Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1883
Heathcliff and Edgar Linton as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. Though both men love Catherine Earnshaw, they are opposites in all other ways. Heathcliff comes from a lower class and is moody, violent, and mysterious. Edgar was born into the upper class and is fair-skinned, agreeable, and stable.
- For discussion: Follow Heathcliff’s and Edgar’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of the plot. How does each character express his love for Catherine? How does each character value wealth, class, and status?
- For discussion: By the end of the novel, both Heathcliff and Edgar are buried on either side of Catherine’s coffin. What does their shared fate suggest about love and class?
Contrasting Genders as Theme: Wuthering Heights challenges the binary of masculine and feminine through the characters of Catherine Earnshaw and Linton Heathcliff. Catherine is tomboyish in nature, preferring to run around on the moors with Heathcliff— though she can perform her femininity with ease in front of the Lintons. Heathcliff’s son, Linton, is portrayed as effeminate, intellectual, and emotional.
- For discussion: Follow Catherine’s and Linton’s predominant character traits throughout the novel. How does each character embody the social constructs of femininity and masculinity? How do other characters respond to them when they behave in socially unacceptable ways? Why do you think Catherine is able to switch between being masculine and feminine, whereas Linton seems incapable of doing the same?
- For discussion: Though the novel’s reversal of gender roles may seem progressive, femininity is still depicted as clearly inferior to masculinity. Why do you think Brontë, who likely faced sexism on a regular basis, would portray femininity in this way? What would the impact be if, for example, Linton’s effeminate qualities were represented as strengths?
Nature versus Civilization as a Theme: In keeping with Romantic and gothic traditions, Wuthering Heights presents the natural world as immensely powerful and awe-inspiring, whereas modern civilization is disconnected, inauthentic, and ultimately inferior.
- For discussion: Follow the major character traits of Heathcliff, Catherine, Edgar, Isabella, Hareton, Linton, and Cathy throughout the novel. Which characters do you think are aligned with nature? Which characters do you think are aligned with modern civilization? Support your answers with evidence from the text.
- For discussion: Why are many major plot events preceded by massive storms? What does the frequent intertwining of natural event and plot event suggest? How would the novel be different if nature’s role were lessened?
Heathcliff as a Diabolical Figure: Heathcliff is mysterious, passionate, and brooding—all qualities of the Byronic hero archetype, which came to prominence in the Romantic era. However, the novel repeatedly characterizes him as “possessed of something diabolical,” as Nelly tells Mr. Lockwood. Aside from Heathcliff’s violence and obsession with revenge, he is also mysterious in ways that other Byronic heroes tend not to be: He seems to have no origin, he only has the one name that Mr. Earnshaw gave him, he can apparently converse with the dead, and he seems to choose his own death.
- For discussion: Follow Heathcliff’s predominant character traits throughout the course of the novel. What motivates his rage? How does he treat other characters? Which behaviors or traits seem evil or diabolical to you? Why?
- For discussion: Is Heathcliff’s obsession with revenge evil? Why or why not? What evidence can you find to support your opinions?
The Centrality of Money and Social Class as a Theme: Money and social class are very important in Wuthering Heights. In Brontë’s time, people were born into their classes, so social mobility was uncommon. In the novel, Heathcliff complicates the social hierarchy. He is adopted and treated as a son by Mr. Earnshaw, a gentleman. Hindley lowers Heathcliff to the servant class after Mr. Earnshaw dies, a move that devalues Heathcliff in Catherine’s eyes when she begins spending time with the Lintons. Later, Heathcliff mysteriously amasses significant wealth, which alone cannot make him a gentleman. After Hindley dies, Heathcliff takes ownership of Wuthering Heights—and Hareton, who is of a higher class, is forbidden from receiving an education or his inheritance.
- For discussion: Throughout the novel, Hareton seems to belong to a lower class than he actually does. He cannot read, he has poor manners, and he works for Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. Just as Heathcliff is never regarded as a gentleman when he becomes rich, Hareton is never regarded as a gentleman because he does not appear to be one. Why would other characters who are aware of Hareton’s status not treat him according to his class if birth is more important than money? What does Heathcliff’s and Hareton’s class reversal suggest about the impact of the rising middle class on the British social hierarchy at the time?
- For discussion: In chapter 9, Catherine explains to Nelly that by marrying Edgar, she can “aid Heathcliff to rise” and help him leave Wuthering Heights while he is working for Hindley. Conversely, if she marries Heathcliff, they will both be “beggars.” How could Catherine help Heathcliff “rise” if he cannot be elevated to a higher class? What does Catherine’s reasoning suggest about love, marriage, and money?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Victorian Prose Style: While Brontë’s language is reasonably accessible for contemporary readers, students may find Wuthering Heights to be more verbose than they are accustomed to. Generally, the novel is full of lengthy sentences, high diction, and a plot that may at times be difficult to follow.
