Last Updated on June 27, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1424
As time goes by, Heathcliff becomes increasingly withdrawn and begins eating very infrequently. After spending an entire night rambling on the moors, he returns the next morning with a “strange joyful glitter in his eyes.” Heathcliff then goes into seclusion, refusing both food and medical attention. When Nelly asks what is going on, Heathcliff enigmatically replies that he is “within sight of heaven.” Nelly notices that even when he is conversing with her, Heathcliff seems to be following some invisible apparition with his eyes. In the evenings, Heathcliff can be heard pacing, groaning, and muttering Catherine’s name in his room. He continues to behave strangely, taking care to remind Nelly of his wish to be buried next to Catherine. Concerned, Nelly advises him to turn to God, though her suggestion falls on deaf ears. The next evening, it rains hard all night. When Nelly walks around the house in the morning, she sees that Heathcliff’s window is wide open and finds his dead body in bed, drenched with rain from the storm. Hareton is very upset by Heathcliff’s death, though he is alone in his sorrow. Ultimately, Heathcliff is buried next to Catherine as he requested—a decision that scandalizes the villagers. In the months following Heathcliff’s death, several people report seeing Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s ghosts wandering together through the moors. Nearing the end of her tale, Nelly explains that Cathy and Hareton will be married on New Year’s Day. They are all planning to live at Thrushcross Grange, leaving Joseph to tend Wuthering Heights. As Cathy and Hareton return from a walk, Lockwood feels suddenly compelled to leave. He wanders through the moors to the churchyard where Heathcliff has been recently buried. There, he sees for himself the graves of Edgar and Heathcliff with Catherine’s grave between them. Seeing the beautiful flowers that bloom over the graves and feeling the gentle summer breeze from the moors, Lockwood feels certain that the three people below are finally at peace.
Although Heathcliff is certainly not wholly redeemed in these last chapters, the abandonment of his revenge plot coupled with his increasing desire to be reunited with Catherine restores some of the reader’s sympathy for him. Heathcliff has been the dominating figure throughout the book, though he begins to recede from the storyline in the final chapters. This diminished presence foreshadows his impending death; the more he fixates on Catherine, the less he is tethered to the human world. After a night roaming on the moors, Heathcliff returns full of a strange, wild joy, the implication being that he has had some kind of supernatural experience with Catherine’s spirit. From that point on, he stops eating and shuts himself off from human company, signifying both his decision to embrace death and his rejection of the mortal world. Whereas it was once figuratively true, it is now literally the case that Heathcliff’s desire to be with Catherine is all that sustains him. As Heathcliff continues to wither away, Nelly notices him watching an invisible apparition, which we can only assume is Catherine:
“Now, I perceived he was not looking at the wall; for when I regarded him alone, it seemed exactly that he gazed at something within two yards' distance. And whatever it was, it communicated, apparently, both pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes: at least the anguished, yet raptured, expression of his countenance suggested that idea. The fancied object was not fixed, either: his eyes pursued it with unwearied diligence, and, even in speaking to me, were never weaned away.”
This mysterious apparition seems to confirm Heathcliff’s belief that he is on the very brink of death or, as he sees it, reunion with Catherine. As Heathcliff approaches death, his inner torment is expressed increasingly through his appearance. Haunted as he is, Heathcliff begins to resemble something ghostlike himself: “Those deep black eyes! That smile, and ghastly paleness! It appeared to me, not Mr. Heathcliff, but a goblin.” This demonic transformation foreshadows what happens after his death: multiple people report having seen his ghost walking the moors with Catherine. The repeated references to superstition in the final chapters of the novel reinforce the idea that Heathcliff and Catherine’s love is, itself, supernatural, seemingly unrestrained by the laws of nature.
Although the narrative has been centered on Heathcliff, at the end of the novel, he remains a mystery to the reader, in large part due to his portrayal as an “unnatural”—and thereby indecipherable—outsider. Ultimately, it is not clear whether Heathcliff will find peace with Catherine in the afterlife or whether, even in death, he will continue to be tormented. Indeed, it is difficult for many readers to decide whether they want to see Heathcliff punished for his sins or whether they think he deserves to finally be at peace. This uncertainty as to Heathcliff’s character is echoed by Nelly, who recalls her own frustration in trying to come up with an inscription for his grave. In the end, the grave is inscribed with the single word “Heathcliff.” The absence of basic information—such as a date of birth or surname—reminds us how little is really ever known about Heathcliff. At the same time, the fact that the grave is marked only with the word “Heathcliff” also alludes to the remarkable singularity of his character.
Despite the dramatic and painful events that have dominated the novel, Wuthering Heights ends on a relatively calm note. Cathy and Hareton are to be married, with their New Year’s wedding date symbolizing a new beginning for the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff’s death allows Hareton to reclaim his birthright by becoming the owner of Wuthering Heights. Furthermore, Hareton’s romantic and educational pursuits show that his emotional and mental debasement is quickly being reversed. We also see that order is restored to Cathy’s life as she regains her ability to give and receive love through her relationship with Hareton. Once again part of a loving relationship, Cathy appears to finally be reclaiming the happiness she felt when she lived at Thrushcross Grange with her father. As Lockwood looks out over the seemingly tranquil graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff, he wonders “how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Though some have criticized the ending of Wuthering Heights as unrealistic and out of character given the darkness and malevolence that pervade the rest of the story, there are several points to consider here. First and foremost, Lockwood’s conduct throughout the novel has taught us to be suspicious of his judgment. While he proclaims that the dead must surely be at peace, Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s behavior throughout the novel suggests otherwise. Heathcliff himself rejects the notion of a tranquil Christian afterlife: “No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me—I tell you I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me.” Heathcliff’s indifference to paradise recalls young Catherine’s dream of being so miserable in heaven that the angels “flung [her] out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights.” The references to Catherine’s ghost throughout the novel certainly suggest that she has not been quietly at peace, and the sightings of both Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s ghosts leave the nature of their eternal rest ambiguous.
Although Brontë’s decision to end the novel with a traditional romance and wedding seems to conform to the Victorian ideals of the time, it is important to remember that, as a whole, Wuthering Heights sharply departed from convention. Catherine and Heathcliff, arguably the two most important characters in the novel, utterly reject civilized Christian behavior in their all-consuming desire to be together. Furthermore, unlike the classic Romantic hero who comes to reflect critically upon his past misdeeds, Heathcliff does not care about the moral implications of his behavior: “I have nothing to regret.” When it was published in 1847, many critics denounced Wuthering Heights for its immorality and scandalous brutality, and Emily Brontë died thinking that the book was a critical failure. Over 150 years later, Wuthering Heights is now considered one of the greatest English novels of all time. Just as Brontë once shocked her nineteenth-century audience, her novel continues to challenge new generations of readers with its unsettling yet compelling depiction of the obsessive passion and unrestrained savagery lurking within an isolated house on the moors.
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