Introduction to Wuthering Heights, A Novel by Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights, the passionate love story between the wild and uncouth Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, was voted as Britain’s favourite love story in a poll published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, in August 2007. It has been a favourite novel for adaptations to TV, radio and film. Perhaps you have seen one of these adaptations?
Wuthering Heights, published in 1847 under the pen name of Ellis Bell, is considered one of the classic examples of Romantic literature. We know from biographies written about Emily Brontë and her siblings, that they were well versed in the literary trends of the times. All the Brontës were familiar with the major romantic poets and writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary W. Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, William Blake, and William Wordsworth. Many romantic influences are woven into the fabric of Wuthering Heights. During the Romantic period (1789-1832) there was a return to the aesthetics, norms, and principles of medieval times. Wuthering Heights has been defined as romantic fiction written in the genre of the Gothic novel. As modern readers, we become overwhelmed by the complexities of the story.
Wuthering Heights is a tale of two families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons. It is told through the voices of the faithful servant Ellen Dean and Heathcliff’s tenant, Mr. Lockwood. The novel spans fifty years, and past and present are juxtaposed throughout. The story is set in an extreme landscape on the wild moors, weather-beaten by icy winds, storms and rain. Although not a ruined castle, Wuthering Heights has many Gothic characteristics. It is dark, lit with candles, and has hidden rooms, passages, oak paneled beds, stairwells and banisters. Characters are imprisoned or confined in Wuthering Heights. The ghost of Catherine Linton appears in the opening chapters and we are witness to dreams, visions and supernatural incidents. The story of the Earnshaws and Lintons spans three generations and is full of torture, tyranny and intolerable cruelty. It hinges on the soul consuming and obsessive love between Catherine Earnshaw/Linton and Heathcliff. Their passionate love leads them to various forms of physical and mental madness that transcends death. There is even a hint of necrophilia when Heathcliff opens Catherine’s coffin years later.
Brontë develops Heathcliff’s persona around the myths and mysteries surrounding vagabond gypsies, another literary trend at the time. Heathcliff, the villain-hero, lacks ancestral origins. He is dark, mysterious, primitive and rebellious. Catherine Earnshaw is not your typical Gothic heroine, swooning and in distress. She is far from what is expected of a daughter of landed gentry. For all her education and love of books, she is wild, selfish, self-willed and demonstrates both violent fits of temper and cruelty. Only Nelly Dean is able to put up with her.
Catherine’s and Hindley’s father finds a starving orphan on one of his trips to Liverpool. He is named Heathcliff after a son who had died in childbirth. The Earnshaws view Heathcliff as an usurper. He is humiliated and forced to endure Hindley Earnshaw’s jealous sadism. Catherine befriends him and they grow up together on the windswept moors. Their intimacy binds them together heart and soul. Heathcliff’s entire existence revolves around his compulsive love for Catherine. When old Earnshaw dies, Hindley’s physical and mental abuse of Heathcliff drains the poor creature of any compassionate humanity. Taking revenge becomes Heathcliff’s main obsession and his plans take on diabolical proportions. Hindley loses his wife, Frances, to tuberculosis. He falls into alcoholism, gambling and despair. His little son, Hareton, is abused and neglected. One of Heathcliff’s acts of vengeance is to acquire all property rights to Wuthering Heights and Hareton’s inheritance. Once this is accomplished, he refuses to educate Hareton leaving him a brutal, illiterate, savage.
The Linton family estate, Thrushcross Grange, and the Lintons are in stark contrast to Wuthering Heights and the Earnshaws. Catherine encounters the Lintons through an accident involving their dogs. She is attracted by the light and gaiety at Thrushcross Grange and the children, Isabella and Edgar Linton. It is inevitable that her association with the Lintons will lead to her marriage to Edgar. This solidifies her “gentile” social station in life but it maddens and infuriates her soulmate, Heathcliff. Brontë portrays Edgar and Isabella Linton as spoiled, but gentle, weak and naïve. Heathcliff takes advantage of this on several occasions. He becomes even more diabolical and ensnares Isabella into marriage only to degrade and violently abuse her. Forever torn between Heathcliff and Edgar, Catherine dies wailing and delirious giving birth to Edgar Linton’s daughter, Cathy. Twelve years later, Heathcliff continues his insane revenge on Cathy whom he detests. His derangement further affects his treatment of his own son, born to Isabella, Linton Heathcliff.
The Next Generation
The births of Cathy Linton and Linton Heathcliff mark the next stage of the story. The decay and weakness of the Linton family is symbolized by the consumptive Edgar and his effeminate nephew, Linton. Linton’s illness, selfishness and whining self-loathing fill us with disgust as well as pity. He plays upon Cathy’s kind heart and uses his hypochondria to manipulate her. Heathcliff is callously cruel towards his dying son. Playing on Linton’s bad character, Heathcliff cajoles, tricks and finally forces Cathy to marry Linton. Fearful of being tortured and tormented, the dying Linton signs all of his property, including Cathy’s, over to his father. The final circle of revenge is completed. Heathcliff now owns all property rights to. Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, as well as any inheritance left to Cathy, Hareton and Linton.
Final Scenes and Developments
Heathcliff administers the same savage treatment to Cathy as he once experienced himself. However, Heathcliff does not anticipate the relationship that slowly develops between Hareton and Cathy which will eventually lead to their marriage. At first, appalled by his coarseness, primitive dialect and illiteracy, Cathy abhors Hareton. Nevertheless, stripped of land, money, inheritance and friends, she slowly accepts him and teaches him to read. Haunted by the images of Catherine Linton, Heathcliff is suddenly disarmed by Cathy’s and Hareton’s resemblance to her. His behavior changes abruptly and Heathcliff no longer takes enjoyment in Cathy’s and Hareton’s destruction. Catherine’s ghostlike haunting makes him yearn to be with her in death. Heathcliff’s final scenes of suffering and madness take on intense forms of erratic behavior. Open to several symbolic interpretations, the romantic tale ends in accordance with Gothic traditions. Peace finally descends on Wuthering Heights.
Tasks and Activities
Text of the Novel
Chapter by chapter comprehension tasks: Tasks to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
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