Wuthering Heights: A Critical Analysis

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629

The only novel written by Emily Brontë before her untimely death, Wuthering Heights occupies a distinctive position between Gothic and Romantic fiction, and it reflects the central thematic interests of both of these genres. Its melodramatic story spans more than three decades, but it is the supranatural passion between Catherine (Cathy) Earnshaw and Heathcliff that dominates the entire book, exerting a controlling influence over the lives of Brontë's characters long after Cathy's physical demise. Brontë appears to deliberately cloud the central question of whether her story is to be read as a supernatural horror story or an emotionally charged romance. The lightning rod of this issue is Heathcliff, an individual who necessarily evokes powerful but somewhat contradictory responses from the other characters in the novel and from the reader as well. Is Heathcliff a devil or just an extraordinarily driven man? Our response to Heathcliff, to the love he shares with Cathy, and, therefore, to the novel as a whole, is further complicated by the Brontë's use of multiple narrators—Nelly Dean and Mr. Lockwood—each of whom plays a role in the tale, who hold radically different perspectives on the novel's lovers.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Wuthering Heights Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is the epicenter of Wuthering Heights, and their love is so intense that it is difficult to characterize, reaching well into the realm of metaphysics. Raised together in the Earnshaw household, Cathy and Heathcliff roam the moors and share identical opinions about the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The depth of Cathy's identification with Heathcliff is evident from her crucial confession to Nelly Dean in which she says, "He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same," and then adds the now-famous declaration, "I am Heathcliff" (p.92). When Cathy dies in childbirth, fainting in his arms while her husband Edgar looks on, Heathcliff's despair knows no bounds. According to Nelly, "he dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears" (p.176). Heathcliff literally prays to Cathy, asking that her ghost haunt him. His plea is granted. A full generation later, after his scheme to join his son Linton and Cathy's daughter Catherine is foiled, Heathcliff, still haunted by his vision of his long-dead paramour, starves himself into extinction.

The seminal setting of Wuthering Heights is the wild landscape of the Yorkshire Moors, a windswept terrain of exquisitely raw beauty and harsh peril. The central characters in the novel are closely associated with the forces of nature. In her critical disclosure to Nelly, Cathy compares her love for Edgar to her feelings about the foliage in the woods, while saying of her passion for Heathcliff that it is akin to the "eternal rocks beneath" (p.92). Animals—rabbits, colts, and dogs—have key instrumental parts and symbolic roles in Brontë's novel. As we might anticipate, Heathcliff is often characterized in bestial terms, with Edgar Linton, for example, denouncing him a "a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man" (p.120). Years later, Heathcliff himself validates this assessment by saying that he has no pity for his intended victims or for anyone else.

