Wuthering Heights (1847) is Emily Brontë’s only novel, which was published under her pseudonym Ellis Bell. After Emily died of tuberculosis in 1848, her sister Charlotte edited the manuscript of Wuthering Heights so that an edited, posthumous second edition was published in 1850.
Much like her sister Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily’s Wuthering Heights received a controversial reputation after its first release. The novel polarized readers and reviewers because of its stark representation of depravity and cruelty. It also challenged Victorian ideals including morality, social classes, and gender equality.
In the preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë recognizes the harsh nature of the novel and its characters, and sets this down to the novel’s realistic portrayal of “the rusticity of Wuthering Heights… It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of a heath” (li). She goes on to analyze the character of Heathcliff, who she notes is “unredeemed” by the end of the novel (liii). She adds that Heathcliff’s “one solitary human feeling” can be found in his esteem for Hareton Earnshaw and his “half-implied esteem” for Nelly Dean (ibid.).
These solitary traits omitted, we should say he was child neither of Lascar nor gipsy, but a man’s shape animated by demon life- a Ghoul- an Afreet. 1 (liii)
Perhaps Charlotte spent so much time in the prologue to describe the evils present in the novel in the guise of Heathcliff, as well as the “wild” nature of the novel itself, in order to counter the arguments that Wuthering Heights was an immoral book. Instead, Charlotte frames it as a realistic novel that provides counterexamples to Heathcliff’s evil nature through the figures of Nelly Dean and Edgar Linton. Through her reading of WH, it becomes a novel that can be learned from, as well as a novel that allows its readers to safely journey to the wild and rustic atmosphere of the moors.
Because much of the story is related by Nelly Dean to Lockwood, the narrative often jumps back and forward through time.
The novel opens in 1801, when a wealthy though somewhat introverted young man named Lockwood arrives at Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire, the home he rents from Heathcliff in order to retire from the busy world and enjoy some peace. He almost immediately visits Heathcliff, his landlord who lives in the moorland farmhouse known as Wuthering Heights nearby. Lockwood finds Heathcliff to be very gruff and uncouth. He also meets Catherine Heathcliff, Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law, and Hareton Earnshaw, Heathcliff’s nephew. Although a member of the family, Hareton strangely dresses and behaves like a servant. After getting snowed in, Lockwood must stay the night at Wuthering Heights. He is placed (without Heathcliff’s knowledge) in a small bedroom, which turns out to be the late Catherine Lipton’s room. After finding trace’s of Catherine’s former presence, Lockwood sees Catherine’s ghost outside of the window, begging to be let in, but this may have been just a dream. When Heathcliff later excitedly inspects the window, he doesn’t see Catherine.
On Lockwood’s return home through the snow, he gets lost after Heathcliff leaves him. He becomes sick due to his time in the cold, so he becomes bedridden. The Grange’s housekeeper, Nelly Dean, agrees to tell him the story of Heathcliff and the Heights while he is recuperating.
Thirty years prior to Lockwood’s arrival, the owner of Wuthering Heights was Mr. Earnshaw. One night, after a visit to Liverpool, he meets a young homeless boy, who he adopts and names “Heathcliff.” Although Earnshaw’s daughter becomes fast friends with Heathcliff, Earnshaw’s son Hindley becomes jealous of Heathcliff for taking over all of his father’s love.
