Wuthering Heights

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Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Emily Brontë


First published in 1847, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights ranks high on the list of major works of English literature. A brooding tale of passion and revenge set in the Yorkshire moors, the novel has inspired no fewer than four film versions in modern times. Early critics did not like the work, citing its excess of passion and its coarseness. A second edition was published in 1850, two years after the author's death. Sympathetically prefaced by her sister Charlotte, it met with greater success, and the novel has continued to grow in stature ever since. In the novel a pair of narrators, Mr. Lockwood and Nelly Dean, relate the story of the foundling Heathcliff's arrival at Wuthering Heights, and the close-knit bond he forms with his benefactor's daughter, Catherine Earnshaw. One in spirit, they are nonetheless social unequals, and the saga of frustrated yearning and destruction that follows Catherine's refusal to marry Heathcliff is unique in the English canon. The novel is admired not least for the power of its imagery, its complex structure, and its ambiguity, the very elements that confounded its first critics. Emily Brontë spent her short life mostly at home, and apart from her own fertile imagination, she drew her inspiration from the local landscape—the surrounding moorlands and the regional architecture of the Yorkshire area—as well as her personal experience of religion, of folklore, and of illness and death. Dealing with themes of nature, cruelty, social position, and indestructibility of the spirit, Wuthering Heights has surpassed the more successful Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in academic and popular circles.

Author Biography

Emily Jane Brontë was born on July 30, 1818, to Maria Branwell and the Reverend Patrick Brontë, in Thornton, Yorkshire, England. She was the fifth of six children, and the fourth daughter. The family moved to a parsonage in Haworth in 1820, and following the death of Maria Brontë in 1821, the children's maternal aunt came to care for them. In 1825 Emily was sent to join her sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte at school, but after an epidemic at the school claimed the lives of Maria and Elizabeth, Emily and Charlotte returned home. Emily would remain at home for the next ten years. In 1826 Patrick Brontë gave his children a set of toy soldiers, and the children began to make up stories about them. A realm in Africa, called Angria, was largely the inspiration of Charlotte and brother Branwell, but soon Emily and Anne had invented the Pacific Island of Gondal, which would figure in poems and stories they wrote throughout their lives. Emily was uncomfortable with outsiders and made only brief, intermittent attempts to construct a life for herself away from the parsonage. An unsuccessful experiment as Charlotte's pupil in East Yorkshire that began in 1835 ended after a year. She was similarly ill-suited for a position as assistant teacher at Law Hill School near Halifax. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily traveled to Brussels, Belgium, intending to study languages, but returned home later that year because of the death of their aunt, who had left them what money she had.

In 1845 Charlotte discovered a private notebook of Emily's poems and persuaded her to publish a selection of them. Emily reluctantly agreed, and a volume of poetry that included "Remembrance," "The Prisoner," "The Philosopher," and "Stars" appeared in 1846. It sold only two copies, but one critic was flattering. Wuthering Heights appeared in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell and was panned by contemporary critics, who objected to its coarseness and brutality. In contrast, Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre, published the same year, was a runaway success. Emily produced one further poem in 1846; Wuthering Heights was her only novel. In 1848 Branwell Brontë died, in part owing to his dissolute ways, which were a source of constant concern to his sisters. Emily caught cold at his funeral and developed tuberculosis. Refusing to seek medical treatment, she died on December 19, 1848.

The lack of biographical material about Emily Brontë makes her an enigmatic figure and her work difficult to evaluate. The poems, in particular, suffer from a lack of context, and ambiguous punctuation. Although the poems are often clumsy, they show flashes of the same originality that makes Wuthering Heights so compelling. Emily Brontë did not know success during her lifetime, but despite the initial failure of Wuthering Heights, she has proved a giant among writers.

Plot Summary

Part I—Childhood

Set on the Yorkshire moors of England, Wuthering Heights opens with the comments of Mr. Lockwood, the newly arrived tenant of Thrushcross Grange. He tells of his visit to Wuthering Heights, where he encounters his landlord and neighbor, Mr. Heathcliff; Joseph, Heathcliff's pious and surly old servant; Hareton Earnshaw, an ignorant and impoverished young man; and the beautiful Catherine Heathcliff, widow of Heathcliff's dead son. Rough weather forces Lockwood to spend the night. He finds several old books, the margins of which had been used as a childhood diary by Catherine Earnshaw, mother to the current Catherine. Perusing these pages, Lockwood learns about the childhood adventures of Heathcliff and the first Catherine, and of their oppression by Catherine's brother, Hindley. Lockwood falls into a restless sleep, punctuated by nightmares in which the first Catherine Earnshaw comes to the bedroom window and begs to be let in. He awakes screaming, and in so doing he wakes Heathcliff, who opens the window and begs Catherine to come again. At sunrise Heathcliff escorts Lockwood back to Thrushcross Grange.

The next day, Lockwood, finding himself sick, persuades the servant, Nelly Dean, to sit and talk with him. She relates how she grew up at Wuthering Heights, and she tells how one night Mr. Earnshaw brought home the mysterious boy, Heathcliff, whom he had found starving in Liverpool. Mr. Earnshaw favors Heathcliff, causing his son Hindley to hate the interloper, but Heathcliff and the first Catherine become fast friends. Hindley is sent off to college, but after Mr. Earnshaw's death he returns with a wife and becomes master of Wuthering Heights. Under Hindley's tyranny, Catherine and Heathcliff grow closer and more mischievous, their favorite pastime being to wander the moors. On one such excursion they are caught looking in the windows of Thrushcross Grange, and Catherine is bitten by a bulldog and has to stay at the Grange for five weeks. Hindley, meanwhile, forbids Heathcliff to have further contact with Catherine.

Catherine returns much changed. She now dresses and acts like a lady, and she has befriended Edgar and Isabella Linton, the siblings who live at the Grange. Heathcliff feels her neglect sharply, and Catherine feels torn between loyalty to her old friend and attraction to her new companions. Hindley's new wife, Frances, gives birth to a son, Hareton, and dies of consumption, and Hindley starts drinking and becomes even more tyrannical. Heathcliff is deprived of all education and is forced to labor as one of the servants of the Heights. When Edgar proposes to Catherine, she accepts, but tells Nelly that she would never have done so if her brother had not turned Heathcliff into someone it would disgrace her to marry. Heathcliff overhears this comment and flees Wuthering Heights before she goes on to explain to Nelly the depth of her feelings for Heathcliff:

"I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I am well aware, as winter changes the trees—my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he is 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, do not talk of our separation again."

Part II—Marriage and Death

Catherine and Edgar are married and seem happy, until Heathcliff returns, mysteriously wealthy and educated. He takes up residence at Wuthering Heights, where he gambles Hindley out of all his possessions. Heathcliff quickly resumes his acquaintance with Catherine, to her delight and Edgar's annoyance. Isabella, Edgar's sister, begins to love Heathcliff, in spite of repeated warnings about his character. Heathcliff, desiring Isabella's inheritance, begins to encourage the attraction, and when Nelly informs Edgar of this courtship he becomes enraged. A fight ensues between Edgar and Heathcliff, and Heathcliff is banished from the Grange. Catherine, to punish Edgar, refuses to eat for three days and drives herself into a feverish delirium. While Edgar is nursing her back to a fragile state of health, Isabella and Heathcliff elope. Isabella soon regrets her marriage to the cruel Heathcliff. She writes to Nelly, telling her of her miserable life at Wuthering Heights and begging her to visit. Heathcliff takes advantage of Nelly's visit to request a meeting with Catherine, who is pregnant. Nelly reluctantly agrees, and a few days later, while Edgar is at church, Heathcliff enters the Grange and sees Catherine for the last time. Edgar enters and finds Heathcliff embracing Catherine, who has fainted. Catherine dies without ever fully regaining her senses, although two hours before her death, she gives birth to a daughter. Edgar and Heathcliff are both distraught at Catherine's death, and Heathcliff begs her ghost to haunt him.

Days after Catherine's death, Isabella appears at the Grange, having fled the Heights. She swears she will not return, but she refuses to stay at the Grange because she fears Heathcliff will find her there. She moves to the South of England and gives birth to a sickly boy she names Linton.

Part III—The Second Generation

Shortly after Isabella's escape, the doctor, Kenneth, brings news of Hindley's death. Nelly wants Edgar to take in Hindley's son Hareton, but Heathcliff vows that if they take Hareton from him he will take his child from Isabella. He asserts that he wants to see if the same mistreatment will affect Hindley's child as Hindley's abuse affected Heathcliff.