There are a host of unanswered questions in Wuthering Heights that revolve around "unnatural" attitudes or behaviors. At the start of Nelly Dean's narration Lockwood (and the reader) is told that Mr. Earnshaw found the seven-year-old orphan Heathcliff in the streets of Liverpool and brought him to live at Wuthering Heights. The question naturally arises: What motivated Mr. Earnshaw to adopt this wild foundling? The Earnshaws name the boy Heathcliff after a son who died in infancy, but this too strikes an unnatural chord (with some Brontë critics suggesting that Heathcliff is Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate child). Their other son, Hindley, is a spoiled youth, but Mr. Earnshaw's favoritism toward the child Heathcliff is "unnatural" and inexplicable in the extent of the bias shown. It is equally difficult to say why Cathy believes that she can maintain her relationship with Heathcliff even as she is married to Edgar, and there is no rational explanation for Heathcliff's transformation into a wealthy and educated gentleman after his return to Wuthering Heights. Privileged and spoiled herself, Cathy is oddly alienated from the world about her. On her deathbed, she tells Nelly, "The thing that irks me most is this shattered prison, after all. I'm tired of being enclosed here. I'm wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it" (p.231). It is apparent that Cathy yearns for a transcendent realm, but what exactly does she mean by that? Is it heaven in the conventional sense or some abode known only to her and, of course, to Heathcliff? Unnatural too is Heathcliff's attitude toward his own son, Linton, who he refers to as his "property" and as "it" (p.244). In the second half of the novel, the now middle-aged Heathcliff says to Cathy's daughter, Catherine, "You would imagine I was the devil himself to excite such horror" (p.317). At this very point, Heathcliff has imprisoned the young Catherine (and Nelly), and he is attempting to coerce her into marrying his own spoiled, weakling son, Linton, who is, after all, Catherine's cousin! There is, then, a certain irony in this remark, for by this time, many of the characters in Brontë's text have come to view Heathcliff as "the devil himself." Initially sympathetic toward the boy Heathcliff, Nelly Dean recounts his arrival at Wuthering Heights as "a dirty, ragged, black-haired child" and recalls Mr. Earnshaw's remark that the disheveled lad was "as dark almost as if it came from the devil" (p.42). After his marriage to Isabella, Nelly receives a letter from Heathcliff's bride in which Edgar's sister exclaims, "Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?" (p.160) and concludes her desperate missive with the judgment that her husband is a "hellish villain" (p.162). By the second part of Brontë's story, Nelly has shifted her own assessment of Heathcliff and begun to consistently describe his actions in diabolical terms, noting, for example, that after he disclosed his plans for revenge against the Lintons and Earnshaws, Heathcliff "chuckled with a fiendish laugh" (p.259). Nelly relates that in her final encounter with the dying Heathcliff, the macabre figure before her "appeared to me not Mr. Heathcliff but a goblin.…" (p.391). But in the cool light of the present, Nelly rejects the notion that Heathcliff was a ghoul or a vampire, recognizing "what absurd nonsense it was to yield to that sense of horror (p.391). Heathcliff himself compounds the issue of his actual identity by acting at times as a refined gentleman even in the midst of his nefarious schemes, as, for example, when he offers to make a cup of tea for Nelly and Catherine even as he holds them against their will.

Our shifting appraisal of Heathcliff's nature is conditioned by the inordinately cruel way in which he is treated by Cathy's brother, Hindley Earnshaw. Hating his stepbrother for the favoritism shown to him by Mr. Earnshaw, once he inherits mastery over Wuthering Heights Hindley tyrannically represses Heathcliff's relationship with his sister and attempts to transmute him into an ignorant servant of the household. In a proximate sense, Hindley's efforts are ineffective. As Nelly tells Lockwood, "Heathcliff bore his degradation pretty well at first," having the solace of his pact with Cathy "to grow up as rude as savages" (p.54). But when he overhears the grown Cathy's rejection of him as a mate whom she would be disgraced to marry, Hindley's cruelty toward Heathcliff has a profound effect upon the youth and upon the course of Brontë's story.

Revenge dominates Heathcliff's actions after his return to Wuthering Heights. In short order, he punishes the profligate and weak Hindley by winning the family estate from him; marries and abuses Edgar's sister; stultifies Hindley's son, Haerton; and uses his own weakling son, Linton, as an instrument of his unholy plan to replicate the past by forcing his marriage to (the second) Catherine. Heathcliff's revenge plays out over thirteen years; and, taken collectively, his relentless drive to ruin the families of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange is unsurpassed in the ingeniously fiendishness of its total design.

Yet even as these highly unnatural or supernatural themes unfold, there remains a highly conventional element in Wuthering Heights, for differences in social class comprise a theme that interpenetrates with the novel's Gothic and Romantic motifs. Although Cathy plans to use Edgar Linton's wealth and position to advance the status of her lover, she is nonetheless quite sincere in her repudiation of Heathcliff as a man who is too far below her own position in society to take as a marriage partner. Despite the metaphysical nature of her bond to Heathcliff, in Cathy's world money and social refinement still count. For his part, the boy Heathcliff is a product of England's proletariat class, but he eventually masters the rapacious skills of a full-blown capitalist. Although Heathcliff acquires title to Wuthering Heights through an act of revenge against Hindley, he values landed wealth and the privileges that it confers upon him. Indeed, his tangible motive in trying to force Catherine to marry Linton is to add Thrushcross Grange to his unholy family's estate. The class conflicts that surface in Wuthering Heights comprise a secondary thematic strand, but it is one that raises additional doubts about whether we are reading a Gothic horror story, a Romantic melodrama, or something that is entirely unique within English fiction.

