Analysis of Major Characters
Wuthering Heights centers around the story of Heathcliff. The first paragraph of the novel provides a vivid physical picture of him, as Lockwood describes how his “black eyes” withdraw suspiciously under his brows at Lockwood’s approach. Nelly’s story begins with his introduction into the Earnshaw family, his vengeful machinations drive the entire plot, and his death ends the book. The desire to understand him and his motivations has kept countless readers engaged in the novel.
Heathcliff, however, defies being understood, and it is difficult for readers to resist seeing what they want or expect to see in him. The novel teases the reader with the possibility that Heathcliff is something other than what he seems—that his cruelty is merely an expression of his frustrated love for Catherine, or that his sinister behaviors serve to conceal the heart of a romantic hero. We expect Heathcliff’s character to contain such a hidden virtue because he resembles a hero in a romance novel. Traditionally, romance novel heroes appear dangerous, brooding, and cold at first, only later to emerge as fiercely devoted and loving. One hundred years before Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, the notion that “a reformed rake makes the best husband” was already a cliché of romantic literature, and romance novels center around the same cliché to this day.
However, Heathcliff does not reform, and his malevolence proves so great and long-lasting that it cannot be adequately explained even as a desire for revenge against Hindley, Catherine, Edgar, etc. As he himself points out, his abuse of Isabella is purely sadistic, as he amuses himself by seeing how much abuse she can take and still come cringing back for more. Critic Joyce Carol Oates argues that Emily Brontë does the same thing to the reader that Heathcliff does to Isabella, testing to see how many times the reader can be shocked by Heathcliff’s gratuitous violence and still, masochistically, insist on seeing him as a romantic hero.
It is significant that Heathcliff begins his life as a homeless orphan on the streets of Liverpool. When Brontë composed her book, in the 1840s, the English economy was severely depressed, and the conditions of the factory workers in industrial areas like Liverpool were so appalling that the upper and middle classes feared violent revolt. Thus, many of the more affluent members of society beheld these workers with a mixture of sympathy and fear. In literature, the smoky, threatening, miserable factory-towns were often represented in religious terms, and compared to hell. The poet William Blake, writing near the turn of the nineteenth century, speaks of England’s “dark Satanic Mills.” Heathcliff, of course, is frequently compared to a demon by the other characters in the book.
Considering this historical context, Heathcliff seems to embody the anxieties that the book’s upper- and middle-class audience had about the working classes. The reader may easily sympathize with him when he is powerless, as a child tyrannized by Hindley Earnshaw, but he becomes a villain when he acquires power and returns to Wuthering Heights with money and the trappings of a gentleman. This corresponds with the ambivalence the upper classes felt toward the lower classes—the upper classes had charitable impulses toward lower-class citizens when they were miserable, but feared the prospect of the lower classes trying to escape their miserable circumstances by acquiring political, social, cultural, or economic power.
The location of Catherine’s coffin symbolizes the conflict that tears apart her short life. She is not buried in the chapel with the Lintons. Nor is her coffin placed among the tombs of the Earnshaws. Instead, as Nelly describes in Chapter XVI, Catherine is buried “in a corner of the kirkyard, where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor.” Moreover, she is buried with Edgar on one side and Heathcliff on the other, suggesting her conflicted loyalties. Her actions are driven in part by her social ambitions, which initially are awakened during her first stay at the Lintons’, and which eventually compel her to marry Edgar. However, she is also motivated by impulses that prompt her to violate social conventions—to love Heathcliff, throw temper tantrums, and run around on the moor.
Isabella Linton—Catherine’s sister-in-law and Heathcliff’s wife, who was born in the same year that Catherine was—serves as Catherine’s foil. The two women’s parallel positions allow us to see their differences with greater clarity. Catherine represents wild nature, in both her high, lively spirits and her occasional cruelty, whereas Isabella represents culture and civilization, both in her refinement and in her weakness.
Just as Isabella Linton serves as Catherine’s foil, Edgar Linton serves as Heathcliff’s. Edgar is born and raised a gentleman. He is graceful, well-mannered, and instilled with civilized virtues. These qualities cause Catherine to choose Edgar over Heathcliff and thus to initiate the contention between the men. Nevertheless, Edgar’s gentlemanly qualities ultimately prove useless in his ensuing rivalry with Heathcliff. Edgar is particularly humiliated by his confrontation with Heathcliff in Chapter XI, in which he openly shows his fear of fighting Heathcliff. Catherine, having witnessed the scene, taunts him, saying, “Heathcliff would as soon lift a finger at you as the king would march his army against a colony of mice.” As the reader can see from the earliest descriptions of Edgar as a spoiled child, his refinement is tied to his helplessness and impotence.
