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 and Heathcliff's fierce love for one another contrasts sharply with their passionless marriages, yet their tumultuous and toxic relationship also highlights the dark 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 feature of Romanticism.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956

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. Even after Catherine's death, Heathcliff refuses to relinquish his love of her, yet 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.

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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, 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 moors with Heathcliff in search of adventure.

During her time with the Lintons, Catherine learns to tamp down her rebellious impulses and to behave, instead, like a proper lady; however, this change only brings her misery, suggesting that fulfilling society’s expectations does not result in greater personal happiness or fulfillment. Though Catherine lives and behaves as a proper wife for years, Heathcliff’s reappearance brings out the passionate intensity of her emotions. Ultimately, Catherine’s behavior challenges the Victorian view of femininity by suggesting that women are just as capable as men of feeling powerful and uncontrollable emotions like rage or passion. Indeed, it is telling that Catherine’s temporary embrace of Victorian gender roles and subsequent transformation into a lady is what causes a painful rift between herself and Heathcliff, setting into motion the chain of events that ends in their mutual destruction.

Edgar Linton, Catherine’s husband, acts as a foil to his wife. Though his sensitivity, gentleness, and polite behavior may align more with the Victorian notions of femininity than masculinity, Edgar, as a man, has rights that none of the female characters do: namely, his ownership of Thrushcross Grange. Edgar may be weak in temperament and body, but his ownership of property makes him powerful.

Nature and Romanticism

Wuthering Heights takes place in Yorkshire, a region in the north of England well-known for its dramatic natural landscape. The harsh moorland setting of the novel is as important to the plot as the characters, and some scholars go as far as to say the setting is as much a character as any of the named humans. The wildness of the landscape echoes the rebellious and willful nature of characters like Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, and their tempestuous love affair develops and intensifies against the natural backdrop of the moors. Catherine, Heathcliff, and Catherine’s brother Hindley are all capable of powerful emotion and hostility towards one another and towards others. Their stormy natures are reflected in the nature that surrounds them, and this intermingling of personal qualities and geographical details is typical of Romantic literature. Brontë’s decision to align the natural details of the surrounding wild geography with her human characters elevates both elements of the novel, emphasizing independence and rebelliousness of spirit—both of which are considered important values in Romantic literature.

As the natural landscape is such a prominent character in Wuthering Heights, the presence of supernatural—and therefore decidedly unnatural—beings like Catherine’s ghost and the Hindley’s apparition makes for a shocking juxtaposition, though Gothic elements that hint at the presence of the supernatural are another classic feature of Romanticism. Throughout Wuthering Heights, readers will notice that Wuthering Heights straddles multiple literary movements, including Romanticism, Gothic tradition, and Victorian literary realism.

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