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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë
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Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on July 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

Emily Brontë employs a number of biblical, historical, and literary allusions in Wuthering Heights. These allusions enable her to explore the complexities of emotions, relationships, and class dynamics. 

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Biblical Allusions: Like many Victorian authors, Brontë employs biblical allusions in order to shape character and plot development in Wuthering Heights. Here are two of the novel’s most prominent biblical allusions:

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  • In chapter 9, Nelly describes a violent storm that hits while Catherine is frantically searching for Heathcliff on the moors. Nelly remarks that the storm must have been a judgment on them—and that “[t]he Jonah, in my mind, was Mr. Earnshaw [Hindley].” Nelly alludes to Jonah 1.4–16, in which God sends a massive storm to punish the prophet Jonah for disobeying God’s orders to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Instead, Jonah attempts to flee to Tarshish by ship and suggests that he be thrown overboard so as to save the other mariners. By comparing Hindley to Jonah, Nelly seems to suggest that he is at fault for what is happening between Catherine and Heathcliff—and for what happens after Catherine catches a fever from being out in the storm.
  • In chapter 17, Isabella feels gleeful at Heathcliff’s misery following Catherine’s death. She tells Nelly that there is only “one condition can I hope to forgive him… if I may take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; for every wrench of agony return a wrench: reduce him to my level.” Isabella alludes to Exodus 21:23–25: “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The same law occurs in Deuteronomy 19:21, Leviticus 24:17–22 and Matthew 5:38–42. Heathcliff has been so abusive that Isabella can only forgive him if he becomes as miserable as he has made her.

Historical Allusions: Brontë incorporated many historical allusions into Wuthering Heights. Here are two major ones: 

  • Given Brontë’s strong attachment to her childhood home in Haworth, Yorkshire, the archaic rituals, traditions, and folklore of the land figure prominently in Wuthering Heights, particularly death and funeral customs. Edgar engages in Yorkshire’s ritualistic deathwatch when he sits with Catherine’s body all night. Heathcliff tries to do the same, though he stands outside without anyone to tell him what is going on until Nelly finds him in the morning. Brontë also writes about “bidding,” which involves extending an invitation to a loved one to accompany the deceased to the grave. 
  • In chapter 10, Mr. Lockwood beseeches Nelly to resume her story about Heathcliff and speculates about how Heathcliff made all of his money, asking if he “escape[d] to America, and earn[ed] honours by drawing blood from his foster-country.” Lockwood alludes to the American Revolution, which ended in 1783, the year that Heathcliff returns from his mysterious absence. Heathcliff may indeed have gone to America, but it is unlikely that he would have profited from the War of Independence. 

Literary Allusions: Like most Victorian authors, Brontë incorporates numerous literary allusions into the novel. Here are two of the most important ones: 

  • Much of Wuthering Heights alludes to Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy King Lear, which tells the story of King Lear’s descent into madness after two of his daughters use false flattery to convince him to dispose of his kingdom. The novel and the play share some of the same themes of familial conflict, madness, and brutality. Weather is also used to symbolize emotional intensity; storms often accompany emotionally intense plot events in Wuthering Heights, and the massive thunderstorm in act III of King Lear symbolizes Lear’s rage and eventual madness. Finally, Heathcliff’s name is likely an allusion to two of the most significant locations in King Lear: the heath and the cliffs of Dover. 
  • In chapter 22, Heathcliff chides Cathy for ending her clandestine correspondence with Linton, claiming that she “dropped [him] . . . into a Slough of Despond.” Heathcliff alludes to John Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan’s work, The Slough of Despond is a bog into which Christian, the protagonist, sinks under the weight of his sins. Heathcliff insinuates that Cathy has driven Linton not only into illness, but also into sinfulness. 

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