck between two lovers. In the end, which man was she more loyal to? Hindley Earnshaw
Heathcliff may be savage at times, but Hindley is even less sympathetic. He's a jerk from the get-go, brutalizing Heathcliff out of sheer jealousy for the love he receives from Mr. Earnshaw.
It's hard not to see a lot of Heathcliff's flaws as the direct result of Hindley's abuse. As child he calls Heathcliff an "imp of Satan" and hopes a pony will kick Heathcliff's brains out (5.65). After Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley seeks to degrade Heathcliff by turning him into a manual laborer and depriving him of access to the "curate" (tutor). Later, Hindley concocts a social-climbing scheme to unite the Earnshaws and the Lintons by marrying Catherine off to Edgar.
Of course, Hindley has all the advantages Heathcliff doesn't, namely a college education and a huge inheritance. After the death of his wife, Frances, he turns into even more of a monster. As Nelly Dean recounts:
For himself, he grew desperate; his sorrow was of that kind that will not lament. He neither wept, nor prayed – he cursed and defied – execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation. The servants could not bear his tyrannical and evil conduct long. Joseph and I were the only two that would stay. (8.17)
Hindley's downfall is his love of the drink and penchant for gambling. Heathcliff exploits these weaknesses in order to gain control of Wuthering Heights. Hindley makes one ill-fated attempt to murder Heathcliff – which Isabella prevents – before he drinks himself into a fatal stupor. Hareton Earnshaw
While the name is greatly significant to the story (remember the carving from 1500 that Lockwood notices over the door at Wuthering Heights?), this son of Hindley and Frances is born with significant disadvantages. Mom died when he was a baby, and Dad was too busy drinking and being abusive to care. Poor Hareton becomes a victim of everyone else's need for revenge.
Heathcliff treats Hareton just like his Hindley treated Heathcliff – like a laboring, uneducated oaf not deserving of any family privileges. And Hareton is not helped by his resemblance to Catherine. His eyes are an uncanny match to his aunt's, and he looks far more like Catherine than her own daughter does.
Of course, he does become the beneficiary of the novel's happy ending: he gets the girl and the house, and he learns how to read. Hareton manages to transcend his brutal mistreatment and evolves from an illiterate brute into a kind and compassionate friend (and eventually lover) to Cathy Heathcliff. In a sense, Hareton redeems the Earnshaw family by breaking the pattern of abuse with which he was raised, earning back the property, and just being an all-around decent guy. Cathy Heathcliff falls in love with him because she senses that underneath his rough exterior, Hareton feels sympathy. The nature of their love is quite different from Catherine and Heathcliff's. It is characterized not by drama and abuse, but by kindness and serenity. Catherine Linton Heathcliff
Cathy is the only child of Edgar Linton and Catherine Earnshaw Linton. She is a bit of a demanding, headstrong wild child, like her mother. Since she is born the day her mother dies, it's hard not to see her as an extension of Catherine Earnshaw. But Heathcliff doesn't seem to see Cathy that way, and Brontë does not suggest a direct parallel. Catherine Linton is a kinder, gentler version of her mother, thanks in part to her relationship with Edgar, an extremely dedicated father. Though she can be peevish and snobbish, Catherine's generosity and kindness toward Hareton – not to mention her love of the simpering Linton Heathcliff – demonstrate a kind of compassion and selflessness that her mother never had. Edgar Linton
Edgar is basically a decent and faithful guy, which for purposes of the story makes him a little boring. He is in essence, appearance, and stature Heathcliff's opposite; with "light hair and a fair skin" (7.41), Edgar is well-dressed, well-behaved, and rich. Living a pampered life down at Thrushcross Grange, Edgar really doesn't have much to worry about. The first time we see him he is weeping over a puppy, which naturally makes him a big ninny in Heathcliff's eyes. Edgar's attitude toward Heathcliff is one of extreme superiority.
To Catherine he's a blue-eyed golden boy who represents a chance for social elevation. After all, he's rich, a gentleman, a magistrate, and willing to pamper and adore her. Edgar seems to have a masochistic streak, since he falls incurably in love with Catherine after she acts like a huge brat to the servants and hits him. As Nelly puts it, "he possessed the power to depart as much as a cat possesses the power to leave a mouse half killed, or a bird half eaten" (8. 87). Ouch!
Edgar basically walks on eggshells around Catherine while Heathcliff continues to obsess about her. According to Nelly, Edgar displays "a deep-rooted fear of ruffling her [Catherine's] humour" (10.13). In typical fashion, Catherine comes to resent his patience, seeing him as lily-livered compared to his fiercely passionate foil.
