Learn English Network
Introduction | Summary | Characters | Index
Wuthering Heights is Emily Brontë's only novel. It was first published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, and a posthumous second edition was edited by her sister Charlotte. The name of the novel comes from the Yorkshire manor on the moors on which the story centres (as an adjective, wuthering is a Yorkshire word referring to turbulent weather). The narrative tells the tale of the all-encompassing and passionate, yet thwarted, love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, and how this unresolved passion eventually destroys them and many around them.
Now considered a classic of English literature, Wuthering Heights' met with mixed reviews by critics when it first appeared, with many horrified by the stark depictions of mental and physical cruelty. Though Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was originally considered the best of the Brontë sisters' works, many subsequent critics of Wuthering Heights argued that its originality and achievement made it superior. Wuthering Heights has also given rise to many adaptations and inspired works, including films, radio, television dramatisations, a musical by Bernard J. Taylor and songs (notably the hit "Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush), ballet and opera.
The narrative is non-linear, involving several flashbacks, and involves two narrators - Mr. Lockwood and Ellen "Nelly" Dean. The novel opens in 1801, with Lockwood arriving at Thrushcross Grange, a grand house on the Yorkshire moors he is renting from the surly Heathcliff, who lives at nearby Wuthering Heights. Lockwood spends the night at Wuthering Heights and has a terrifying dream: the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw, pleading to be admitted to the house from outside. Intrigued, Lockwood asks the housekeeper Nelly Dean to tell the story of Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights while he is staying at the Grange recovering from a cold.
Nelly takes over the narration and begins her story thirty years earlier, when Heathcliff, a foundling living on the streets of Liverpool, is brought to Wuthering Heights by the then-owner, the kindly Mr. Earnshaw, and raised as his own. Ellen comments casually that Heathcliff might have been descended from Indian or Chinese origins. He is often described as "dark" or "gypsy". Earnshaw's daughter Catherine becomes Heathcliff's inseparable friend. Her brother Hindley, however, resents Heathcliff, seeing him as an interloper and rival. Mr. Earnshaw dies three years later, and Hindley (who has married a woman named Frances) takes over the estate. He brutalises Heathcliff, forcing him to work as a hired hand. Catherine becomes friends with a neighbour family, the Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, who mellow her initially wild personality. She is especially attached to the refined and mild young Edgar Linton, whom Heathcliff instantly dislikes.
A year later, Hindley's wife dies, apparently of consumption, shortly after giving birth to a son, Hareton; Hindley takes to drink. Some two years after that, Catherine agrees to marry Edgar. Nelly knows that this will crush Heathcliff, and Heathcliff overhears Catherine's explanation that it would be "degrading" to marry him. Heathcliff storms out and leaves Wuthering Heights, not hearing Catherine's continuing declarations that Heathcliff is as much a part of her as the rocks are to the earth beneath. Catherine marries Edgar, and is initially very happy. Some time later, Heathcliff returns, intent on destroying those who prevent him from being with Catherine. He has, mysteriously, become very wealthy. Through loans he has made to the drunken and dissipated Hindley that Hindley cannot repay, he takes ownership of Wuthering Heights upon Hindley's death. Intent on ruining Edgar, Heathcliff elopes with Edgar's sister Isabella, which places him in a position to inherit Thrushcross Grange upon Edgar's death.
Catherine becomes very ill after Heathcliff's return and dies a few hours after giving birth to a daughter also named Catherine, or Cathy. Heathcliff becomes only more bitter and vengeful. Isabella flees her abusive marriage a month later, and subsequently gives birth to a boy, Linton. At around the same time, Hindley dies. Heathcliff takes ownership of Wuthering Heights, and vows to raise Hindley's son Hareton with as much neglect as he had suffered at Hindley's hands years earlier. Later on, Heathcliff tells Nelly that he despises his own son, Linton, who reminds him of Edgar and Isabella, and favours Hareton as a son, recognising an element of Catherine in him (it having already been established that both Catherine and Heathcliff considered themselves one of the same person), and therefore himself. Yet, Heathcliff chooses to ignore these paternal emotions so that he might continue to degrade Hareton as Hindley degraded Heathcliff: thereby achieving his revenge on his hated foster-brother. This perhaps demonstrates the "evil", dehumanized character Heathcliff is so often thought to represent.
