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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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Student Question

Why doesn't Nelly recognize Heathcliff at their first encounter in Thrushcross Grange's garden?

Expert Answers

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First of all, it is nearly dark when Heathcliff hears a voice from behind her. The voice says, "Nelly, is that you?" Nelly says,

"It was a deep voice, and foreign in tone; yet there was something in the manner of pronouncing my name which made it sound familiar."

Nelly still can't really see who it is. All she sees is "a tall man dressed in dark clothes, with dark face and hair."  Still, Heathcliff is so changed she does not recognize him as he approaches. A ray fell on his features; the cheeks were sallow, and half covered with black whiskers; the brows lowering, the eyes deep-set and singular.

The Nelly sees the eyes and remembers who she is speaking to. She exclaims,

"“What!” I cried, uncertain whether to regard him as a worldly visitor, and I raised my hands in amazement.

“What! you come back? Is it really you? Is it?”"

She cannot believe that Heathcliff has returned and his appearance and voice have changed since she last saw him. If is only when she sees his eyes that she recognizes him.

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Why doesn't Nelly tell Catherine who the visitor is when Heathcliff returns back to Thrushcross Grange?

You need to re-read Chapter 10 to find the answer to this question. This chapter describes the Linton´s married life together and paints a picture of domestic bliss. Though Nelly notes that Edgar tried to do everything he could to make sure his wife was not crossed or irritated. However, one night, Nelly returns to the house bearing a basket of apples. Note the description and how it foreshadows problems to come:

It had got dusk, and the moon looked over the high wall of the court, causing undefined shadows to lurk in the corners of the numerous projecting portions of the building.

The "undefined shadows" of course represent the trouble that Heathcliff will bring with him, in spite of the "mellow" evening. Also note that when Nelly realises who it is, she is shocked, "uncertain whether to regard him as a worldly visitor".

With all of this omens that seem to predict trouble in the offing, Nelly goes in and does as Heathcliff commands her to - she tells Catherine that someone from Gimmerton is there to see her. Although we are not told, I think she tells Edgar the identity of the stranger because she is worried about the impact of Heathcliff´s return on Catherine. So, to answer your question, Nelly was just obeying Heathcliff´s orders, though she feels unsettled enough to inform Edgar to try to warn him of the potential bad effect of Heathcliff´s return.

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