Chapters 15–17 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1610

Chapter 15:

Lockwood eventually gets Nelly to resume her story. Several days after her visit to Wuthering Heights, she gives Heathcliff’s letter to Catherine while Edgar is away at church. Catherine is too weak to understand or even hold the letter, but she perks up when she realizes that it is from Heathcliff. Just then, Heathcliff strides into the room. He rushes over to Catherine, and the two share an intense embrace.

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Heathcliff is devastated to see that Catherine is obviously approaching death. Catherine, seeing his anguish, accuses him and Edgar of breaking her heart and causing her death. Becoming more and more upset, she continues to abuse Heathcliff, saying that he will move on with his life and forget her when she dies. Heathcliff forcefully denies this and begs her not to torture him, reminding her that her harsh words will hurt him all the more after she is gone and at peace. Seeing that she has hurt Heathcliff, Catherine declares that death cannot bring her peace, for it will mean she is separated from him. Once again, they frantically embrace as Heathcliff miserably asks Catherine why she betrayed her own heart and married Edgar. Catherine begs for his forgiveness, and Heathcliff replies that while he can forgive what she has done to him, he does not know how to forgive what she has done to herself.

Nelly, knowing Edgar will return soon, urges the lovers to part ways. As Edgar approaches the house, Heathcliff tries to extract himself from Catherine’s arms, but she begs him to stay. Catherine loses consciousness just before Edgar enters the room. Heathcliff cuts off Edgar’s protests by placing Catherine’s body in his arms, ordering him to help her. Eventually, Nelly and Edgar are able to awaken Catherine, though she is confused and does not recognize them. Heathcliff vows to remain nearby and goes outside to wait in the garden. 

Chapter 16:

Later that night, Catherine gives birth to a premature baby girl. Although the baby survives, Catherine dies within hours of the birth. Aware that Heathcliff is still waiting in the yard, Nelly struggles with how to break the news. When she finally approaches him, however, he declares he already knows. Attempting to console him, Nelly says that Catherine looks at peace. To her surprise, Heathcliff curses Catherine and says that he hopes she is forced to haunt him as a ghost until he, too, dies.

Though Edgar stands watch over Catherine’s coffin, he is eventually forced to rest. While he is away, Nelly takes pity on Heathcliff and allows him to come inside and see Catherine one last time. After he leaves, Nelly notices that he discarded the lock of Edgar’s hair that was in Catherine’s locket and replaced it with a lock of his own hair. Nelly twines the two locks together and places them both in the locket. Hindley is invited to his sister’s funeral but does not show up, and Isabella is not even invited. To the surprise of the villagers, Catherine is buried in a secluded and overgrown spot that overlooks the moors rather than in the Linton family tomb.

Chapter 17:

After Catherine’s funeral, Nelly is started when Isabella, soaking wet, bruised, and bleeding from the neck, unexpectedly shows up at Thrushcross Grange. Isabella explains that she has run all the way from Wuthering Heights and asks Nelly to have a carriage ordered immediately to take her away. Nelly convinces her to change her clothes and allow her wounds to be treated, and once Isabella has had a chance to calm down, she explains how she came to be in such a state.

Flinging her wedding ring into the fire and vowing revenge on Heathcliff, Isabella explains that the situation at Wuthering Heights has become much more violent. Hindley intended to go to Catherine’s funeral but ultimately could not face it and spent all day drinking heavily instead. Later that night, Hindley locked Heathcliff out of the house and took out his weapon, intending to kill Heathcliff upon his return. When Heathcliff demanded to be let in, Isabella warned him that Hindley intended to kill him and suggested that he spend the night elsewhere. Instead, Heathcliff forced his way into the house and, turning Hindley’s weapon on its owner, cut Hindley’s wrist deeply before beating and kicking him.

The next morning, Isabella had to tell Hindley why he was injured, as he did not remember. Isabella then told Hindley that Catherine’s death was caused by Heathcliff. Having overheard her, Heathcliff began to sob, and Isabella, delighted by his rare moment of weakness, continued to insult him. Heathcliff grew enraged and threw a knife at Isabella, wounding her neck and causing her flight to Thrushcross Grange. After telling Nelly this story, Isabella leaves and never returns to the area. Isabella ends up settling near London and gives birth to a sickly baby boy named Linton a few months after leaving. Edgar resumes correspondence with Isabella after learning that she has left Heathcliff. Nelly reveals that Isabella died when young Linton was twelve—about thirteen years after Catherine’s funeral.

Although he is devastated by the loss of his wife, Edgar takes comfort in his newborn daughter—named Catherine after her mother. Six months after the elder Catherine’s death, Nelly hears that Hindley has also died. Sad over the death of her childhood companion, Nelly convinces Edgar to let her help with Hindley’s funeral and reminds him that, as Hareton’s only family, Edgar should bring him to be raised at Thrushcross Grange. After discussing Hindley’s affairs with an attorney, Nelly realizes that Wuthering Heights has been heavily mortgaged to Heathcliff, who is now acting as the de facto owner. Heathcliff promises to take young Linton away from Isabella if Edgar tries to take Hareton away from him, and Edgar quickly gives in. Nelly explains that to this day, Hareton lives as a servant to his father’s greatest rival in a house that should have been his birthright, completely ignorant of how he has been wronged.

Analysis:

Nelly's revelations in these chapters help make sense of Mr. Lockwood’s previous encounter with Catherine’s ghost and Heathcliff’s subsequent reaction. Readers learn that Heathcliff actually prayed for Catherine to torment him from the grave, believing that this will allow them to, in some sense, remain together. These chapters more than any others illustrate the obsessive and brutal nature of Catherine and Heathcliff’s love. Indeed, the term “love” may be an inaccurate description of what is unarguably a destructive and unhealthy attachment to one another. Their connection is often compared to a force of nature, and like nature, it is savage. Nelly speaks to the near inhuman ferocity of their attachment, describing how Heathcliff “foamed like a mad dog” as he violently embraced Catherine.

The violence of Heathcliff and Catherine's feelings is further reflected through their words as they exchange barbed accusations that seem calculated to inflict maximum emotional distress. Utterly destroyed by their impending separation, they each accuse the other of bringing about this pain. When Catherine unfairly accuses Heathcliff and Edgar of breaking her heart, Heathcliff angrily asks her why she abandoned him for Edgar in the first place, declaring, “I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.”

Eventually Catherine decides to forgive Heathcliff and pleads for his forgiveness in return: “If I've done wrong, I'm dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won't upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!” Despite Catherine’s pleas, Heathcliff declares that he cannot forgive what she has done to herself, and Heathcliff’s inability to find closure during this final encounter likely contributes greatly to his suffering after her death.

Edgar demonstrates a surprising understanding of Catherine’s deeper nature when he chooses to have her buried in a wild spot overlooking her beloved moors rather than in the more conventional family tomb. His obvious grief over Catherine’s passing is compounded by the fact that he lacks a male heir. Due to the particular way Edgar’s property is entailed, it will pass to Isabella and her son rather than his daughter. Of course, Heathcliff’s obvious plan is to take de facto control of Thrushcross Grange when it is inherited by his wife and son. Despite his disappointment that Cathy is a girl, Edgar proves to be a good and doting father to her.

Comparing Edgar to Hindley, Nelly astutely observes that while Hindley may have seemed outwardly tougher, it is actually Edgar who possesses the most strength of character. Hindley allowed himself to be swallowed up by despair and vice after the death of his wife, but when faced with a similar situation, Edgar pulls himself together for the sake of his child. Edgar's reaction to Catherine's death also invites contrast with Heathcliff, who is quite literally haunted by loss and regret. Edgar is often described as a coward or weakling in comparison to Heathcliff; however, Edgar’s determination to keep on living after after his wife's untimely death arguably takes far more courage than Heathcliff’s destructive quest for revenge.

With Catherine’s and Hindley’s deaths marking the halfway point of the novel, the focus of the story will now shift to the original characters’ children: young Cathy Linton, Linton Heathcliff, and Hareton Earnshaw. The fact that none of these young individuals are responsible for the faults of their parents will prove immaterial to Heathcliff, who will now enact his revenge on a whole new generation.

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