Illustration of a tree on a hill with a women's head in the background

Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

Start Free Trial

Wuthering Heights Summary

Wuthering Heights is a multigenerational story of love and revenge that revolves around the inhabitants of a desolate farmhouse called Wuthering Heights. Here are some quick plot points: 

  • Heathcliff, an orphan boy, and Catherine are raised together at Wuthering Heights. Despite the difference in their social position, they eventually fall in love. 

  • Though she loves Heathcliff, Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton, a wealthy neighbor. Bitter over her rejection, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights. Years later, he returns and marries Edgar’s sister for her money.

  • Catherine dies after giving birth to a daughter. Devastated by Catherine's death, Heathcliff is determined to enact his revenge on Edgar and the next generation.

Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated June 20, 2023.

What Happens:

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is a novel set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Yorkshire moors of England. The story primarily revolves around the lives of two families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons. Mr. Earnshaw, the owner of the Wuthering Heights estate, brings home a young orphan boy named Heathcliff from Liverpool. This decision brings about profound changes in the lives of everyone involved.

Although an outsider, Heathcliff develops a deep bond with Mr. Earnshaw's daughter, Catherine Earnshaw. Despite their mutual affection, Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton, a wealthy gentleman from a neighboring estate called Thrushcross Grange. This decision is influenced by Catherine's desire for social status and material comfort. Heathcliff, as an adopted child from a poor family, cannot offer either..

Heartbroken by Catherine's marriage, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights for several years. During his absence, Catherine gives birth to a daughter named Cathy and falls ill, eventually passing away. Heathcliff returns to find Catherine's ghost haunting him, tormenting him with her memory.

Driven by his intense love for Catherine, Heathcliff seeks revenge on those he believes have wronged him. He manipulates and mistreats others, particularly the next generation of Earnshaws and Lintons. Hindley Earnshaw, Catherine's older brother and the new owner of Wuthering Heights, falls victim to Heathcliff's scheming and alcoholism, ultimately dying in poverty.

Heathcliff's vengeance extends to the Lintons as well. He forces Cathy, Catherine's daughter, to marry his son, Linton Heathcliff, in an attempt to gain control over Thrushcross Grange's lands and wealth. However, Linton's death leaves Cathy widowed and vulnerable.

As the story progresses, a complicated web of relationships and conflicts emerges. Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley's son, falls in love with Cathy, and they develop a genuine affection for each other. Their relationship represents a contrast to the destructive and turbulent love between Heathcliff and Catherine.

Heathcliff's relentless quest for revenge ultimately consumes him. Consumed by guilt and loneliness, he becomes a shell of his former self. His death finally ends the cycle of hatred and suffering that has plagued Wuthering Heights for generations.

Why it Matters:

Wuthering Heights holds significant importance in English literature due to its exploration of themes such as love, revenge, and the destructive nature of obsession. The novel deftly explores the complexities of human emotions, shedding light on the darker aspects of love and its ability to both elevate and destroy lives.

Emily Brontë's portrayal of Heathcliff as a tormented and vengeful main character highlights the destructive power of unrequited love and the consequences of harboring resentment. Heathcliff's relentless pursuit of revenge exposes the harmful effects it has on himself and those around him.

The novel also reflects the societal and class divisions of its time. The contrasting settings of Wuthering Heights, representing the wild and untamed moors, and Thrushcross Grange, symbolizing order and refinement, serve as a backdrop for the clash between social classes and its impact on relationships and generations of families.

Brontë employs various literary devices to enhance the narrative, including dual narration, shifting perspectives, and the motif of ghosts, both literal and imagined. The dual narration by Mr. Lockwood, an outsider, and Nelly Dean, a servant with intimate knowledge of the characters, provides different viewpoints and adds depth to the storytelling.

Historically, Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 during the Victorian era, a time marked by strict social conventions and expectations. The novel challenges these conventions by portraying unconventional characters who defy societal norms, emphasizing the individual's struggle against expectations made by their class or family.

Plot Summary: 

Wuthering Heights is narrated through the diary of a man named Mr. Lockwood as he writes down both his own experiences and the recollections of others. Desiring solitude, Lockwood has recently begun renting Thrushcross Grange, a remote house in the Yorkshire Moors of Northern England.

One day, he decides to visit Wuthering Heights, the nearby home of his new landlord, Heathcliff. At Wuthering Heights, Lockwood encounters several strange and unpleasant characters: Cathy, Heathcliff’s beautiful but rude daughter-in-law; Hareton Earnshaw, an uncivilized yet prideful young man; Joseph, a surly old servant; and Heathcliff, the misanthropic owner of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.

Mystified by the obvious animosity between the occupants of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood returns for a second visit but is forced to spend the night when a snowstorm hits. In the middle of the night, Lockwood is awakened by a ghostly child who calls herself Catherine Linton and begs to be let in through the window.

Utterly terrified, Lockwood wakes Heathcliff, who then proceeds to throw open the window and call out to the ghost, begging it to return. Desperate to leave this haunted house and its eerie residents, Lockwood sets off for Thrushcross Grange as soon as possible.

After returning home, Lockwood asks the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange, Nelly Dean, whether she knows anything about the strange occupants of Wuthering Heights. Nelly explains that she grew up as a servant at the Heights and is well acquainted with the history of the house.

Taking over the narration, Nelly begins her story nearly thirty years earlier, when Wuthering Heights was owned by the Earnshaw family: Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw and their two young children, Catherine and Hindley. One day, Mr. Earnshaw returns from a trip with a swarthy young orphan boy, who the family later names Heathcliff. Catherine warms to Heathcliff and the two become fast friends, while Hindley, jealous of Mr. Earnshaw’s obvious preference for his adopted son, resents and abuses Heathcliff.