- What to do: Consider having students keep a rough outline of major events and new characters that emerge. Before delving into each lesson, have students share and discuss the plot points they identified.
- What to do: Have students focus on the narrator for each section. While Nelly narrates most of the tale, Lockwood also narrates a fair share. This can help parse plot points and breaks in the story.
- What to do: As the class progresses through the novel, have students keep a journal of unfamiliar vocabulary words. Instruct them to look up and write out definitions for these words, and then make a class-generated vocabulary list for future quizzes and lessons.
Madness and Death: Much of Heathcliff’s behavior throughout the novel suggests that he is experiencing signs of mental illness, but by the end of the novel he appears to slip into madness before dying. This may be upsetting or confusing for some students.
- What to do: Give students a preemptive warning that Heathcliff exhibits signs of hallucinations, in addition to refusing food and talking about his impending death. Then, discuss why Brontë included depictions of madness and death.
- What to do: Have students trace Heathcliff’s madness and death back to the novel’s overarching themes. Why does Heathcliff respond to Cathy and Hareton’s budding romance by wandering the moors at night? Why is it important that Nelly finds him dead in his room with the window open?
Domestic Abuse: There are many instances of emotional and physical abuse in the novel. This may be upsetting or confusing for some students.
- What to do: Give students a preemptive warning that severe domestic abuse occurs throughout the novel. Then discuss explanations as to why Brontë may have included them.
- What to do: Have students trace each new act of physical or emotional abuse back to the novel’s overarching themes. Why does Hindley beat Heathcliff early on? What does Heathcliff’s awful treatment of Isabella suggest about the novel’s stance on gender roles, love, and passion? Why does Brontë depict domestic violence at all?
Alternative Teaching Approaches
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Tuberculosis and the Victorian Feminine Ideal: Tuberculosis claims the lives of many characters in Wuthering Heights, just as it did in Brontë’s actual life. The disease, also known as consumption, was common when Brontë was writing the novel, killing more people than smallpox and cholera combined. Consumption significantly influenced art and fashion in Victorian England and was associated most often with femininity. Brontë lost many family members to tuberculosis and died from the same illness the year following the publication of Wuthering Heights. In the novel, she aestheticizes the wasting away of her characters.
- For discussion: How does Brontë’s portrayal of women dying of tuberculosis differ from her descriptions of men who are dying of the same disease? Why is her portrayal different?
- For discussion: Nelly notes how peaceful Catherine looks in death. She says that, though it “may be a peculiarity in me,” she enjoys “watching in the chamber of death” because she sees “a repose that neither earth nor hell can break.” In fact, Catherine looks so good that “no angel in heaven could be more beautiful than she appeared.” Given how painful and traumatic tuberculosis is, why does Nelly seem to think that Catherine is fortunate to have died in this way?
Motherlessness as a Theme: Motherlessness is very common in Wuthering Heights. Some mothers are assumed dead or are simply unknown, such as Heathcliff’s mother, but most die of either illness, childbirth, or both. Maternal death is profoundly destabilizing when it follows childbirth, as indicated by Hindley’s and Heathcliff’s reactions to Frances’s and Catherine’s deaths, respectively.
- For discussion: Why are there no mothers in Wuthering Heights? How does motherlessness affect the children involved? How does the loss of a mother impact families? What would have been the impact if Brontë had included at least one mother who survives, even if it were just a minor character?
- For discussion: How do Edgar, Hindley, and Heathcliff each respond to the death of the women they love? Why does each man respond the way he does?
Identity Boundaries and Upper-Class Displacement: Many characters undergo identity shifts in Wuthering Heights, in terms of both behavior and class. Catherine Earnshaw, for example, seems to alter her personality according to the social standing of the people around her. She also assumes different names, as Mr. Lockwood discovers when he finds the names “Catherine Earnshaw,” “Catherine Heathcliff,” and “Catherine Linton” scratched into the wooden bedframe in her room. Hindley, though generally arrogant and mean-spirited from the beginning, transforms into a drunken tyrant whose addictions lead to the loss of Wuthering Heights after he dies. Heathcliff’s identity transformation, however, is almost entirely the result of class ascension—an anomaly that erodes class boundaries, and thus identity boundaries, for the Earnshaws and for the Lintons.
- For discussion: What does Brontë suggest about the effects of the middle class on England’s traditional social hierarchy by portraying so much social mobility—especially when Heathcliff displaces two old, large families after he becomes rich? How does this displacement impact how characters perceive each other and themselves?
- For discussion: How does Catherine’s identity seem to change when she is with the Lintons? Which character traits seem to be the same as the ones that are present when she is with Heathcliff? Why is it important that her identity seems to be determined by her company?