Twelve years later, Isabella, near death, writes to her brother and asks him to care for her son after her death. Edgar brings Linton home, but Heathcliff immediately demands custody of his son. He reveals to Nelly his plan to see his child ruling over both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights.

Young Catherine, daughter of Catherine and Edgar, is not told that her cousin is so close by, but one day on a walk on the moor, she meets Heathcliff and Hareton and is reacquainted with Linton. Heathcliff tells Nelly that he hopes Linton and young Catherine will fall in love and marry. He boasts about how he has turned Hareton, a naturally intelligent boy, into an ignorant brute, while raising his own weak and selfish son up as Hareton's master. When Edgar hears of his daughter's visit, he does his best to impress on her the evil nature of Heathcliff and the importance of avoiding the Heights. Catherine nevertheless commences a secret correspondence with Linton, which only ends when Nelly discovers the love letters and threatens to tell Catherine's father. Heathcliff, however, convinces Catherine that Linton is dying of grief because of their broken correspondence, and Nelly reluctantly agrees to accompany Catherine on a visit to the Heights. That visit leads to a series of clandestine visits by young Catherine to the Heights. Edgar puts a stop to the visits, but finally agrees to let Catherine and Linton meet for weekly strolls on the moor. During the second of these excursions, Heathcliff, knowing that Edgar is near death, tricks Catherine and Nelly into entering Wuthering Heights, where he imprisons them and forces Catherine to marry Linton. Catherine convinces Linton to help her escape, and she arrives at the Grange just in time to see her dying father. During her absence from the Heights, Heathcliff forces Linton to make Heathcliff the inheritor of all of his and Catherine's property. After her father's death, young Catherine is forced to return to the Heights and tend to her dying husband. He dies shortly after her arrival, and Catherine, impoverished and alone, is forced to stay on at the Heights.

The day after hearing this story, Lockwood visits the Heights and gives notice that he will be leaving for London. Returning months later to settle some business, he finds Thrushcross Grange deserted and matters much changed at the Heights. Hareton and Catherine, previously sworn enemies, have fallen in love, and Catherine is aiding Hareton in his attempts to educate himself. Nelly is now employed at the Heights, and while the lovers enjoy a walk on the moor, Nelly informs Lockwood of Heathcliff's death, which followed four days of starvation during which he was haunted by the vision of his beloved Catherine. He was buried, as requested, next to Catherine, with the adjoining sides of the two coffins removed so that their ashes could mingle, and the country folks claim that a person walking on the moors will sometimes see the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine wandering their old playground.


Ellen Dean

One of the novel's two narrators, Nelly is loyal but conventional, and reads very little into events. In his introduction to Wuthering Heights, David Daiches remarks on the contrast between the tone of the narrative and the high drama of the goingson of the story: "It is to what might be called the sublime deadpan of the telling that the extraordinary force of the novel can largely be attributed.… At no point does Nelly throw up her hands and exclaim: 'For God's sake, what is going on here? What kind of people are they?'" For instance, after Heathcliff has spent the night in the Linton's garden bashing his head against a tree trunk, Nelly notices "several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hands and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night. It hardly moved my compassion—it appalled me; still I felt reluctant to quit him so." Nelly's familiarity with the actors is an important element of the narration, and a hazard of her station is that she must repeatedly be the bearer of news that will move the action in a fateful direction. On the eve of Heathcliff's return, for example, Edgar and the first Catherine look "wonderfully peaceful," and Nelly shrinks from having to announce Heathcliff, though duty compels her to, just as she shrinks later from having to tell Heathcliff of the first Catherine's death, but does. Nelly has a mind of her own, and she does not hesitate to query the first Catherine about her reasons for marrying Edgar, or to suggest to Heathcliff at the end of the novel that he might want to make his confession before dying. Nevertheless, the kind of passion that exists between Heathcliff and the first Catherine is far beyond her imagination.

Nelly Dean

See Ellen Dean

Catherine Earnshaw

Cathy Earnshaw is six when her father brings back with him from Liverpool not the whip she asked for but the seven-year-old foundling Heathcliff, who is soon her constant companion. Cathy is a "wild, wick slip," beautiful, and "much too fond of Heathcliff." Though capable of sweetness, she likes "to act the little mistress," and it is the awareness of the social differences between her and Heathcliff that lead her, despite her love for him, to marry Edgar Linton, whom she finds "handsome, and pleasant to be with." When Nelly implies that her reasons are superficial, Cathy tells of her plan to use Edgar's money to help Heathcliff to rise. "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now," she tells Nelly, "so he shall never know how I love him"; yet "he's more myself than I am.… Nelly, I am Heathcliff." Five months after Cathy's marriage to Linton, during which time Nelly observes that the couple seem to be increasingly happy, Heathcliff returns, transformed. Their "mutual joy" at seeing each other again is undeniable, and from that point on Cathy lives with a painfully divided heart. She refuses to respond to Edgar's request that she choose between the two men. Although Heathcliff has the looks and manners of a gentleman, the revenge he plans is diabolical, and though she loves him, Cathy is not fooled. "He's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man…: and he'd crush you, like a sparrow's egg," she tells an infatuated Isabella. When Cathy and Heathcliff meet for the last time, she tells him, "You and Edgar have broken my heart, Heathcliff! … I shall not be at peace." She dies two hours after midnight, having given birth to a "puny, seven months' child."

Cathy Earnshaw

See Catherine Earnshaw

Frances Earnshaw

Wife of Hindley. Dies after giving birth to Hareton.

Hareton Earnshaw

The son of Frances and Hindley Earnshaw, Hareton, too, is initially targeted by Heathcliff as an object of revenge, and is degraded by him. But Heathcliff develops a grudging affection for the boy, favoring him over his own weakling son, Linton, and when Heathcliff dies, Hareton weeps over his body. Nelly sees him as "owning better qualities than his father ever possessed. Good things lost among a wilderness of weeds." Hareton is, however, transformed by his love for Catherine, who teaches him to read.

Hindley Earnshaw

Hindley Earnshaw, the first Catherine's brother, is fourteen when Heathcliff is brought to Wuthering Heights. Hindley hates and envies him because Mr. Earnshaw clearly favors the new boy. Hindley continually degrades Heathcliff, a habit that intensifies after the death of Mr. Earnshaw. After the death of his beloved wife Frances, Hindley resorts to drinking and gambling, and neglects both his sister Catherine and his son Hareton. Upon Heathcliff's return to Wuthering Heights after a three-year absence, five months after Edgar Linton and the first Catherine have married, Hindley befriends Heathcliff in the hopes of winning money from him. Blaming Hindley for the loss of the first Catherine, Heathcliff ruthlessly encourages Hindley to drink and eventually wins Wuthering Heights from him. After Hindley dies, Heathcliff brutalizes Hareton, though he eventually abandons the attempt after the second Catherine Linton and Hareton fall in love.

Mr. Earnshaw

Father of Hindley and the first Catherine. He brings Heathcliff home into the family. He was strict with his children.

Mrs. Earnshaw

Mother of Hindley and the first Catherine. She didn't protest the mistreatment of Heathcliff and died two years after he joined the Earnshaw household.


On his return from a business trip to Liverpool, Mr. Earnshaw brings with him "a dirty, ragged, black-haired" orphan from a Liverpool slum. The boy, seven-year-old Heathcliff, and the first Catherine Earnshaw are almost immediately inseparable. Hindley Earnshaw, however, is jealous of Mr. Earnshaw's obvious preference for Heathcliff, and he abuses him. Heathcliff returns the hatred. "From the very beginning he bred bad feeling in the house," says Nelly Dean, one of the two narrators of Wuthering Heights, about the force that has entered their lives. Heathcliff knows only two loyalties, to the first Cathy and to Mr. Earnshaw, and at Earnshaw's death he and Cathy "both set up a heart-breaking cry." He tries to control his jealousy over Cathy's growing friendship with Edgar Linton for her sake—"Nelly, make me decent, I'm going to be good." But later, overhearing a conversation in which Cathy says it would degrade her to marry him, he steals away and does not return to Wuthering Heights until five months after Cathy has married Edgar Linton.

