Illustration of a tree on a hill with a women's head in the background

Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Heathcliff: Tragic Hero, Villain, or Sympathetic Character in Wuthering Heights?

Summary:

Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is a complex character who embodies elements of a tragic hero, villain, and sympathetic figure. His tragic past and unrequited love for Catherine evoke sympathy, while his vengeful actions and cruelty towards others cast him as a villain. Ultimately, his multifaceted nature defies a single label, making him one of literature's most enigmatic characters.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights a tragic hero?

A tragic hero has several characteristics which Heathcliff clearly demonstrates. For example, a tragic hero has a tragic flaw, which is one fundamental flaw in his or her character which, more than anything else, is responsible for his or her downfall. Heathcliff's tragic flaw is arguably his love for Catherine Earnshaw. This love is all-consuming and ultimately destroys him. In chapter 16, after Catherine's death, Heathcliff "dashe[s] his head against [a] knotted trunk" and "howl[s]... like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears." He screams that he "cannot live without [his] life... without [his] soul!" Heathcliff allows his love for Catherine to define him entirely. It is his reason for living—so much so that when she dies, he feels it as his death, too.

A tragic hero also usually evokes feelings of pity and fear. Heathcliff is a tragic hero by this measure, too. Indeed, we pity him when he is a boy because he is tormented and abused by Hindley. Catherine writes in her diary that Hindley's behavior toward Heathcliff is "atrocious," and indeed, Hindley relentlessly beats, degrades, and humiliates Heathcliff. In fact, Hindley degrades Heathcliff so much as to make it impossible for Catherine to marry him.

Heathcliff as a man, however, inspires more fear than he does pity. He humiliates Hareton as Hareton's father, Hindley, humiliated him. He also treats his wife, Isabella, with despicable cruelty and utter disdain. Isabella says in chapter 13 that "a tiger or a venomous serpent [cannot] rouse terror in [her] equal to that which [Heathcliff] awakens."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Heathcliff is both a hero and a villain. At different times in the book and with various characters, he has the potential to be a hero. At other times and with other characters, he is a villain. He starts out young and good, with the possibility of becoming the story’s hero in the traditional sense of the term.

After he endures belittling treatment from Hindley, who turns him into a servant, and overhears Cathy tell Nelly that it would degrade her to marry him, Heathcliff becomes a tormented character. Deep inside, Cathy senses that it will be wrong for her to marry Edgar Linton:

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.

After this, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights. When he returns, he exacts his revenge on the people he believes contributed to ruining his chance for happiness. He becomes dark and vengeful, turning to become the villain of the story as he reacts to the treatment he has received from other characters. However, until the very end, he remains true to Cathy and is the hero of the story of just Heathcliff and Cathy. He acknowledges how villainous he is when he says to Catherine,

to you I’ve made myself worse than the devil. Well, there is ONE who won’t shrink from my company! By God! she’s relentless. Oh, damn it! It’s unutterably too much for flesh and blood to bear even mine.

By "ONE," he is referring to Cathy, who haunts him even after her death. He remains her hero despite all the horrible things he has done to other characters in the book.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Heathcliff is a hero in the broadest sense of the word because he is the chief character or protagonist of the novel. He is not, however, a hero in the strictly tragic sense like Hamlet or in the exalted sense of a noble war hero. He probably most resembles an archetype known as the "Byronic hero," who became a literary fixture during the Romantic era. This hero is not necessarily likeable, noble, or kind. Rather, he is a tortured wanderer who tends to think mostly of himself. This hero was modeled after Lord Byron, and one famous Byronic hero is Victor Frankenstein.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

     Heathcliff is neither; he is an anti-hero.  For, he possesses qualities of the hero: loving, courageous, physically strong, with imperfections such as feeling overpowered by his obsessive and thus selfish love. Heathcliff feels forces him into certain actions, living only to prove his worth to his beloved Cathy.  While he becomes the master of his foster brother buying up the old home--and cruelly treating him--Heathcliff remains the slave of his love to Cathy, ever brooding over her, and marries her sister-in-law only to be close to Cathy.

     After Cathy dies, Heathcliff does not abandon his love for her, a testimony to the genuineness of his feeling.  But, again the love is not heroic.  Rather it is yet obsessive:  Heathcliff wakes to the ghost of Cathy, he fails to care for himself, living only to be reunited with the woman who gives him his soul.

    In a sense Heathcliff is merely a darker side of Catherine who herself is self-centered and fickle. For, does not Catherine at one point in the novel excalim, "Heathcliff is I"? 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Heathcliff is a villain in Wuthering Heights. He is a sympathetic villain, but nevertheless a villain.

Bronte builds our sympathy for him by allowing us to catch glimpses of his childhood, and we feel for him because of the way Hindley abuses and degrades him. We also feel the intensity and sincerity of his love for Catherine, which humanizes him in our eyes.

