The first three chapters of the novel are narrated by Mr. Lockwood as a recollection from his diary several years after the events took place in 1801. Lockwood, a native of London, rents Thrushcross Grange, in the desolate Yorkshire moors, in order to enjoy some solitude. On a visit to his landlord Heathcliff’s residence, Wuthering Heights, he encounters some unusually unhappy people: Cathy, Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law, whom Lockwood at first mistakes for his wife; Hareton Earnshaw, an ill-bred young man whose social status leaves Lockwood confused; Joseph, the snarling, rude servant; and Zillah, the only helpful person there. Most forbidding is Heathcliff himself, a man whom Lockwood describes as even more unsociable than he.
Due to a raging snowstorm on his subsequent visit, Lockwood is forced to spend the night. While sleeping, he dreams of a ghostly child, identifying herself as Catherine Linton, grabbing at his arm and trying to get in through a broken window pane. Heathcliff is devastated to hear the dream and orders Lockwood downstairs so he can beg for the spirit to reappear.
Relieved to get away from this unhappy, strange house, Lockwood returns to the Grange. His housekeeper, Nelly, takes over from him as the narrator, due to his prodding about the inhabitants of the Heights. Her narrative returns to her childhood, some thirty years earlier, when she was a servant at the Heights. She was working for the Earnshaw family, and growing up with their two children, Hindley and Catherine, a beautiful, but wild spirited girl.
One day, Mr. Earnshaw had returned from a trip to Liverpool with a swarthy street orphan, who he intended to raise with his own children, against the wishes of his family. The boy is named Heathcliff, after a son who had died in infancy. Catherine and Heathcliff soon become close friends, but Hindley views Heathcliff as a rival for his father’s affections. Indeed, Mr. Earnshaw does prefer Heathcliff to his own son, whom he views as a disappointment. Hindley’s treatment of Heathcliff causes sufficient household friction that Hindley is sent away to college. Soon after, Mr. Earnshaw dies.
Hindley returns home for the funeral with a wife, Frances, upon whom he dotes. Redoubling his hatred for Heathcliff, Hindley relegates him to servile status, causing Catherine much unhappiness. She and Heathcliff are frequently punished, but escape to play on the moors.
During one such escape, the two venture to Thrushcross Grange, home of the Linton family and their children, Edgar and Isabella. Catherine, attacked by one of the dogs, is affectionately cared for, while Heathcliff is turned away for appearing to be a villain. When Catherine returns home after a five-week convalescence, she has become a well-mannered young lady. Taking pleasure in humiliating Heathcliff, Hindley tells him to come greet Catherine as if he were one of the servants. Later, when Edgar and Isabella come to visit, Hindley treats Heathcliff with particular humiliation. Heathcliff swears revenge on Hindley, even if it takes a lifetime.
Frances dies giving birth to a son, Hareton. Anguished, Hindley soon becomes lost in alcoholic madness. Meanwhile, Catherine tells Nelly that she will marry Edgar because Heathcliff is socially beneath her. Overhearing, Heathcliff runs away before Catherine admits how profoundly she loves him.
Three years later, Edgar and Catherine marry. Heathcliff returns, moving in with Hindley in order to gain his revenge by inducing him to gamble away all his money. A frequent visitor to the Lintons, Edgar soon becomes jealous of his wife’s attachment to Heathcliff, and orders him to leave. Heathcliff gets his revenge on Edgar by eloping with Edgar’s sister, Isabella. Although he despises her, Heathcliff marries Isabella in order to inherit her money. Catherine becomes dangerously ill, and dies after giving birth to a daughter, Cathy.
Treated contemptibly by Heathcliff, Isabella runs away to the South, where she gives birth to a sickly son, Linton. Upon her death, Edgar tries to keep Linton, but Heathcliff demands custody. Raising his daughter to avoid Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants, Cathy forgets about Linton until she sees him by accident some years later.
Heathcliff’s revenge against the Earnshaw and Linton families includes garnering all their property for himself. He already possesses the Earnshaw estate, leaving Hareton an illiterate farmworker, completely dependent on Heathcliff. Heathcliff plans to do the same to Cathy, by forcing her to marry Linton, who cannot live past his teens, and therefore control all her inheritance as well.
