The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

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Modern (Leaving Cert) students of Wuthering Heights will undoubtedly notice the striking emphasis on childhood and young adulthood throughout the novel. The major part of the novel is devoted to childhood as we are gradually introduced to the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff, Edgar, Isabella and in the second half of the story, to young Cathy, Linton and Hareton.

Catherine and Heathcliff around whom the entire novel focuses, act in a very childish way. When Catherine discusses her love of Edgar and Heathcliff with Nelly Dean, she shows childish irrationality in hoping that Edgar Linton will allow her to continue her friendship with Heathcliff after their marriage.  Heathcliff’s action in running away for three years and his expectation that Catherine will receive him back with open arms on his return is a further sign of childish irrational thinking. Catherine’s delirious fits in the period from the return of Heathcliff until her death are more like a child’s tantrums than the behaviour of an adult. We are told that she also dashed her head against the arm of the sofa and ground her teeth in a frenzy. She even regresses to her own childhood:

She seemed to find childish diversion in pulling the feathers from the rents she had just made, and ranging them on the sheet according to their different species: her mind had strayed to other associations.

Later, she wants to return to her own bed in Wuthering Heights. There is a deep conflict in her mind as she is drawn between two worlds and tries to live a double life; she is confined in her life at the Grange, but her true nature belongs with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. She does not seem to realise that she cannot have both Edgar and Heathcliff.

Another example of this childhood behaviour is Isabella’s total infatuation with Heathcliff despite the fact that he gives no indication of any love or feelings for her. At best, her behaviour can be said to be adolescent, as are her occasional fits of anger.

It is interesting to note also that Cathy, who has already been married to Linton, is only eighteen and Hareton twenty-three when their love relationship begins to mature. Indeed, the attitudes of the different characters towards marriage are somewhat naïve and romantic and the romantic outlook in each case ends quickly except in the case of Cathy and Hareton. Heathcliff and, up to a point Edgar, are possible exceptions. None of the marriage partners has an awareness of any responsibilities in marriage and indeed they seem to live outside the world of moral responsibility. It is difficult to assess the morality or immorality of the actions of the characters without prejudice, nevertheless, we feel convinced that the inherently evil actions of Heathcliff in getting his revenge can only be classified as immoral. Some critics would dismiss Heathcliff’s evil on the basis that it was his environment that was responsible for it and that he was driven to it by Hindley’s treatment of him during his childhood and later by the treatment of the Lintons. We have already noted that Emily Bronte is not slow to manipulate our sympathy for Heathcliff despite his evil and it is clearly her intention that Heathcliff is vindicated in the end. Heathcliff is dehumanised by his own actions but she is eager to point out that he regains his humanity before his death.

We know little of Heathcliff’s origins except that he came from Liverpool. Nelly Dean says:

He seemed a sullen, patient, child, hardened perhaps to ill-treatment: he would stand Hindley’s blows without winking or shedding a tear, and my pinches moved him only to draw in a breath and open his eyes as if he had hurt himself by accident and no one was to blame.

From his earliest years, Heathcliff is a sullen, introverted individual and with Hindley’s harsh treatment of him he becomes bitter and rebellious; this bitterness and rebelliousness characterise his actions throughout the novel.

He lives according to his natural instincts without the benefits of any objective standards or any learned habits of behaviour. He relies on the friendship of Catherine until he learns about her proposed marriage to Edgar and then, feeling totally rejected, he runs away for three years. On his return he ‘looked intelligent and retained no marks of his former degradation’, but internally he is determined on vengeance. For the remainder of his life, he gives vent to his vengeance on Hindley, Hareton, Edgar and Isabella, a vengeance which displays a cruel, brutal nature; he is destructive and this destruction results from his total frustration with life. Heathcliff is a type, a figure from ancient mythology with his origins in nature and animals, and doesn’t seem to have any counterpart in modern literature.