Wuthering Heights and the Unforgivable Sin

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1188

The two dreams Lockwood experiences early in Wuthering Heights—the first of a visit to Gimmerton Kirk, and the second of a visit from the ghost-child Catherine—have recently received critical attention from Ruth M. Adams and Edgar Shannon. Of the two interpretations Shannon's ["Lockwood's Dreams and the Exegesis of Wuthering Heights, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, September, 1959] seems the most convincing in that it offers the only plausible source for the Biblical allusion in the first dream; but in discussing the relationship of the dream sermon and its title to the tragedy of Heathcliff and Catherine, Shannon ignores significant aspects of the dream itself, and consequently the value of his interpretation seems impaired somewhat, like Miss Adams's, by its own ingenuity.

The preacher that Lockwood hears in the first dream is Jabes Branderham, and the sermon is entitled "Seventy Times Seven and the First of the Seventy-first." Shannon identifies the sermon's text as Matt 18. 21-22. In this passage Peter asks Jesus "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?" and Jesus answers, "I say not unto thee Until seven times, but, Until seventy times seven." "The First of the Seventy-first," then, Shannon asserts, "advances the idea of an unpardonable sin beyond the ordinary scale of human wrongs." The subsequent nightmare, he continues, connects this idea with Catherine, who appears as an outcast, and we are asked to believe that it is she who has committed the unforgivable sin by marrying Edgar and denying the "natural and elemental affinity" inherent in her love for Heathcliff. "Adhered to, [love] is at once the source of joy and harmony; rejected or subverted, it becomes the fountainhead of enmity and strife."

One cannot challenge Shannon's assertion that thematically Wuthering Heights displays the "destructive consequences of thwarted love"; but it seems both unfair and inexact to imply that the guilt devolves upon Catherine exclusively. Moreover such an interpretation does not seem to be substantiated by a close reading of the literal and symbolic action of Lockwood's first dream. Shannon implies that the nature of the unpardonable sin is merely hinted at rather than defined, and that the reader is left to infer its nature from the second dream and from the the action that follows. In fact, however, through a curious kind of logical paradox, the unpardonable sin is defined within the action of the dream itself. Not long after Branderham's sermon opens Lockwood begins to fidget, laboring under the four hundred and ninety heads of discourse—each in itself the length of a separate sermon. Finally, when Branderham reaches the "First of the Seventy-first" Lockwood can bear it no longer; he rises and denounces Branderham as

the sinner of the sin that no Christian need pardon [emphasis supplied]. Seventy times seven times have I plucked up my hat and been about to depart—Seventy times seven times have you preposterously forced me to resume my seat. The four hundred and ninety-first is too much. Fellow-martyrs, have at him!

Branderham's reply is equally significant as he turns the congregation back upon Lockwood.

"Thous art the Man!" cried Jabes.… "Seventy times seven times didst thou gapingly contort thy visage—seventy times seven times did I take counsel with my soul—Lo, this is human weakness; this also may be absolved! The First of the Seventy-first is come [emphasis supplied]. Brethren, execute upon him the judgment written.…"

Lockwood himself, in other words, commits (in the dream at least) the unforgivable sin in accusing Branderham of that sin no Christian need pardon. That is, the unforgivable sin is to accuse another of committing the unforgivable sin—or, more simply put, the absence of forgiveness, of forbearance, of mercy. Each man forgives the other four hundred and ninety times, as Jesus enjoins, but neither has the charity to forbear the four hundred and ninety-first offense; each then denounces the other, and chaos erupts—"Every man's hand was against his neighbour."

Moreover, it is manifestly forgiveness, and not, as Shannon suggests, sin that Jesus is talking about; Peter in using the verb sin refers to a personal offense, not to mortal transgression; and of course what Jesus is urging is perpetual forgiveness, perpetual charity, only he phrases it in finite terms.

