Summary of Wuthering Heights
This Edition: 1847
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- Victorian literature
What It’s About
A Crusade of Revenge and Passion
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights features one of the most contentious literary figures of all time. Her character Heathcliff is a man whom it seems love and hate drive in equal parts. Shunned and despised as a foundling child, the adult Heathcliff returns to his childhood home to wreak havoc on all those who harmed him – and to win back the love of his life. Brontë’s contemporaries took offense at her main character’s merciless, cold-blooded crusade and the depiction of human nature as violent and depraved. This meant that Brontë never lived to see the success of her work – the novel only entered the ranks of the best in literature decades after Brontë’s death. Wuthering Heights remained Brontë’s only novel, but its popularity has continued unabated, inspiring numerous film versions and providing material for two international pop music hits.
- Wuthering Heights is a story of love, passion and revenge.
- Heathcliff comes to the farm Wuthering Heights as a foundling. There, he finds a home and love but also suffers terrible abuse from his adoptive brother. When Catherine, whom he grows up with and falls in love with, marries another man, he leaves, only to return to take revenge on all who have harmed him.
- Heathcliff’s behavior and actions come across as diabolical and fundamentally evil.
- The story is narrated by Nelly, the house servant who was party to all that took place over the years.
- Wuthering Heights is Emily Brontë’s only novel.
- The first edition of the novel didn’t sell well. Brontë’s contemporaries thought its depiction of human nature was too violent and depraved.
- The Victorian novel builds on the literary traditions of Romanticism, Gothic fiction and Realism.
- Wuthering Heights explores the powerful effect a person’s upbringing can have on his or her character and behavior – both positive and negative.
- Emily Brontë died shortly after the publication of Wuthering Heights. She was only 30 years old when she passed.
- “If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be…. Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” (Catherine)
First Visit to Wuthering Heights
The year is 1801. Mr. Lockwood is the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, a house in a remote part of North Yorkshire. He decides to visit his landlord, Heathcliff, who lives on the nearby farm, Wuthering Heights. Neither its outward appearance nor the attitude and behavior of its inhabitants are particularly inviting: The house and its outbuildings look dilapidated and neglected. Heathcliff would clearly prefer it if Lockwood left and only begrudgingly invites him in. A servant, Joseph, who is called to take Lockwood’s horse to the stable, looks equally displeased. The animosity comes to a head when Heathcliff’s dog attacks Lockwood. Despite the frosty reception, Lockwood decides to visit again the next day. As he arrives, it begins to snow. A young and rough-looking man, Hareton Earnshaw, wanders across the court and signals Lockwood to follow him. He takes him into the house, where Lockwood meets the beautiful Cathy Heathcliff, whom he takes to be Heathcliff’s wife. She is as disagreeable as the rest of the people at Wuthering Heights. When Heathcliff arrives, he isn’t happy to see Lockwood – even less so when it becomes clear that Lockwood will have to stay the night because a snowstorm has set in. Lockwood is surprised and shocked when he sees the way Heathcliff orders Cathy around and by the defiance and hate she shows. He also soon learns that she isn’t Heathcliff’s wife, but his daughter-in-law. When he stumbles into his next assumption that Earnshaw is Heathcliff’s son, Earnshaw quickly and decisively puts him right. What ensues is a very uncomfortable evening meal. That evening, Zillah, the maid, shows Lockwood to an unused room where he can sleep for the night. It is full of books, and on the windowsill Lockwood finds engravings of three names: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton and Catherine Heathcliff.
“The ledge…was covered with writing scratched on the paint. The writing…was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small – Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton.”
Too agitated to sleep, Lockwood starts looking through the books, most of which seem to have belonged to Catherine Earnshaw. The margins are scribbled full of journal entries, which the intrigued Lockwood begins to read. When he finally falls asleep, nightmares plague him. A noise at the window wakes him. He thinks it is a branch of the tree knocking against it, but when he reaches outside to remove the branch, he touches a cold child’s hand, which grabs on to his. The child begs him to let her in, claiming she is Catherine Linton and is lost on the moors. Terrified, he finally manages to pull back his arm and close the window. Lockwood’s scream wakes Heathcliff, who then bursts into the room and rages at him. Lockwood then decides to spend the rest of the night in the main chamber and leaves as soon as possible in the morning. Back at Thrushcross Grange, Lockwood asks his housekeeper Mrs. Ellen Dean – known as Nelly – to tell him about Heathcliff and the strange assortment of people surrounding him. Nelly grew up at Wuthering Heights and used to work as a servant there.