We understand Heathcliff's pain because we have witnessed his childhood and know very well that he was influenced by a warped patriarchy. He did not start out bad, but was made bad. As Brontë wants us to understand, his society puts too much power into the hands of the dominant male in the family. Society stands by and accepts the alcoholic Hindley's unchecked power to ruin Heathcliff's life. We also feel for Heathcliff's deep anguish when Catherine dies.

However—and this is Brontë's point—Heathcliff learns his patriarchal lessons all too well. He becomes a gentleman during his three-year absence and turns the weapons of patriarchy against his enemies. He becomes the male with too much power, and he knows, from the experience of how he was victimized, that he can use it against others unchecked.

When Catherine dies, Heathcliff loses his tie with the one person who can humanize him. After her death, he becomes ruthlessly cruel. There is a tendency to see him a a Byronic hero and a romantic "hunk," as Isabella does, but Bronte makes it relentlessly clear that no amount of human kindness runs beneath his hard exterior.

He abuses his wife Isabella, abuses his daughter-in-law Cathy (for example, in one scene he holds her hands in one hand and repeatedly slaps her face), degrades Hareton as he himself was degraded, is manipulative and cruel to the son he despises, and tyrannizes and terrifies his household. Brontë wants readers to see him as a villain and as a representative of patriarchy run amok.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Heathcliff would certainly be classified as a villain over a hero but that does not mean that he is completely evil and does not warrant sympathy. When Heathcliff is a child, Mr. Earnshaw finds the orphaned boy alone in the streets of Liverpool. Mr. Earnshaw adopts him, yet he is not considered an equal in the family due to his dark skin and assumed low-born origin. Heathcliff has a wild spirit and an insolent temper, and he is quick to anger. He grows up playing with Cathy on the moors surrounding Wuthering Heights and grows to love her. Heathcliff becomes jealous when Cathy is courted by the wealthy Edgar Linton.

Realizing he is not suited to marry Cathy, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights for three years to obtain a fortune. Heathcliff returns shortly after Cathy marries Edgar Linton. Heathcliff is crushed by this betrayal, and both he and Cathy are tortured by their passionate love that cannot be. Cathy dies giving birth to Edgar's daughter, who is also named Catherine. Heartbroken over Cathy's death and how he had been unable to marry her, he becomes consumed with getting revenge on both the Lintons and the Earnshaws.

The novel's second section takes place a generation later. When Cathy's brother Hindley dies, Heathcliff gains possession of Wuthering Heights and takes in Hindley's orphaned son Hareton. Heathcliff treats Hareton poorly, making him labour on his own family's property, denying him a proper education, and verbally abusing him—he is determined to treat Hareton worse than Hindley had treated Heathcliff when they were growing up.

After Edgar Linton dies, Heathcliff sets his sights on depriving the young Catherine's ownership of Thrushcross Grange. He manipulates her into marrying his sickly son Linton, and when Linton dies, Heathcliff acquires Catherine's fortune. She is forbidden from leaving Wuthering Heights, and Heathcliff treats her in the same despicable manner as Hareton.

Heathcliff's redeeming quality is his intense devotion to Cathy and the love he bears for her until the end of his life. Heathcliff is haunted by her untimely death and sees her ghost multiple times. Though his vengeful actions are inexcusable, readers have a certain degree of sympathy toward him, as he was prevented from being with the woman he loved simply because he is low born. Heathcliff is considered an anti-hero because he is neither a complete villain or a hero. He does possess some heroic qualities: including love, courage, devotion.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Heathcliff is undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in English literature, and that is that makes him so singularly unforgettable. A powerful force of nature, a dark brooding presence who dominates almost every scene in the story, even when he’s not in it, this epitome of the Byronic Romantic hero is very much the protagonist of the story. He is without a doubt the main character in the story, the man who makes things happen, for good and bad, more than anyone else.

At the same time, Heathcliff is very much the antagonist. We’ve already mentioned his dark, brooding nature, and it is this facet of his character that makes him almost an anti-hero. There’s something of the demonic in Heathcliff, a product perhaps of his troubled upbringing as an orphan. Not surprisingly, given his abominable treatment in the past, Heathcliff is hell-bent on revenge and regularly performs cruel and vicious acts on those he claims have wronged him. Even Catherine regards him as a “fierce, pitiless, wolfish man,” and she's the one who loves him.

