In Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is at the center of the plot's development.
Old Mr. Earnshaw (the master of Wuthering Heights) brings a seven-year old Heathcliff home one evening, an orphan he discovered in the Liverpool slums. Heathcliff becomes a member of the family to an extent: where Catherine takes to him quickly, Hindley, Catherine's brother, greatly resents Heathcliff, becoming abusive.
The years pass, and Catherine and Mr. Earnshaw are very dear to Heathcliff. Because of Heathcliff's demeanor, darkened by Hindley's treatment, Catherine admits that she could not marry him, and Heathcliff overhears this. Instead, Catherine becomes involved with Edgar Linton, new neighbors at a neighboring estate called Thrushcross Grange.
Feeling rejected, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights, not returning until well after Catherine and Edgar are married. By this time Mr. Earnshaw has died. Heathcliff's obsession is to do all he can to gain control of both estates and ruin the inhabitants of both.
When Catherine dies, Heathcliff begs her ghost to haunt him. He finds no comfort or escape from the pain of his loss, even though Catherine was still married to Edgar. The bond they shared since childhood had never been severed.
Heathcliff eventually marries Edgar's sister, Isabella, against Edgar's wishes. But Heathcliff is abusive (mad or evil, she fears) and she leaves him, pregnant with his son. For a time, Heathcliff continues his attempts to ruin all those around him, and eventually gains control of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. However, as time goes on, he loses the urge to damage the lives of others and finds little purpose in his own life.
Haunted by Catherine's ghost for days on end, Heathcliff starves himself and dies. His coffin is placed next to Catherine's: the side panels of each are left open so their ashes will be joined over the years. And those who walk the moors swear they see the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine "wandering their old playground."