Chapters 18–21 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on January 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1811
Nelly watches young Cathy grow up over the next twelve years. By the time Cathy is thirteen, she is beautiful, smart, and kind—though somewhat spoiled by her father. Cathy leads a very sheltered life, and at her father’s insistence, she is confined to the grounds of Thrushcross Grange and is told nothing about the existence of Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights. The spirited young Cathy continually begs to be allowed to venture beyond the confines of Thrushcross Grange to Penistone Crags, a rock outcropping on the moors that can be seen from her window. Knowing that Wuthering Heights is on the way to Penistone Crags, Edgar and Nelly refuse to let her go.
One day, Edgar leaves to visit his dying sister, intending to take young Linton into his care. During the three weeks in which Edgar is away, it is left to Nelly to entertain an increasingly bored Cathy. Cathy is allowed to ride her pony around the grounds, but when she fails to appear for tea one day, Nelly realizes that she must have set off for Penistone Crags on her own. Setting off in pursuit, Nelly stops at Wuthering Heights after noticing one of Cathy’s dogs in the yard. Cathy is inside, having visited Penistone Crags with Hareton, who is now eighteen. Nelly tries to convince Cathy to leave immediately, but Cathy resists. When Cathy realizes that Hareton is a servant and not, as she assumed, the son of the master of Wuthering Heights, her easy affection for him is quickly replaced with disdain.
Cathy is horrified when the maid at Wuthering Heights reveals—much to Nelly’s chagrin—that Hareton is actually Cathy’s cousin. Cathy refuses to believe it, and during her denials, she lets slip that her “real” cousin is in London being fetched by her father. Nelly, knowing that everything that is said will get back to Heathcliff, finally convinces Cathy to leave. On the way home, Nelly begs Cathy not to tell her father about the visit to Wuthering Heights, warning her that he might fire Nelly if he ever found out.
Once Isabella dies, Edgar writes that he will soon be returning to Thrushcross Grange and orders accommodations to be prepared for young Linton Heathcliff, who will be returning with him. Cathy is very excited about the arrival of her cousin and hopes that he will become her new playmate. When Linton finally arrives, both Edgar and Nelly warn Cathy that her cousin is not as strong or spirited as she is, especially given the recent death of his mother. Indeed, Linton begins crying almost immediately, sobbing that he does not want to sit on a chair. An exasperated Edgar tells Nelly that he hopes Linton’s weak health and babyish personality will improve now that he has a robust playmate his own age. The family is interrupted by the arrival of Joseph, who informs Edgar that he has been sent to fetch Heathcliff’s son. Frustrated in the knowledge that he has no legal claim to Linton, Edgar reluctantly agrees to send him to Wuthering Heights in the morning.
Desiring to protect Cathy and knowing there is nothing he can do for Linton, Edgar orders Nelly to take the boy to Wuthering Heights early in the morning. He decides to tell Cathy that Linton went away to live with his father and deliberately hides the fact that he lives nearby. Linton is very reluctant to leave Thrushcross Grange, especially as his mother apparently never mentioned his father to him. Linton asks why he has never met or heard of his father before, and Nelly lies and tells him that Heathcliff’s business and Isabella’s health prevented them from living in the same part of the country.
When they arrive at Wuthering Heights, Linton is terrified by the rough surroundings and Heathcliff’s intimidating presence. Heathcliff scorns his son’s weak and pale appearance and shocks Linton by calling his mother a “wicked slut.” Nelly asks Heathcliff to be kinder to Linton, given his frail condition. Heathcliff replies that he has already prepared a room for him and ordered Joseph and Hareton to obey him. Nelly tries to sneak away while Linton is distracted, but Linton notices and begs Nelly not to leave him at Wuthering Heights. Ignoring his pleas, Nelly shuts the door and rides back on Cathy’s pony.
As time passes, Nelly occasionally runs into the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, who tells her how Linton is doing. According to the housekeeper, Linton has remained sickly, selfish, and whiny, often rebuffing Hareton’s good-natured attempts to amuse him. On Cathy’s sixteenth birthday, she convinces Nelly to accompany her on a short walk on the moors. Despite Nelly’s protests, Cathy walks farther and farther ahead until she is encroaching on Heathcliff’s land. When Nelly finally catches up to Cathy, she sees her speaking to Heathcliff, who wants to know what she is doing on his property. Realizing who she is, Heathcliff invites her back to Wuthering Heights to meet his son. Cathy, ignoring Nelly’s whispered demands that they return home at once, follows Heathcliff back to Wuthering Heights.
