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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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Is Heathcliff a realistic or symbolic character in Wuthering Heights?

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You will probably get many opinions on this. I used to believe that Heathcliff was not a realistic character. I used to believe he was symbolic of the themes of evil, passion, obsession, revenge, violence and cruelty that are remarkable in this novel. I did not believe that a person like Heathcliff could exist. No one could be that twisted and tormented, no matter how dysfunctional one's early life had been. As I have gotten older, I have changed my mind about Heathcliff because I have personally encountered such tortured individuals, and I have read about them in literature and seen accounts of them in the newspapers. Plus, I have personally witnessed how abandonment in childhood can have such disasterous effects on a person's adult life.

Heathcliff is a mysterious, wild and unkempt orphan that Mr. Earnshaw finds wandering on the streets in Liverpool and brings him home to raise with his own two children, Catherine and Hindley. Mr. Earnshaw favors Heathcliff over his own son, Hindley, so Hindley tortures Heathcliff -- both when they are children and as an adult. The fact that Heathcliff has been abandoned by his parents affects him profoundly in his life. The mistreatment by Hindley affects him profoundly in his life. His rejection by Catherine, whom he believes is part of him (his soul) affects him profoundly in his life. Is it any wonder that he grows up to be a vengeful, tortured man? He never receives Catherine's nurturing, redeeming love, so he is not changed by love like some other characters in literature. If Heathcliff were living today, we would be reading about him in the news. He might be an evil spouse abuser that feels his life is out of control, so he tries to control others. He might be a serial killer. He might be a rapist. You may think that this is extrapolating a lot from the story, but I think it is very possible to do so much damage to a person's psyche as a young person that someone could grow up to be a Heathcliff.

I will be interested to see what other teachers say.

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Is Heathcliff a realistic character or more of a symbolic representation? Discuss.

Your question really needs to specify what, if anything, Heathcliff might be symbolic of. Anyway, it is clear that this novel is driven by this central character and much effort has been expended in trying to explain and understand him.

What is interesting about his character, however, is that he seems to reject being categorised or being interpreted. He appears to be the kind of character where readers see what they want to see, becoming an open box for their own views and prejudices. Note how the novel seems to be very ambigious in actually determining something of the precise nature of Heathcliff. On the one hand Nelly repeatedly describes Heathcliff in terms of savagery, using animal imagery or supernatural imagery. He is described as a "vampire" and a "savage beast". Yet on the other hand, Nelly also stresses his common humanity with the rest of us. Thus we seem to be played with as readers as the novel continually never refuses to damn Heathcliff entirely. We interpret his cruelty as a twisted expression of his frustrated love for Catherine, or that his disturbing acts are just a smokescreen to hide the heart of a Romantic hero. As readers we keep on expecting Heathcliff to display hidden virtues. It is important to realise how Bronte is playing with and subverting the traditional Romance genre. Normally, Romantic heroes are brooding and dangerous at first, only to emerge later in the novel as compassionate, loving and devoted. Think of how Jane Eyre "tames" Rochester if you want an example of this. And let's face it - the cliche of a "bad man" being made good by a "good woman" is a stereotype that abounds in today's fiction and media. Whatever your view on Heathcliff, I think everyone agrees that there is something strangely compelling about a character that is so stridently independent and cares little for the mores and values of the world. He is a character that is much bigger than the pages of the novel that try to contain him!

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Is Heathcliff a realistic character or more of a symbolic representation? Discuss.

In Heathcliff, Emily Bronte creates an exaggerated character prone to extremes. He is an excellent example of the archetypal "Byronic" hero, a kind of anti-hero who is isolated, arrogant, and unrepentant about his behavior. This new heroic representation came out of the Romantic movement and was inspired by both Lord Byron himself and his work "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." As a Byronic hero, Healthcliff is not drawn realistically but rather functions as a symbol in "Wuthering Heights."

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