The relation of the dream and its Biblical source to the tragedy that follows would seem obvious. It is the want of forgiveness—or phrased positively, it is vengeance—that disrupts the moral and social order of Wuthering Heights. Hindley cannot forgive Heathcliff for usurping the love of his father; so once he is master of the Heights, he sees that Heathcliff is methodically humiliated and degraded. Heathchff's degradation in turn enforces a physical and psychological separation from Catherine which preordains marriage to Edgar Linton. When Heathcliff acquires his fortune, he uses the power it affords to avenge himself against Hindley, whom he easily corrupts and destroys; against Hareton and Catherine, the children, who of course are innocent; against Isabella, who is equally blameless; and through all of these, against Edgar Linton, whom he hates not just as a rival but as an embodiment of everything effete and conventional that erodes Catherine's spirit and finally destroys her. Father is turned against son, brother against sister, servant against master, husband against wife, lover against lover—"Every man's hand was against his neighbour."

Catherine is really less a perpetrator than a victim of this turmoil. She shares the guilt of course because her union with Edgar is the act which hastens the tragedy. But hers is an error in judgment rather than a mortal transgression; she marries Edgar in faith, naively assuming that she can preserve her intense sibling affinity with Heathcliff and perhaps redeem him (and herself) as well. But neither man can forgive her for loving the other and what he represents. In his last interview with Catherine, Heathcliff tells her, "It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands.… I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?" Torn between the two men, who inspire contrary impulses within her, she grows weak—almost as an act of will—and ultimately dies. When she appears to Lockwood as a ghost and an outcast, his cruelty to her is merely a vivid physical image of the emotional torment she has been made to suffer during her mortal existence.

Among those whom Catherine loves there is no one who can forgive her human error; there is love abundant for her, but it is always conditional love that demands and punishes. Young Catherine and Hareton, we are led to believe, eventually come to love with patience and understanding, but only after Heathcliff's influence is removed. And Heathcliff's rancor merely epitomizes the chief moral defect of all of the characters concerned. That defect would seem to be not so much the denial of love that Shannon suggests as love's failure to attain charity, to achieve moral fulfillments as well as emotional intensity.

Source: Vereen M. Bell, "Wuthering Heights and the Unforgivable Sin," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, September, 1962, pp. 188-91.

The Waif at the Window: Emily Bronte's Feminine "Bildungsroman"

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2444

In their study of nineteenth-century women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue persuasively that because the story of Wuthering Heights is built around a central fall—generally understood to be Catherine and Heathcliff's anti-Miltonic fall from hell to heaven—"a description of the novel as in part a Bildungsroman about a girl's passage from 'innocence' to 'experience' (leaving aside the precise meaning of these terms) would probably be widely accepted."

This is an interesting interpretation, and brilliantly demonstrated. But like other views of Wuthering Heights as a feminine Bildungsroman, the focus of development is Catherine, and by association her male doppelganger Heathcliff. The emphasis upon the first generation of the Heights is, of course, important, and certainly Catherine and Heathcliff suffer their own peculiar rites of passage in their search for identity and wholeness. And yet it is curious that the tortured first generation of Wuthering Heights fail to develop a mature understanding of themselves and others—in fact, Catherine and Heathcliff actually shrink from full participation in adult life, regressing into the adolescent preoccupation with self and the desperate need to feel loved. Catherine, especially, is not so much struggling to grow up as she is struggling not to: it is significant that it is the "waif not the woman who appears in Lockwood's terrifying dream.

So the critical view of Catherine and Heathcliff as Bildungsroman protagonists neglects these characters' inability to interpret experience realistically and face the limitations of adulthood. In fact, in terms of the first generation, Wuthering Heights is not a Bildungsroman at all, but an Entwickslungroman, a novel of mere physical passage without psychological development. Catherine and her male soul-mate remain stubbornly adolescent from beginning to end; granted, they are triumphant, rebellious, passionate characters, and Emily Brontë is obviously celebrating the untamed and undisciplined spirit of adolescent love. But in view of this first generation, Wuthering Heights is less a novel of development than a novel of arrested childhood. It is actually with Catherine's death in childbirth that Brontë's Bildungsroman begins. In fact, the second half of Wuthering Heights and the concern with young Cathy is a fascinating variation of the prototypic novel of female education in the nineteenth century, a dramatization of the struggle to relinquish childhood for the duties of womanhood in the most traditional, romantic capacity: marriage with the man of one's choice. Cathy emerges from a relatively happy childhood and a lonely adolescence as an assertive, sharing, and contented adult who is prepared to accept the responsibilities and limitations of marriage.

