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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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Critically examine the narrative techniques employed in Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights makes skillful use of complex narration, flashback structure, and foreshadowing to tell its story.

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The most prominent narrative technique in Wuthering Heights is Emily Bronte's complex use of narrative structure and narration. A more standard telling of the story would follow Heathcliff's history from his arrival at Wuthering Heights until his death years later. Even the use of a frame narrative is not in and of itself radical: Bronte could have simply had Nelly tell the story to Lockwood and have left it at that. Instead, Bronte intersperses several narrators throughout the story, even going as far as to have narrations within narrations.

For example, much of the story is told by Nelly Dean, but even her narration is being written down by Lockwood, who is the initial narrator and viewpoint character. And while Nelly's narration provides the bulk of the story, Lockwood also finds Catherine's diary entries the night he stays in her old bedroom at Wuthering Heights, providing direct insight into a part of Catherine and Heathcliff's childhood experience that Nelly would not have been aware of. Nelly also shares the contents of a letter Isabella wrote to her after marrying Heathcliff, giving the reader additional information of which Nelly alone would not have been aware.

While this unique narration style has inspired much praise on a technical level, the book's narrative structure also works well on a storytelling level. By introducing the characters and settings of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange through Lockwood's eyes in 1801, Bronte is making the reader curious. The reader might ask why everyone at the Heights is so miserable or what makes Heathcliff so powerful and cruel.

The novel also makes good use of foreshadowing, especially within Nelly's narration. For example, in her hunger-induced delirium, Catherine cries that

they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me, but I won't rest till you [Heathcliff] are with me!

This prefigures her ghost's haunting Heathcliff in the years after her death.

Nelly also foreshadows events directly in her narration, such as when little Cathy is born and everyone is too upset over Catherine's death to attend to the new baby:

An unwelcomed infant it was, poor thing! It might have wailed out of life, and nobody cared a morsel, during those first hours of existence. We redeemed the neglect afterwards; but its beginning was as friendless as its end is likely to be.

Nelly is looking back on this past event with knowledge of what will happen years down the line. The ominous last lines prefigure Cathy's miserable forced marriage to Linton and her current imprisonment at Wuthering Heights.

All of these techniques blend together to complement one of the novel's major themes: how the past is never past, but always affecting and sometimes even blending with the present.

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The outstanding feature of how the story in Wuthering Heights is told is the use of narrative point of view. The story is a complex layering of narratives. First, there is Lockwood's rental of the Grange and his encounter with Heathcliff in the opening...

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chapters; this soon gives way, however, to his account of Mrs. Dean's account of the history of the Heights. Mrs. Dean's story is a mixture of events she witnessed personally and stories that others have told her. In some cases, these second-hand stories include second-hand sources of their own. The effect, for an attentive reader, is like a hall of mirrors; there is hardly any immediate experience of the events in the book; our access to them is always through another person's memory.

The narrative structure is made even more problematic by the unreliability of Lockwood and Mrs. Dean as narrators. Lockwood's vanity and casual daydreaming about a romantic relationship with the younger Catherine suggest that his role as narrator is motivated by a wish for self-amusement, and it is in that spirit that he orders Mrs. Dean to give her exceedingly detailed account of Heathcliff and Cathy. For her part, Mrs Dean shows herself to be sanctimonious and a bit of a meddler, eager to assert her part in Heathcliff and Cathy's story. This casts doubt on the accuracy of her tale. She is one who loves to talk, and, finding Lockwood an eager audience, perhaps embellishes her tale in an effort to increase her own self-importance.

Despite her unreliability, Mrs. Dean is the person through whom we come to understand the nature of Heathcliff and Catherine's bond. Their passion is filtered through her perception. This lends the entire story a dreamlike quality, which is fitting, not only because dreams play a large role in the story, but also because there is a sense in which the knowledge of Heathcliff and Catherine's passion, which the book conveys, is impossible, or like a dream itself.

Like a dream, the book is full of impossible narrative circumstances (like Mrs. Dean's access to Catherine's interviews with Heathcliff or her dreamlike encounters with him in the garden at the Grange) which the reader simply accepts without questioning. In this way, the subject of the story, and the manner in which it is told, are at one.

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What is the narrative technique used in Wuthering Heights?

Much has been written about the narrative technique of this outstanding novel, and in particular the Gothic characteristics that it employs. Firstly, let us note that a framing narrative is used, where the main story, that of Heathcliff and Catherine, is framed by another story, which is Lockwood's sojourn in the Yorkshire moors. Let us also realise that the main narrator, Lockwood, is one that is shown to be completely unreliable from almost his opening words. Note the way he misinterprets Heathcliff as a character:

A perfect misanthropist's heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, when I announced my name.

As we go on to discover, Heathcliff is anything but a "capital fellow," and thus the vague indistinctness of this Gothic narrative is established, as not only are we narrated the tale overall by an unreliable narrator who does not come from Yorkshire and knows nothing of the manners and culture of the place, but the story also involves multiple narrators, creating different layers of narrative that add to the nebulous nature of the narrative. We have Lockwood telling us what Nelly tells him, but at times, Nelly only reports what others tell her, such as when Isabella flees Wuthering Heights. We need to penetrate through three or so layers of narration to try and discern the "truth" of what happened.

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