A turbulent tale of two families - the Earnshaws and Lintons - over two generations, Wuthering Heights (1847) is Emily Brontë's only surviving novel. It is narrated retrospectively as the diary of the book's polite middle-class narrator, Mr Lockwood, who has rented a house in Yorkshire in order to be “completely removed from the stir of society”. In contemporary terms, Lockwood is a metropolitan tourist on a typical Romantic quest for the natural and the picturesque. The house he rents is “Thrushcross Grange”; his landlord is Mr Heathcliff, who lives at “Wuthering Heights”, and he has a housekeeper, Ellen Dean, who narrates Heathcliff's story to him, as well as the history of the two houses and the tale of the Lintons and Earnshaws who have lived there. Ellen Dean is a proud, literate, meddlesome house-keeper who has served the families for eighteen years, and has acted as a mother-figure to many of the characters in the tale she tells. Because of her social role and her narrative task, Ellen Dean often represents herself as lingering by doorways, overhearing what has been said, and acting as a confidant to the young people of the two households. The ambiguity of Ellen Dean's narration and the way it is ironically mediated through Lockwood's blind metropolitan presumptions is one of the most compelling qualities of the writing. Both Lockwood (whose name points to the themes of locks and barriers running through the text) and Ellen herself work to repress the tumult and violence of what is narrated; they are a means of both soothing and exciting middle-class readerly fears about what is being told.
The narration of the book begins by establishing an air of Gothic menace: Heathcliff is a melodramatic, violent, impolite figure, locked away in his misanthropic and unkempt solitude at Wuthering Heights and surrounded by aggressive dogs. In the third chapter, Lockwood, forced to stay over at Wuthering Heights, browses in books he finds about his room and reads bits and pieces of writing by “Catherine Earnshaw”, whose name shifts also to “Catherine Linton” and “Catherine Heathcliff”. Soon after Lockwood falls asleep, he wakes from a nightmare of the ghost of Catherine knocking at his window and asking to be let in. The ghost then becomes actual and, true to his name, Lockwood rubs the girl's wrist on the broken window-pane, drawing blood as he struggles to repel her, until the child gives up. This frightening introduction to Catherine leads Lockwood to question Ellen Dean, and the narrative begins to emerge of how Mr Earnshaw introduced a nameless foundling “Heathcliff” into the motherless Earnshaw household at Wuthering Heights, a modest landed estate in the Yorkshire dales. (The geography is important: whereas the dales are relatively fertile valleys, higher up they graduate towards rough pasture, and higher again they become wild, windswept bracken-and-heather moorland. Wuthering Heights is situated above Thrushcross Grange and on the way up to the moors and whilst physically superior is lower in socio-economic terms.) The text traces Heathcliff's rebellious, impassioned association with Catherine, the daughter of the Earnshaw family; his subsequent division from her when he is reduced to the status of mere farm-labourer after Mr Earnshaw dies and power passes to his son Hindley (who beats him); his loss of Catherine when she becomes a “lady” through marriage with the bourgeois Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange; his flight from the Heights and return after a mysterious three-year absence during which he acquires unexplained wealth; and his revenge on the world that dispossessed him. On Heathcliff's return, it is clear that the love between him and Catherine will continue to transgress social constraints. Catherine, however, sickens under the strain of yearning for what she cannot have, and dies shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Catherine Linton. Edgar Linton, an image of the scepticism about book-culture which runs through the narrative, consoles himself with reading books in the library. Heathcliff, meanwhile, furious that his love for Catherine was reciprocated but debarred by marriage arrangements, coldly marries Edgar's sister Isabella, brutalises her, and sets about the destruction of both families. He encourages Hindley Earnshaw to drink himself to death, and reduces Hindley's son, Hareton, to a state of brutish illiteracy. His own child with Isabella is named Linton Heathcliff, as if to emphasise the intra-familial obsessiveness of his motivations; Linton is weak and degenerate, but just sufficiently vital to be married to Catherine Linton (his cousin) and die, leaving Heathcliff in possession of the Linton estate. Two years later, marrying Catherine to Hareton, Heathcliff completes the incestuous circle, having all the Linton-Earnshaw offspring and both family estates under his control. The impoverished waif of the first half of the narrative, then, becomes the aggressive capitalist of the second; the social rebel converts to the patriarchal tyrant. Entwined with this story of implacable and self-defeating revenge is the tale of the unassuaged and prohibited desire between Heathcliff and Catherine, debarred from fulfilment as it is by social division, marital convenience and finally death. Heathcliff's revenge is in part a displacement of his unfulfillable desire for Catherine; indeed, as a theodicy of desire, Wuthering Heights reveals its unflinching unorthodoxy, for the novel spurns the consolations of Christian heaven by affirming a longing that transgresses the very bounds of life and death, sustaining itself in the breaking open of graves, the calling up of ghosts and the fierce refusal of renunciation.
When Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 it raised a storm. Two main lines of response characterised initial reactions to the novel. On the one hand it was judged to be rude, crude and excessive due to the violence of its scenes and passions, but on the other it was seen as having a strange and unaccountable power. Certainly it scandalised the polite literary tastes of the metropolitan middle-class reading public upon whom it broke; in fact, responses to the book oddly mimic the bemusement of the text's cultured narrator, Lockwood, in the face of the derangements of bourgeois decorum that he encounters at the Heights. “We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity”, declared the Atlas. “We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house”, said Paterson's Magazine, concluding, “Read Jane Eyre [...] but burn Wuthering Heights”. In 1851 the Eclectic Review pronounced the novel to be “One of the most repellent books we ever read”. It was this middle-class opprobrium that required Charlotte Brontë to defend her sister's novel when she wrote her “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” and “Editor's Preface” to accompany the republication of Wuthering Heights and Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey in 1850. (Charlotte was also protecting and preserving the memory of her sisters; both had died between 1847 and 1850.) Charlotte wanted to make Wuthering Heights positively and properly acceptable to the very readers who had reviled it, and her remarks amount both to a rebuttal and an apology. She tamed the furious energies of the book for those who had seen it as a work of “power”, but a power “grotesque” and “purposeless”, by concurring with middle-class judgement yet insisting that the novel's wildness sprang from the “inefficiently cultured” mind of her sister and the “alien and unfamiliar” world of the novel itself - bristling as it did with “the rough, strong utterance, the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled aversions, and headlong partialities of unlettered moorland hinds and rugged moorland squires”. Charlotte's account of Emily presents her as an untutored rustic genius removed from “what is called ‘the world'”, a cultural unsophisticate who, having fashioned her “moorish”, “wild” and “knotty” novel, “did not know what she had done”. Charlotte's strategy, then, protected Emily from the censorious eye of metropolitan literary culture (“the world”), yet deferred to the values of that world by depicting Emily as an unlettered moorland innocent who could not - and did not - know better than to do as she had done. By insisting that Wuthering Heights belonged to a world “alien” and “unfamiliar” to its audience, Charlotte consigned her sister's work to cultural marginality and at the same time insulated its readers from the novel's challenging and disturbing effects - effects that, as Charlotte put it in a letter, “shock more than they attract”.