Media Adaptations

  • Wuthering Heights continues to inspire filmmakers: adaptations include those by William Wyler, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, 1939, available from HBO Home Video and Home Vision Cinema; by Robert Fuest, starring Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall, 1970, available from Congress Entertainment, Karol Video, The Video Catalog; a reworking under the title "Abismos de pasion", by Luis Buñuel, starring Jorge Mistral and Irasema Dilian, 1953, available from Xenon, Media Home Entertainment, Applause Productions; and by Peter Kosminsky, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, 1992 (not released in the U.S., but later broadcast on Turner Network Television).
  • Sound recordings have been published by Listen for Pleasure, 1981; Recorded Books, 1981, and Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio, 1995. The novel was read by Michael Page and Laurel Merlington for an audio version, Brilliance Corporation, 1992, entitled Wuthering Heights Readalong, Lake Publishing Co., 1994.
  • The novel has been adapted as a four-act opera by Bernard Herrman, libretto by Lucille Fletcher, 1950. An adaptation by Carlisle Floyd, who also wrote the libretto, in three acts was first performed in 1958. The novel was also adapted for the stage by Charles Vance and published by Samuel French, 1990.

Heathcliff is transformed on his return—"tall, athletic, well-formed"—but he is hell-bent on avenging the loss of Cathy, and he sets about destroying the inhabitants of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange with a fury. His assertion of what David Daiches, in his introduction to Wuthering Heights, calls Heathcliff's "natural claims" to Cathy "over the artificial claim of her husband" is welcomed by Cathy, though the strain eventually kills her. Heathcliff cruelly exploits Hindley, Isabella, Hareton, the second Catherine, and Linton, his own son. "I have no pity," he tells Nelly. Yet when the first Catherine dies, he is inconsolable, bashing his head repeatedly against a tree trunk: "I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!" And he has an obvious affection for Hareton, despite his determination to degrade the boy. Heathcliff is largely incomprehensible to those around him, seemingly human and inhuman, a walking contradiction. "Is Mr. Heathcliff a man?" Isabella writes to Nelly, following her marriage to him, "If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?" Toward the end of the novel Heathcliff confesses to Nelly that he no longer cares for revenge: "I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction." As determined to join his "immortal love" as he once was to ruin his enemies, he tells Nelly that he feels "a strange change coming," and, forgetting to eat, starves himself. Even death, however, does not compose his features, and Joseph remarks that he looks as though the devil has carried him off.

Catherine Heathcliff

See Catherine Linton

Isabella Heathcliff

See Isabella Linton

Linton Heathcliff

Linton Heathcliff is the spoiled, weakling son of Isabella and Heathcliff. He is forced by Heathcliff to marry the second Catherine Linton to secure for Heathcliff, at Linton's death, Thrushcross Grange. Nobody except the second Catherine Linton likes Linton very much; the housekeeper at the Heights complains to Nelly that he is "a fainthearted creature" who can't bear to have the window open at night. His character serves the dual purpose of providing a mechanism whereby Heathcliff can acquire Thrushcross Grange and re-create the Edgar-Cathy-Heathcliff triangle of the previous generation. Linton dies soon after his marriage to the second Catherine.


Joseph is the curmudgeonly, judgmental long-time servant at Wuthering Heights. He believes in eternal damnation and the likelihood of everyone he knows being bound for it, and he scolds constantly in a sometimes difficult-to-follow Yorkshire accent. As in the case of the narrators of the novel, Joseph's authenticity anchors the wilder elements of the story. Winifred Gerin observes in Reference Guide to English Literature that "in creating such a character as Joseph, Emily Brontë showed that, undoubted visionary as she was, she also had her feet firmly planted on earth."

Catherine Linton

Catherine Linton is the daughter of Cathy and Edgar, beautiful, like her mother, but cooler. "Her anger was never furious, her love never fierce," Nelly remarks about her. Although forced by Heathcliff to marry Linton Heathcliff, she genuinely seems to care for her cousin. She is obviously less a force than her mother, but spirited nonetheless, and refuses to be cowed by Heathcliff: "You are miserable, are you not? Lonely, like the devil, and envious like him? Nobody loves you—nobody will cry for you, when you die! I wouldn't be you!" Although Catherine is at first put off by Hareton's loutishness, the sheer bleakness of their existence propels them toward each other, and she teaches him to read. They fall in love, and the understanding at the end of the novel is that they will marry and go to live at Thrushcross Grange.

Catherine Earnshaw Linton

See Catherine Earnshaw

Cathy Linton

See Catherine Linton

Edgar Linton

Edgar Linton is all the things Heathcliff is not: handsome, refined, kind, and patient, although the first Cathy later describes Edgar and his sister Isabella as "spoiled children, [who] fancy the world was made for their accommodation." When Heathcliff says he wishes he had Edgar's looks and breeding, Nelly retorts: "And cried for Mamma at every turn, and trembled if a country lad heaved his fist against you, and sat at home all day for a shower of rain." On the other hand, Nelly observes that the first Cathy's spells of bad humor are "respected with sympathizing silence by her husband," and that Edgar has a "deep-rooted fear of ruffling her humor." Linton loves his wife genuinely, but he is ineffectual. Unable to get her to choose between himself and Heathcliff, he retreats to his library, oblivious to her distress until alerted to it by Nelly. After his wife dies, Edgar sits all night beside her body. Taking the measure of both Edgar and Hindley, Nelly remarks that Linton "displayed the true courage of a loyal and faithful soul: he trusted God; and God comforted him." Hindley, with the stronger head, proved the worse and weaker man.

Isabella Linton

Like her brother Edgar, Isabella is perceived by the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights as spoiled. Having glimpsed them through a window quarreling amid the splendor of Thrushcross Grange, Heathcliff tells Nelly, "We laughed outright at the petted things, we did despise them!" Nelly observes that Isabella is "infantile in manners, though possessed of keen wit, keen feelings, and a keen temper, too, if irritated." On Heathcliff's return to Wuthering Heights after the first Cathy's marriage to Edgar, Isabella becomes infatuated with him, despite Cathy's warning that he "couldn't love a Linton." At first indifferent, Heathcliff responds when he realizes he might gain control of her property through marriage. Once she is committed to him, he cruelly mistreats her. Despite the abuse, Isabella refuses to help Hindley in his attempt to murder Heathcliff, though she has enough of a sense of self-preservation to escape back to Thrushcross Grange, where she crushes her wedding ring with a poker. "I can recollect yet how I loved him," she tells Nelly, "and can dimly imagine that I could still be loving him, if—." Pregnant, Isabella flees to London, where she bears Linton. She dies when Linton is twelve, after which the boy comes to live with Heathcliff at the Heights.

Mr. Linton

Father of Edgar and Isabella. He is the owner of Thrushcross Grange.

Mrs. Linton

Mother of Edgar and Isabella. She takes the first Catherine in for a short while and exposed her to fine clothes and social behavior.

Mr. Lockwood

The other narrator of Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood is, like Nelly Dean, conventional. But he lacks Nelly's perception, and appears even a little foolish. At first he judges Heathcliff to be a "capital fellow," and later he fantasizes a liaison with the second Catherine Linton. Several critics have remarked on his name as hinting at a "locked or closed mind." In his introduction to Wuthering Heights, David Daiches describes his general timidity: "he had aroused the love of 'a fascinating creature,' but retreated in panic when he realized it." Mr. Lockwood foreshadows the theme of cruelty that pervades the novel, rubbing the wrist of the ghost of the first Catherine Linton across a broken pane of glass in an attempt to loosen her grasp of his hand. Mr. Lockwood serves to vary the narrative perspective of the novel; his view of events in the present contrasts with Nelly's retrospective view.


A servant at Wuthering Heights.


Love and Passion

Passion, particularly unnatural passion, is a predominant theme of Wuthering Heights. The first Catherine's devotion to Heathcliff is immediate and absolute, though she will not marry him, because to do so would degrade her. "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." Although there has been at least one Freudian interpretation of the text, the nature of the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff does not appear to be based on sex. David Daiches writes, "Ultimate passion is for her rather a kind of recognition of one's self—one's true and absolute self—in the object of passion." Catherine's passion is contrasted to the coolness of Linton, whose "cold blood cannot be worked into a fever." When he retreats into his library, she explodes, "What in the name of all that feels, has he to do with books, when I am dying?"


Heathcliff's devotion to Catherine, on the other hand, is ferocious, and when frustrated, he conceives a plan of revenge of enormous proportions. Catherine's brother Hindley shares her passionate nature, though he devotes most of his energies to degrading Heathcliff. In some respects the passion that Catherine and Heathcliff share is so pure that it approaches a kind of spirituality. "I cannot express it," says Catherine, "but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be an existence of yours beyond you." In the characters of Heathcliff and Hindley, who both feel slighted in love, Brontë draws a parallel between the need for love and the strength of revenge.