Nelly tells Lockwood her story. The previous owner of Wuthering Heights, Mr. Earnshaw, returns from a business trip to Liverpool with a foundling – a dirty, black-haired boy who speaks only unintelligible gibberish. Mr. Earnshaw’s children, Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw, don’t take to the boy as they blame him for the loss and breakage of the highly anticipated gifts that their father was supposed to bring back for them. Earnshaw names the boy Heathcliff and brings him up as one of his own. The hot-tempered and spoiled Catherine and the brooding, sullen Heathcliff soon become friends, but Hindley hates the new boy and takes every opportunity to harm him.
“The curate might set as many chapters as he pleased for Catherine to get by heart, and Joseph might thrash Heathcliff till his arm ached; they forgot everything the minute they were together again.”
When Earnshaw finds out, he makes the situation worse by turning against his own son and favoring Heathcliff over Hindley. One day, Earnshaw gives the two boys a horse each as presents. When Heathcliff’s horse goes lame, he asks Hindley to swap with him, threatening that he will tell Earnshaw that Hindley has harmed him. Hindley angrily gives in but knocks Heathcliff over as he runs out of the stable.
“I’m trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait, if I can only do it at last.” (Heathcliff to Nelly)
As Mr. Earnshaw ages, the relationship with his son becomes increasingly worse. He now sees him as a failure and dares him to say a bad word against Heathcliff. The curate suggests sending Hindley off to college, and so Hindley leaves Wuthering Heights. He returns three years later for his father’s funeral, brings back a wife, Frances, and takes ownership of Wuthering Heights. He is devoted to Frances, and whatever she says and wishes, he does. Nelly and Joseph have to move into the servants’ quarter, and Heathcliff has no choice but to join the servants and work as a farmhand. This move only leads to Heathcliff and Catherine becoming closer, and they spend days exploring the moors and making mischief together.
Meeting the Lintons
On one of their adventures, Heathcliff and Catherine come across Thrushcross Grange, where the Lintons live. Looking in through the lit windows, they see Edgar and Isabella Linton, the family’s children, who are in the house on their own. Their affluent and comfortable world is completely alien to Catherine and Heathcliff. The two spies are caught by the returning parents. They try to flee, but one of the guard dogs bites Catherine. When they realize that she is their neighbor’s daughter, the Lintons take her back into the house to look after her, but they chase away Heathcliff when he tries to “save” Catherine. Catherine stays at the Lintons for five weeks while she recovers, and Mrs. Linton takes it upon herself to turn her into a lady. Catherine responds well to these attempts and returns to Wuthering Heights well-dressed and sophisticated. The contrast to the grubby and frowning Heathcliff is now even more pronounced. He runs out of the room as he feels that she is making fun of him. Catherine is upset and doesn’t understand his outburst, but the gulf between the two friends grows as Catherine starts to spend more time with Isabella and Edgar.
Mad with Grief
Frances and Hindley have a son, Hareton, but Frances doesn’t survive the birth. The loss of his wife pushes Hindley over the edge. He turns to alcohol and gambling. Nelly is now responsible for looking after the baby. Hindley’s behavior becomes more difficult, and his behavior towards Heathcliff worsens. Heathcliff, on the other hand, seems to find some evil pleasure in taunting Hindley.
Hindley’s “treatment of [Heathcliff] was enough to make a fiend of a saint. And, truly, it seemed like the lad were possessed by something diabolical at that period.”
For Catherine, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep her two lives separate as she visits regularly with Isabella and in particular Edgar. Heathcliff despises Edgar, and Edgar is scared of Heathcliff. It soon becomes clear that Edgar has feelings for Catherine, and he begins to court her. Nelly tries to dissuade him, knowing as she does Catherine’s unpredictable temper and willful nature, but Edgar is under Catherine’s spell. He asks her to marry him, and she accepts. In the evening, Catherine seeks Nelly’s counsel on whether she has done the right thing. She confesses that she loves Heathcliff, but that her brother’s treatment of him has brought him so low in status that she could not marry him.
“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be…. Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” (Catherine)
Heathcliff overhears the conversation and disappears. Catherine is inconsolable but three years later marries Edgar. She moves to Thrushcross Grange and takes Nelly with her. The five-year-old Hareton stays behind with his father, much to Nelly’s dismay.
