Essays and Criticism
Wuthering Heights: A Critical Analysis
The only novel written by Emily Brontë before her untimely death, Wuthering Heights occupies a distinctive position between Gothic and Romantic fiction, and it reflects the central thematic interests of both of these genres. Its melodramatic story spans more than three decades, but it is the supranatural passion between Catherine (Cathy) Earnshaw and Heathcliff that dominates the entire book, exerting a controlling influence over the lives of Brontë's characters long after Cathy's physical demise. Brontë appears to deliberately cloud the central question of whether her story is to be read as a supernatural horror story or an emotionally charged romance. The lightning rod of this issue is Heathcliff, an individual who necessarily evokes powerful but somewhat contradictory responses from the other characters in the novel and from the reader as well. Is Heathcliff a devil or just an extraordinarily driven man? Our response to Heathcliff, to the love he shares with Cathy, and, therefore, to the novel as a whole, is further complicated by the Brontë's use of multiple narrators—Nelly Dean and Mr. Lockwood—each of whom plays a role in the tale, who hold radically different perspectives on the novel's lovers.
The relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is the epicenter of Wuthering Heights, and their love is so intense that it is difficult to characterize, reaching well into the realm of metaphysics. Raised together in the Earnshaw household, Cathy and Heathcliff roam the moors and share identical opinions about the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The depth of Cathy's identification with Heathcliff is evident from her crucial confession to Nelly Dean in which she says, "He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same," and then adds the now-famous declaration, "I am Heathcliff" (p.92). When Cathy dies in childbirth, fainting in his arms while her husband Edgar looks on, Heathcliff's despair knows no bounds. According to Nelly, "he dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears" (p.176). Heathcliff literally prays to Cathy, asking that her ghost haunt him. His plea is granted. A full generation later, after his scheme to join his son Linton and Cathy's daughter Catherine is foiled, Heathcliff, still haunted by his vision of his long-dead paramour, starves himself into extinction.
The seminal setting of Wuthering Heights is the wild landscape of the Yorkshire Moors, a windswept terrain of exquisitely raw beauty and harsh peril. The central characters in the novel are closely associated with the forces of nature. In her critical disclosure to Nelly, Cathy compares her love for Edgar to her feelings about the foliage in the woods, while saying of her passion for Heathcliff that it is akin to the "eternal rocks beneath" (p.92). Animals—rabbits, colts, and dogs—have key instrumental parts and symbolic roles in Brontë's novel. As we might anticipate, Heathcliff is often characterized in bestial terms, with Edgar Linton, for example, denouncing him a "a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man" (p.120). Years later, Heathcliff himself validates this assessment by saying that he has no pity for his intended victims or for anyone else.
There are a host of unanswered questions in Wuthering Heights that revolve around "unnatural" attitudes or behaviors. At the start of Nelly Dean's narration Lockwood (and the reader) is told that Mr. Earnshaw found the seven-year-old orphan Heathcliff in the streets of Liverpool and brought him to live at Wuthering Heights. The question naturally arises: What motivated Mr. Earnshaw to adopt this wild foundling? The Earnshaws name the boy Heathcliff after a son who died in infancy, but this too strikes an unnatural chord (with some Brontë critics suggesting that Heathcliff is Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate child). Their other son, Hindley,...
(The entire section is 1629 words.)