In the end, Edgar comes across as sympathetic and compassionate, if weak and a little gullible. Disowning his sister, Isabella, for marrying Heathcliff doesn't earn him any points in our eyes, and he seems like a chump for believing Cathy's marriage to Linton Heathcliff could actually work. Isabella Linton
Isabella is Edgar Linton's pampered and privileged sister whose upbringing stands in sharp contrast to Catherine's. When we first see her, she is fighting over a puppy with Edgar, and she never really grows beyond this adolescent stage. She seems to suffer from a combination of boredom (not a lot to do in Gimmerton) and envy of Catherine.
Her infatuation with Heathcliff comes across as both risky and silly (messing with Catherine's man?). When she marries Heathcliff, she pays dearly by being disowned by Edgar and imprisoned at the Heights by her violent husband. Though we never know for sure, she seems interested in Heathcliff partly because he's a dark and brooding hunk, and partly as a way of competing with Catherine. Then again, there are not many other options for her, unless you count Joseph and Dr. Kenneth.
That she utterly fails to recognize the degree to which Heathcliff is using her (he outright hates her, in fact), speaks to her love of melodrama. Like a fool, she yearns to be with Heathcliff and confesses to Catherine, "I love him more than ever you loved Edgar, and he might love me, if you would let him!" (10.79). For his part, Heathcliff tells Catherine:
And I like her too ill to attempt it [. . .] except in a very ghoulish fashion. You'd hear of odd things if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face: the most ordinary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two: they detestably resemble Linton's. (10.121)
Isabella finally wises up and leaves for London, but not before getting pregnant with Linton Heathcliff, who winds up with both of his parents' worst qualities. Ellen "Nelly" Dean
As Lockwood figures out pretty quickly, Nelly Dean has the inside scoop on the Earnshaw-Linton melodrama. She is trusted by the members of both houses, so she is a pretty good go-to for the story.
At the same time, Nelly has been excommunicated from Wuthering Heights at least two times that we know of. When Heathcliff first arrives as a child, she leaves him on the landing of the stairs and, as she tells Lockwood, "Inquiries were made as to how it got there; I was obliged to confess, and in recompense for my cowardice and inhumanity was sent out of the house" (4.50). She further confesses, "Hindley hated him, and to say the truth I did the same" (4.52).
All of this suggests that the very person we rely upon for the facts was a participant in Heathcliff's childhood humiliations. Though not nearly the brat Hindley was, Heathcliff never earned Nelly's affections, and though they have a few moments of tenderness, Heathcliff basically takes her for the instigator that she is. He later forbids her to remain with young Cathy when she moves to Wuthering Heights, which really angers Nelly. When Heathcliff reaches the climax of his manic behavior, Nelly wonders, "Is he a ghoul, or a vampire?" (24.46) – only to remind herself of the infant he once was and that such musings are absurd.
Another issue to consider is Nelly's reliance upon several other narrators to piece together the story – Isabella, Dr. Kenneth, gossipy villagers, and credulous shepherd boys. While she is a much more useful and informed narrator than Lockwood, she is also flawed, biased, and overly identified with the Lintons, so you have to be careful about her. When Nelly begins narrating to Lockwood, we don't suddenly get the "real story," but rather another representation of the "truth."
It's easy to forget that the novel is Lockwood's journal, which is itself a recording of Nelly's oral narration. Lockwood hopes to find in Nelly a "regular gossip," though she believes herself to be a "steady" and "reasonable" character whose familiarity with books qualifies her as a storyteller. She will indeed provide some clarity to the complicated family tree, but she is no omniscient narrator. By her own confession, she and the other villagers (several of whom fill in the gaps of her story) don't like outsiders, and they have a tendency toward superstition. What's more, Nelly seems to find the whole conflict between the families rather entertaining. Lockwood
Lockwood is our primary narrator, but if you read closely, you can see that his judgment of a situation can be a little off. We soon realize that we will have to be careful about how we interpret this blundering, unreliable agent of information.
From the very beginning, his whole interaction with Heathcliff's dogs (the "hive" of "four-footed fiends" [2.24]), and his mistaken assumptions about who is who in Wuthering Heights, reveal him as something of a bumbler. As a narrator, he is here to tell us what he sees, but also to introduce themes of violation, confusion, and dislocation. (See "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.") After all, his name does suggest a locked door, a reality he faces several times – both literally and metaphorically. He pretty quickly begins to feel "out of place in that pleasant family circle" and clues the reader in that this mixed family unit is no Brady Bunch.
