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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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Is Heathcliff a hero or a villain in Wuthering Heights?

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In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is both hero and villain. He starts out with the possibility of becoming the story’s hero in the traditional sense of the term. After he endures belittling treatment from Hindley and overhears Cathy tell Nelly that it would degrade her to marry him, Heathcliff becomes a tormented character. He becomes dark and vengeful, exacting his revenge on the people he believes contributed to ruining his chance for happiness.

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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.

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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.

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     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"? 

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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.

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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.

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Is Heathcliff the protagonist or antagonist 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.

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Is Heathcliff the protagonist or antagonist 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.

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Is Heathcliff the protagonist or antagonist 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.

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Is Heathcliff the protagonist or antagonist 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.

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Is Heathcliff a villain or hero?

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. 

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