Twelve years later, the dying Isabella asks Edgar to raise her and Heathcliff's son, Linton. However, Heathcliff finds out about this and takes the sickly, spoiled child to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff has nothing but contempt for his son, but delights in the idea of him ruling the property of his enemies. To that end, a few years later, Heathcliff attempts to persuade young Cathy to marry Linton. Cathy refuses, so Heathcliff kidnaps her and forces the two to marry. Soon after, Edgar Linton dies, followed shortly by Linton Heathcliff. This leaves Cathy a widow and a virtual prisoner at Wuthering Heights, as Heathcliff has gained complete control of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. It is at this point in the narrative that Lockwood arrives, taking possession of Thrushcross Grange, and hearing Nelly Dean's story. Shocked, Lockwood leaves for London.
During his absence from the area, however, events reach a climax that Nelly describes when he returns a year later. Cathy gradually softens toward her rough, uneducated cousin Hareton, just as her mother was tender towards Heathcliff. When Heathcliff is confronted by Cathy and Hareton's love, notably Hareton's determination to protect the defiant Cathy from Heathcliff's attack, he seems to suffer a mental break from reality and sees Catherine's ghost. He abandons his life-long vendetta and dies broken and tormented, but glad to be rejoining Catherine. Cathy and Hareton marry. Heathcliff is buried next to Catherine (the elder), and the story concludes with Lockwood visiting the grave, unsure of what to feel.
Characters in Wuthering Heights
*Heathcliff - the central male character of the novel. An orphaned foundling raised by the Earnshaw family, he forms an early bond with his foster sister Catherine Earnshaw, and they fall passionately in love with each other as they grow. Meanwhile he nurses a bitter rivalry with his cruel foster brother Hindley, who resents the attention their father shows Heathcliff. A brooding, vindictive man, his anger and bitterness at Catherine's later marriage to their neighbor Edgar Linton sees him engage in a ruthless vendetta to destroy not only his enemies but their heirs, a crusade that only intensifies upon Catherine's death. Debates have arisen as to the true nature and perception of Heathcliff's character: should he be considered a semi-Byronic hero, whose passionate love for Catherine redeems is social deviances, or should his actions simply be considered too heinous for him to be nothing more than a fiend?
*Catherine Earnshaw - Heathcliff's adoptive sister. A free-spirited, rather selfish, bad-tempered and somewhat spoiled young woman, she returns Heathcliff's love utterly, but considers him too far beneath her for marriage into poverty from both not having any money; instead choosing another childhood friend, Edgar Linton, through which marriage she hopes to advance Heathcliff. Heathcliff returns and she renews her friendship, making Edgar angry. However, her physical and mental health are destroyed by the stress of the feud between them, and she descends into prophetic madness before dying during childbirth.
*Edgar Linton - a childhood friend of Catherine Earnshaw's, who later marries her. A mild and gentle man, if slightly cold, cowardly and distant, he loves Catherine deeply but is unable to reconcile his love for her with her feelings for her childhood friend. This leads to a bitter antagonism with Heathcliff, and it is partly this which leads to Catherine's mental breakdown and death. Linton is incapable of competing with Heathcliff's guile and ruthless determination across the decades, and his health fails him while still a relatively young man.
*Isabella Linton - the younger sister of Edgar who becomes infatuated with Heathcliff. She fundamentally mistakes his true nature and elopes with him despite his apparent dislike of her. Her love for him turns to hatred almost immediately, as she is ill treated both physically and emotionally and held captive against her will. Eventually she escapes, leaves for London and gives birth to their son Linton Heathcliff, whom she attempts to raise away from Heathcliff's corrupting influence.