Cathy's marriage to Hareton is in a sense a revision of her mother's unsuccessful marriage to Edgar Linton, and a significant role reversal of the traditional feminine Bildungsroman in which a woman can achieve intellectual and social advancement only through marriage. For example, the elder Catherine looks at marriage as a means of achieving outward sophistication, as well as an escape from mental and emotional stagnation: Edgar is the man who will define her, who will shape her identity and give her status—"He will be rich, and I shall be the greatest woman of the neighborhood, and I shall be proud to have such a husband," she tells Nelly Dean. Catherine's selfish and shortsighted attitude toward marriage is not only indicative of her childish sensibilities, but underscores the traditional theme of the feminine Bildungsroman—that is, the woman must seek knowledge by attaching herself to a knowledgeable male. Brontë varies this theme in her description of young Cathy's courtship with Hareton; instead of marrying to be advanced, Brontë's true female Bildungsroman protagonist marries in order to advance the intellectual and moral status of the male. In young Cathy, Brontë gives us a woman whose acquired humility, patience, and affection yield what promises to be a satisfying marriage and a mutual broadening of experience. More than her mother, Cathy represents a successful passage through the difficult rites of adolescence: the search for self, and the sharing of self with others.

If one looks closely at the novel, it becomes clear that Cathy and Hareton are not merely watered down versions of Catherine and Heathchff, as Richard Chase suggests. Although the strange, transcendental love of the first generation of the Heights is more stirring, more piquant than the settled affections of Cathy and Hareton, it is only because their type of frenzied passion is so rare—and so typical of adolescence. It is well to ask why Catherine marries Edgar at all, considering her feelings for Heathcliff; her naive belief that she can have both Edgar—who represents culture and security—and Heathcliff, who is the embodiment of sexual and natural energy, proves her complete inability to understand reality outside of her own narrow perspective. When Nelly Dean suggests that by marrying Edgar, Catherine will lose Heathcliff, she is incredulous: "Oh, that's not what I intend— that's not what I mean! I shouldn't be Mrs. Linton were such a price demanded! He'll be as much to me as he has been all his lifetime. Edgar must shake off his antipathy and tolerate him, at least. He will when he learns my true feelings.…" It is obvious that Catherine is entering marriage with the stubborn adolescent sensibility that she can have her cake and eat it, too. Of course, this has been her spoiled way of looking at life all along; many times in the novel Brontë portrays Catherine as a selfish, demanding, manipulative child. "I demand it!" is, in fact, Catherine's favorite expression, and completely consistent with the adolescent determination to have everything.

By contrast, young Cathy gradually develops a sensitivity towards the feelings and needs of others. This is most explicit in her devotion to her father, Edgar Linton—and a complete contrast to Catherine's "naughty delight" in provoking Mr. Earnshaw. The young Cathy tells Nelly, "I fret about nothing on earth except papa's illness.… And I'll never—never—oh, never, while I have my senses, do anything to vex him. I love him better than myself.…" Cathy's comparatively happy childhood has certainly influenced her idealized view of Edgar Linton, and she is naturally submissive to patriarchal authority. But Cathy is not without spirit; she exhibits the typical adolescent preoccupation with love intrigues, and shares her mother's rebelliousness and scorn for those who interfere with her plans. The important difference between the two generations is in the nature of the rebellion; Catherine's disregard for others—all others, except her other-self, Heathcliff—has a cruel, manipulative quality that takes pleasure in deceitfulness and in "punishing" others for their lack of devotion to her. Her many melodramatic "scenes" illustrate Catherine's acting talent in the service of narcissism: as a child, after an argument with Edgar Linton, she says to him, "get away! And now I'll cry—I'll cry myself sick!" and she proceeds to deliver a perfect fit of weeping which softens poor Edgar's heart. Catherine never outgrows these willful displays of mad emotion, and by feigning a fit to arouse her husband's concern, she ultimately brings about her own death. She begs Nelly to tell Edgar she is "in danger of being seriously ill.… I want to frighten him.… Will you do so, my good Nelly? You are aware that I am in no way blameable in this matter." Catherine often uses Nelly Dean as an instrument for her guile: "and remind Edgar of my passionate temper verging, when kindled, on frenzy." Certainly Catherine's last performance is magnificent, if unsuccessful, for even Nelly is startled by "the aspect of death" her mistress is able to assume. This undisciplined and domineering child—the little girl who wanted her father to bring her a whip from Liverpool—fails to mature at all because she never learns to control her perverse egotism. That in her last breath Catherine looks to Nelly "like a child reviving" aptly suggests the adolescent spirit of the woman's rebellion, a fatal result of Catherine's last scene of "mad resolution."

