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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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Analyze Heathcliff's character based on the statement, "Heathcliff was a very unhappy man who poured his unhappiness upon the lives of all who knew him."

Quick answer:

Heathcliff's pouring out of his unhappiness into the lives of all who know him can be understood as Brontë's acute psychological understanding of the way dysfunctional family dynamics become intergenerational. Heathcliff, raised with abuse, malice, and neglect, decides out of motives of pain and revenge to replicate what he has suffered by enacting it on the next generation.

Expert Answers

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Heathcliff, an adopted child, grows up in a highly dysfunctional family after the deaths of his foster mother and father. His older brother Hindley, the heir to the Earnshaw estate, dislikes and abuses him, and determines to maliciously deny him any further education and opportunity so that he will be broken to the status of a farm laborer. After Hindley's wife's death, Hindley descends into violent alcoholism, which leaves Heathcliff (and Catherine to a lesser extent) careening between physical and emotional abuse and neglect. This is a picture of a highly dysfunctional family, and as often happens in this situation in real life, Heathcliff and Cathy turn to each other for support, forging a very strong bond.

When Heathcliff leaves and returns, having become a gentleman, his plan is to wreak revenge and spread misery among the two families, the Lintons and the Earnshaws, who he holds responsible for his unhappiness. He is rage filled, especially after Catherine dies, and determined to make others suffer as he has suffered. There is no question that he does so. He uses his wits to get possession of Wuthering Heights, and uses his patriarchal power to torment and degrade Isabella and the young Cathy, while keeping Hindley's son Hareton an illiterate farm hand. His household rivals Hindley's for misery and terror.

The only people spared of his wrath are Catherine, whom he loves deeply, and Nelly Dean, who treated him with some kindness when he was a child, though he is not exactly the picture of human kindness to Nelly.

Before the advent of modern psychology, Brontë nailed the way dysfunctional family dynamics are passed on from one generation to the next.

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