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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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How reliable is Nelly Dean as a narrator in Wuthering Heights?

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Nelly Dean is a pretty reliable narrator, because she preserves a critical distance and is upfront about the gossipy nature of her story.

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Nelly Dean could be considered a pretty reliable narrator because she maintains a critical distance. As a member of the Earnshaw household, one might presume that she’d be partial. However, Nelly’s position as a domestic worker doesn’t lead her to lose her objectivity when it comes to her employers.

In chapter 9, Catherine famously announces, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” Nelly counters Catherine’s passionate declaration by calling it “nonsense.” With her willingness to push back against Catherine’s views, Nelly shows that the opinions of others don’t easily sway her or cloud her judgment. Although she’s a part of the dramatic events, she preserves a level perspective that makes it hard to argue that she’s unreliable.

Further evidence of Nelly’s reliability is in her awareness. Near the end of chapter 7, Nelly draws attention to the gossipy elements of her narrative. “If I am to follow my story in true gossip’s fashion, I had better go on,” Nelly informs Lockwood. It’s as if Nelly addresses the proverbial elephant in the room. By using the word gossip, Nelly acknowledges that her story could be portrayed as rumors or hearsay. She concedes that some might see her as unreliable, which demonstrates understanding and honestytraits that point to reliability.

Of course, Nelly isn’t the only narrator of Wuthering Heights. Lockwood narrates parts of the novel. As Lockwood’s depictions don’t drastically differ from Nelly’s, her narration is, in a sense, validated. Lockwood’s assessment of Nelly—she’s not “a regular gossip”—also reinforces her reliability.

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Is Nelly a reliable narrator in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë?

Nelly is certainly not reliable. She makes her dislike of Catherine quite clear and even when Catherine does deserve some sympathy (such as when she's worried about her decision to marry Edgar Linton despite not truly loving him), she rarely gives it to her.

As one of the previous answers mentions, Catherine might come off as a more likable character through someone else's eyes. After all, Heathcliff loves her (though he's no angel himself) and Edgar thinks her charming. Nelly does admit that during the period where Heathcliff is not around and Catherine is first married to Edgar, "she behaved infinitely better than I dared to expect." However, she quickly assumes this is Catherine being two-faced, whereas for all anyone knows, this is Catherine trying to forget what she has lost.

However, one thing to be said of Nelly is that she seems aware of her bias. When discussing Heathcliff's first night at Wuthering Heights, she admits she was cruel in leaving him on the stairs to sleep. She even admits that she had no warm feelings for Catherine, so Lockwood and the reader are forewarned of the bias.

Little things like that make Nelly less like a traditional unreliable narrator, which usually involves a character who is willfully lying or insane, and more human.

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Is Nelly a reliable narrator in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë?

Nelly Dean is not a reliable narrator. However, she does tip us off as to her bias against Catherine Earnshaw.

Nelly is a servant for the Earnshaws and later, after Catherine marries, for the Lintons. She is older than Catherine and Heathcliff and has witnessed almost all of their story. This makes her a valuable source.

Yet we have to be suspicious of her portrait of Catherine. She dislikes Catherine's high-handed behavior to her, and does what she can in passive aggressive ways to get revenge. For example, when Catherine is talking to her about whether or not to marry Linton, Nelly doesn't alert her that Heathcliff is listening to the conversation. He hears only part of what is said, missing the part about how deeply Catherine loves him—and so he runs away believing Catherine has rejected him for being too "degraded."

Later, Nelly is angry at what she thinks are the married Catherine's antics and manipulations. Therefore, she deliberately doesn't tell Edgar how sick Catherine is. She believes Catherine is faking her illness, though it does, in fact, turn out to be fatal—and Edgar is angry at Nelly for withholding information.

Although we can't know, it is interesting to speculate that Catherine might come across as a kinder and more sympathetic character were someone else telling the story.

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Is Nelly a reliable narrator in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë?

Nelly in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is neither a completely reliable nor a completely unreliable narrator. 

On the positive side, she had direct personal involvement, and was an eyewitness to several of the events she describes. On the other hand, she is not an omniscient narrator, and only has access to the events she experienced or the accounts other characters told her.

Next, she is emotionally involved with the subjects she is describing. Even though she does not stand to gain financially from one particular version of the truth (though an entertaining tale might evoke a better tip from Lockwood), she does have an emotional stake in making herself appear both knowledgeable and benevolent.

Finally, there is her character. She is definitely inquisitive, and has many local connections, enabling her to obtain a great deal of information. On the other hand, her understanding is limited, and as a servant, she is not privy to certain types of information exchanged among the adults of wealthy families, although she is an avid eavesdropper and gossip.

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