Violence and Cruelty

Closely tied to the theme of revenge, but sometimes independent of it, are themes of cruelty and sadism, which are a recurring motif throughout the novel. Cruelty can be manifested emotionally, as in Mr. Earnshaw's disdain for his natural-born son, or in the first Catherine's apparent rejection of Heathcliff in favor of Edgar. The characters are given to physical cruelty as well. "Terror made me cruel," says Lockwood at the outset of the story, and proceeds to rub the wrists of the ghost Catherine against a broken windowpane in an effort to free himself from her grasp. Hindley torments Heathcliff, as Heathcliff will later torment Hareton. And although he has no affection for her, Heathcliff marries Isabella and then treats her so badly that she asks Nelly whether he is a devil. Sadism is also a recurring thematic element. Heathcliff tries to strangle Isabella's dog, and Hareton hangs a litter of puppies from the back of a chair. The first Catherine's early refusal of Heathcliff has elements of masochism (self-abuse) in it, as does her letting him back into her life, since her divided heart will eventually kill her.

Class Conflict

To the characters of Wuthering Heights, property ownership and social standing are inextricable. The Earnshaws and the Lintons both own estates, whereas Heathcliff is a foundling and has nothing. The first Catherine plans to marry Linton to use her husband's money to raise Heathcliff's social standing, thus freeing him from Hindley's domination. Her plan is foiled when Heathcliff disappears after hearing Catherine say that to marry him would degrade her. When he returns, he exerts great efforts to do people out of their property: first Hindley, then Isabella, then the second Catherine Linton. He takes revenge on Hareton by ensuring that the boy is raised in ignorance, with loutish manners, so that he will never escape his station. The story comes full cycle when Catherine Linton teaches Hareton to read, thus winning his love. The understanding at the end of the novel is that the couple will move to Thrushcross Grange.


"Wuthering" is a Yorkshire term for roaring of the wind, and themes of nature, both human and nonhuman, are closely associated with violence throughout the story. The local landscape is as storm-tossed as are the hearts of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights; cycles of births and deaths occur as relentlessly as the cycles of the seasons. The characters feel themselves so intrinsically a part of their environment that the first Catherine compares her love for Edgar to "foliage in the woods," and that for Heathcliff to "the eternal rocks beneath." In detailing his plan to debase Hareton, Heathcliff says, "We will see if one tree will not grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!" The novel opens with a snowstorm, and ends with the flowering of spring, mirroring the passions that fuel the drama and the peace that follows its resolution.

Topics for Further Study

  • What achievements of modern medicine have reduced the high rates of maternal deaths in childbirth that were commonplace during the period of the novel? How have social factors compromised advances in the treatment of tuberculosis?
  • What were the milestones in women's rights that have reduced the vulnerability of women like the second Catherine Linton to loss of property?
  • Explore how people grieve their dead in various cultures around the world, and how these customs compare with Edgar's request in Wuthering Heights that Nelly "get mourning" for the second Catherine after Isabella's death.


There are many references in the novel to the supernatural, and even when the references seem fairly literal, the characters do not seem to think them odd. When Lockwood first arrives, he encounters the ghost of the first Catherine Linton, and his telling of the event to Heathcliff arouses not disbelief but a strange passion. The bond between the first Catherine and Heathcliff is itself superhuman, and after she dies, Heathcliff implores her spirit, "I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you—haunt me then!" At Edgar Linton's death, Heathcliff persuades the gravedigger to open Catherine's coffin, and later confesses to Nelly that he has been haunted by Catherine's spirit for eighteen years. At the end of the novel, after Heathcliff's death, Nelly reports to Lockwood a child's claim that he has seen Heathcliff and a woman walking on the moors.



The power of Wuthering Heights owes much to its complex narrative structure and to the ingenious device of having two conventional people relate a very unconventional tale. The story is organized as a narrative within a narrative, or what some critics call "Chinese boxes." Lockwood is used to open and end the novel in the present tense, first person ("I"). When he returns to Thrushcross Grange from his visit to Wuthering Heights sick and curious, Nelly cheerfully agrees to tell him about his neighbors. She picks up the narrative and continues it, also in the first person, almost until the end, with only brief interruptions by Lockwood. The critic David Daiches notes in his introduction of Wuthering Heights the "fascinating counterpoint" of "end retrospect and present impression," and that the strength of the story relies on Nelly's familiarity with the main characters.


The novel is set in the Yorkshire moors of England, even now a bleakly beautiful, sparsely populated area of high rolling grassy hills, few trees, and scattered rocky outcroppings or patches of heather. The lowlands between the hills are marshy. The weather is changeable and, because the area is so open, sometimes wild. The exposed location of Wuthering Heights high on the moors is contrasted with the sheltered calm of Thrushcross Grange, which is nestled in a soft valley. Both seats reflect the characters of those who inhabit them. The descriptions of both houses also reflect the influence of the local architecture at the time of Brontë's writing, which often incorporated a material called grit stone.

Images and Symbolism

Emily Brontë's poetic vision is evident in the imagery used throughout Wuthering Heights. Metaphors of nature and the animal kingdom are pervasive. For example, the first Catherine describes Heathcliff to Isabella as "an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone," and as Catherine lies dying, Heathcliff foams "like a mad dog." References to weather are everywhere. A violent storm blows up the night Mr. Earnshaw dies; rain pours down the night Heathcliff runs off to London and again the night of his death. There are many scenes of raw violence, such as the bulldog attacking Catherine and Isabella crushing her wedding ring with a poker. The supernatural is evoked in the many references to Heathcliff as diabolical (literally, "like the devil") and the descriptions of the ghost of the first Catherine Linton. David Daiches points out in his introduction to Wuthering Heights that the references to food and fire, and to what he calls domestic routine, help "to steady" the story and to give credibility to the passion.


One of the major strengths of Wuthering Heights is its formal organization. The design of the time structure has significance both for its use of two narrators and because it allows the significant events in the novel to be dated precisely, though dates are almost never given explicitly. The triangular relationship that existed between Heathcliff, Catherine, and Edgar is repeated in Heathcliff's efforts to force young Catherine to marry Linton, though its resolution is ultimately different. On his arrival at Wuthering Heights, Lockwood sees the names "Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, Catherine Heathcliff scratched into the windowsill. In marrying Hareton, young Catherine Heathcliff will in turn become Catherine Earnshaw, thus completing the circle.

Historical Context

The Victorian Age (1837-1901)

England under the reign of Queen Victoria was in a prolonged phase of expansion. The Industrial Revolution saw the transformation of a predominately agricultural economy to a factory economy. Millions would eventually flock to London in search of the new jobs, but Emily Brontë grew up in the last days of rural England. The tenor of the times was conservative, and sensitive to society's unwillingness to accept women as authors, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë all published under male pseudonyms.

The tempestuous climate of northern England in Haworth, Yorkshire, left its mark on the Brontë children, whose fascination with the expanse and storms of the moors is emphasized in the novel. For Emily, who was never happy far from home, the local moorland and valleys, and the grit stone architecture typical of the age were the basis for the setting of Wuthering Heights.

Another influence on Brontë's writing was the folklore of the Yorkshire community. Tabitha Ackroyd, a maid in the Brontë household, was a rich source of stories about fairies and ghosts. References to folk beliefs and rituals are scattered throughout Wuthering Heights, particularly with reference to the deathwatch traditional in York-shire, as when Edgar sits the entire night with Catherine's body after her death, or to rituals surrounding funerals such as "bidding," an invitation to accompany a body to the grave. Extending or withholding such an invitation gave some indication of the state of family relationships.

Illness, Death, and Funeral Customs

Owing to the unforgiving climate and poor heating, illness and death were common occurrences in Yorkshire at the time the novel was created. Ill partly as a result of his stay at Wuthering Heights, Lockwood laments, "Oh, these bleak winds, and bitter, northern skies, and impassable roads, and dilatory country surgeons!" Emily Brontë's older sisters Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis before they were fifteen, and in Wuthering Heights, Edgar and Linton also die of wasting diseases. Maria Branwell's death when Emily was only three may be the inspiration for the many motherless children in Wuthering Heights.

A period of mourning was formally observed after the death of a family member. The appropriate period of mourning depended on whether the deceased was a close or distant relative. For example, a year's mourning was usually observed for a husband or wife, and a week for the death of a second cousin. In Wuthering Heights Nelly is "bid to get mourning"—that is, to lay out dark clothes—for Catherine, whose aunt Isabella has died.

