Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156
Heathcliff and Isabella stay away for two months, during which time Edgar slavishly nurses Catherine. Although Catherine eventually recovers some of her strength, she remains mentally and physically weak. Nelly and Edgar are given another reason to hope for Catherine’s full recovery when it becomes apparent that she is pregnant. The pregnancy holds extra significance in light of Isabella’s recent elopement, as a male heir will cut off Heathcliff’s claim to Edgar’s property.
Several weeks after Isabella’s elopement, Nelly receives a letter from her that details what life with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights is like. Isabella begins her letter by asking Nelly whether Heathcliff is mad or even human. The rest of the chapter is given over to Isabella’s letter, in which she describes her first night at Wuthering Heights. After arriving and immediately being left alone by Heathcliff, Isabella attempts to befriend little Hareton, who proceeds to swear and threaten to set the dog on her. She fares no better with Joseph, who disgusts her by stirring the porridge with his bare hands. During Isabella’s brief encounter with Hindley, he warns her to lock the door at night, explaining that he checks Heathcliff’s door every night to see if it is locked, intending to shoot him if it is not.
Isabella is further distressed to realize that there is no maid or, in fact, any other woman in the household. When she tries to find a bedroom to sleep in, she realizes that Heathcliff’s room is locked, and she is forced to spend the night on a chair. When she brings this up to Heathcliff, he verbally abuses her and forbids her from staying in his room. Isabella explains that Heathcliff has found out about Catherine’s illness and, believing Edgar to be at fault, has promised to make Isabella “Edgar’s proxy in suffering.” Declaring that she has made a terrible mistake by marrying Heathcliff, Isabella begs Nelly to secretly come visit her.
Nelly informs Edgar of his sister’s unhappy situation, and even though he refuses to write or see Isabella, he allows Nelly to visit her. When Nelly arrives at Wuthering Heights, she notes that it is in a filthy state of decay. Isabella’s appearance has already begun to reflect her dismal surroundings, and her hair is limp and unkempt. In contrast, Heathcliff greets Nelly cordially, and she observes that he has never looked better. When Nelly accuses him of mistreating Isabella, Heathcliff responds that he never misled her as to his character and that it is not his fault Isabella deluded herself into thinking that he was a “hero of romance.” According to Heathcliff, Isabella even continued to pursue him after he hanged her pet dog right in front of her.
After sending Isabella away, Heathcliff turns the conversation to Catherine’s health, insisting that Nelly help him visit her. Nelly initially refuses, but when he threatens to imprison her at Wuthering Heights and make a scene at Thrushcross Grange, Nelly decides it might be wiser to acquiesce to his wishes for a secret meeting. Nelly agrees to take a letter from Heathcliff to Catherine, and though she feels bad about deceiving Edgar, she hopes that word from Heathcliff might brighten Catherine’s spirits.
Nelly’s story comes to an abrupt halt when the doctor arrives to see Mr. Lockwood. Later, Mr. Lockwood reflects on the beautiful young Catherine Heathcliff—Catherine and Edgar’s daughter—whom he recently met at Wuthering Heights. He thinks about what might happen if he allows himself to fall in love with her, only to realize she is just like her mother.
Heathcliff has now made significant progress in his quest for revenge. He has transformed Hareton from a sweet little boy into a crude savage and has offended Edgar by marrying Isabella. Heathcliff’s reappearance also serves as the catalyst for Catherine’s illness, though Heathcliff places the blame for this solely at Edgar’s feet. Within this section of the novel, two drastically different sides to Heathcliff emerge: one that is demonic and vengefully abusive and another that is heartbroken and devoted.
The complexity of Heathcliff’s character has long sparked debate among readers and scholars. Though he has no qualms about mistreating those around him, Heathcliff’s charismatic presence and unwavering devotion to Catherine make it strangely easy to overlook his cruel behavior. In some ways, Heathcliff resembles a classic dark, brooding Romantic hero; however, Brontë deliberately frustrates such a simple label by highlighting Heathcliff’s irrefutably cruel and sadistic nature. Indeed, Heathcliff seems to speak directly to readers who wish to romanticize him when he derides Isabella’s decision to forsake her family for him:
“She abandoned them under a delusion,” he answered; “picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character and acting on the false impressions she cherished.”
Though it is easy to fault Isabella’s foolishness in pursuing Heathcliff, her misplaced affection seems to parallel the generations of readers that have, likewise, been fascinated by Heathcliff. Heathcliff claims that Isabella “cannot accuse me of showing one bit of deceitful softness.” His brutality, he says, could not disgust her, as she appears to have an “innate admiration” of it.
Although Isabella—like many of the characters in the book—appears to be acting wholly irrationally, her choices reflect a uniquely human compulsion to pursue that which is harmful. Like Isabella, many readers have a difficult time writing Heathcliff off as simply evil, especially when his blatant cruelty is juxtaposed against his passionate devotion to Catherine. Further complicating matters is the fact that Heathcliff's desire for revenge is somewhat justified given Hindley’s abusive treatment and Catherine’s selfishness. In some ways, it is hard not to root for Heathcliff when he reappears after having defied the odds and become a wealthy gentleman in his own right, even as evidence of his ruthlessness accumulates.
Surrounded by more conventional figures such as Edgar and Isabella, Heathcliff’s undeniable charisma and sheer force of character tend to draw the attention and sympathy of readers away from the victims of his revenge—where, perhaps, it rightfully belongs. In crafting such a complex and mysterious character, Brontë seems to have intended for Heathcliff to defy simple explanation or analysis. Indeed, it seems that the other characters see in Heathcliff simply what they want or expect to see: Isabella sees him as a dangerous Romantic hero; Edgar sees him as a malevolent, threatening outsider; and Catherine sees him as the other half of her soul. Whether or not any of these interpretations are correct is left deliberately ambiguous, leaving the reader to make up their own mind about Heathcliff’s true nature.
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