Wuthering Heights is a story of passionate love that encompasses two generations of two families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons. It is a framed tale narrated by two different characters, one with intimate knowledge of the families (Nelly Dean) and one unacquainted with their history. The first narrator is the stranger, Mr. Lockwood. A wealthy, educated man, Lockwood has chosen to rent a house in the isolated moors, saying that he has wearied of society. Yet his actions belie his words: He pursues a friendship with Heathcliff despite the latter’s objections and seeks information about all the citizens of the neighborhood. Lockwood is steeped in the conventions of his class, and he consistently misjudges the people he meets at Wuthering Heights. He assumes that Hareton Earnshaw, the rightful owner of Wuthering Heights, is a servant and that Catherine Linton is a demure wife to Heathcliff. His statements, even about himself, are untrustworthy, requiring the corrective of Nelly Dean’s narrative.
Lockwood cultivates Nelly Dean’s friendship when a long illness, brought on by his foolish attempt to visit Heathcliff during a snowstorm, keeps him bedridden for weeks. Nelly has been reared with the Earnshaws and has been a servant in both households. She has observed much of the central drama between the two families, but her statements, too, are colored by prejudice. Nelly dislikes Catherine Earnshaw, who behaved selfishly and treated the servants badly at times, and she supports Edgar Linton because he was a gentleman.
Through these two unreliable lenses are filtered the love stories of Catherine and Heathcliff, Catherine and Edgar, and in the second generation, Catherine Linton and Hareton Earnshaw. The antithesis of character—Heathcliff’s past is a blank, Edgar is a gentleman’s son; Heathcliff is dark and brooding, Edgar is fair and cannot conceal his feelings—is echoed with other oppositions. Wuthering Heights is an exposed, cold farmhouse; Thrushcross Grange is an orderly gentleman’s home with plush furnishings, warm fires, and an enclosed park. The houses, instead of places of safety, become literal prisons for the female characters, while the wild moors (which nearly kill Lockwood) represent freedom and naturalness of behavior.
Patterns of dualism and opposition are played out between the first and second generations as well. Heathcliff, the physically strongest father, has the weakest child, Linton Heathcliff. By dying young, Linton dissolves the triangular relationship that has so plagued the older generation, undermining Heathcliff’s influence. Hareton Earnshaw, abused like Heathcliff and demonstrating surprising similarities of character, nevertheless retains some sense of moral behavior and is not motivated by revenge. Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter, as willful and spirited as her mother, does not have to make the same difficult choice between passionate love and socially sanctioned marriage. Instead, Catherine Linton and Hareton Earnshaw are left to help each other and inherit the positive legacies of the past, enjoying both the social amenities of Thrushcross Grange and the natural environment of Wuthering Heights.