As they walk, Heathcliff admits to Nelly that his plan is for Cathy and Linton to eventually marry, which would forestall any legal disputes about Linton inheriting Thrushcross Grange after Edgar’s death. When they arrive at Wuthering Heights, Cathy does not initially recognize Linton but covers him with kisses when she discovers who he is. Cathy expresses surprise that she never knew Heathcliff is her uncle, especially since he lives so close. Heathcliff tells her that Edgar thought Heathcliff was not good enough to marry Isabella, which is why they have no relationship. Though Cathy is eager to get to know her new relations, Heathcliff is dismayed by Linton’s obvious self-absorption and indifference to Cathy.
Remembering what was said about Hareton last time she visited, Cathy asks Heathcliff if Hareton is really her cousin. Heathcliff confirms that he is and deliberately embarrasses Hareton to make him tongue-tied around Cathy. Heathcliff tells Nelly that Hareton, being naturally intelligent, has been the perfect object for his revenge. Heathcliff congratulates himself for manipulating Hareton into loving him and thus taking his revenge further than even Hindley ever managed. The visit ends with Linton making fun of Hareton for being illiterate.
When Cathy returns home, Edgar explains to her the real reason he did not want her to know about Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights. Although Cathy believes him and does not return, Nelly soon discovers that Cathy and Linton have been secretly exchanging love letters. Upon reading them, Nelly suspects that at least part of Linton’s letters have been written by someone more experienced. When Nelly threatens to show the letters to Edgar, Cathy promises to cut off the relationship, and Nelly burns all evidence of Cathy’s correspondence. Nelly sends a note to Wuthering Heights requesting that Cathy not be contacted again.
This section of the narrative introduces the second generation of characters, revealing that the children of Heathcliff, Hindley, Isabella, Catherine, and Edgar exhibit a mixture of their parents’ traits. Though Hareton often acts rude and temperamental like his father, Hindley, his true nature appears much gentler. Hareton’s innate kindness is evident when he notices Cathy’s distress and attempts to console her with puppies. Cathy embodies many of the best traits of her parents: she is spirited and passionate like Catherine, but her strong personality is tempered by the kindness and sensitivity she inherited from Edgar. Although Cathy frequently acts spoiled, foolish, and naive, this is largely due to her sheltered upbringing, just as Hareton’s ignorance and coarseness are the result of Heathcliff’s manipulations. By contrast, Linton appears to have inherited the worst traits of both his parents, possessing both Isabella’s weak, whiny personality and Heathcliff’s imperious, demanding nature. Though he endeavors to hide it for the sake of his revenge plot, Heathcliff despises both Cathy and Linton, seeing neither Catherine nor himself in their children.
Heathcliff’s desire for revenge ensures that, as with their parents, the children’s relationships to one another will be complicated. Hareton proves to be the perfect object of Heathcliff’s revenge because he, like young Heathcliff, possesses “first-rate qualities” but is cruelly forced to sink below his potential. No one understands Hareton’s suffering better than Heathcliff—“I can sympathise with all his feelings, having felt them myself.” Though Heathcliff at times appears to feel some true affection for Hareton, he is much too pleased by the symmetry of his revenge to regret ruining Hareton’s life.
Like Edgar and Heathcliff before them, Hareton and Linton act as foils for one another. Where Linton is peevish, whining, and selfish, Hareton is strong, spirited, and well-meaning. Heathcliff acknowledges Hareton’s natural superiority, comparing Hareton to “gold put to the use of paving-stones” while describing Linton as “tin polished to ape a service of silver.” Cathy’s preference for the weak but refined Linton over Hareton delights Heathcliff, for it reproduces the very same painful rejection Heathcliff experienced when Catherine married Edgar. From the very beginning, however, it's clear that Cathy’s affection for Linton is driven by pity, not genuine love:
She had resolved to make a pet of her little cousin, as she would have him to be; and she commenced stroking his curls, and kissing his cheek, and offering him tea in her saucer, like a baby.
Likewise, Linton appears to be romantically uninterested in Cathy, desiring her attention and sympathy rather than her love.
These chapters also shed more light on Nelly Dean’s character. As in previous chapters, Nelly is quick to dwell on the bad behavior of others, even as she tends to gloss over or justify her own lapses in judgment. When Nelly finds Cathy at Wuthering Heights, she begs Cathy to keep the visit a secret from Edgar. When Nelly later delivers young Linton to Wuthering Heights, Nelly tells him lie after lie about Heathcliff in order to persuade the boy to come with her. After they arrive, Nelly, claiming she had “no excuse for lingering longer,” attempts to sneak away, heartlessly ignoring Linton's pleas for her to stay. Upon discovering Cathy’s and Linton’s love letters, Nelly decides not to tell Edgar about them. Nelly may have intended to do Cathy a kindness by not revealing her infatuation with Linton to her father; however, Edgar’s ignorance of the matter prevents him from intervening, and Nelly's repeated dishonesty ultimately plays right into Heathcliff's schemes. More than ever, it is evident that Nelly shapes the narrative in two ways: through the role she played in the events themselves and through the way in which she chooses to tell the story.