Compare & Contrast

  • Late 1700s: World economies are predominately agrarian.

    1847: England is in the midst of an Industrial Revolution whose effects will be felt worldwide. Workers flock to cities from the countryside.

    Today: World economies are increasingly linked in a "global community." Intercultural communication and cultural diversity in the so-called service economy are a direct result of advances in transportation and communications.

  • Late 1700s: Life expectancy is short, owing to harsh living and working conditions. Death in childbirth is common.

    1847: Medical advances and improved public health and sanitation decrease maternal and infant mortality.

    Today: Though high-technology medicine offers solutions to many medical problems, heart disease and cancer remain major killers, there is no cure for AIDS, and many countries grapple with increasing costs of health care for aging populations.

  • Late 1700s: Inheritance in England passes from the father to the first-born male. A procedure called "strict settlement" must be invoked to bypass inheritance laws.

    1847: Full legal and economic equality for women is first championed in the United States by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

    Today: Women worldwide have the right to vote, except in a few Muslim countries. In the United States, while the Equal Rights Amendment failed to obtain ratification, women increasingly bring successful sexual discrimination and sexual harassment suits against employers.

As the children of a minister, the Brontës felt the influence of religion both at home and at school. A fire-and-brimstone instructor may have been Emily Brontë's inspiration for Joseph, who can barely speak a word that does not invoke hellfire. Critics also suspect that this influence is at the root of Lockwood's dream at the beginning of Wuthering Heights, in which he is forced to listen to the Reverend Jabes Branderham preach a sermon divided into 490 parts.

Literary Traditions and Romanticism

Whereas Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre won immediate acclaim, the wild passion and coarseness of Wuthering Heights baffled its readers. In an essay in Reference Guide to English Literature, Winifred Gerin attributes the failure of the novel to its theme of indestructibility of the spirit, which was a "subject … far removed from the general run of Victorian fiction—it belonged, if anywhere, to the gothic tradition, still being followed by Mary Shelley with her Valperga (1823) in Emily Brontë's childhood."

The time in which the action of Wuthering Heights takes place, and its themes of nature and the individual, coincides with the Romantic Movement in Europe, a turning away from reason and intellect in favor of free and more mystical ideas, inspired in part by the French Revolutionary War of 1789.

Inheritance and Social Position

Social position and respectability in this period were directly tied to possession of property. A country house owned by landed gentry like the Earnshaws and the Lintons was known as a "seat," a broad term that included both the tangible assets (for instance, the house and land) and intangible assets (for instance, the family name and any hereditary titles) of the family that owned it. In Wuthering Heights, the first Catherine tells Nelly that she is marrying Edgar Linton because to marry Heathcliff would degrade her (they would be beggars) and because she plans to use Linton's money to help Heathcliff to rise.

Seats passed from father to first-born male or to the next closest male relative if there were no sons in a family. The only way around this process was to invoke a device called "strict settlement," in force between 1650 and 1880, which allowed a father to dispose of his holdings as he liked through a trustee. Because Edgar Linton dies before ensuring that his daughter Catherine will inherit Thrushcross Grange, the land passes first to her husband, Linton, and after Linton's death to his father, Heathcliff.

In contrast to earlier times when incest was forbidden by law, in eighteenth-century England marriage between first cousins was looked upon favorably as a way of preserving position and property. A typical union was one of a woman who married her father's brother's son, which kept the seat of the bride's family under their control. In Wuthering Heights, in a perverse twist, the second Catherine Linton marries her father's sister's son, and in the absence of a strict settlement ends up losing her family's seat.

Landholding families typically maintained a large staff of servants who fulfilled the functions (for a man) of steward, valet, butler, and gardener, or (for a woman) of lady's maid, housekeeper, cook, and nurse. In a household the size of Wuthering Heights, whose inhabitants did not entertain, combining functions made economic sense. In the novel Joseph serves as both valet and steward, and Ellen as housekeeper, though her duties are fairly broadly defined.

Critical Overview

Initial reception to the publication of Wuthering Heights in 1847 was overwhelmingly negative. Published in a volume that also included her sister Anne Brontë's first novel, Agnes Grey, Emily's brooding tale managed to find favor only with Sydney Dobell and Algernon Charles Swinburne. "I have just read over Wuthering Heights," wrote Charlotte Brontë in her preface to the 1850 edition of her sister's book, "and, for the first time, have obtained a clear glimpse of what are termed (and, perhaps, really are) its faults.… Wuthering Heights must appear a rude and strange production … in a great measure unintelligible, and—where intelligible—repulsive." The preface was intended as a defense of the writer and the work and must have achieved its aim, for the second edition of the novel was received more favorably. Algernon Charles Swinburne, writing in The Athenaeum in 1883, admitted to the awkward construction and clumsy method of narration "which no reader … can undertake to deny," although these were minor faults. He was more troubled by "the savage note or the sickly symptom of a morbid ferocity," but was overall so impressed by the "special and distinctive character of its passion" that "it is certain that those who do like it will like nothing very much better in the whole world of poetry or prose."

A monograph by Charles Percy Sanger published in 1926 marked a major turning point in critical appreciation of the sophistication and complexity of the writing in Wuthering Heights, and today the novel is indisputably considered a work of genius. That critics cannot agree whether the book falls more neatly into the Gothic or Romantic literary tradition is accepted as further evidence of the work's uniqueness. In his introduction to the novel, David Daiches argues that the central question of Wuthering Heights is "Who and what is Heathcliff?", a question Daiches argues can be answered only by looking at the effect Heathcliff has on those around him. While Daiches agrees with the conventional view that the relationship between Heathcliff and the first Catherine is "curiously" sexless, he does find persuasive Thomas Moser's (1962) case for recurring sexual symbolism in the novel. Daiches echoes other critics in praising the book's narrative structure and other elements of its organization. He places special emphasis on the details of everyday living, and descriptions of food and hearth, that help to anchor the story and to make it believable. "One of Emily Brontë's most extraordinary achievements in this novel is the domiciling of the monstrous in the ordinary rhythms of life and work, thereby making it at the same time less monstrous and more disturbing." Tom Winnifrith, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, picks up on the idea of Heathcliff as a force of nature and attributes his attraction in part to his association with the landscape and to his honesty, however brutal. This last idea highlights one of many ambiguities of the novel, a strength often commented on by scholars and critics. "Brontë's defiance of rigid categories and her refusal to divide people into saints and sinners," says Winnifrith, "is very un-Victorian.… Heathcliff's cruelty and Cathy's selfishness do not prevent them from being attractive. The Lintons are spoiled and weak, but Isabella's and her son's sufferings and Edgar's devotion to his wife win them sympathy." Winnifrith dismisses the oft-cited effort to fit the novel into an overall framework of storm and calm—that is, storm and calm opposed in the persons of Catherine and Heathcliff, but fused in the union of Catherine and Hareton—proposed by Lord David Cecil in Early Victorian Novelists (1934) as too schematic. He argues that some modern sociological interpretations ignore the book's enigmatic ending. Other modern critical articles on the novel, he says, "tend to be eccentric or to deal with only a very small section of the book." In an essay in Reference Guide to English Literature, Winifred Gerin describes the message of "the indissoluble nature of earthly love" as "profoundly metaphysical," its original failure easily explained by its gothic atmosphere, no longer in fashion at the time of publication. Gerin attributes the novel's "curious and lasting appeal" to the "unflagging excitement of the plot; the wild moorland setting; [and] … the originality of the characters." She calls Heathcliff's self-induced death by starvation "one of the most powerful and daring climaxes in English fiction."

"Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know," wrote Charlotte Brontë at the end of the preface to the 1850 edition. "I scarcely think it is. But this I know; the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master—something that at times strangely wills and works for itself." It is English literature's gain that Emily lost herself in her creation.


Donna C. Woodford

In the following essay, Woodford, a doctoral candidate at Washington University, explores how an examination of the patterns that recur throughoutWuthering Heights provide a useful way of reading and interpreting the novel.

Wuthering Heights was the only novel Emily Brontë ever published, and both it and the book of poetry she published with her sisters were printed under the pen name, Ellis Bell, a name which Emily chose because she was afraid works published under a woman's name would not be taken seriously. Emily Brontë died shortly after her book was published and just prior to her thirtieth birthday, but her single novel remains one of the classics of English literature. Wuthering Heights is a complex novel, and critics have approached it from many different standpoints. Feminist critics have examined the strong female characters and their oppression by and resistance to violent men. Marxist critics have pointed to the class differences that set in motion the primary conflicts of Wuthering Heights, and psychoanalytic critics have analyzed the dreams that fill the book. While all of these approaches are useful and valid, Wuthering Heights is, above all, a book of repeating cycles and recurring patterns, and perhaps the simplest way to begin an examination of this book is by tracing the course and resolution of some of these patterns.