As the conflict between Heathcliff and Hindley grows, Mr. Earnshaw finally decides to resolve the situation by sending Hindley away to college. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley returns from school with his new wife, Frances, and takes control of Wuthering Heights.

Almost immediately, Hindley reduces Heathcliff to the position of a servant. Though Heathcliff’s life is now full of difficult and degrading work, his friendship with Catherine keeps him going. Hindley is utterly devoted to Frances and, as a result, gives little thought to Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s upbringing. Largely unmonitored, they spend their childhoods wandering through the moors and misbehaving together.

On one of their adventures, they sneak over to nearby Thrushcross Grange, where the refined Linton family resides. After the children are attacked by the Lintons’ dogs while spying through the windows, the Lintons take Catherine in but turn Heathcliff—who they call a “frightful thing”—away. Catherine stays with the Lintons for several weeks as her dog bite heals. When Catherine finally returns to Wuthering Heights, she dresses and acts more like a lady. To humiliate Heathcliff, Hindley orders him to greet Catherine like all the other servants.

Catherine insensitively calls Heathcliff dirty, comparing him to her elegant and pristine new friends, Edgar and Isabella Linton. When Mr. and Mrs. Linton allow young Edgar and Isabella to visit Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff lashes out at Edgar after being humiliated yet again by Hindley. Young Heathcliff vows revenge on Hindley, though Nelly counsels him to learn to forgive.

Frances eventually gives birth to a son, Hareton, though she dies soon after. Devastated, Hindley sinks into alcoholism, becoming even more erratic and abusive. During this time, Edgar Linton begins to court Catherine, who often feels caught in the middle of Edgar’s and Heathcliff’s animosity toward one another.

One day, Catherine tells Nelly that Edgar has proposed and she has accepted. Catherine admits, however, that she would have gladly married Heathcliff over Edgar had Hindley not made him a lowly servant. Unbeknownst to Catherine, Heathcliff overhears her, and after hearing Catherine say it would “degrade” her to marry him, he leaves Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff thus does not hear the rest of Catherine and Nelly’s conversation, during which Catherine explains how deeply she loves Heathcliff.

After three years, Catherine and Edgar are married and live at Thrushcross Grange with Edgar’s sister, Isabella. Heathcliff finally returns, having mysteriously acquired a fortune during his time away. To everyone’s surprise, Heathcliff stays at Wuthering Heights with Hindley, who has now become a degenerate gambler.

Catherine is overjoyed to see Heathcliff once more, and he soon becomes a regular visitor at Thrushcross Grange. Edgar, however, still dislikes Heathcliff and is uncomfortable with Catherine and Heathcliff’s unusual relationship. Knowing that Isabella is the heir to Edgar’s property, Heathcliff begins courting her. A confrontation finally occurs between Heathcliff, Catherine, and Edgar, and Heathcliff is ordered to leave by Edgar.

The stress of the situation causes Catherine to fall ill, and she remains mentally and physically weak for months. Meanwhile, Heathcliff elopes with Isabella, causing Edgar to cut off all communication with Isabella. Increasingly frail, Catherine dies soon after giving birth to a daughter, who is also named Catherine. 

Heathcliff is devastated by Catherine’s death and vows revenge on Edgar. Isabella eventually flees the increasingly abusive and violent atmosphere at Wuthering Heights for London. Several months later, she gives birth to a son, Linton Heathcliff, whom she raises alone. Upon Hindley’s death, Nelly realizes that Wuthering Heights has been mortgaged extensively to Heathcliff, who is now the de facto owner.

As the years pass, Edgar is a doting father to young Cathy, though he takes pains to conceal the existence of Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights from her. When Isabella dies, Edgar tries to adopt Linton (now twelve), but he is thwarted by Heathcliff, who demands that his son come to live with him at Wuthering Heights.

Several years later, Cathy accidentally discovers both Wuthering Heights and her cousin Linton. This meeting puts Heathcliff’s larger revenge plot into motion: by forcing Cathy to marry the terminally ill Linton, Heathcliff ensures that he will gain control over both Edgar’s daughter and his family home.

Heathcliff eventually succeeds by kidnapping Cathy and forcing her to marry Linton. Edgar dies and Linton inherits Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff compels Cathy to move to Wuthering Heights, and Linton dies soon after, bequeathing all of his property to Heathcliff.

The story has now caught up to the present, and Lockwood’s earlier visit to Wuthering Heights confirms that Heathcliff’s revenge has been a success. Heathcliff has raised Hindley’s promising son, Hareton, as a rude, uneducated servant, mirroring what Hindley once did to young Heathcliff. Heathcliff has also taken revenge on Edgar by gaining ownership of Thrushcross Grange and making Edgar’s beloved daughter miserable in the process. Disgusted by the whole affair, Lockwood decides to leave the area.

Several months later, Lockwood visits Wuthering Heights once more. He is surprised to hear that Heathcliff is dead, his desire for revenge having been overshadowed by his desire to be reunited with Catherine. According to Nelly, Heathcliff began behaving strangely and claimed he was “within sight of heaven” after spending a night wandering on the moors.

A few days later, he died. Since his death, several villagers claim to have seen Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s ghosts walking through the moors. Lockwood is surprised to hear that Cathy and Hareton are now in love and plan to be married in the New Year. Nelly tells Lockwood that she and the young couple plan to move back into Thrushcross Grange after the wedding.

Leaving Wuthering Heights, Lockwood wanders over to the graves of Edgar, Catherine, and Heathcliff, certain in the belief that they are finally at peace.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Next

Chapter Summaries