November : Why the Greatest Love Story of All Time Isn’t a Love Story (a different angle on Heathcliff) (part 1 : background)

It’s likely you’ve heard of Heathcliff, the tormented protagonist of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It is likely, also, that you have an opinion on him. Generally these seem to go in two directions.

Opinion 1: Heathcliff is a romantic, seductive, tortured Byronic Hero. You are in love with him. His unbridled passion and emotion are the heights of romance. The passion is unbearable. 

Opinion 2: Heathcliff is terrible, you find it impossible to sympathize with him at all. He is an abusive villain; he is selfish, he beats women and hurts helpless dogs, etc. He is horrifying in every way.

I am not really in either camp. In my reading of Wuthering Heights, I scoured the internet, trying to see if anybody felt the way about Heathcliff I did. Alternating opinions were scarcer than I would have thought: and so I realized I’d better contribute to this discussion, and write about it myself. 

First I’m going to provide some background on Wuthering Heights, and on this elusive Heathcliff himself, in case the reader is not familiar with him. If you don’t want the spoilers, or already know it all, feel free to skip to part two of this post, which contains my analysis. 

Background

*spoiler alert*

Wuthering Heights takes place on the English moors, focusing on two families largely removed from society. The Earnshaw family adopts Heathcliff, a child found by Mr. Earnshaw on the streets of Liverpool, whom Mr. Earnshaw prefers to his own son, Hindley. Hindley bullies Heathcliff as they grow up; Cathy, Mr. Earnshaw’s daughter, is wild and willful and Heathcliff’s only friend. 

After Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley comes back and takes over Wuthering Heights, a tyrannical ruler. After his wife’s death, he descends into alcoholism, becoming even more abusive to Cathy and Heathcliff, whose only escape is to the moors where they are free.

At the age of twelve things change for Cathy. The Lintons are the other family on the moor, considerably more cushy and upper-crust than the grim inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. Cathy makes a stay with them after she is attacked by their dog. When she returns Heathcliff hardly knows her; she has, for the first time in her life, been treated like a lady and been given comforts. She becomes (more) arrogant, likes fine clothes, and suddenly finds Heathcliff lacking.

Enter Edgar. He’s the son of the Linton’s, and as a boy he’s a cry-baby and something of a wimp. Cathy has him over a whole lot more; Edgar’s shinier object than Heathcliff, who withdraws further at his usurpation.

Eventually Edgar asks Cathy to marry him. Cathy is torn and talks to Nelly, the servant, about it, unaware that Heathcliff is laying down unseen in another part of the room. When she gets to the part about how it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff, he leaves, missing, with tragic irony, the next part of her speech, where she explains to Nelly just how deep her love for Heathcliff is, unlike the changeable love she knows she has for Edgar.

Heathcliff is gone for three years. Cathy marries Edgar; she is strong-willed as ever and bends soft-willed Edgar and his sister Isabella to her will, and thus they all get along quite well, and Nelly thought that Edgar and Cathy were really on the path to happiness before Heathcliff came back.

Heathcliff returns, a gentleman, mysteriously wealthy. The only thing that has sustained him, all the miserable years making something of himself, was the thought of Cathy; Edgar at first lets Heathcliff hang around, but there are eventually some confrontations, as sparks fly between Heathcliff and Cathy. Meanwhile Heathcliff lives at Wuthering Heights, taking his revenge on Hindley by ruining him through gambling etc.

Cathy cannot abide having to choose; when Edgar tries to force her to choose between himself and Heathcliff, she, in an emotionally manipulative move, falls ill (at first it seems to be all show). However, soon it is not all show. Cathy really loses it.

Meanwhile, before Cathy’s illness, Heathcliff ran off with Isabella, who had a crush on him, as a sort of revenge on Cathy. He demonstrated his brutality to Isabella beforehand by hanging her spaniel, and she still runs off with him. Nelly rescues the spaniel.

Heathcliff abuses Isabella. Cathy becomes more and more weak and sick. Heathcliff sleeps in Cathy’s old room, in the old oak paneled bed they used to share as children, keeping anyone else out; upon hearing of Cathy’s significant decline, he forces Nelly (now working at Edgar’s) to arrange a final meeting between him and Cathy.

This meeting is tortuous. Cathy is weak and ill, and they cling to each other in agony. It is not that romantic, however—they are both bitter, they blame each other, she tells him that he and Edgar have killed her, it’s pretty miserable. Edgar bursts in, Cathy faints, Heathcliff hands her to him and escapes.

Heathcliff waits all night in the orchard. Cathy, who is seven months pregnant, delivers her child and dies. Nelly tells Heathcliff the news in the morning and he, a man who seldom shows strong emotion, wails and bangs his head against a tree until it bleeds. He wishes aloud that Cathy will wake in torment, not in the peace Nelly suggests, and, as she said that Heathcliff killed her, begs her to haunt him.