When Lockwood spends the night at the Heights, he finds the window ledge covered with "a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small—Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton." Indeed, the repetition and variation of these four names, Catherine, Earnshaw, Heathcliff, and Linton, fills the book just as the writing fills the window ledge. The original Catherine begins life as Catherine Earnshaw. In what Terry Eagleton in Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights calls "a crucial act of self-betrayal and bad faith," she rejects the opportunity to become Catherine Heathcliff and instead becomes Catherine Linton. She then gives birth to another Catherine Linton, who enters the world only hours before her mother leaves it, and this second Catherine first marries Linton Heathcliff, becoming Catherine Heathcliff, and finally, at the end of the book, becomes engaged to Hareton Earnshaw. The cycle of names thus comes full circle as this final marriage will give the second Catherine the original name of the first.

At the same time, Catherine's marriage with Hareton completes another cycle—the union of souls for which the reader has longed. The second Catherine is in many ways a reincarnation of her mother. Though she is softened by the characteristics which she has inherited from her father, she has "the Earnshaw's handsome, dark eyes" and, as Nelly states, she has the same "capacity for intense attachments" as her mother. Similarly, Hareton is a gentler version of his oppressor and foster father, Heathcliff. Though Heathcliff does his best to make Hareton a tool of his revenge against the first Catherine's brother Hindley Earnshaw, he succeeds instead in creating a reproduction of himself. He reveals his own knowledge of this strange turn of events when he tells Nelly, "Hareton [seems] a personification of my youth .… the ghost of my immortal love, of my wild endeavours to hold my right, my degradation, my pride, my happiness, and my anguish." Thus, even more than the reunion of Catherine's and Heathcliff's ghosts, the union of their spiritual descendants gives the reader the impression that a great wrong has finally been set right.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë (1910) is a collection of Brontë's metaphysical poetry.
  • The memorable heroine of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) finds love with her moody employer, Mr. Rochester, but manages not to give up her independence.
  • George Eliot's Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-72) is a portrait of life in a small rural town. George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans.
  • Frankenstein (1818) is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's gothic tale of destructive pride. Dr. Victor Frankenstein makes a living monster out of inanimate matter and is ultimately destroyed by his creation.

In addition to being later versions of Heathcliff and the first Catherine, Hareton and the second Catherine are the last in a long line of orphans and outcasts. In an article in American Imago Philip K. Wion has observed that the absence of mothers in Wuthering Heights has a profound effect on the identities of the orphaned children, and certainly the book is full of orphaned and abandoned characters seeking fulfillment through union with others. Heathcliff, of course, is a foundling taken in by Mr. Earnshaw, and after the old man's death Hindley makes him an outcast. The first Catherine, also orphaned by Earnshaw's death, becomes still more isolated after Heathcliff's departure. Heathcliff has been her one true companion, so much a part of herself that she tells Nelly, "if all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger." The loss of her soul mate thus leaves her alone in the world, and her death, likewise, orphans him for a second time, leaving him "lonely, like the devil, and envious like him." The next generation fares no better. Linton Heathcliff loses his mother and is raised by a father who despises him; Hareton's mother dies shortly after his birth, and the death of his alcoholic and abusive father leaves him penniless and at the mercy of Heathcliff. Likewise, the second Catherine is born only hours before her mother's death, and the death of her father leaves her "destitute of cash and friends." Once again, it is the marriage of Hareton and Catherine that will bring this cycle of orphanhood to a close. The housekeeper, Nelly, proudly tells the tenant Lockwood that they are both "in a measure, [her] children," and the union of her two charges finally ends the progression of lonely, isolated, orphaned individuals.

Heathcliff's death and the second Catherine's gaining control of the property also bring to an end the series of tyrannical men who rule the Heights with violence and curses. The first Mr. Earnshaw is easily vexed, and "suspected slights of his authority nearly [throw] him into fits." Hindley, Mr. Earnshaw's successor, is still worse. He threatens to "demolish the first who puts [him] out of temper," and his abuse of Heathcliff is "enough to make a fiend of a saint." Heathcliff, in his turn, does turn out to be a fiend, and deserves the term "Devil daddy" with which young Hareton christens him. He takes pleasure in inflicting on Hindley's son the same abuse which Hindley had given Heathcliff because he wants to see "if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it," and he values his own son only because he wants "the triumph of seeing [his] descendent fairly lord of their estates; [his] child hiring their children, to till their father's lands for wages." Thus, even Heathcliff's plot to reverse past patterns by making his child lord of the Earnshaws and Lintons, only results in the reestablishment of an old pattern. Heathcliff, the former victim of tyranny, becomes yet another tyrannical man ruling Wuthering Heights. This cycle is only broken when, after Heathcliff's death, the property is granted to the second Catherine, the first woman in the book to own her own property. Her marriage to Hareton will, of course, make her property his, but it seems unlikely that his "honest, warm, intelligent nature" will allow him to become a tyrant like his predecessors. The pattern of violent men ruling the Heights, like so many other patterns in the book, ends with the death of Heathcliff and the marriage of the second Catherine and Hareton.

Source: Donna C. Woodford, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.

Annette R. Federico

In the following essay, Federico maintains that Wuthering Heights is a bildungsroman—a novel which outlines the initiation of a young character into adulthood—focusing on the development of young Cathy Linton rather than that of her mother.

In their study of nineteenth-century women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue persuasively that because the story of Wuthering Heights is built around a central fall—generally understood to be Catherine and Heathcliff's anti-Miltonic fall from hell to heaven—"a description of the novel as in part a Bildungsroman about a girl's passage from 'innocence' to 'experience' (leaving aside the precise meaning of these terms) would probably be widely accepted."

This is an interesting interpretation, and brilliantly demonstrated. But like other views of Wuthering Heights as a feminine Bildungsroman, the focus of development is Catherine, and by association her male doppelganger Heathcliff. The emphasis upon the first generation of the Heights is, of course, important, and certainly Catherine and Heathcliff suffer their own peculiar rites of passage in their search for identity and wholeness. And yet it is curious that the tortured first generation of Wuthering Heights fail to develop a mature understanding of themselves and others—in fact, Catherine and Heathcliff actually shrink from full participation in adult life, regressing into the adolescent preoccupation with self and the desperate need to feel loved. Catherine, especially, is not so much struggling to grow up as she is struggling not to: it is significant that it is the "waif not the woman who appears in Lockwood's terrifying dream.

So the critical view of Catherine and Heathcliff as Bildungsroman protagonists neglects these characters' inability to interpret experience realistically and face the limitations of adulthood. In fact, in terms of the first generation, Wuthering Heights is not a Bildungsroman at all, but an Entwickslungroman, a novel of mere physical passage without psychological development. Catherine and her male soul-mate remain stubbornly adolescent from beginning to end; granted, they are triumphant, rebellious, passionate characters, and Emily Brontë is obviously celebrating the untamed and undisciplined spirit of adolescent love. But in view of this first generation, Wuthering Heights is less a novel of development than a novel of arrested childhood. It is actually with Catherine's death in childbirth that Brontë's Bildungsroman begins. In fact, the second half of Wuthering Heights and the concern with young Cathy is a fascinating variation of the prototypic novel of female education in the nineteenth century, a dramatization of the struggle to relinquish childhood for the duties of womanhood in the most traditional, romantic capacity: marriage with the man of one's choice. Cathy emerges from a relatively happy childhood and a lonely adolescence as an assertive, sharing, and contented adult who is prepared to accept the responsibilities and limitations of marriage.

Cathy's marriage to Hareton is in a sense a revision of her mother's unsuccessful marriage to Edgar Linton, and a significant role reversal of the traditional feminine Bildungsroman in which a woman can achieve intellectual and social advancement only through marriage. For example, the elder Catherine looks at marriage as a means of achieving outward sophistication, as well as an escape from mental and emotional stagnation: Edgar is the man who will define her, who will shape her identity and give her status—"He will be rich, and I shall be the greatest woman of the neighborhood, and I shall be proud to have such a husband," she tells Nelly Dean. Catherine's selfish and short-sighted attitude toward marriage is not only indicative of her childish sensibilities, but underscores the traditional theme of the feminine Bildungsroman—that is, the woman must seek knowledge by attaching herself to a knowledgeable male. Brontë varies this theme in her description of young Cathy's courtship with Hareton; instead of marrying to be advanced, Brontë's true female Bildungsroman protagonist marries in order to advance the intellectual and moral status of the male. In young Cathy, Brontë gives us a woman whose acquired humility, patience, and affection yield what promises to be a satisfying marriage and a mutual broadening of experience. More than her mother, Cathy represents a successful passage through the difficult rites of adolescence: the search for self, and the sharing of self with others.