However, Heathcliff’s role as antagonist is somewhat complicated by the fact that his behavior is almost always a direct response to his ill treatment by others. As we’ve seen, Heathcliff was an orphan, an experience which has clearly scarred him for life. Things don’t get much better for him after Mr. Earnshaw dies, because then, Mr. Earnshaw’s drunken, dissolute, and insanely jealous son Hindley proceeds to treat Heathcliff like something he’s just stepped in. One doesn’t have to condone Heathcliff’s response to such appalling treatment; but one can at least understand where he’s coming from.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Well, can't add much to kplhardison's response which is pretty comprehensive, except to suggest that whether we think Heathcliff is a protagonist or antagonist might depend on how we read the novel and sympathise with him. Heathcliff is unique in my experience of teaching the novel in producing love/hate relationships in students - they admire aspects of his character but at the same time deplore his acts of cruely. In fact, the novel seems to be hero-less - Edgar is rather a weak character, and although Heathcliff is strong and brave, his actions make him more of an anti-hero. You could argue that Bronte was in fact subverting the novel form, denying us a hero character and confusing such distinctions of protagonist/antagonist that apply to "normal" novels.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

This is a very good question because we generally expect protagonists to be good and noble and trustworthy examples of how to live in similar situations. However, Heathcliff, though he at first rises above his obstacles, becomes torn with bitterness, hatred and desires for revenge. These traits do not ring true with the ideal of an heroic protagonist.

Nevertheless, when you realize that the conflict of Wuthering Heights is the conflict of "man against himself," the situation of Heathcliff as protagonist becomes a little more clear. (This conflict applies to Catherine, the second protagonist, as well as to Heathcliff.) Heathcliff's struggle is against his own dark nature and choices. In other kinds of conflict scenarios, the conflict comes from external elements or individuals. In Wuthering Heights, the things that Heathcliff (and Catherine) has to battle against and overcome arises from within himself. This creates a blurry edge to the ideal definition of protagonist.

When you consider Heathcliff's character traits at the beginning of the novel and then consider his later rejection of destructive traits and subsequent regnewal of admirable traits at the conclusion of the novel, you can see more clearly how the wickedness in the body of the story stems from the protagonist's inner conflict instead of stemming from an antagonist's attempts to overpower a protagonist.

In summary, Heathcliff is the protagonist with noble character traits (seen early in the story) who battles the conflict from the antagonistic hatred within himself. Like all good protagonists, Heathcliff does overcome and win the conflict in the end. This does then give us a model and an example to follow should it so happen that we ever erroneously and grievously give in to our capacity for hatred and revenge.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Very good question, as it penetrates to the very heart of the crux of this fascinating novel. Heathcliff is what is called a Byronic hero, a term used to describe a Romantic hero who was brooding, solitary, and isolated from society. Your answer to the question entirely depends on how you read the novel - Heathcliff can either be viewed as an upstart (indeed Nelly Dean describes him as a "cuckoo") who ruins relations between the Lintons and the Earnshaws in every way possible, or a frustrated, maltreated orphan who is driven to commit heinous acts because of his intense but thwarted love for Catherine.

Another question you need to consider about Heathcliff is how he is presented. For in the novel at times he appears to be described as a monster, at others as a man just like the rest of us. Compare these two quotes, for example:

"Poor wretch!" I thought; "you have a heart and nerves the same as your brother men!"

He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howeled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.

Both quotes come from Chapter 16 after Catherine's death and capture the dilemma - is Heathcliff a man or a monster? So to summarise, your answer will depend very much on how you view Heathcliff.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

Heathcliff from Wuthering Heightsdefinitely falls into the dark 'anti-hero' category.  Like Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre, Heathcliff embodies the typical sort of "bad-boy" persona that women (particularly Catherine) find so appealing.  His brooding, darkly handsome, tortured persona makes Heathcliff one of the most recognizable romantic heroes of all time.  There's just one small problem.  Heathcliff can be, and for most of the novel is, a total jerk.

Heathcliff has a violent streak.  One only need look at what he named his dogs (Throttler, Skulker...) to see that Heathcliff's passions have dark, untenable roots.  He is completely unsympathetic to his family member as portrayed in this disturbing scene:

[Heathcliff] seized, and thrust [Isabella] from the room; and returned muttering – "I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain." (Chapter 14).


Despite all this, Heathcliff remains a sympathetic character; knowing in the end that he finds his soul mate, only to have her marry someone else. 

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a sympathetic character or a villain in chapter 11 of Wuthering Heights?

The short answer is both. Heathcliff no doubt has bad intentions for Hindley and the Lintons, but at this point, the reader still keenly remembers the wrongs Heathcliff has suffered that brought him to this point.

By chapter 11, Heathcliff has already returned to Wuthering Heights as a grown man. He is no longer under the abusive tyranny of Hindley and has a great deal more freedom to do as he pleases because of his newfound wealth and social power. However, revenge has warped Heathcliff and he decides to get revenge upon those who hurt him when he was a child.