But the “shock” of Wuthering Heights was closer to the world of its polite readers than Charlotte's repressive apologia for the novel suggests. On the contemporaneous publication of Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights (authored by the pseudonymous “Bell” brothers), many reviewers assumed that the Bells were not three, but one. One such reader was Elizabeth Rigby, or Lady Eastlake, who in the Tory Quarterly Review in December 1848 focused her animus on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Rigby showed no interest in possible or arguable distinctions between the Bells, but lumped them together as displaying what she called “ignorance of the habits of [polite] society”, “coarseness of taste” and a “heathenish doctrine of religion”. The only difference between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, she claimed, was that the latter should be singled out for “more individual reprobation”, since the spectacle of “Catherine and Heathfield [sic]” together was “too odiously and abominably pagan to be palatable even to the most vitiated class of English readers”. Rigby's aristocratic, high Tory language - “habits of society [...] coarseness [...] heathenish [...] vitiated class” - reveals an ideological repudiation of the work of the Bells that has all the force of political panic. Bearing in mind that for Rigby “the writings of all three” Bells incarnated the same subversive spirit, it is worth citing her diatribe against Jane Eyre:
There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment [...] there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of the mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
One might add for Rigby, it is the same which has also written Wuthering Heights. It is not hard, indeed, to see Rigby bristling at the transgressive or “pagan” drama of limitless desire enacted between Catherine and Heathcliff, or at the violently vengeful story of the vagabond Heathcliff unscrupulously seizing the property, privileges and position that had been denied to him. Rigby might indeed see subversion here, might indeed blanch at the insurrectionary force embedded in such motifs; for if her fury at the Bells was at a spirit “overthrow[ing] authority”, this revolutionary spirit was very materially convulsing the world of Britain and Europe during the 1840s. In Britain, the 1840s saw the years of Chartist unrest and demonstrations in which working-class men petitioned for political reform; they saw mass working-class actions in the form of strikes, marches and riots, and abroad (the other focus of Rigby's fears) Europe was shaken by violent insurrection as the revolutions of 1848 broke out in rapid succession in France, Italy, Hungary and southern Germany. 1848, too, saw the publication of Karl Marx's and Friedrich Engels's Communist Manifesto, which began with the announcement, “A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism”. If Rigby trembled at the chill of that spectre, it was a chill she also felt blowing through Wuthering Heights.
It is Heathcliff who is the primary agent of convulsion in the world of Wuthering Heights. His origins remain obscure: all we are told is that he is discovered “starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb in the streets of Liverpool” by old Mr Earnshaw, and brought back to the Heights as a nameless foundling. But the mixture of specificity and obscurity with which Brontë surrounds Heathcliff's origins is crucial in determining his symbolic force in the text. Nancy Armstrong says:
We should recall that Wuthering Heights was written against the background of swelling industrial centers and Chartist uprisings that had reached alarming proportions by the forties, as had the hoards of migrant workers who were newly arrived on the English social scene [...] Simply by giving [Heathcliff's] character a particular point of origin in the slums of a major industrial city rather than leaving the matter open to more romantic possibilities, Brontë made her protagonist capable of acquiring whatever negative meaning adhered to such a potentially hostile social element.
As a “hostile social element” or obliquely revolutionary metaphor, Heathcliff's significance does not just reside in his class beginnings: it also has to do with his racial origins. Speaking of Branwell Brontë's visit to Liverpool (like old Mr Earnshaw) in 1845, and his report of it to his sister Emily, Winifred Gérin writes:
It was the time when the first shiploads of Irish immigrants were landing at Liverpool and dying in the cellars of the warehouses on the quays. Their images, and especially those of the children, were unforgettably depicted in the Illustrated London News - starving scarecrows with a few rags on them and an animal growth of black hair almost obscuring their features. The relevance of such features [...] cannot be overlooked in explaining Emily's choice of Liverpool for the scene of Mr Earnshaw's encounter with ‘the gipsy brat' Heathcliff, ‘dirty, ragged, black-haired', ‘as dark almost as though it came from the devil'. It spoke ‘some gibberish that nobody could understand', as did the children of the famine who knew nothing but Erse [...] who can say that [Heathcliff] was not first given a being and a body by Branwell's report of starving immigrant children in the Liverpool streets?