We never know much about Lockwood personally. He does confide to the reader his impulse to "shrink icily into [himself] like a snail" in response to uncomfortable situations (1.16), and we know he chickened out of a relationship with some fine young thing at a seaside vacation town. To know anything about Lockwood, we must either compare his own interpretations with ours (which is hard, since he is our source of information) or evaluate the few actions in which he participates.
One prominent example: Lockwood's response to Catherine's persistent ghost at the window during his eerie night in the oak-paneled bed:
Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes: still it wailed [. . .]. (3.50)
Brutal treatment or quick thinking? Either way, Lockwood seems to be no stranger to violence. He will spend the remainder of the novel trying to comprehend what this scene says about the inhabitants (dead and alive) of Wuthering Heights – and yet he never refers to it again. His cluelessness is confirmed by his return the next day, when he finds him unable to navigate the moors. Perhaps Brontë is telling us that Lockwood is not good at negotiating confusing situations. And let's not forget Lockwood's absurd presumptions about romantic possibilities with Cathy. Really?! Joseph
Joseph is a pious, finger-pointing pain in the neck. A servant at Wuthering Heights, he seems to resent doing any real work. No one really likes him, but he keeps popping up in the background. He spouts all sorts of religious curses and threats, many of which are hard to understand because of his thick Yorkshire accent. And he makes religion look pretty bad. He doesn't seem to lead a very compassionate life; he is harsh and self-righteous, and his strict judgments about everybody going to hell seem like an unappealing alternative to the mystical beauty of the supernatural to which Catherine and Heathcliff are drawn. His only decency is toward Hareton, probably because he knows that Hareton will be master of the Heights someday. Frances Earnshaw
Frances Earnshaw, Hindley's wife, is a strange one. Like Heathcliff, her background is a mystery, though that doesn't seem to bother Hindley, who meets her while he is off at college. She contributes to Heathcliff's mistreatment and clearly has her own set of issues, like a deep fear of dying, which of course happens soon after she arrives at Wuthering Heights. (She suffers from one of those ominous Victorian coughs.) She's not in the novel long, but before she dies she gives birth to Hareton Earnshaw. Mr. Green
Mr. Green is Edgar Linton's lawyer, who sells out to Heathcliff. Instead of securing Edgar's will to prevent Heathcliff from inheriting Thrushcross Grange, he enables Heathcliff to gain control of the property and even comes down personally to kick everyone out. Zillah
Zillah, a "stout housewife" (2.104), is one of the few servants at Wuthering Heights, along with Nelly Dean and Joseph. She's often lurking in the background and serves to fill in some information for Nelly, such as what the hot gossip is in Gimmerton
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The Oak-Paneled Bed
This piece of furniture is the symbolic center of Wuthering Heights – both the novel and the house – and provides the setting for two of the novel's most dramatic events. Residing in Catherine's childhood bedroom, the bed is described by Lockwood in the following terms:
a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top, resembling coach windows. . . . In fact, it formed a little closet, and the ledge of the window, which it enclosed, served as a table. (3.5)
The "ghost story" is set into action the tormented night Lockwood spends in the oak-paneled bed. Before his nightmares, Lockwood sees it as a place where he can feel "secure against the vigilance of Heathcliff and everyone else" (3.6). In this sense, it symbolizes a place of protection, security, and retreat. As Lockwood soon finds out, though, the oak-paneled bed was also a retreat for young Catherine, whose books became impromptu journals as she hid from Hindley some twenty-five years before. Lockwood experiences a haunting series of nightmares in the bed, suggesting that he has violated a hallowed place. Because the space was Catherine's, it is sacred to Heathcliff, who is furious when he finds Lockwood sleeping in his "sanctum."
The supernatural powers that surround the bed become more intense when Heathcliff dies there, transforming the bed into a kind of symbol of a coffin where Heathcliff is finally "reunited" with his love. Where Lockwood tried to keep the bed's window closed, Heathcliff is found dead with the window wide open, almost as though his spirit has escaped. So for both Lockwood and Heathcliff, in very different ways, the bed is a protective boundary and haunted space. Windows, Doors, Thresholds, and Other Boundaries
From the very first pages of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood is anxious to cross the threshold and enter the house, while Heathcliff seems intent on keeping him out. "Even the gate over which [Heathcliff] leant manifested no sympathizing movement […]" (1.6). Lockwood personifies the gate, implying that, like Heathcliff, it does not want to let him in. Even Lockwood's name reflects his failure to gain access. (But since he is not one to pick up on hints, he charges in anyway.)