The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff almost defies analysis, since it goes beyond the boundaries of normal human relationships becoming a union of ‘souls’. Catherine does not have a true identity without Heathcliff; she does not seem a part of the universe without him. ‘I am Heathcliff’, she says. This applies to Heathcliff also and he shows it when he says after Catherine’s death: ‘I cannot live without my life; I cannot live without my soul’. Earlier he had said to Catherine: ‘Would you like to live with your soul in the grave’. He is restless and disturbed from the time of her death until he realises that his own death is approaching when his restlessness on this earth increases as he anticipates and becomes obsessed with the thought of a reunion with Catherine. Despite their personality identification, Catherine gives Isabella an objective assessment of Heathcliff’s character when she says: ‘Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior. He’s not a rough diamond – a pearl containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’. Nelly backs up this assessment calling him a ‘bird of bad omen’.

The contrast between Edgar and Heathcliff reflects the major contrasts in the novel. Heathcliff on looking through the window into Thrushcross Grange considers Edgar and Isabella poor, petted children each of them crying and acting like ‘idiots’, to use his own expression. When Catherine becomes disenchanted with her life at the Grange, she describes both of them in adulthood saying:

But they are very much alike: they are spoiled children and fancy the world was made for their accommodation; and though I humour both, I think a smart chastisement might improve them, all the same.

Edgar and Isabella’s lives would probably have been happy had they never come into contact with Catherine and Heathcliff, and Nelly Dean leads us to believe that Edgar and Catherine would have been tolerably happy had Heathcliff never returned to intrude in their lives. Nelly Dean usually gives us a favourable impression of Edgar, she considers him ‘kind and trustful and honourable’. He is calm and reserved, happy among his books, only displaying his passion on the occasion when he strikes Heathcliff in his efforts to eject him from Thrushcross Grange. He lacks the strength and determination to curb Heathcliff’s revenge and is unable to cope with the kind of evil which he represents. Our sympathy lies with him, since he is caught in a web of circumstances beyond his control, and some critics consider him a tragic hero in the novel.

The emphasis on childhood continues in the second part of the story. The story of the young Cathy, Linton Heathcliff and Hareton is typically Victorian in concept. The innocent children, Cathy and Linton, are brought together in marriage under the malign influence of Heathcliff. Cathy first marries Linton Heathcliff and, after his death, marries Hareton. Interestingly, there is not one overt reference to sex in this whole story! We sense that Cathy is a lively, pretty, intelligent girl, in love with the peevish, sugar-candy sucking, Linton. It is also obvious to us that Linton has not inherited any of Heathcliff’s qualities or characteristics. Hareton is reared in ignorance by Heathcliff as a part of his revenge on Hindley. Heathcliff makes him live a life similar to his own childhood. Nelly describes Heathcliff’s rearing of Hareton thus:

He appeared to have bent his malevolence on making him a brute: he was never taught to read or write; never rebuked for any bad habit which did not annoy his keeper; never led a single step towards virtue, or guarded by a single precept against vice.

After his relationship with Cathy is established, Hareton is transformed, regaining his dignity and, on Heathcliff’s death, he is bitterly sad and sits all night by the corpse, even though he was the one most wronged by him.

Nelly Dean and Lockwood, who are scarcely involved at all in the action of the story, play an important part in the novel since it is through their eyes that we see the characters and events. Nelly Dean is the servant, first at Wuthering Heights and then at Thrushcross Grange. She grew up with the Earnshaws and experienced, at first hand, most of the story which she tells to Lockwood. In narrating the story, she influences to a degree our impressions of the characters depending on her own view of them, and this is very natural and to be expected. Lockwood is an outsider who becomes Heathcliff’s tenant at Thrushcross Grange. He is not part of the Grange/Heights scene, but his introduction into the story gives it greater credibility. He is not a sociable man but considers himself very sociable when compared to the sullen Heathcliff! He tells us that he had determined to hold himself independent of all social intercourse while staying at the Grange, but he becomes too interested in the story of Catherine and Heathcliff not to become involved.

The characters in Wuthering Heights are in a state of continuous flux, adapting themselves to their changed environments and conditions as the novel evolves: Catherine alters with her movement to and from Thrushcross Grange; Heathcliff comes to a realisation of the futility of revenge with his impending death; the young Cathy and Hareton discover a better way of life in their lonely isolation and are a symbol of hope for the future. Lockwood, who first encountered Heathcliff in the opening paragraph, looks on his grave in the last paragraph ‘and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.

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References

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).

Further Reading

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

and Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights