Wuthering Heights Themes
by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights book cover
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Wuthering Heights Themes

The main themes in Wuthering Heights are love's destructive power, Victorian gender roles, and nature and Romanticism.

  • Love's destructive power: Catherine’s and Heathcliff's fierce love for one another contrasts sharply with their passionless marriages, yet their tumultuous relationship also demonstrates a destructive and toxic side of love.

  • Victorian gender roles: Several characters defy Victorian gender norms—particularly Catherine, who struggles to stifle her forceful and aggressive personality and behave like a lady.

  • Nature and Romanticism: The windswept landscape in which the story takes place mirrors the tumultuous lives of the characters. This melding of the natural world with characters is a classic element of Romanticism.

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The Destructive Power of Love

In popular culture, the character of Heathcliff is often held up as the epitome of a romantic hero, yet his negative qualities far outweigh his positive ones. Thanks to a sad personal history and an impressive capacity for deep and enduring love, Healthcliff retains the sympathies of readers, despite his extensive catalog of hateful behaviors throughout the novel. His charisma and passion tend to overshadow his sadistic tendencies, allowing readers to focus on Heathcliff’s own suffering, rather than the pain he inflicts upon others. Heathcliff’s intensity illustrates a theme that weaves through nearly every relationship in Wuthering Heights: passion can be destructive. Catherine and Healthcliff’s relationship is filled with passion, but their love is also obsessive and toxic, poisoning not only their relationship, but also their relationships with others. Heathcliff refuses to relinquish his love of Catherine even after her death, but this is not a purely romantic gesture—rather, his behavior and motivations are twisted by revenge and hatred, leaving him determined to make those around him must suffer as much as he himself has suffered.

The love affair between Catherine and Heathcliff is so intense that most of the other relationships in the novel seem like mere parodies in comparison. Edgar’s love for Catherine appears genuine, yet she strikes him during an argument before they marry. This shocking physical rebuff ultimately brings the young couple closer together, yet it also reveals the inherent incompatibility of Edgar’s weakness and Catherine’s forcefulness. Isabella and Heathcliff are also a poor match, as Isabella’s love for Heathcliff stems more from her desire to compete with Catherine than a true appreciation or understanding of Heathcliff. Isabella romanticizes Heathcliff, which she realizes too late is a grave mistake. For his part, Heathcliff admits that he is seducing Isabella for his own purposes, proving his attachment to her to be false. In contrast to these shallow relationships, Catherine and Heathcliff’s bond runs deep, seemingly unaffected by time and their respective marriages. However, each of them suffers gravely for their destructive passion: Catherine languishes and eventually dies for her love of Heathcliff, and Heathcliff spends the rest of his life miserable, hoping that Catherine’s ghost will haunt him as an expression of their true status as soulmates.

Victorian Gender Roles

Several characters in Wuthering Heights defy traditional Victorian gender roles, suggesting through their behavior that the social standards typical of this time period in British history are confining and unrealistic. During the Victorian era, expectations for women were particularly limiting; if women did not strictly conform to the social norms that guided so-called ladylike behaviors and interests, they risked their reputation and that of their family. Catherine’s wild behavior as a young girl, before her convalescence at Thrushcross Grange, suggests that she embodies masculine traits that Victorians would have associated with boys and young men. Rather than sit at home with needlework or another quiet hobby, Catherine roams the...

(The entire section is 961 words.)