In his first descriptions of the house, Lockwood observes its unwelcoming architecture: "Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, the corners defended with large, jutting stones" (1.12). Constructed in 1500, this home is clearly designed to be impenetrable. The window in the oak-paneled bed is a critical boundary in the novel, symbolizing a space of violation and violence. Even though Catherine's name is scratched on its surface, the window does not provide entry for her wailing ghost – thanks in large part to Lockwood's lack of sympathy. The bloodshed from Catherine's wrist "rubbed [. . .] to and fro" on the pane suggests that there is profound violence involved in crossing thresholds. Later in the novel, the young Cathy escapes Heathcliff from the same window:
She dare not try the doors, lest the dogs should raise an alarm; she visited the empty chambers, and examined their windows; and luckily, lighting on her mother's, she got easily out of its lattice, and onto the ground by means of the fir tree, close by. (28.66)
Remember that same fir-bough scratching on the window as Lockwood emerged from his nightmare?
There are numerous incidents in which the two houses are referred to as prisons and their inhabitants as prisoners. When domestic harmony finally returns to Wuthering Heights at the novel's end, Lockwood finds that the whole prison vibe is gone:
"I had neither to climb the gate, nor to knock it yielded to my hand [. . . ]. Both doors and lattices were open [. . .] what inmates there were had stationed themselves not far from one of the windows. I could see them and hear them talk before I entered, and looked and listened in consequence, being moved thereto by a mingled sense of curiosity and envy that grew as I lingered. (32.26)
Obviously, Lockwood is still a major snoop; the problems caused by his past boundary violations do not hinder him from imposing himself yet again.
Throughout the novel, characters gaze and spy through windows, open windows, or break them. Not surprisingly, the large drawing room window of Thrushcross Grange appears ample and cheery compared to windows at Wuthering Heights. Rather than being "narrow" and "deeply set," it provides accessible views out onto the garden and green valley and, conversely, into the home's interior.
When Catherine and Heathcliff venture out to spy on Edgar and Isabella, the drawing room window provides a view onto a different world – one that eventually welcomes Catherine but rejects Heathcliff. Thrown out of Thrushcross Grange (as he will be many more times), Heathcliff is left to make his observations through the glass partition: "I resumed my station as a spy, because, if Catherine had wished to return, I intended shattering their great glass panes to a million fragments unless they let her out" (6.39). The many symbolic meanings of windows extend even to Heathcliff's appearance, as Nelly describes his eyes as "a couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly" (7.42). Again, windows prevent rather than provide access. Doubles and Opposites
What's with all of the doubles and opposites in the novel? Wuthering Heights versus Thrushcross Grange, civilization versus nature, Edgar Linton versus Heathcliff are just some of the oppositions. The family tree is very symmetrical, but the families blend and the opposition between the houses becomes less clearly distinct. Among the novel's many doubles, Catherine and Heathcliff are the most important. Their love is based on being spiritual twins. Recall Catherine's confession to Nelly Dean that she can't marry Heathcliff because, as she explains, "he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire" (9.92). She concludes with one of the most memorable lines in the novel: "Nelly, I am Heathcliff" (9.101).
Heathcliff is not Catherine's only double – there's also her daughter, the other Catherine, better known as Cathy. All of these names can get really confusing, leading you to wonder – couldn't they come up with any new names?! There are many Lintons and Earnshaws, even several characters with the name Heathcliff, though only one goes exclusively by Heathcliff (like Prince or Madonna). There are two Hareton Earnshaws, though one from way back in 1500.
Heathcliff has another double too: Hareton Earnshaw. Both were placed into a servile position and deprived of an education by the ruthless master of the house. Just how vengeful Heathcliff is comes out with Hareton, because rather than feeling compassion that the young man has no sympathetic father figure, Heathcliff repeats the same crummy treatment on Hareton that he received from Hareton's father, Hindley.
Among the many examples of repetition in the plot, the scenes with the two Catherines and their respective suitors, Edgar Linton and Linton Heathcliff, reveal that mother and daughter are both feisty and self-indulgent. Let's briefly look at the repetition in two scenes.
In the first, Catherine boxes Edgar Linton on the ear. When he tries to leave Wuthering Heights, she becomes a master manipulator, shouting, "No . . . not yet, Edgar Linton – sit down; you shall not leave me in that temper. I should be miserable all night, and I won't be miserable for you!"(8.77). Moments later, Edgar proposes marriage and Catherine accepts.