Catherine and Edgar settle into married life. Edgar is smitten with Catherine and panders to her every whim. Catherine seems to become increasingly fond of him. One evening, Nelly returns from the garden and finds Heathcliff outside the house, demanding to speak to Catherine. Catherine is overjoyed to see him again, and she demands Edgar be friends with him. Edgar isn’t pleased to have Heathcliff back in their lives, but to appease Catherine, he doesn’t object to their renewed acquaintance. Heathcliff settles at Wuthering Heights with Hindley, which surprises everyone. It turns out that Hindley invited Heathcliff to stay when he found out that Heathcliff had come into money – he plans to use him to finance his gaming addiction. In reality, he falls deeper and deeper into debt, with Heathcliff as his creditor. Heathcliff starts to exert his influence over Hareton: When Nelly visits Wuthering Heights to see Hindley and Hareton, she finds that Hareton has turned into an ill-bred, insolent and cruel boy.
A Dangerous Infatuation
Initially, Heathcliff is cautious not to overstay his welcome at Thrushcross Grange, and soon everyone has settled into a false sense of security. But then the eighteen-year-old Isabella starts to fall in love with Heathcliff and, in a jealous fit, confesses her feelings for him to Catherine. Catherine, in a cruel twist, forces her to stay as she tells Heathcliff that Isabella loves him and believes that Catherine is preventing Heathcliff from loving her back. Humiliated, Isabella flees from the room. Left alone with Catherine, Heathcliff makes his antipathy for Isabella clear. No more is said on the topic.
“If you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you of the contrary, in a very little while. Meantime, thank you for telling me your sister-in-law’s secret: I swear I’ll make the most of it.” (Heathcliff to Catherine)
The next time Heathcliff comes to Thrushcross Grange, he tries to kiss Isabella in the garden. Catherine asks him if he wants to marry Isabella, but he explains that he would only marry her if it suited his plan to take revenge on all those who treated him badly as a child. This upsets and angers Catherine. Edgar eventually manages to throw Heathcliff out of the house. However, when Edgar tells Catherine that he doesn’t want her to continue her friendship with Heathcliff, she falls into a fit and then refuses to eat or leave her room. Edgar hides in the library, hoping that Catherine will give in and ask for forgiveness. Nelly doesn’t tell him of Catherine’s hunger strike or the hallucinations that plague her, and Catherine dispairs at Edgar’s apparent disinterest. One evening, he appears in her room and is aghast at her appearance. He reproaches Nelly for not telling him what has been going on and sends her to find a doctor. On the way into the village, Nelly finds Isabella’s dog hung with a handkerchief to a bridle hook and barely alive. She rescues it. The doctor tells her that someone saw Isabella and Heathcliff walking in the park the day before, and overheard Heathcliff trying to persuade her to run away with him. Nelly rushes back to the house, but it is too late: Isabella has gone.
Six weeks after Isabella’s disappearance, Edgar receives a note from her, informing him of her marriage to Heathcliff. Edgar doesn’t reply – he is too busy looking after Catherine, who has only just started to recover from a terrible brain fever. Two weeks later, Nelly receives a letter from Isabella, in which she tells her of what has happened and the hellish life she is now enduring at Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff only married her to have a chance to get his hands on Thrushcross Grange, and he treats her abysmally.
“Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?” (Isabella to Nelly)
Hindley’s temper and alcoholism have reached new heights under Heathcliff’s ministrations, Hareton is still uncouth and foul-mouthed, and Joseph is no help at all. Heathcliff practically keeps Isabella a prisoner, but eventually she manages to escape. She appears at Thrushcross Grange, stops briefly to tell Nelly what has happened and to change her clothes, and then disappears again. She doesn’t return, but she sends letters to Edgar telling him that she now lives close to London and has a son.
Catherine slowly recovers from her illness. She is still frail and has also fallen pregnant. Heathcliff forces Nelly to help arrange a meeting between him and Catherine. Their reunion ends in both of them confessing their passionate love for each other. The same night, Catherine falls unconscious, and the baby is born prematurely. Catherine dies in childbirth.
“I wish I could hold you…till we were both dead!” (Catherine to Heathcliff)
Edgar is devastated but pours all his love into his newborn daughter, whom he names Catherine in memory of her mother. Only six months after Catherine’s death, her brother also dies – he drinks himself to death, and Wuthering Heights goes to his creditor, Heathcliff.
The Next Generation
Young Cathy Linton enjoys a happy childhood with her doting father and Nelly as her nursemaid. She grows into a well-educated and lovely girl, but her world is confined to Thrushcross Grange – Edgar fears that she might meet Heathcliff and that he will think of a plan to use her in his evil scheme of revenge. While Cathy is young, she doesn’t mind this confinement, but once she turns twelve, the world outside of Thrushcross Grange begins to interest her. When her father leaves for three weeks to go and see his dying sister, she takes the first opportunity to escape. Pretending to go for a ride in the park around Thrushcross Grange, she takes off onto the moors. Soon Nelly finds out that Cathy has been secretly visiting Wuthering Heights and spending time with Hareton. While she gets on well enough with him, she is shocked when she finds that this uncouth and uneducated young man is actually her cousin.