Heathcliff eventually kills Hindley in a confrontation; Isabella eventually escapes, has Heathcliff’s child and dies alone in London (Edgar disowned her when she ran off with Heathcliff).

Edgar matures considerably as a character. He cared for Cathy unceasingly in her illness, and, although becoming somewhat of a recluse after her death, gives all love to their daughter, Catherine. 

Heathcliff becomes master of Wuthering Heights, living there with Hindley’s son, Hareton, who Heathcliff degrades in further revenge to Hindley, just in the way Hindley degraded Heathcliff.

When Isabella dies, her son Linton is sent to Edgar, but Heathcliff quickly claims him. Linton is sickly and is abused by Heathcliff, who keeps him living in fear.

Catherine (junior) is lonely and restless, locked up as she is in her father’s house. She loves the moors, like her mother, and is constantly trying to explore further. One day she meets Heathcliff, about whom Edgar has kept all knowledge from her, who takes her to Wuthering Heights. She reunites with Linton, and they become fast friends.

The two exchange love letters for awhile; soon they see and play with each other. Heathcliff encourages their marriage, but the longer Catherine knows Linton the less she is impressed by him. He is whiny and pitiful, and declines. She begins to get cold feet, but whenever she does Linton betrays his debilitating terror of his father, of what Heathcliff will do to him if he does not successfully marry Catherine.

Eventually Catherine is forced to marry Linton. She’s locked up in Wuthering Heights, and has no choice. Heathcliff hits her mercilessly when she tries to fight back against his master scheme. 

After she marries Linton, she is able to escape just in time to be at Edgar, her father’s, deathbed. The moment Edgar is dead Heathcliff arrives, and tears Catherine away.

Linton dies. He had been getting more and more ill, and this was all part of Heathcliff’s plan—because when Linton dies, Heathcliff gets control of Edgar’s house. He now has complete control of everything.

Catherine is miserable. She has nothing; she is trapped in Wuthering Heights with no living family members, no friends, and just the cruel Heathcliff and discounted (by her) Hareton. Hareton thinks she’s kind of cute, and tries to get to know her, but his advances are cruelly denied, and Catherine talks to him in the same way—calling him dumb and stupid, bad company—that Cathy, her mother, did to Heathcliff. Hareton responds angrily. It seems as if history is repeating itself.

However, history does not repeat itself. Nelly tells Catherine that it was cruel of her to behave so—Cathy never used to listen to admonishments—the point is that Catherine changes. She apologizes to Hareton. Hareton apologizes for his harsh words in response to Catherine’s; they forgive each other, something Heathcliff and Cathy were never able to do. Catherine begins to teach Hareton to read, lifting him up from the ignorance Heathcliff had deliberately kept him in.

Heathcliff has been losing it more and more. The departed Cathy keeps a tighter and tighter hold of him; he even digs up her grave, laying next to her corpse, at one point. He becomes more and more distracted, but one night, as he comes back in from his moor-wanderings, he is stunned to be greeted by two pairs of Cathy-reminiscent eyes (Hareton’s especially), looking up from the book they are sharing. Despite all of Heathcliff’s attempts, love has blossomed in Wuthering Heights. He is stunned.

Heathcliff lets go. He lets Hareton and Catherine be; he loses the will to continue his revenge any longer, as he explains to Nelly, who is gravely concerned—he tells her he feels a change coming, but he doesn’t know what it is. He forgets to eat, sleep, he is always distracted; he roves the moors, late at night. They find him dead, one morning, in Cathy’s old oak-paneled bed, the window hanging open, drenched in rain, smiling.

Hareton loved Heathcliff, despite Heathcliff’s mistreatment of him; he was the closest thing to a father Hareton ever had, and he insists on a fine burial. Heathcliff, Cathy, and Edgar’s gravestones stand side by side. Hareton and Catherine revitalize Wuthering Heights with flowers and happiness, but leave it, for Edgar’s old house, where they will live together.

A lot to take in? I know. You should read it (it’s mind-blowing). Here’s the point: 

Nobody ever loved Heathcliff. He was an ethnic “other” to the characters, although his ethnicity is never specified; characters describe him as dark-complexioned, and rudely refer to him as “gypsy”. Some people think of him as a member of the Roma people, others as being African, and having come to Liverpool (where he was found by Mr. Earnshaw) through its infamous slave-trade. 

What’s the point? He was treated and spoken to, often, as if he was inhuman. Cathy was the only one who treated him like he was an ordinary person; they escaped together from the cruel rule of Hindley, they were free on the moors. Cathy was the only place Heathcliff ever knew feeling good, feeling loved. Cathy was then “stolen” by Edgar; Cathy died. Earth became hell to Heathcliff, because he couldn’t have her. 

But what’s the real point to all this? What did Heathcliff teach me? Why don’t I think this is a love story? You’ll have to read part 2 to find out. Find it HERE.

~Phlox 

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