If one looks closely at the novel, it becomes clear that Cathy and Hareton are not merely watered down versions of Catherine and Heathcliff, as Richard Chase suggests. Although the strange, transcendental love of the first generation of the Heights is more stirring, more piquant than the settled affections of Cathy and Hareton, it is only because their type of frenzied passion is so rare—and so typical of adolescence. It is well to ask why Catherine marries Edgar at all, considering her feelings for Heathcliff; her naive belief that she can have both Edgar—who represents culture and security—and Heathcliff, who is the embodiment of sexual and natural energy, proves her complete inability to understand reality outside of her own narrow perspective. When Nelly Dean suggests that by marrying Edgar, Catherine will lose Heathcliff, she is incredulous: "Oh, that's not what I intend—that's not what I mean! I shouldn't be Mrs. Linton were such a price demanded! He'll be as much to me as he has been all his lifetime. Edgar must shake off his antipathy and tolerate him, at least. He will when he learns my true feelings.…" It is obvious that Catherine is entering marriage with the stubborn adolescent sensibility that she can have her cake and eat it, too. Of course, this has been her spoiled way of looking at life all along; many times in the novel Brontë portrays Catherine as a selfish, demanding, manipulative child. "I demand it!" is, in fact, Catherine's favorite expression, and completely consistent with the adolescent determination to have everything.

By contrast, young Cathy gradually develops a sensitivity towards the feelings and needs of others. This is most explicit in her devotion to her father, Edgar Linton—and a complete contrast to Catherine's "naughty delight" in provoking Mr. Earnshaw. The young Cathy tells Nelly, "I fret about nothing on earth except papa's illness.… And I'll never—never—oh, never, while I have my senses, do anything to vex him. I love him better than myself.…" Cathy's comparatively happy childhood has certainly influenced her idealized view of Edgar Linton, and she is naturally submissive to patriarchal authority. But Cathy is not without spirit; she exhibits the typical adolescent preoccupation with love intrigues, and shares her mother's rebelliousness and scorn for those who interfere with her plans. The important difference between the two generations is in the nature of the rebellion; Catherine's disregard for others— all others, except her other-self, Heathcliff—has a cruel, manipulative quality that takes pleasure in deceitfulness and in "punishing" others for their lack of devotion to her. Her many melodramatic "scenes" illustrate Catherine's acting talent in the service of narcissism: as a child, after an argument with Edgar Linton, she says to him, "…get away! And now I'll cry—I'll cry myself sick!" and she proceeds to deliver a perfect fit of weeping which softens poor Edgar's heart. Catherine never outgrows these willful displays of mad emotion, and by feigning a fit to arouse her husband's concern, she ultimately brings about her own death. She begs Nelly to tell Edgar she is "in danger of being seriously ill.… I want to frighten him.… Will you do so, my good Nelly? You are aware that I am in no way blameable in this matter." Catherine often uses Nelly Dean as an instrument for her guile: "… and remind Edgar of my passionate temper verging, when kindled, on frenzy." Certainly Catherine's last performance is magnificent, if unsuccessful, for even Nelly is startled by "the aspect of death" her mistress is able to assume. This undisciplined and domineering child—the little girl who wanted her father to bring her a whip from Liverpool—fails to mature at all because she never learns to control her perverse egotism. That in her last breath Catherine looks to Nelly "like a child reviving" aptly suggests the adolescent spirit of the woman's rebellion, a fatal result of Catherine's last scene of "mad resolution."

Unlike her mother's obsessiveness, young Cathy's rebellion is actually a healthy curiosity about her relatives at Wuthering Heights. Certainly it is not surprising that a young and intelligent girl who has not been beyond the range of the park before the age of thirteen, whose only companion is her nurse, and whose only amusements are rambling on the moors and reading, should be eager to make new acquaintances. And of course Cathy passes through certain predictable stages of adolescence; but unlike her mother, she does pass through, and restlessness, romantic love, and rebellion are only stages of her development. For example, Cathy and Linton Heathcliff's "love affair" is typical of the adolescent absorption with romantic notions, and the fact that the relationship is somehow taboo makes it all the more alluring. Cathy exaggerates the importance of her love letters, weeping and pleading to Nelly "to spare one or two." Nelly Dean's common sense reply to the mere suggestion of Cathy loving Linton is, "Loving! Pretty loving indeed, and both times together you have seen Linton hardly four hours in your life!" That Cathy is able to open her mind to this objective, adult point of view is a credit to her maturity, and something the older Catherine never learned to do.

In her relationship to Linton, Cathy begins to learn that her desires are complex and that her experience of reality must be reconciled to actual reality—in other words, her view of Linton Heathcliff as "a pretty little darling" must be reconciled to Nelly's less generous description: "The worst-tempered bit of a sickly slip that ever struggled into its teens!" In learning to distinguish between what she thinks she wants (Linton) and what she really wants (an energetic and empathetic companion), Cathy begins to achieve the disciplined growth and broad perspective which is the undertaking of the Bildungsroman protagonist. Simply the way she handles Heathcliff and her captivity at Wuthering Heights demonstrates an intelligent, unselfish, and practical kind of defiance which Catherine never displayed, because Catherine acknowledged only her own needs and desires. When Linton says, "You must obey my father, you must," Cathy replies, "I must obey my own," reflecting her growing sense of responsibility. After her forced marriage, she is prepared to accept the consequences of her situation by loving Linton in spite of Heathcliff—"You cannot make us hate each other!" Cathy remains dignified and controlled, and speaks "with a kind of dreary triumph: she seemed to have made up her mind to enter into the spirit of her future family, and draw pleasure from the griefs of her enemies."

If Nelly's narrative makes Cathy's behavior sound reminiscent of the older Catherine's vengeful fits, it should be pointed out that Cathy's "enemies" are real, not fancied, conspirators. Heathcliff at this point has kidnapped her, kept her from her dying father, abused her physically, and forced her to marry his sickly, peevish son. Cathy's situation is wretched, almost hopeless; when Linton dies shortly after their degenerate union, she is left at Wuthering Heights with only Hareton and Heathcliff. And here her bildung or education needs to be emphasized. Part of education and development is arriving at an understanding of one's value; this, I would argue, is the major undertaking of adolescence. The older Catherine never sees herself realistically. She has notions of superiority and self importance that can be justified only in terms of her exceptionally passionate nature and her extraordinary bond to Heathcliff. Catherine's immature and narrow vision cannot imagine that she is not the central concern in everyone else's life. It is almost an epiphany when she says to Nelly, "How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me." Despite Heathcliff's furious devotion and her husband's genuine affection, Catherine always feels unloved and undervalued. Even as she is dying, she cries, "That is how I am loved!" like a self-pitying child. Nor does Catherine value the love of others: "I have such faith in Linton's love," she says, "that I believe I might kill him, and he wouldn't wish to retaliate." Rarely if ever is Catherine described as a loving person, one who is willing to give the self freely to another; even her professed love for Heathcliff is strangely qualified by her claim, "I am Heathcliff!" He seems to be only a kind of narcissistic double.

Young Cathy of course wants to be loved, but unlike her mother she is willing to take the risks and suffer the consequences of loving another. When she kisses Hareton in an effort to make peace, she is conquering her pride and scorn—and her loneliness—in a way that truly suggests maturity. She is beginning to see herself in relation to others, beginning to develop a realistic adult perspective. For example, Cathy knows she has been unfair and cruel to Hareton, and sincerely tries to improve their relationship in the best—the most straightforward—way she knows how. "When I call you stupid, I don't mean anything—I don't mean that I despise you," she explains, and by articulating her meaning she arrives at a closer understanding of the way she affects others. By humbling herself, Cathy learns to master herself, and by offering her friendship to Hareton, she is on the verge of a new, perhaps more traditional, kind of education: marriage. But the marriage of Cathy and Hareton is not the traditional union of the male teacher/master and the female learner/servant. By reversing the roles and making Cathy the educator, Wuthering Heights takes on the aspects of a new feminine Bildungsroman in which a woman emerging from childhood and adolescence approaches marriage not merely as a means of social advancement, or knowledge, or security, but as a mutual broadening of experience in which love balances power, with "both their minds tending to the same point."

So it is with the second generation of the Heights that Brontë begins her feminine Bildungsroman. If Catherine and Heathcliff have a more tumultuous and exciting story, it may be because theirs is the tale of arrested childhood, a furious protest against the necessity of growing up. Perhaps Cathy's struggle is less stormy and her future too settled and neat to satisfy our lingering adolescent admiration for rebellion, stubborn self satisfaction, and emotional intensity. But in the world of Wuthering Heights, as in our own, the passage from innocence to experience is an awkward limbo, a thin papery wall, between two selves—between the waif outside the window, and the woman within.

Source: Annette R. Federico, "The Waif at the Window: Emily Brontë's Feminine 'Bildungsroman'," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 68, Fall, 1985, pp. 26–28.

Vereen M. Bell

In the following essay, Bell comments on moral themes in Wuthering Heights, focusing in particular on the Biblical allusions in narrator Lockwood's first dream.

The two dreams Lockwood experiences early in Wuthering Heights—the first of a visit to Gimmerton Kirk, and the second of a visit from the ghost-child Catherine—have recently received critical attention from Ruth M. Adams and Edgar Shannon. Of the two interpretations Shannon's ["Lockwood's Dreams and the Exegesis of Wuthering Heights, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, September, 1959] seems the most convincing in that it offers the only plausible source for the Biblical allusion in the first dream; but in discussing the relationship of the dream sermon and its title to the tragedy of Heathcliff and Catherine, Shannon ignores significant aspects of the dream itself, and consequently the value of his interpretation seems impaired somewhat, like Miss Adams's, by its own ingenuity.

The preacher that Lockwood hears in the first dream is Jabes Branderham, and the sermon is entitled "Seventy Times Seven and the First of the Seventy-first." Shannon identifies the sermon's text as Matt. 18: 21-22. In this passage Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?" and Jesus answers, "I say not unto thee Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." "The First of the Seventy-first," then, Shannon asserts, "advances the idea of an unpardonable sin beyond the ordinary scale of human wrongs." The subsequent nightmare, he continues, connects this idea with Catherine, who appears as an outcast, and we are asked to believe that it is she who has committed the unforgivable sin by marrying Edgar and denying the "natural and elemental affinity" inherent in her love for Heathcliff. "Adhered to, [love] is at once the source of joy and harmony; rejected or subverted, it becomes the fountainhead of enmity and strife."

One cannot challenge Shannon's assertion that thematically Wuthering Heights displays the "destructive consequences of thwarted love"; but it seems both unfair and inexact to imply that the guilt devolves upon Catherine exclusively. Moreover such an interpretation does not seem to be substantiated by a close reading of the literal and symbolic action of Lockwood's first dream. Shannon implies that the nature of the unpardonable sin is merely hinted at rather than defined, and that the reader is left to infer its nature from the second dream and from the the action that follows. In fact, however, through a curious kind of logical paradox, the unpardonable sin is defined within the action of the dream itself. Not long after Branderham's sermon opens Lockwood begins to fidget, laboring under the four hundred and ninety heads of discourse—each in itself the length of a separate sermon. Finally, when Branderham reaches the "First of the Seventy-first" Lockwood can bear it no longer; he rises and denounces Branderham as

the sinner of the sin that no Christian need pardon [emphasis supplied]. Seventy times seven times have I plucked up my hat and been about to depart—Seventy times seven times have you preposterously forced me to resume my seat. The four hundred and ninety-first is too much. Fellow-martyrs, have at him!

Branderham's reply is equally significant as he turns the congregation back upon Lockwood.

"Thous art the Man!" cried Jabes.… "Seventy times seven times didst thou gapingly contort thy visage—seventy times seven times did I take counsel with my soul—Lo, this is human weakness; this also may be absolved! The First of the Seventy-first is come [emphasis supplied]. Brethren, execute upon him the judgment written.…"

Lockwood himself, in other words, commits (in the dream at least) the unforgivable sin in accusing Branderham of that sin no Christian need pardon. That is, the unforgivable sin is to accuse another of committing the unforgivable sin—or, more simply put, the absence of forgiveness, of forbearance, of mercy. Each man forgives the other four hundred and ninety times, as Jesus enjoins, but neither has the charity to forbear the four hundred and ninety-first offense; each then denounces the other, and chaos erupts—"Every man's hand was against his neighbour."

Moreover, it is manifestly forgiveness, and not, as Shannon suggests, sin that Jesus is talking about; Peter in using the verb sin refers to a personal offense, not to mortal transgression; and of course what Jesus is urging is perpetual forgiveness, perpetual charity, only he phrases it in finite terms.

The relation of the dream and its Biblical source to the tragedy that follows would seem obvious. It is the want of forgiveness—or phrased positively, it is vengeance—that disrupts the moral and social order of Wuthering Heights. Hindley cannot forgive Heathcliff for usurping the love of his father; so once he is master of the Heights, he sees that Heathcliff is methodically humiliated and degraded. Heathcliff's degradation in turn enforces a physical and psychological separation from Catherine which preordains marriage to Edgar Linton. When Heathcliff acquires his fortune, he uses the power it affords to avenge himself against Hindley, whom he easily corrupts and destroys; against Hareton and Catherine, the children, who of course are innocent; against Isabella, who is equally blameless; and through all of these, against Edgar Linton, whom he hates not just as a rival but as an embodiment of everything effete and conventional that erodes Catherine's spirit and finally destroys her. Father is turned against son, brother against sister, servant against master, husband against wife, lover against lover—"Every man's hand was against his neighbour."

Catherine is really less a perpetrator than a victim of this turmoil. She shares the guilt of course because her union with Edgar is the act which hastens the tragedy. But hers is an error in judgment rather than a mortal transgression; she marries Edgar in faith, naively assuming that she can preserve her intense sibling affinity with Heathcliff and perhaps redeem him (and herself) as well. But neither man can forgive her for loving the other and what he represents. In his last interview with Catherine, Heathcliff tells her, "It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands.… I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?" Torn between the two men, who inspire contrary impulses within her, she grows weak—almost as an act of will—and ultimately dies. When she appears to Lockwood as a ghost and an outcast, his cruelty to her is merely a vivid physical image of the emotional torment she has been made to suffer during her mortal existence.

Among those whom Catherine loves there is no one who can forgive her human error; there is love abundant for her, but it is always conditional love that demands and punishes. Young Catherine and Hareton, we are led to believe, eventually come to love with patience and understanding, but only after Heathcliff's influence is removed. And Heathcliff's rancor merely epitomizes the chief moral defect of all of the characters concerned. That defect would seem to be not so much the denial of love that Shannon suggests as love's failure to attain charity, to achieve moral fulfillments as well as emotional intensity.

Source: Vereen M. Bell, "Wuthering Heights and the Unforgivable Sin," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, September, 1962, pp. 188–91.


Charlotte Brontë, "Editor's Preface to the New [1850] Edition of Wuthering Heights," in Wuthering Heights, edited by David Daiches, Penguin, 1965, pp. 37-41.

David Daiches, editor, in the introduction to Wuthering Heights, Penguin, 1965, pp. 7-29.

Winifred Gerin, "Emily Brontë," in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 300-02.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, "Emily Brontë," in The Athenaeum, No. 2903, June 16, 1883, pp. 762-63.

Tom Winnifrith, "Emily Brontë," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 21: Victorian Novelists before 1885, edited by Ira B. Nadel and William E. Fredeman, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 55-67.

For Further Study

Miriam Allot, The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1974.

A collection of criticism on the works of the Brontë sisters, including reprints of early reviews of Wuthering Heights and Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and Charlotte Brontë's observations on her sister's novel.

Terry Eagleton, "Myths of Power: A Marxist Study on Wuthering Heights" in Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights, St. Martin's, 1992, pp. 399-414.

Eagleton analyzes the novel in terms of class differences in nineteenth-century England.

Winifred Gerin, Emily Brontë: A Biography, Clarendon, 1971.

Gerin discusses Emily Brontë's life and the effect of her environment on her work.

Philip K. Wion, "The Absent Mother in Wuthering Heights" in American Imago, Vol. 42, No. 2, 1985.

Wion suggests that the early death of Emily Brontë's mother accounts for Brontë's portrayal of orphaned characters in search of mother figures.