What is the role of marriage in Wuthering Heights?
If we talk about marriage, the first thing that comes to the mind is that it is nothing but sheer commitment to a love partner. But in Wuthering Heights, marriage seems to have other roles as well.
Catherine Earnshaw is in deep, passionate love with Heathcliff. Even so she doesn’t marry him. She chooses to marry Edgar Linton. With Linton she knows she will get social rise and economic security and this Heathcliff can never give her. Moreover, she intends to help Heathcliff financially in a way by marrying Linton also.
...and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn't have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now...
After the death of Mr. Earnshaw, Hindley made Heathcliff’s life very difficult. From an adopted child, he got the status of a servant. This tells us about one crucial aspect of the society. It is that women had no economic freedom at that time and if they wanted to live a good life, marriage with rich men was the only solution.
Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella Linton is even more devastating. He marries her to take revenge against Edgar Linton, Isabella's brother, who married his love Catherine. He doesn’t love Isabella at all and beats her often. She suffers throughout her married life and dies eventually.
Heathcliff kidnaps young Cathy and forces her to marry his weak and ill son Linton. This marriage happens because he wants to acquire Edgar’s property, i.e. Thrushcross Grange. Cathy accepts this proposal on his condition to let her see her father before he dies. So, this marriage is fateful as other marriages as Linton dies soon after the marriage.
Marriages between Cathy and Hareton as well as, probably between Hindley and Francis are born out of love. They are an exception and good examples. Thus, the role of marriages in Wuthering Heights is getting social mobility, taking revenge, out of helplessness, or because of mutual love.
Marriage in Wuthering Heights is a reflection of marriage in England at that time, which is to say marriage was a social and/or economic contract where a prospective bride and groom married in hopes of obtaining more land, wealth, social status and prosperity than they currently possessed. Catherine Earnshaw marries Edgar Linton, her social and economic superior, to obtain the better home, money and land of Thrushcross Grange; this was a decision having nothing to do with love. Catherine actually loved Heathcliff, but wouldn't marry him because he was below her social station. Heathcliff, in turn, married a young lady named Isabella so that he could inherit her land, and then makes a concerted effort as he grows older to make the younger Catherine and Linton miserable in an arranged marriage, even as he acquires both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff's semi-lifelong quest to pay society back for the wrongs he believes he has suffered is similar in some ways to Miss Havisham's purposeful wreaking of pain in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham engages in a lengthy quest to create a hateful, hardened young lady in Estella, figure out a way to make a young man named Pip fall in love with Estella, and then ensure that Pip's heart is broken--the way her heart was broken by her fiance many years before.
Marriage functions in different ways for different characters in the novel. Nelly’s view of marriage is quite conventional; she sees it as a domestic ideal. For Catherine, a monogamous marriage is more problematic. Her ideal of Victorian marriage is consummated in her marriage with Edgar Linton; that does not satisfy her passionate sexual desires, but a marriage with Heathcliff would be socially degrading and not satisfy her need for comfort, security, and social position. Thus marriage as it existed in the period does not work out for her. Hareton is civilized by marriage. Edgar’s ideal is quiet domesticity.
In general, marriage appears to function well in the novel for the less passionate and more conventional characters, allowing them domestic comfort, but is disrupted by the emergence of visceral passions. If Thrushcross Grange and its domestic ideal is temporarily disrupted by Heathcliff, in the end it is reconstituted by the second Cathy, and thus conventional marriage, ironically, triumphs in the end.