Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

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The characters in Wuthering Heights are rooted firmly in the natural images of their environment. Catherine compares Heathcliff to the wildness of the moors when she calls him, ‘An unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone’. Lockwood explains that the very name Wuthering Heights is ‘descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather’. It is exposed to the elemental forces and the characters are frequently exposed to wind, rain and sun.

A typical example of this exposure is described in Chapter 9 on the night of Catherine’s search for the departed Heathcliff:

About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rustling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building; a huge bough fell across the roof and knocked down a portion of the chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen fire.

This storm reflects the tumult in Catherine’s mind as she, like King Lear, wanders through the storm in a reckless manner in search of the lost Heathcliff. Indeed, the use of nature imagery in Wuthering Heights is in many ways comparable to its use in King Lear. In contrast with the ‘atmospheric tumult’ at Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange is surrounded by peace and calm. The rough, uncultivated images of the Wuthering Heights environment are associated in our minds with the passionate, inhuman and uncultured qualities of Heathcliff, Hindley and Hareton.

The inhumanity of the characters is frequently conveyed by the use of animal imagery and demonic references. Catherine considers Heathcliff ‘a fierce, pitiless wolfish man’, who would crush Isabella ‘like a sparrow’s egg’. Isabella refers to Heathcliff as ‘a lying fiend! a monster, and not a human being’. On other occasions, she asks if he is a devil and calls him ‘a brute beast’. Nelly Dean, who had read about demons, asks in the final chapter: ‘Is he a ghoul, or a vampire’ and would have preferred to have seen him ‘gnash his teeth than smile’, in his unearthly manner; even after his death ‘his parted lips and sharp white teeth sneered’ at Nelly. There are also frequent references to dogs throughout the novel, which are associated with images of hostility and cruelty. The use of animal imagery shows us the breaking down of the barriers between animal and human. The rough, uncivilised atmosphere at Wuthering Heights and the luxurious, artificial atmosphere at Thrushcross Grange is the background to the contrasts between the characters and shows us the two alternative ways of living as is especially evident in the contrasts between Edgar and Heathcliff.

However, we should not forget that there are scenes of kindness in the novel as well and also scenes of touching tenderness. Nelly relates such a scene of perfect filial love just before Mr Earnshaw’s death:

Miss Cathy had been sick, and that made her still; she leant against her father’s knee and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. I remember the master, before he fell into a doze, stroking her bonny hair – it pleased him rarely to see her gentle – and saying – “Why can’st thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” And she turned her face up to his, and laughed, and answered, “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” But as soon as she saw him vexed again, she kissed his hand and said she would sing him to sleep.

There are other similar scenes, such as the description of Cathy and Hareton at their reading and this helps convince us that not all is bad or evil in human nature. Eventually, through Cathy and Hareton the images of love and books triumph in the final phase of reconciliation in the novel.

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THE WINDOW SYMBOL IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS

The dominant symbol in Wuthering Heights is the window symbol, which is central to all the most intense moments in the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff. The ideas of ‘exposure’ and ‘enclosure’ are always associated with the use of the window symbol: for Lockwood, the window locks out the world of the spirit; for Heathcliff, it allows in the spirit of the wind; for Catherine, it reveals other worlds from which she is excluded.

Lockwood’s dream, after reading through Catherine’s diary, gives us the first insight into the Catherine/Heathcliff relationship. He is sleeping in Catherine’s oak closet and hearing the noise outside the window he is determined to stop it:

“I must stop it nevertheless”, I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in – let me in”. “Who are you?” I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. “Catherine Linton”, it replied shiveringly.

Catherine’s cry, “Let me in” indicates her desire to get from the ‘outside’ ‘in’, to return and be reunited with her human past. Lockwood piles up the books against the window to protect himself from the spirit in the wind and locks out darkness. Lockwood, the city slicker, the outsider, will not be disturbed. Heathcliff, on the other hand, calls to the wind: “Come in; come in” he sobbed “Cathy do come. Oh, do – once more”.

After the episode of Lockwood’s dream, the chronological order of the novel reverts to the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff. We see them in Chapter 6 looking through the window at the Grange on the verge of the discovery of a way of life unknown to them:

Both of us were able to look in by standing on the basement and clinging to the ledge, and we saw – ah it was beautiful – a splendid place carpeted with crimson and crimson coloured chairs and tables.

The two children discover the luxury and wealth of the civilised world and when Catherine is taken in by the Lintons, she experiences their way of life. This looking through the window and her stay at the Grange is destined to affect the remainder of Catherine’s life, leading as it does to her marriage to Edgar Linton.

In the scenes of Catherine’s delirium, she looks out through the window to the moors and Wuthering Heights, which she had rejected for her present way of life. Catherine says:

I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. Open the window again wide: fasten it open.

This scene and the scenes previously mentioned are among the most emotionally intense scenes in the novel, each of them with the window as the instrument of separation or discovery. Catherine and Heathcliff looked in from an ‘exposed’ world to the ‘enclosed’ world of Thrushcross Grange. When Catherine becomes a prisoner of fate in the ‘enclosed world’ she looks out again to the ‘exposed world’ of the moors and the Heights in her longing for Heathcliff.

After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff says that, when he slept in her chamber, ‘she was either outside the window or sliding back the panels, or entering the room’ (Chapter 29). This explains Heathcliff’s cry ‘Come in, come in’ when Lockwood tells him about his dream in Chapter 3. When Heathcliff dies Nelly Dean finds him lying inside the open window, his dead body soaked with the rain (Chapter 34). Nelly relates:

The lattice flapping to and fro had grazed one hand that rested on the sill; no blood trickled from the broken skin and when I put my fingers to it I could doubt no more: he was dead and stark!

Heathcliff is finally no longer a prisoner on earth and the spirit of Catherine will no longer cry to be let in, since it is united with Heathcliff at last, the window no longer separates them because they have finally transcended the limitations of the physical world and are now free to roam the moors forever.

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

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

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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.

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‘Wuthering Heights’ by American artist Robert McGinnis

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.

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“My great thought in living is Heathcliff. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be… My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks… Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure… but as my own being.”

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.

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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).

 

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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 Height

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

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights