The first three chapters of the novel are narrated by Mr. Lockwood as a recollection from his diary several years after the events took place in 1801. Lockwood, a native of London, rents Thrushcross Grange, in the desolate Yorkshire moors, in order to enjoy some solitude. On a visit to his landlord Heathcliff’s residence, Wuthering Heights, he encounters some unusually unhappy people: Cathy, Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law, whom Lockwood at first mistakes for his wife; Hareton Earnshaw, an ill-bred young man whose social status leaves Lockwood confused; Joseph, the snarling, rude servant; and Zillah, the only helpful person there. Most forbidding is Heathcliff himself, a man whom Lockwood describes as even more unsociable than he.
Due to a raging snowstorm on his subsequent visit, Lockwood is forced to spend the night. While sleeping, he dreams of a ghostly child, identifying herself as Catherine Linton, grabbing at his arm and trying to get in through a broken window pane. Heathcliff is devastated to hear the dream and orders Lockwood downstairs so he can beg for the spirit to reappear.
Relieved to get away from this unhappy, strange house, Lockwood returns to the Grange. His housekeeper, Nelly, takes over from him as the narrator, due to his prodding about the inhabitants of the Heights. Her narrative returns to her childhood, some thirty years earlier, when she was a servant at the Heights. She was working for the Earnshaw family, and growing up with their two children, Hindley and Catherine, a beautiful, but wild spirited girl.
One day, Mr. Earnshaw had returned from a trip to Liverpool with a swarthy street orphan, who he intended to raise with his own children, against the wishes of his family. The boy is named Heathcliff, after a son who had died in infancy. Catherine and Heathcliff soon become close friends, but Hindley views Heathcliff as a rival for his father’s affections. Indeed, Mr. Earnshaw does prefer Heathcliff to his own son, whom he views as a disappointment. Hindley’s treatment of Heathcliff causes sufficient household friction that Hindley is sent away to college. Soon after, Mr. Earnshaw dies.
Hindley returns home for the funeral with a wife, Frances, upon whom he dotes. Redoubling his hatred for Heathcliff, Hindley relegates him to servile status, causing Catherine much unhappiness. She and Heathcliff are frequently punished, but escape to play on the moors.
During one such escape, the two venture to Thrushcross Grange, home of the Linton family and their children, Edgar and Isabella. Catherine, attacked by one of the dogs, is affectionately cared for, while Heathcliff is turned away for appearing to be a villain. When Catherine returns home after a five-week convalescence, she has become a well-mannered young lady. Taking pleasure in humiliating Heathcliff, Hindley tells him to come greet Catherine as if he were one of the servants. Later, when Edgar and Isabella come to visit, Hindley treats Heathcliff with particular humiliation. Heathcliff swears revenge on Hindley, even if it takes a lifetime.
Frances dies giving birth to a son, Hareton. Anguished, Hindley soon becomes lost in alcoholic madness. Meanwhile, Catherine tells Nelly that she will marry Edgar because Heathcliff is socially beneath her. Overhearing, Heathcliff runs away before Catherine admits how profoundly she loves him.
Three years later, Edgar and Catherine marry. Heathcliff returns, moving in with Hindley in order to gain his revenge by inducing him to gamble away all his money. A frequent visitor to the Lintons, Edgar soon becomes jealous of his wife’s attachment to Heathcliff, and orders him to leave. Heathcliff gets his revenge on Edgar by eloping with Edgar’s sister, Isabella. Although he despises her, Heathcliff marries Isabella in order to inherit her money. Catherine becomes dangerously ill, and dies after giving birth to a daughter, Cathy.
Treated contemptibly by Heathcliff, Isabella runs away to the South, where she gives birth to a sickly son, Linton. Upon her death, Edgar tries to keep Linton, but Heathcliff demands custody. Raising his daughter to avoid Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants, Cathy forgets about Linton until she sees him by accident some years later.
Heathcliff’s revenge against the Earnshaw and Linton families includes garnering all their property for himself. He already possesses the Earnshaw estate, leaving Hareton an illiterate farmworker, completely dependent on Heathcliff. Heathcliff plans to do the same to Cathy, by forcing her to marry Linton, who cannot live past his teens, and therefore control all her inheritance as well.
It is now 1802, and Nelly has brought Lockwood up to date with her history. The story continues. Heathcliff succeeds in accomplishing his plans. Edgar and Linton are dead, and Cathy is as penniless and dependent as Hareton. When the two cousins fall in love, Heathcliff realizes he is no longer interested in destroying anything. He becomes obsessed with a vision of his beloved Catherine’s spirit hovering nearby, waiting for him to join her. Within three days of his vision, Heathcliff dies and is buried according to his wishes, alongside Catherine. Local legend claims that their spirits haunt the moors.
Hareton and Cathy plan to marry on New Year’s Day, moving back to Thrushcross Grange, and taking Nelly with them. Lockwood returns to London.
The Victorian Age was a time of great economic, social, and political change. The British Empire had reached its height and extended throughout one quarter of the world. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution it was a time of great prosperity for some, but abject poverty for factory and farm workers. Many Victorian writers dealt with the contrast between the prosperity of the middle and upper classes and the wretched condition of the poor. Indeed, class distinctions will appear as an important subtext in Wuthering Heights.
Like her fellow Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy, Brontë’s setting is limited to the Yorkshire moors of northern England, a rural, isolated region. Rural life was governed by a strict societal hierarchy which Brontë accurately depicted in Wuthering Heights. At the top were the Lords, the aristocracy, with its hereditary or monarch granted titles, large estates, political dominance and patronage system. Next came the gentry class, non-titled nobility landowners, who constituted local leadership. The Linton family in Wuthering Heights is typical of this class. Next were the gentlemen farmers, many of whom were prosperous enough to maintain a lifestyle like that of the gentry. Mr. Earnshaw, father of Hindley and Cathy, is a representative gentleman farmer. Indeed, the distinction between the two classes appears in the novel, when Catherine refers to herself and Heathcliff as being of “the lower orders” (Pool 160-166).
Wuthering Heights is unlike any other novel in the genre of Victorian literature in that it stands outside the social conventions of its time. Victorian literature characteristically viewed the individual as a member of society. In Wuthering Heights, Brontë for the first time portrayed society from a completely individual point of view.
While many of the great Victorian novelists of the early to middle period, such as Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot, dealt more explicitly with moral preoccupations and social concerns than Brontë did, Wuthering Heights was unique for containing more of the primitive and spiritual side of the human spirit, feelings which, according to Derek Traversi, were “otherwise unduly concealed in this period.”
Wuthering Heights, furthermore, with its mysterious, isolated mansions located in the wind-swept, brooding Yorkshire moors, is replete with overtones of Gothic horror. There is the suggestion of ghosts revisiting the living, supernatural allusions, and above all, a protagonist who symbolizes the dark side of mankind. These Gothic characteristics are more typical of the Romantic period of literature than the Victorian.
In fact, one could safely say that Brontë manages to anticipate the twentieth century novel. With its ambivalent morality, violence, and emphasis on the evil side of human nature, Wuthering Heights has much in common with modern novels, such as The Sound and the Fury. Indeed, Hindley Earnshaw’s profligate behavior is reminiscent of Jason Compson’s, as are the vicious intra-family feuds, and frustrated sexual urges.
Perhaps this is why the novel met with unfavorable critical reaction when it was first published. The general sentiment among critics was that the characters and their situations were too “disagreeable and coarse to be attractive.” Charlotte Brontë was among the novel’s chief admirers, although even she was forced to acknowledge how strange and wild Wuthering Heights must seem to those unacquainted with Yorkshire. More recently, writers such as Charles Percy Sanger and Virginia Woolf have described it as a novel of genius for the manner in which Brontë contrasts the civilized, genteel side of human nature with its wild, untamed counterpart. Scribner’s Companion and Richard Benvenuto have also been impressed with Brontë’s accuracy and consistency in detail. The characters age in accordance with correct sequence and behave in an age-appropriate manner. Brontë’s depiction of the Yorkshire moors is accurate, as is her ear for the local dialect. Furthermore, she exhibits considerable knowledge of English inheritance laws in her handling of the characters’ legal matters.
