Readers of Wuthering Heights have long been struck by the complexities it throws up. Some see it as representing the tensions which were becoming evident in nineteenth-century capitalist society while others glory in the story of human passion, love and the personal lives of the various characters and families. Others read it for its emphasis on the theme of revenge, the power of education and the supernatural.
NATURE VERSUS CIVILISATION
The main action of the novel is divided between the two houses, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Wuthering Heights reflects the character of Heathcliff with its gloomy, dull and primitive outlook. It seems appropriate that he should live in the cold atmosphere and bare surroundings of the Heights. Thrushcross Grange is very different, reflecting a harmonious – if superficial – way of life which is characterised by civilised habits and behaviour. The residents of Thrushcross Grange, the Lintons, possess qualities of refinement and kindness, cushioned by their surroundings from the harsher realities of life. At the Grange, there is no room for the passion and natural energy of Heathcliff.
In the early stages of the novel, when Catherine and Heathcliff first enter the confines of the Grange, they find it a hostile place, repugnant to their values. As they look through the window at Edgar and Isabella they are surprised to find them quarrelling over a pet dog. ‘We laughed outright at the petted things, we did despise them’. Heathcliff’s contempt for the civilised life of the Lintons remains with him throughout his life. He and Catherine were brought up at Wuthering Heights where they were exposed to the wild and natural energies of the moors and deprived of the luxuries and codes of behaviour which prevailed at Thrushcross Grange. The world of Thrushcross Grange is an enclosed one, while the world of Wuthering Heights is an exposed one. The Grange is a house surrounded by walls, protected by servants and bulldogs, cut off from nature: the Heights is exposed to the elements in a wilderness, it is bare and merely serving the function of providing accommodation. In contrast, the Grange is expensively furnished, decorated with carpets and ornaments, its inhabitants placing a high value on the comforts of life.
Catherine stays at Thrushcross Grange for five weeks after she is attacked by the bulldogs. During this time, she is subjected to an environment very different from that of Wuthering Heights. She adopts some of the values of the Lintons and returns home looking like a lady. Her view of Heathcliff changes on her return and she now sees him as ‘black’, ‘cross’, ‘funny’ and ‘grim’. Her stay at the Grange is a crisis point in her life, a form of discovery which captivates her. She is not completely changed, as is evidenced on the second day of her return when she leaves the company of Edgar Linton in order to be with Heathcliff. Nevertheless, under the influence of the Thrushcross Grange ‘civilisation’, Catherine believes that it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff and she later marries Edgar Linton after Heathcliff’s sudden departure from Wuthering Heights.
The contrast between the two houses remains central to the main story after Heathcliff returns. When he calls to Thrushcross Grange Edgar asks that he is shown into the kitchen signifying that he is of ‘a lower social order’. It is only when Catherine orders the laying of two tables, one for the ‘gentry’ Isabella and Edgar, and one for the ‘lower orders’, herself and Heathcliff, that Edgar finally submits to her wishes. Catherine shows by this that she does not accept the codes of the Lintons but upholds her own values in their place. Though married to Linton and living at Thrushcross Grange, Catherine’s love for him satisfies only the superficial part of her nature, the more powerful and natural passions in her repudiate Linton and attract her to Heathcliff. She is ultimately consumed by this raging conflict between the two rivals for her affections.
The two houses are united in the next generation, through the marriage of the young Cathy and Linton Heathcliff, but this union makes Thrushcross Grange subject to Wuthering Heights and its master Heathcliff. The union of the two houses is achieved by the domination of one and not yet through the reconciliation of the two. This process of reconciliation begins after Linton Heathcliff’s death through the relationship that develops between Cathy and Hareton. As their love grows, Heathcliff’s destructive inclinations diminish. Heathcliff describes his changed attitude in Chapter 33:
An absurd termination to my violent exertions – I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate of either roof has vanished. My old enemies have not beaten me, now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand.
Heathcliff realises that he is going to join Catherine in eternity and he, therefore, allows the union between Cathy and Hareton to flourish.
Nelly Dean reports that ‘Hareton Earnshaw was not to be civilised with a wish’, but the younger Cathy succeeds in redeeming him from the degradation to which he was subjected by Heathcliff. While Heathcliff goes to join Catherine in death, Cathy and Hareton resolve their animosities as the worlds of civilisation and nature are submerged and consummated in the human dignity of their marriage.
REVENGE AND DEGRADATION
There is no limit to the depths of degradation and revenge in Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is monstrously inhuman: what he does to Hindley, Isabella, Cathy and Hareton is cruel, brutal and unnatural. His revenge is inventive and refined, reflecting a twisted mind. No interpretation of the story can fail to recognise the revenge motif, particularly after the death of Catherine. Despite the inhumanity of the revenge we retain our sympathy for Heathcliff; we are kept sympathetic towards him despite his repulsive inhumanity by a series of sudden reversals in the story.
Heathcliff resolves to get his revenge on Hindley for his treatment of him when he says in Chapter 7 – ‘I am trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do’. When he returns to Wuthering Heights, after his three years’ absence, he is in a position to get his revenge on the drunken Hindley. He then embarks on his revenge on the Lintons with his marriage to Isabella. He promises revenge when he says to Catherine in Chapter 11: ‘If you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you to the contrary, in a very little while’. His marriage to Isabella is a cruel blow to Edgar Linton, especially since he treats her so cruelly. His only reason for marrying Isabella, who is infatuated with him, is to bring suffering to the Lintons. He proceeds to arrange the marriage of the younger Cathy and Linton Heathcliff after Catherine’s death, thus placing her under his power. As a result of this marriage, he succeeds in acquiring Thrushcross Grange as his property on the death of Linton Heathcliff. One of the objectives of his revenge plan was to gain both the Heights and the Grange as his own property. His other objective is the degradation of both the Lintons and Earnshaws. He continues with his plan as he keeps Hareton as an ignorant, illiterate slave.