Branwell's visit to Liverpool was on the eve of the Irish potato famine of 1845; and if he encountered impoverished Irish immigrants during that summer, in 1845 and 1846 (the time Wuthering Heights was written) Irishness became the very signifier of destitution and hunger for the Victorian reading public. For Terry Eagleton, in fact, Heathcliff should be read as “a fragment of the Famine”. To this extent, Heathcliff's destitution, insurgency and ferocious desire (or “hunger”) can be read as a buried political or revolutionary metaphor for a subjugated nation starving and aspiring on the doorstep of its colonial master. On this level, then, Heathcliff is the sign of a colonial repressed; and, as a figure of vengeance, of the revolutionary return of that repressed. Heathcliff's darkness of complexion is mentioned throughout the novel, and there is a sense in which his “gipsy” swarthiness exoticizes and demonises him on broader colonial level, too. Old Mr Linton, for instance, refers to him as “that strange acquisition my late neighbour made in his journey to Liverpool - a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway”. If Heathcliff's dusky face makes him racially ambiguous, so that - in Eagleton's words - he “may be a gypsy, or (like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre) a Creole, or any kind of alien”, his phylogenetic indeterminacy renders him all the more powerful as a figure of otherness in general, of that which is excluded from the constituted structures of civility, ideology and nationality in the novel but that enters irresistibly to disrupt or “wuther” the equanimity of these categories. In this context, it is worth remembering that, aside from its significance as the gateway from Ireland into England, Liverpool was throughout the 17th and 18th centuries a major centre of colonial trade, and specifically of the British slave trade with Africa and North America. Thus, when Ellen Dean asks in the narrative, “where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?” we might wonder whether Heathcliff's lineage encrypts a history more brutal than even his subsequent treatment at the Heights: a history of enslavement unconsciously silenced by the text as its own colonial and ideological “unspoken”.
In a narrative of turbulent passions, social conflicts and sublime extremes, a principle of instability or “wuthering” conditions everything that happens in Wuthering Heights. Frank Kermode, for instance, sees the text as characterized by remorseless “transformations and displacements” - with Heathcliff as the main operator of these displacements. When Heathcliff returns from his three years' away, Edgar Linton spits exasperatedly at Cathy, “Catherine, try to be glad, without being absurd! The whole household need not witness the sight of your welcoming a runaway servant as a brother”. To welcome a “runaway servant as a brother” is to refuse to accept familial and social relations or positions as natural or given. As Margaret Homans notes, “Cathy and Heathcliff are reborn on the occasion of their becoming friends as children, and their identification with each other forms a new origin that replaces parental origins”. In fact, characters are continually being “reborn” into different roles throughout Wuthering Heights, and identities are continually being displaced and remade: thus Hindley Earnshaw comes to take up a paternal position after old Mr Earnshaw's death, Cathy is transmuted from wayward girl at the Heights to bourgeois lady at the Grange, Hareton Earnshaw in effect loses his position as Hindley's child and becomes the brutalised son of Heathcliff, Heathcliff moves from gipsy to gentleman and from rebel to master, and so on. As subjects of invention and reinvention, the novel's characters are constantly convulsed or “wuthered” into new forms, so that self-identity surrenders to difference and characters find themselves, in Lockwood's words, “out of place”.
Describing the difference between Heathcliff and Edgar Linton, Ellen Dean remarks: “The contrast resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly, coal country for a beautiful fertile valley”. This contrast names a key structural opposition in Wuthering Heights: the opposition between excess and constraint, storm and calm, boundlessness and containment. But if the “Romantic” and Gothic Heathcliff typifies the terrors and exhilarations of the sublime, and the “Victorian” or domestic Edgar the comforts and securities of the picturesque and beautiful, what is crucial about Wuthering Heights is that it inscribes these seemingly opposed categories within one another - revealing their mutual contest and their mutual “proximity”. In fact, the borders of constraint are continually being “wuthered” in the novel by what they exclude, and social and symbolic turbulence is shown to condition what appears, in Catherine Earnshaw's words, to be “secure and tranquil”. If these energies scandalised the Victorian reading public on the novel's first appearance in 1847, they offer a continued challenge to readers today.
Citation: Vine, Steven. "Wuthering Heights". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 June 2002 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=8891, accessed 11 December 2023.]