Roughly twenty years later, Cathy pushes Linton Heathcliff after a fight about their parents. Though Cathy apologizes, she also blames him, just like her mother blamed Edgar. She does not want to leave Wuthering Heights carrying the blame for the scene: "Don't let me go home thinking I've done you harm!" (23.49). Daughter, like mother, cannot control her temper and yet does not want to bear any of the responsibility. Nature, Weather, and the Moors
The wild and desolate moors are set against the drama unfolding in the two houses. But as much as there is a nature versus culture theme going on here, Wuthering Heights (the house) is very much associated with nature, and so it can't really be put in neat opposition to it. As Lockwood explains at the novel's opening, "Wuthering" is "a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather"(1.12). Translation: bring a jacket.
But the moors mean different things to different people. To Lockwood, the moors serve as a confusing expanse that's almost impossible to navigate on his own. The moors confuse him, especially when it snows. He sees them as "one billowy white, ocean" (4.101) full of pits, depressions, rises, and deep swamps. The boggy parts of the moors can mean death for some people. When Heathcliff imprisons Nelly and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, he spreads a rumor in Gimmerton that the two had "sunk in the Blackhorse marsh" and that he had rescued them (28.2).
But as much as the moors represent threat and menace, they are also full of mystery and mysticism. They are a source of comfort and a respite from the prison-like atmosphere of Wuthering Heights. To Catherine and Heathcliff, the moors exist as a supernatural, liberating, and boundaryless region. For them, the ultimate freedom is associated with wandering on the moors. They often describe their love and their own individual identities through metaphors of nature. Catherine's dying wish to be released on to the moors reinforces Heathcliff's analogy of Catherine as an oak contained by the strictures of Thrushcross Grange:
[Catherine:] "I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy […] I'm sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. Open the window again wide […]." (12.46)
Both Catherine and Heathcliff have an intense identification with the unruliness and brutality of nature. Catherine justifies her marriage to Edgar Linton using comparisons to the natural world:
"My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary." (9.101)
Heathcliff's appearance draws endless comparisons to nature. It is "bleak, hilly, coal country" to Linton's "fertile valley" (8.53). Brontë does not set up a neat opposition between nature and civilization, though. First of all, life at the Heights is not exactly civilized; second, the very name of the house reflects its surroundings.
Like her mother, Cathy yearns to escape the confines of the house and play on the moors. Hareton slowly earns her trust by giving her a guided tour of some of the natural features of the surrounding countryside. "He opened the mysteries of the Fairy cave, and twenty other queer places […]" (8.85). Dogs
There are dogs all over this novel, and they actually play a pretty big role in propelling the plot. Like the Lintons and Earnshaws, the dogs are all related. Dogs figure in several major scenes and tend to be symbolically linked to Heathcliff. For example, when Lockwood tries to enter Wuthering Heights at the beginning of the novel, he finds not only several locked gates but also a pack of dogs preventing entry. "[T]wo hairy monsters" (3.101) with the names Gnasher and Wolf attack Lockwood, their lack of hospitality seeming to reflect that of their master. But Lockwood doesn't get the hint.
When Catherine and Heathcliff take their pivotal journey down to Thrushcross Grange, they share a glimpse of the sniveling Linton children fighting over a dog (6.37). When Catherine is bit by Skulker, one of the Lintons' dogs, she is compelled to stay at the Grange to recuperate, which changes her relationship to Heathcliff forever. Finally, let's not forget Heathcliff's treatment of Isabella's springer, Fanny. As they elope from Thrushcross Grange, Heathcliff uses a handkerchief to hang the dog by his neck on a bridle hook – definitely some foreshadowing of the treatment his new bride will receive. Houses
Well, we know by the book's title that houses are pretty important here. Heathcliff's entire revenge plot is tied up in gaining ownership of the two houses. Even though Wuthering Heights is a love story, it's the houses that Heathcliff is determined to get possession of; his plan is not to win Catherine back or steal her away from Edgar Linton.
Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are in many ways set in opposition to each another. (See "Doubles and Opposites," above) The Heights lacks hospitality and domestic comforts: chairs lurk, meats hang from the ceiling, and the kitchen, like unwelcome guests, is "forced to retreat altogether" (1.14). "Wuthering," as Lockwood tells us, is "descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather" (1.12). Thrushcross Grange, on the other hand, represents refinement, class, cultivation, and propriety. It's the house Catherine aspires to socially, the house that will make her a "lady." The Heights sits exposed on a stormy hilltop, but the Grange is calm and protected down in the valley.
With all the crazy intermixing that goes on in the novel, though, these neat thematic oppositions start to get confused. When the novel opens we learn that Heathcliff owns both houses. But when Lockwood notices that the inscription over the doors reads "Hareton Earnshaw," we know that the family has lost the house; the laws of inheritance have been violated. (Remember, even though Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw, he was never named Heathcliff Earnshaw). Figuring out how this happened becomes one of our goals as a reader.