Charlotte Brontë, in her preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, refers to Edgar as “an example of constancy and tenderness,” and goes on to suggest that her sister Emily was using Edgar to point out that such characteristics constitute true virtues in all human beings, and not just in women, as society tended to believe. However, Charlotte’s reading seems influenced by her own feminist agenda. Edgar’s inability to counter Heathcliff’s vengeance, and his naïve belief on his deathbed in his daughter’s safety and happiness, make him a weak, if sympathetic, character.
· Wuthering Heights
· Emily Brontë
Type of Work
· Gothic novel (designed to both horrify and fascinate readers with scenes of passion and cruelty; supernatural elements; and a dark, foreboding atmosphere); also realist fiction (incorporates vivid circumstantial detail into a consistently and minutely thought-out plot, dealing mostly with the relationships of the characters to one another)
· English (including bits of Yorkshire dialect)
Time and place written
· In 1846–7, Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights in the parsonage of the isolated village of Haworth, in Yorkshire.
Date of First Publication
· Thomas C. Newby
· Lockwood, a newcomer to the locale of Wuthering Heights, narrates the entire novel as an entry in his diary. The story that Lockwood records is told to him by Nelly, a servant, and Lockwood writes most of the narrative in her voice, describing how she told it to him. Some parts of Nelly’s story are narrated by other characters, such as when Nelly receives a letter from Isabella and recites its contents verbatim.
Point of View
· Most of the events of the novel are narrated in Nelly’s voice, from Nelly’s point of view, focusing only on what Nelly can see and hear, or what she can find out about indirectly. Nelly frequently comments on what the other characters think and feel, and on what their motivations are, but these comments are all based on her own interpretations of the other characters—she is not an omniscient narrator.
· It is not easy to infer the author’s attitude toward the events of the novel. The melodramatic quality of the first half of the novel suggests that Brontë views Catherine and Heathcliff’s doomed love as a tragedy of lost potential and wasted passion. However, the outcome of the second half of the novel suggests that Brontë is more interested in celebrating the renewal and rebirth brought about by the passage of time, and the rise of a new generation, than she is in mourning Heathcliff and Catherine.
· Both Lockwood’s and Nelly’s narrations are in the past tense.
· The action of Nelly’s story begins in the 1770s; Lockwood leaves Yorkshire in 1802.
· All the action of Wuthering Heights takes place in or around two neighboring houses on the Yorkshire moors—Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
· Heathcliff, Catherine
· Heathcliff’s great natural abilities, strength of character, and love for Catherine Earnshaw all enable him to raise himself from humble beginnings to the status of a wealthy gentleman, but his need to revenge himself for Hindley’s abuse and Catherine’s betrayal leads him into a twisted life of cruelty and hatred; Catherine is torn between her love for Heathcliff and her desire to be a gentlewoman, and her decision to marry the genteel Edgar Linton drags almost all of the novel’s characters into conflict with Heathcliff.
· Heathcliff’s arrival at Wuthering Heights, Hindley’s abusive treatment of Heathcliff, and Catherine’s first visit to Thrushcross Grange set the major conflicts in motion; once Heathcliff hears Cathy say it would “degrade” her to marry him, the conversation between Nelly and Cathy, which he secretly overhears, drives him to run away and pursue his vengeance.
· Catherine’s death is the culmination of the conflict between herself and Heathcliff and removes any possibility that their conflict could be resolved positively; after Catherine’s death, Heathcliff merely extends and deepens his drives toward revenge and cruelty.
· Heathcliff destroys Isabella and drives her away, takes possession of young Linton, forces Catherine and Linton to marry, inherits Thrushcross Grange, then loses interest in the whole project and dies; Hareton and young Catherine are to be engaged to be married, promising an end to the cycle of revenge.
· The destructiveness of a love that never changes; the precariousness of social class
· Doubles, repetition, the conflict between nature and culture
· The moors, ghosts
· Lockwood’s initial visit to Wuthering Heights, in which the mysterious relationships and lurking resentments between the characters create an air of mystery; Lockwood’s ghostly nightmares, during the night he spends in Catherine’s old bed, prefigure many of the events of the rest of the novel.