That Heathcliff is motivated by pain and bitterness makes him at least somewhat sympathetic to the audience, as most can relate to being wronged and wanting revenge. Heathcliff also gets some sympathy for his lingering love of Catherine, who he does not want to be hurt in his scheme. Though Heathcliff takes Wuthering Heights from Hindley, most readers likely would not feel too sorry for Hindley, since he has been cruel and abusive towards Heathcliff from day one. Edgar Linton might not arouse much sympathy either, due to his snobbishness and cruelty towards Heathcliff in the past as well.

In spite of all of this, there is no doubt that Heathcliff is a villain at this point too: he plans on drawing the innocent Isabella into his master plan, even though she has never wronged him, and he hopes to corrupt and degrade the child Hareton in the same way he was as a boy, only because Hareton is the son of his chief tormenter. However, it must also be noted that the audience might still find Heathcliff sympathetic at this point because he has yet to fully execute this plan. There is some suspense regarding just how far he is willing to go and a more optimistic reader might, like Isabella, hope Heathcliff can be redeemed through love and kindness.

The notion of a sympathetic villain, or at least, a villain whose anger and rage can be understood (though not tolerated) is an old one and remains common in modern literature and popular culture. Heathcliff is a classic example.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a sympathetic character or a villain in chapter 11 of Wuthering Heights?

By chapter 11 of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff has returned to the Heights after several years to find that Catherine and Edgar have married. He has matured into an attractive and strapping young man, according to Nelly Dean, and his appearance captures the fancy of Isabella Linton; this phenomenon exasperates Catherine and causes problems for Edgar, who becomes jealous of Catherine's own jealous behaviors and protective of his sister, Isabella.

This chapter provides the reader with their first glimpses of Heathcliff as a mature person who is finally able to act on his youthful desires for revenge. Up until this point in the novel, Heathcliff has been a child: abused, mistreated, and incapable of standing up for himself. At this early stage of Heathcliff's adulthood, as presented in chapter 11, villainy may lurk in his character, but he is not yet a true villain. Rather, Heathcliff's dark desires can be explained by the bitterness and resentment resulting from his years of mistreatment at the hands of others.

If this question were to address the character of Heathcliff as he appears later in the novel, it would be difficult to defend his actions as anything but villainous; however, at this early stage, Heathcliff can still be perceived as a sympathetic character. In chapter 11, he is still learning about the extent of his own powers, and though he certainly abuses these powers later on, at this point, he has not yet fully developed into a villain.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a sympathetic character or a villain in chapter 11 of Wuthering Heights?

I find Heathcliff a sympathetic character. This is not to excuse in any way the terrible things he does later, such as his mistreatment of his wife, their son, and Edgar's daughter, the young Cathy. But at the time of Chapter XI, Heathcliff has done none of these things, although he is plotting to elope with Isabella.

Bronte has been at pains thus far to describe how Heathcliff has suffered. We learn he was subjected to abuse from Hindley and grew up in a highly dysfunctional family. Hindley, who hated him, had total power over him and degraded him to the level of a farm hand. He would beat him on a whim. Catherine was the only person who showed Heathcliff consistent love, and then, as a final blow, he overheard her say she couldn't marry him because he was so degraded. He was deeply hurt that she decided to marry Edgar. Now, he is forced to sneak around Edgar to visit her, and he has to put up with Edgar trying to get his men to throw him out of his house.

I find I can sympathize with a person who turns bitter and bends his mind to revenge after he has been brutally abused as a child and then loses the one person he loved to another man. I don't think Heathcliff should have behaved with the brutality he showed in the latter half of the book, but I understand some of the deep pain and anguish he experienced.

Sympathizing with someone doesn't excuse their behavior, but it does show understanding of it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Heathcliff a sympathetic character or a villain in chapter 11 of Wuthering Heights?

If your answer to Heathcliff's character development as seen in Chapter XI is based on the text, there can be only one answer. That answer is that Heathcliff is clearly not at all a sympathetic character and clearly entirely a villain.

(1) The passage that leads into and introduces Heathcliff's role in Chapter XI describes Heathcliff in the most villainous terms:

His visits were a continual nightmare to me; and, I suspected, to my master also.  His abode at the Heights was an oppression past explaining. (Chapter X)

(2) His behavior in accosting Isabella the way he does is completely villainous, especially after, as Nelly explains, having told Isabella he hates her. (3) His treatment of Catherine, arguing with her in her own home, in her own kitchen, after welcome had been extended, shows his villainousness. (4) Nelly's reaction to his behavior toward Isabella and Catherine makes it clear the she thinks he is a villain, and Nelly is the voice of mental stability in the story, which is one reason Brontë uses her as the narrator. (5) Heathcliff's declaration of of revenge marks him as a villain:

[Catherine] you are an idiot: and if you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you of the contrary, in a very little while! (Chapter XI)

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on