However much Brontë was disparaged by her contemporaries, twentieth-century critics rank her among the elite of Victorian writers for the genius she exhibits in Wuthering Heights. Ironically, her sister Charlotte, who received acclaim by those who objected to Emily, is now considered the less gifted writer.
List of Characters
Heathcliff—The protagonist of the novel; an orphan raised at Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw, he soon dominates the fates of the Earnshaw and Linton families; a person of extremes, he is capable of passionate love for Catherine Earnshaw despite devoting his life to cruelty and revenge for his enemies.
Catherine Earnshaw—Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw, sister of Hindley, wife of Edgar Linton, mother of Cathy; a wild, tempestuous girl, she fails to thrive in the ordered and conventional world of the Lintons. She is the only person whom Heathcliff loves.
Mr. Earnshaw—The master of Wuthering Heights and father of Hindley and Catherine. He notices an orphan in a Liverpool slum and, naming him Heathcliff after a son who died in infancy, brings him to Yorkshire to be raised with his own children.
Mrs. Earnshaw—A minor character, she objects to her husband bringing Heathcliff into their home.
Hareton Earnshaw—An unkempt young man, Lockwood at first mistakes him for Heathcliff’s son, but notes that he is treated like a servant.
Hindley Earnshaw—A disappointment to his father, Hindley is jealous of his father’s affection for Heathcliff, fostering a lifelong hatred between the two; husband of Frances and father of Hareton.
Frances Earnshaw—The wife whom Hindley meets at college; she dies soon after giving birth to their son, Hareton.
Mr. and Mrs. Linton—Master and mistress, respectively, of the elegant Thrushcross Grange, parents of Edgar and Isabella; they invite Catherine to convalesce in their home, only to become ill themselves and die.
Edgar Linton—Master of Thrushcross Grange upon the death of his parents, he is, as a child, somewhat weak and spoiled. As he reaches adulthood, he becomes a respected member of society; a kind, gentle man, he dotes on his sister, Isabella and adores his wife, Catherine, and daughter, Cathy.
Isabella Linton—Sister of Edgar and mother of Linton Heathcliff, she is a foolish and overindulged girl. Her silly romantic nature leads her to fall in love with Heathcliff despite his obvious unsuitability.
Catherine Linton Heathcliff (Cathy)—Daughter of Catherine Earnshaw and Edgar Linton, she is gentle, like her father and headstrong, like her mother. She marries her cousin, Linton Heathcliff.
Linton Heathcliff—Son of Heathcliff and Isabella Linton, a sickly and effeminate young man; whining and self-pitying like his mother, with his father’s bad temper.
Mr. Lockwood—Narrator of the novel and Heathcliff’s tenant at Thrushcross Grange, his function is actually to allow Ellen Dean to narrate most of the past action to him while he convalesces from an illness.
Ellen Dean (Nelly)—Works for the Earnshaws as a young girl; she grows up with their children, serving Catherine and later Heathcliff. It is she who narrates most of the story to Lockwood. Since all the characters confide in her, she is the only character who is aware of all that goes on.
Joseph—An elderly servant at Wuthering Heights, he is self-righteous and pious; he speaks in a Yorkshire dialect that is sometimes difficult to follow.
Zillah—The housekeeper at Wuthering Heights while Nelly is at Thrushcross Grange caring for Lockwood.
Mr. Kenneth—The local doctor.
Mr. Green—A lawyer.
Estimated Reading Time
This is a lengthy book. Unless the reader is accustomed to the style of a Victorian novel, he or she may have difficulty understanding the language. Furthermore, Brontë occasionally has her characters speak in phonetic Yorkshire dialect. Therefore, an inexperienced reader will have to read slowly and carefully. The entire book can be read over a period of forty hours, less if the reader has some familiarity with nineteenth century literature.