Even though Heathcliff appears to be the epitome of evil and inhumanity in the manner in which he carries out his revenge, we tend to justify his behaviour since Emily Bronte makes us understand why he is inhuman! We recognise that he has suffered, has been deprived and has rebelled unsuccessfully against the treatment meted out to him by Hindley in his earlier life; all of which helps us to identify with Heathcliff in a way that allows us to justify his actions, even though this justification does appear irrational on an objective level.
Emily Bronte also manipulates our feelings through the use of sudden reversals. Heathcliff acts in a more degrading manner as the second part of the novel progresses but then suddenly in Chapter 29, without any warning, we are plunged into Heathcliff’s revelation of his sufferings during the previous eighteen years since Catherine’s death. We learn about the intensity of his yearning for Catherine and about his opening of her grave in the search for unity with her spirit. This retrospective glimpse into Heathcliff’s soul modifies our disgust at the depravity of his revenge since Catherine’s death and we tend to view his actions in a new light. Through such a reversal, which puts Heathcliff into a new perspective, Emily Bronte manipulates our sympathy in his favour at a time when we feel that Heathcliff has gone beyond all decent limits in his revenge.
Heathcliff abandons his revenge in his final days realising its meaninglessness. His obsession with Catherine’s spirit increases as his death approaches and, according to Nelly Dean, his change of heart is associated with the resemblance to Catherine which he sees in Hareton and Cathy:
They lifted their eyes together to encounter Mr Heathcliff: perhaps you have never remarked that their eyes are precisely similar and they are those of Catherine Earnshaw. With Hareton, the resemblance is carried even further: it is singular, at all times – then it was particularly striking: because his senses were alert, and his mental faculties wakened to unwonted activity. I suppose this resemblance disarmed Mr Heathcliff (Chapter 33).
Heathcliff’s dehumanising revenge plan for Cathy and Hareton fails, therefore, because he has ‘lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction’, as he contemplates his hoped-for eventual union with Catherine in the grave.
LOVE AND THE SUPERNATURAL
In her interview with Nelly Dean in Chapter 9, Catherine elaborates on her idea of love, explaining the difference between her love for Edgar Linton and her love for Heathcliff. She loves Edgar, ‘because he is handsome and pleasant to be with’, but she also loves his status in life, his wealth and his love for her. Without these attractions, she would only ‘pity him – hate him’. In contrast, she says of Heathcliff, ‘I love the ground under his feet, and the air over his head, and everything he touches and every word he says, I love all his looks and all his actions and him entirely and altogether’. It is obvious here that her description of her love for Heathcliff bears no resemblance to the language she uses to describe her feelings for Edgar: ‘if all else perished and he (Heathcliff) remained, I should still continue to be, and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the world would turn to a mighty stranger’.
She ends her description with the powerful assertion, ‘I am Heathcliff’. Her love for Heathcliff is mysterious, it is beyond a mere relationship, it is a union of being. Catherine can only exist in Heathcliff and he in her. She considers the idea of their separation impractical and absurd, yet she intends to marry Edgar Linton believing that he will allow her to carry on her relationship with Heathcliff. It can be said that at this stage in the novel Catherine speaks of Edgar in the language of the Grange and of Heathcliff in the language of the Heights: she loves Edgar in the romantic manner of civilised behaviour and she loves Heathcliff in the very depths of her soul. Catherine has here adopted a dual vision of love and life.
After Catherine’s marriage to Edgar, Nelly Dean says in Chapter 10 that ‘she seemed almost over-fond’ of him. Her harmonious relationship with Edgar ends with the sudden return of Heathcliff and again she adopts a dual personality. She still loves Heathcliff although she considers him ‘a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’. Her love for Heathcliff is in the realm of the supernatural and she rejects Edgar. ‘My soul will be on that hill-top before you lay hands on me again. I don’t want you, Edgar’. In their desperation at their positions, Catherine and Heathcliff act in a hysterical, delirious, irrational manner, as he pursues his revenge on the Lintons despite the fact that it is killing Catherine (Chapter 15). He accuses Catherine of betraying their love by her marriage to Edgar: ‘You loved me, then what right had you to leave me? What right – answer me – for the poor fancy you felt for Linton?’ On hearing of her death, Heathcliff exclaims: ‘I cannot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul’ – BUT he does and he even pursues his revenge with even greater ferocity!
Catherine and Heathcliff remain spiritually united after her death. This raises the question of the role of the supernatural in the novel. In Chapter 29, Heathcliff relates how he dug up Catherine’s coffin in order to convince himself that she was still in the grave and bring himself some peace of mind.
No! she has disturbed me, night and day through eighteen years, incessantly, remorselessly – 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.
After her death, he had also dug up her grave and felt her presence by him and leading him home. He feels that her spirit pervades the surroundings of Wuthering Heights. This ‘presence’ of Catherine recalls to us the experience of Lockwood as he slept in Catherine’s room in Chapter 3.
Before Heathcliff’s death, Nelly reports that he stayed awake throughout the night and she heard him speak alone and use the name Catherine, ‘spoken as one would speak to a person present’ (Chapter 34). The country folk believed that Heathcliff and Catherine walked the moors after his death and reported seeing them. Despite the volume of evidence which would indicate that Emily Bronte deliberately intends us to be conscious of the supernatural in the story, many critics reject this interpretation and point to Lockwood’s scepticism at the end, considering his view to be reliable when he says that he believes that Catherine and Heathcliff are quiet sleepers in a quiet earth:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth (Chapter 34).
Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).
Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975
Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights’ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).
You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Height