Unlike her mother's obsessiveness, young Cathy's rebellion is actually a healthy curiosity about her relatives at Wuthering Heights. Certainly it is not surprising that a young and intelligent girl who has not been beyond the range of the park before the age of thirteen, whose only companion is her nurse, and whose only amusements are rambling on the moors and reading, should be eager to make new acquaintances. And of course Cathy passes through certain predictable stages of adolescence, but unlike her mother, she does pass through, and restlessness, romantic love, and rebellion are only stages of her development. For example, Cathy and Linton Heathcliff's "love affair" is typical of the adolescent absorption with romantic notions, and the fact that the relationship is somehow taboo makes it all the more alluring. Cathy exaggerates the importance of her love letters, weeping and pleading to Nelly "to spare one or two." Nelly Dean's common sense reply to the mere suggestion of Cathy loving Linton is, "Loving! Pretty loving indeed, and both times together you have seen Linton hardly four hours in your life!" That Cathy is able to open her mind to this objective, adult point of view is a credit to her maturity, and something the older Catherine never learned to do.

In her relationship to Linton, Cathy begins to learn that her desires are complex and that her experience of reality must be reconciled to actual reality—in other words, her view of Linton Heathcliff as "a pretty little darling" must be reconciled to Nelly's less generous description: "The worst-tempered bit of a sickly slip that ever struggled into its teens!" In learning to distinguish between what she thinks she wants (Linton) and what she really wants (an energetic and empathetic companion), Cathy begins to achieve the disciplined growth and broad perspective which is the undertaking of the Bildungsroman protagonist. Simply the way she handles Heathcliff and her captivity at Wuthering Heights demonstrates an intelligent, unselfish, and practical kind of defiance which Catherine never displayed, because Catherine acknowledged only her own needs and desires. When Linton says, "You must obey my father, you must," Cathy replies, "I must obey my own," reflecting her growing sense of responsibility. After her forced marriage, she is prepared to accept the consequences of her situation by loving Linton in spite of Heathcliff—"You cannot make us hate each other!" Cathy remains dignified and controlled, and speaks "with a kind of dreary triumph: she seemed to have made up her mind to enter into the spirit of her future family, and draw pleasure from the griefs of her enemies."

If Nelly's narrative makes Cathy's behavior sound reminiscent of the older Catherine's vengeful fits, it should be pointed out that Cathy's "enemies" are real, not fancied, conspirators. Heathcliff at this point has kidnapped her, kept her from her dying father, abused her physically, and forced her to marry his sickly, peevish son. Cathy's situation is wretched, almost hopeless; when Linton dies shortly after their degenerate union, she is left at Wuthering Heights with only Hareton and Heathcliff. And here her bildung or education needs to be emphasized. Part of education and development is arriving at an understanding of one's value; this, I would argue, is the major undertaking of adolescence. The older Catherine never sees herself realistically. She has notions of superiority and self importance that can be justified only in terms of her exceptionally passionate nature and her extraordinary bond to Heathcliff. Catherine's immature and narrow vision cannot imagine that she is not the central concern in everyone else's life. It is almost an epiphany when she says to Nelly, "How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me." Despite Heathcliff's furious devotion and her husband's genuine affection, Catherine always feels unloved and undervalued. Even as she is dying, she cries, "That is how I am loved!" like a self-pitying child. Nor does Catherine value the love of others: "I have such faith in Linton's love," she says, "that I believe I might kill him, and he wouldn't wish to retaliate." Rarely if ever is Catherine described as a loving person, one who is willing to give the self freely to another; even her professed love for Heathcliff is strangely qualified by her claim, "I am Heathcliff!" He seems to be only a kind of narcissistic double.

Young Cathy of course wants to be loved, but unlike her mother she is willing to take the risks and suffer the consequences of loving another. When she kisses Hareton in an effort to make peace, she is conquering her pride and scorn—and her loneliness—in a way that truly suggests maturity. She is beginning to see herself in relation to others, beginning to develop a realistic adult perspective. For example, Cathy knows she has been unfair and cruel to Hareton, and sincerely tries to improve their relationship in the best—the most straightforward—way she knows how. "When I call you stupid, I don't mean anything—I don't mean that I despise you," she explains, and by articulating her meaning she arrives at a closer understanding of the way she affects others. By humbling herself, Cathy learns to master herself, and by offering her friendship to Hareton, she is on the verge of a new, perhaps more traditional, kind of education: marriage. But the marriage of Cathy and Hareton is not the traditional union of the male teacher/master and the female learner/servant. By reversing the roles and making Cathy the educator, Wuthering Heights takes on the aspects of a new feminine Bildungsroman in which a woman emerging from childhood and adolescence approaches marriage not merely as a means of social advancement, or knowledge, or security, but as a mutual broadening of experience in which love balances power, with "both their minds tending to the same point."

So it is with the second generation of the Heights that Bronte begins her feminine Bildungsroman. If Catherine and Heathcliff have a more tumultuous and exciting story, it may be because theirs is the tale of arrested childhood, a furious protest against the necessity of growing up. Perhaps Cathy's struggle is less stormy and her future too settled and neat to satisfy our lingering adolescent admiration for rebellion, stubborn self satisfaction, and emotional intensity. But in the world of Wuthering Heights, as in our own, the passage from innocence to experience is an awkward limbo, a thin papery wall, between two selves—between the waif outside the window, and the woman within.

Source: Annette R. Federico, "The Waif at the Window: Emily Brontë's Feminine 'Bildungsroman,'" in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 68, Fall, 1985, pp. 26-28.

Repeating Cycles and Recurring Patterns in Wuthering Heights

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186

Wuthering Heights was the only novel Emily Brontë ever published, and both it and the book of poetry she published with her sisters were printed under the pen name, Ellis Bell, a name which Emily chose because she was afraid works published under a woman's name would not be taken seriously. Emily Brontë died shortly after her book was published and just prior to her thirtieth birthday, but her single novel remains one of the classics of English literature. Wuthering Heights is a complex novel, and critics have approached it from many different standpoints. Feminist critics have examined the strong female characters and their oppression by and resistance to violent men. Marxist critics have pointed to the class differences that set in motion the primary conflicts of Wuthering Heights, and psychoanalytic critics have analyzed the dreams that fill the book. While all of these approaches are useful and valid, Wuthering Heights is, above all, a book of repeating cycles and recurring patterns, and perhaps the simplest way to begin an examination of this book is by tracing the course and resolution of some of these patterns.

When Lockwood spends the night at the Heights, he finds the window ledge covered with "a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small—Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton." Indeed, the repetition and variation of these four names, Catherine, Earnshaw, Heathcliff, and Linton, fills the book just as the writing fills the window ledge. The original Catherine begins life as Catherine Earnshaw. In what Terry Eagleton in Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights calls "a crucial act of self-betrayal and bad faith," she rejects the opportunity to become Catherine Heathcliff and instead becomes Catherine Linton. She then gives birth to another Catherine Linton, who enters the world only hours before her mother leaves it, and this second Catherine first marries Linton Heathcliff, becoming Catherine Heathcliff, and finally, at the end of the book, becomes engaged to Hareton Earnshaw. The cycle of names thus comes full circle as this final marriage will give the second Catherine the original name of the first.