Once Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes the landowner and master of Wuthering Heights. He allows Heathcliff to stay, but treats him as a servant. One day, Heathcliff and Catherine sneak over to the Grange to spy on the two Linton children, Edgar and Isabella. They are caught, and Catherine is taken into the house to recuperate after she is attacked by the family dog, but Heathcliff is immediately sent home. The Lintons are landed gentry and refuse to view Heathcliff as their (or Catherine’s) equal. When Catherine returns to the Heights, she is completely changed, and behaves much more like a lady. Hindley’s wife Frances gives birth to a son named Hareton, but she dies soon after and Hindley descends into drunkenness and violence. Catherine and Edgar grow closer and soon announce that they are lovers. Edgar eventually proposes to Catherine and she accepts, however, she admits to Nelly, her housemaid, that her love for Edgar is not equal to her love for Heathcliff, who she feels she cannot marry because of his lack of education and low social status. Heathcliff overhears the second part of her confession (not that she loves him) and runs away. Catherine marries Edgar and moves to the Grange. After six months being gone, Heathcliff returns as a wealthy gentleman. He elopes with Isabella, Edgar’s younger sister, as a way to seek revenge against Edgar. Heathcliff and Isabella live at the Heights, where Isabella is gravely mistreated, and Heathcliff purposefully miseducates Hareton as another means of revenge. Catherine is pregnant with Edgar’s child, but fatally sick. After he hears that Catherine is dying, Heathcliff urges Nelly to sneak him into her bedroom. After his secret visit, Catherine dies. Heathcliff sneaks in again to view Catherine’s body one last time, and replaces Edgar’s lock of hair with his own lock in a necklace Catherine wears. Nelly corrects this, intertwining both locks of hair.
After the funeral, Isabella runs away from Heathcliff and gives birth to their son, Linton. Soon after, Hindley also dies and leaves Heathcliff to become the master of the Heights.
Twelve years later, Catherine’s daughter, Cathy, has grown up and yearns to see the world outside of the Grange, but Edgar is too protective of Cathy to risk the chance of her running into Heathcliff. Isabella sends a letter to Edgar to tell him that she is dying and she begs him to take in her son as his own, to prevent Heathcliff from raising him. Edgar heartily accepts, but once the fragile boy appears at the Grange, Heathcliff immediately summons him to the Heights, where Linton is treated coldly, but is given an education and raised as a gentleman. A few years later, Heathcliff’s plot to have Linton marry Catherine comes to fruition. Knowing that Linton was sickly and would soon die, Heathcliff desires the marriage so that he would eventually inherit both the Heights and the Grange. After luring Cathy and Nelly to the Grange, he holds them both captive until Cathy marries Linton. After their marriage, Cathy escapes just in time to see her father before he dies. Soon after that, Linton dies and Heathcliff becomes mater of all.
Back in the present day of 1801, Lockwood considers marrying Catherine, however, she coldly rebukes any kind word he makes towards her. He decides that he has grown tired of the moors and leaves.
Eight months later, Lockwood happens to be in the area and stops by the Grange to catch up with Nelly, but he discovers that she now lives in the Heights. While he was gone, Hareton and Cathy became close and plan to marry on New Years’ Day. Heathcliff, after having visions of his Catherine asking him to join her, stopped eating and, after four days, died in Catherine’s old bedroom. He was buried next to Catherine.
Notes & Quotes
- After he sets his mind on revenge, Heathcliff is described throughout the novel as monstrous. In particular, he is repeatedly described as having characteristics that are traditional aspects of the vampire. Catherine also, on her deathbed and beyond, is described as if she were a vampire. After a quick online search, it seems like most readers are aware of Catherine’s potential status as a vampire, but I don’t see much on Heathcliff. Despite this, there is a ton of vampiric symptoms exhibited by Heathcliff:
- His control of angry, brutal dogs (a “herd of possessed swine” (7), or “two hairy monsters” (17) according to Lockwood )
- Heathcliff has some general monstrous and gothic characteristics, including the fact that Lockwood’s introduction to the Heights and Heathcliff takes on some elements of the Bluebeard plot. When Zillah leads him to Catherine’s bedroom, she shares that,
…I should hide the candle, and not make a noise, for her master had an odd notion about the chamber she would put me in, and never let anybody lodge there willingly. (19)
- When Heathcliff visits Catherine for the last time before her death, he hugs her and refuses to let her go in what seems like a fatal embrace:
…and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive…on my approaching to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species… (162)
- Isabella’s description of Heathcliff trying to get into their home after visiting Catherine paints him as a vampire. This repeats Lockwood’s vision of Catherine trying to get inside the Heights. It also fits the belief that vampires must be welcomed into the home in order to gain entry. This description also takes on a distinctly racial tone (“black countenance” and “sharp cannibal teeth”). :
…his black countenance looked slightingly through. The stanchions stood too close to suffer his shoulders to follow; and I smiled, exulting in my fancied security. His hair and clothes were whitened with snow, and his sharp cannibal teeth, revealed by cold and wrath, gleamed through the dark. (178)
- Near the end of the novel, Heathcliff tells Catherine the violence his presence plays on Hareton’s nerves:
…since then, my presence is as potent on his nerves as a ghost; and I fancy he sees me often, though I am not near.
- Heathcliff dies after he starves himself because he had visions of Catherine’s return. As he wastes away, Nelly Dean tries to get him to eat and sleep:
“…You need only take a look at yourself, in a glass, to see how you require both (food and sleep). Your cheeks are hollow, and your eyes blood-shot, like a person starving with hunger, and going blind with loss of sleep.” (333)
- When Nelly Dean looks on Heathcliff’s corpse, she can’t tell if he’s really dead or not. She also brings up his sharp teeth once more:
Mr. Heathcliff was there- laid on his back. His eyes met mine so keen, and fierce, I started: then, he seemed to smile. I could not think him dead- but his face and throat were washed with rain; the bed-clothes dripped, and he was perfectly still. The lattice, flapping to and fro, had grazed one hand that rested on the sill- no blood trickled from the broken skin, and when I put my fingers to it, I could doubt no more- he was dead and started… I combed his black long hair from his forehead; I tried to close his eyes- to extinguish, if possible, that frightful, life-like gaze of exultation, before any one else beheld it. They would not shut- they seemed to sneer at my attempts, and his parted lips, and sharp, white teeth sneered too! (335)
- This brings us to Catherine-as-vampire. Heathcliff ceases sleeping and eating food only after he has visions of her return. Perhaps it is Catherine who is the vampire, rather than Heathcliff. When Catherine first grows ill, she appears pale, with blood on her lips (118). Catherine becomes obsessed with staring at herself in the mirror, and she later claims to see a face in the mirror, which Nelly Dean cannot see (123). Nelly also notices Catherine’s newfound strength in her illness: “her delirious strength much surpassed mine” (126).
- Near the end of the novel, Heathcliff repeatedly has visions of Catherine after he had her unburied by a sexton:
“…I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again- it is hers yet- he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change, if the air blew on it… she has disturbed me, night and day through eighteen years- incessantly-remorcelessly-till yesternight- and yesternight, I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep, by that sleeper, with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.” (289)
- Finally, when Lockwood first visits the Heights and sleeps in Catherine’s former room, he imagines that he sees her begging to be let in. According to vampire lore, the vampire must be welcomed in in order to gain entry into the home.
- I think it’s really interesting to compare Heathcliff-as-vampire to Dracula. Dracula might be read as a monstrous character representative of the old world and aristocratic money. Heathcliff might be said to represent the exact opposite. Heathcliff resists clear categorization for numerous reasons: his birth is unknown, as is his race and class, and he changes his social standing multiple times throughout the novel. After he disappears, he returns a wealthy (and, presumably, a) self-made man. There is a lot of anxiety throughout the novel regarding whether or not a person’s exterior matches their interior. Heathcliff is a master at not only changing his own appearance, but that of others, such as Hareton. Heathcliff’s social mobility, therefore, is absolutely part of his monstrous persona, whereas Dracula’s inherited position is part of his. That being said, both feed off of the British gentry.
- An afreet is a powerful jinn or demon, according to Arabian and Muslim mythology. ↩
Wuthering Heights (1847) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.