It is now 1802, and Nelly has brought Lockwood up to date with her history. The story continues. Heathcliff succeeds in accomplishing his plans. Edgar and Linton are dead, and Cathy is as penniless and dependent as Hareton. When the two cousins fall in love, Heathcliff realizes he is no longer interested in destroying anything. He becomes obsessed with a vision of his beloved Catherine’s spirit hovering nearby, waiting for him to join her. Within three days of his vision, Heathcliff dies and is buried according to his wishes, alongside Catherine. Local legend claims that their spirits haunt the moors.
Hareton and Cathy plan to marry on New Year’s Day, moving back to Thrushcross Grange, and taking Nelly with them. Lockwood returns to London.
Estimated Reading Time
This is a lengthy book. Unless the reader is accustomed to the style of a Victorian novel, he or she may have difficulty understanding the language. Furthermore, Brontë occasionally has her characters speak in phonetic Yorkshire dialect. Therefore, an inexperienced reader will have to read slowly and carefully. The entire book can be read over a period of forty hours, less if the reader has some familiarity with nineteenth century literature.
First published in 1847, Wuthering Heights is an enduring gothic romance filled with intrigue and terror. It is set in the northern England countryside, where the weather fluctuates in sudden extremes and where bogs can open underfoot of unsuspecting night venturers. Under this atmospheric dome of brooding unpredictability, Brontë explores the violent and unpredictable elements of human passion. The story revolves around the tempestuous romance between Heathcliff, an orphan who is taken home to Wuthering Heights on impulse, and Catherine Earnshaw, a strong-willed girl whose mother died delivering her and who becomes Heathcliff’s close companion.
The setting is central to the novel. Both action and characters can be understood in terms of two households. Wuthering Heights, overtaken by the sinister usurper, Heathcliff, becomes a dark, winter world of precipitous acts that lead to brutality, vengeance, and social alienation. What Wuthering Heights lacks in history, education, and gregariousness is supplied by the more springlike Thrushcross Grange, where the fair-haired Lintons live in the human world of reason, order, and gentleness. Unfortunately, these less passionate mortals are subject to the indifferent forces of nature, dying in childbirth and of consumption too easily. They are subject to Heathcliff’s wrath as well, losing all assets and independence to him.
Brontë uses the element of unpredictability to spur the action in Wuthering Heights, which adds excitement and suspense at every turn and enlivens the characters by infusing them with the characteristic storminess of the moorland weather. Seemingly chance events gather like ominous clouds to create the passionate tale of Heathcliff and Catherine. They are brought together by chance and are left to roam the moor together, far from the world of shelter and discipline, when Catherine’s father dies, leaving her tyrannical brother, Hindley, in charge. Accident also accounts for Catherine’s introduction to the more refined world of Thrushcross Grange, when she is bitten by a watchdog while spying on her cousins, who then rescue her. Even Heathcliff’s angry departure and vowed vengeance is the result of eavesdropping, hearing only what he could mistake for rejection, and not Catherine’s true feelings for him.
In Heathcliff’s character, Brontë explores the great destructive potential of unrestrained passion. In him, human emotion is uncontrollable and deadly. In the ghostly union of Catherine and Heathcliff beyond the grave, however, Brontë suggests the metaphysical nature of love and the potential of passion to project itself beyond the physical realm of existence.
The ending of Wuthering Heights depicts Brontë’s final answer to the theme of destructive passion—the answer of mercy and forgiveness, which Brontë holds to be the supreme quality in human beings. Hareton, whom Heathcliff once unwittingly saved from death and then forever after abused, forgives his captor for everything. This forgiveness is accompanied by the mercy that Catherine Linton shows Hareton, teaching him to read after years of mocking his ignorance. Together, these acts of grace nullify the deadly effects of their keeper, who dies soon afterward. The passion of winter becomes the compromise of spring; the storm has passed, and life continues in harmony at last.