At the same time, Catherine's marriage with Hareton completes another cycle—the union of souls for which the reader has longed. The second Catherine is in many ways a reincarnation of her mother. Though she is softened by the characteristics which she has inherited from her father, she has "the Earnshaw's handsome, dark eyes" and, as Nelly states, she has the same "capacity for intense attachments" as her mother. Similarly, Hareton is a gentler version of his oppressor and foster father, Heathcliff. Though Heathcliff does his best to make Hareton a tool of his revenge against the first Catherine's brother Hindley Earnshaw, he succeeds instead in creating a reproduction of himself. He reveals his own knowledge of this strange turn of events when he tells Nelly, "Hareton [seems] a personification of my youth … the ghost of my immortal love, of my wild endeavours to hold my right, my degradation, my pride, my happiness, and my anguish." Thus, even more than the reunion of Catherine's and Heathcliff's ghosts, the union of their spiritual descendants gives the reader the impression that a great wrong has finally been set right.

In addition to being later versions of Heathcliff and the first Catherine, Hareton and the second Catherine are the last in a long line of orphans and outcasts. In an article in American Imago Philip K. Wion has observed that the absence of mothers in Wuthering Heights has a profound effect on the identities of the orphaned children, and certainly the book is full of orphaned and abandoned characters seeking fulfillment through union with others. Heathcliff, of course, is a foundling taken in by Mr. Earnshaw, and after the old man's death Hindley makes him an outcast. The first Catherine, also orphaned by Earnshaw's death, becomes still more isolated after Heathcliff's departure. Heathcliff has been her one true companion, so much a part of herself that she tells Nelly, "if all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger." The loss of her soul mate thus leaves her alone in the world, and her death, likewise, orphans him for a second time, leaving him "lonely, like the devil, and envious like him." The next generation fares no better. Linton Heathcliff loses his mother and is raised by a father who despises him; Hareton's mother dies shortly after his birth, and the death of his alcoholic and abusive father leaves him penniless and at the mercy of Heathcliff. Likewise, the second Catherine is born only hours before her mother's death, and the death of her father leaves her "destitute of cash and friends." Once again, it is the marriage of Hareton and Catherine that will bring this cycle of orphanhood to a close. The housekeeper, Nelly, proudly tells the tenant Lockwood that they are both "in a measure, [her] children," and the union of her two charges finally ends the progression of lonely, isolated, orphaned individuals.

Heathcliff's death and the second Catherine's gaining control of the property also bring to an end the series of tyrannical men who rule the Heights with violence and curses. The first Mr. Earnshaw is easily vexed, and "suspected slights of his authority nearly [throw] him into fits." Hindley, Mr. Earnshaw's successor, is still worse. He threatens to "demolish the first who puts [him] out of temper," and his abuse of Heathcliff is "enough to make a fiend of a saint." Heathcliff, in his turn, does turn out to be a fiend, and deserves the term "Devil daddy" with which young Hareton christens him. He takes pleasure in inflicting on Hindley's son the same abuse which Hindley had given Heathcliff because he wants to see "if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it," and he values his own son only because he wants "the triumph of seeing [his] descendent fairly lord of their estates; [his] child hiring their children, to till their father's lands for wages." Thus, even Heathcliff's plot to reverse past patterns by making his child lord of the Earnshaws and Lintons, only results in the reestablishment of an old pattern. Heathcliff, the former victim of tyranny, becomes yet another tyrannical man ruling Wuthering Heights. This cycle is only broken when, after Heathcliff's death, the property is granted to the second Catherine, the first woman in the book to own her own property. Her marriage to Hareton will, of course, make her property his, but it seems unlikely that his "honest, warm, intelligent nature" will allow him to become a tyrant like his predecessors. The pattern of violent men ruling the Heights, like so many other patterns in the book, ends with the death of Heathcliff and the marriage of the second Catherine and Hareton.

Source; Donna C. Woodford, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Woodford is a doctoral candidate at Washington University.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview