Who or what does Heathcliff represent in Wuthering Heights? Is he a force of evil or a victim of it and how important is the role of class in the novel, particularly as it relates to Heathcliff and his life?
The 'moral ambiguity, glamour and degradation that is Heathcliff' (same as below) forms the ultimate focus for the novel Wuthering Heights, beginning as Heathcliff is brought into the Earnshaw family, with his evil machinations completely driving the story and his death marking the conclusion of the novel. Throughout Bronte's work he is portrayed as a strong figure who remains mysterious, magnetic and charismatic, keeping countless readers engaged throughout centuries through the desire to understand both Heathcliff's character and his motivations. Tortured, brooding, passionate and dark, Heathcliff is undoubtedly the embodiment of the Byronic hero, i.e. a self-destructive anti-hero who is isolated from society, much like Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre or, more recently, Edward Cullen from the Twilight series. While his actions throughout the novel are neither likeable, nor condonable, they are driven by passion, an emotion synonymous with a typical literary hero and this, alongside his torturous love for Cathy, means that readers cannot help but feel empathy for him, bringing them closer to Heathcliff than any other character in the novel. Wuthering Heights provoked a good deal of anxiety when published, most of which was caused by the character of Heathcliff. The Examiner felt outraged by the mixture of affection and loathing he inspired, and even Emily's sister, Charlotte felt 'hard put to justify Heathcliff's 'repulsiveness' and was forced onto the defensive. The creation of Heathcliff, she conceded, may not have been advisable.' (Cambridge companion to the Bronte's, page 166)
Not solely a Byronic hero, Heathcliff is also seen to be a 'nightmarish manifestation of subtler fears about self-making gone too far'. (Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture p. 13) Heathcliff is the epitome of a self-made man, rising from a degraded and abused orphan on the streets of Liverpool to a man of property, wealth, success and culture, a man 'in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire' (Wuthering Heights p.21) a mere twenty five years later. This climb to wealth fundamentally embodies the anxieties that upper and middle class Victorians possessed regarding the working
classes. The upper classes were very ambivalent about the people below them socially; feeling charitable towards the lower-classes, yet weary of the idea that they may escape their circumstances through the acquisition of power, be it political, social, economic or cultural. The role of class in the novel is something of a constant struggle for Heathcliff, as although he manages to obtain property and therefore wealth, he can never change his appearance, which implies more socially than his wealth ever can. For even as Lockwood notes his gentlemanly appearance, he also recognises Heathcliff as a 'dark-skinned gipsy in aspect' (Wuthering Heights p.21), showing how his ethnic background presents an unusual contrast to his master of the house image, and how he can never truly escape his social standing. This social standing has an enormous effect on the character of Heathcliff and his life as the novel progresses. Rescued from the streets of Liverpool, Heathcliff enters the Earnshaw household a poor orphan, which automatically deems him to be on a lower level than any other character. He is immediately characterised as a 'villain', 'imp of Satan', with a language of 'gibberish' (Wuthering Heights) and is cruelly referred to as "it" by Catherine's father, seen as an object rather than a person. This poor treatment is not much of an improvement on his difficult childhood and it is clear to see that he becomes a product of this neglect and abuse. Racially different, Heathcliff can and will never be accepted by...
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