*Hindley Earnshaw - Catherine's brother and Heathcliff's other rival. Having loathed Heathcliff since childhood, Hindley delights in turning him into a downtrodden servant upon inheriting Wuthering Heights. However, after his wife's death from consumption, after giving birth to their son, he becomes a self-destructive alcoholic and gambler and it is this that allows Heathcliff, upon returning to Wuthering Heights, to turn the tables and to manoeuvre the family property away from him.
*Ellen (Nelly) Dean - at various points, the housekeeper of both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, and is one of the two narrators of the novel. She recognises early on that Heathcliff is Catherine's true love and tries to dissuade her from the disastrous marriage to Edgar. Having been a disapproving witness and unwilling participant to many of the events between Heathcliff and both the Earnshaw and Linton families for much of her life, she narrates the story to Lockwood during his illness.
*Linton Heathcliff - the son of Isabella and Heathcliff. He bears no resemblance to Heathcliff and takes after his mother. He is a sickly child who grows up ignorant of his father until his mother's death, when he is thirteen years old. He is forced to live at Wuthering Heights and grows into a bullied, trembling shadow of his father. Heathcliff arranges for him to marry his cousin Catherine Linton so that he may inherit both the estates of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. He dies shortly after entering into the forced marriage.
*Catherine Linton - the daughter of Catherine Earnshaw and Edgar Linton. She inherits both her mother's free-spiritedness and dark eyes and her father's gentle nature, facial features and fair hair. Heathcliff takes advantage of her fundamentally pure nature and manipulates her into marrying his own son, Linton. Once she has become another captive of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff resorts to the same torture he applies to everyone against whom he bears a grudge. As a result, she regards him with contempt and disgust and becomes silent and morose. She later falls in love with her cousin, Hareton Earnshaw.
*Hareton Earnshaw - the son of Hindley Earnshaw, who is adopted by Heathcliff upon Hindley's death. Even before this, he has waged a campaign of torment against the young man while living together at Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff spitefully turns Hareton into a downtrodden, illiterate servant, much as Hindley once did to him, but does not further mistreat him as Hindley had done. Despite this, Hareton remains strangely loyal to him, even adopting a superficially similar personality. Quick tempered and easily embarrassed, he falls in love with Catherine at an early point, and despite her contempt for him is thus inspired to improve himself. He bears a strong likeness to his aunt and is the only person who mourns Heathcliff upon his death.
*Joseph - a servant of the Earnshaws and later Heathcliff. A bullying, lazy and snide man, he hates Heathcliff but is somehow bound to be his servant. Intensely religious, he is sanctimonious, self-righteous and largely held in contempt by those around him. He speaks in the traditional West Yorkshire dialect. This dialect was still used in the Haworth area up until the late 1970s, but there are now only portions of it still in common use.
*Lockwood - the narrator of the novel. A recently-arrived tenant at Thrushcross Grange at the beginning of the novel, he is intrigued by the curious goings-on at Wuthering Heights, and persuades Nelly Dean to tell him the story of what happened during a bout of sickness. Lockwood is apparently a wealthy, relatively young man who comes to regret not approaching the younger Catherine Linton himself. Despite displaying many self-centred attributes, he is also a sensitive and romantic soul who is deeply affected by the saga of Heathcliff and Catherine.
*Frances Earnshaw - the wife that Hindley married while away at college. The fact that he did not tell his father suggests that Frances is not of high social standing. From her introduction she proves to be a kind woman to Nelly and Cathy but dislikes Heathcliff. She dies after childbirth, a death brought about by consumption, or tuberculosis, a fate shared by most of the Brontë sisters.
*Mr. Kenneth - the local doctor and drinking partner of Hindley. Kenneth often sees to the ill or dead characters: Cathy in her madnesses, Frances during childbirth and TB, Heathcliff and his early illness, Edgar's final hours, and Hindley's death. Nelly tells Heathcliff that he should send for Kenneth to tend to his ill son, but does not tell him that Heathcliff's death is suicide by starvation. He also reports to Nelly that he saw Isabella leaving with Heathcliff.