The Last Piece of the Puzzle
Isabella’s dying wish is for Edgar to take in her son Linton. Cathy is excited about having a playmate in the house, but somehow, Heathcliff learns of his arrival at Thrushcross Grange, and demands the boy to be handed over to him. Edgar has no legal right to refuse, and Linton is taken to Wuthering Heights the day after his arrival. The blond, good-looking Linton turns out to be a frail and sickly child, and Heathcliff mistreats him terribly, while at the same time instilling in him a false sense of his own importance. Though weak, he turns into a fearful tyrant, and Joseph and Hareton grow to hate him. During a day out on Cathy’s sixteenth birthday, she and Nelly run into Heathcliff and Hareton. Heathcliff invites them in to Wuthering Heights. Cathy agrees despite Nelly’s protestations and is delighted to see her cousin Linton again. Heathcliff reveals his plan to Nelly: He wants Cathy and Linton to marry each other as he intends to get his hands on Thrushcross Grange as well.
“I have a single wish, and my whole being and faculties are yearning to attain it. They have yearned towards it so long, and so unwaveringly, that I’m convinced it will be reached – and soon – because it has devoured my existence.” (Heathcliff)
Linton is still frail and sickly, and unlikely to live much longer. When Cathy returns home, she tells her father all about the visit. He explains to her why he and Heathcliff don’t get on and makes her promise not to visit again. She promises but is upset as she and Linton had agreed to meet again the next day. What follows is months of secret correspondence and meetings despite several attempts by Nelly and Cathy’s father to put a stop to the budding romance. It is only when her father’s health continues to deteriorate that Cathy stops seeing and writing to Linton. One year after their last meeting, her father reluctantly agrees to let her go and meet her cousin again. Heathcliff uses Linton to lure Nelly and Cathy into the house, and then refuses to let them go until Cathy agrees to marry Linton – which she does the next day. Five days later Nelly is released and returns to Thrushcross Grange, only to find Edgar near death. Cathy manages to come and see her father before he dies, but then Heathcliff forces her to move to Wuthering Heights. Shortly after, Linton dies as well, and Cathy is trapped in the dismal and hate-filled household of Wuthering Heights. This is how Lockwood finds them.
Lockwood decides to cancel his lease on Thrushcross Grange and leave the area. He returns a year later and decides to visit Wuthering Heights. To his astonishment, he finds Cathy, Hareton and Nelly all living there together in blissful harmony. Hareton has changed: The ill-mannered and rough boy has grown into a good-looking and well-dressed young man. It turns out that, after a few months of living at Wuthering Heights, Cathy finally managed to convince Hareton that she didn’t mean him any harm but would like to be friends. Their friendship helped them to stand up to Heathcliff, who realized that his plans for revenge had not played out the way he had wanted them to. He starts to deteriorate rapidly and, haunted by Catherine’s ghost, eventually dies close to madness and plagued by his past.
About the Text
Structure and Style
Wuthering Heights tells its main narrative through the eyes of Ellen Dean – known as Nelly – the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange. A secondary narrative, in which Lockwood and the readers meet the main characters together, frames Nelly’s story. This introduction sets out the complicated relationships Heathcliff has woven around him, and leaves the reader as intrigued as Lockwood to find out what has lead the unusual and tense arrangement in Heathcliff’s house. Lockwood and Nelly’s perspectives both color and restrict the story’s narrative. Although Nelly is involved in the events of the story, as a servant and housekeeper she still occupies a marginal space in the narrative. She, like the reader, finds herself in a position of having to watch helplessly as events around her unfold.
The novel covers three generations and switches between different time periods as it moves from the Lockwood’s present to the past of Heathcliff’s childhood and return to Wuthering Heights, and then back to the present. The main drama plays out between Catherine, Heathcliff, Hindley and Isabella, with Heathcliff taking the role as the main orchestrator of the unfolding events and relationships.
- Heathcliff is often portrayed as the personification of the devil: full of evil and without mercy, taking pleasure in the havoc that he wreaks.
- Nature and the wild Yorkshire countryside play an important part in Wuthering Heights, reflecting the mood of its main character and often foreshadowing moments of doom and destruction.
- Wuthering Heights has elements of ghost and vampire stories. In particular the framing narrative and introduction to the story raise expectations of the supernatural, and this theme returns in the context of Heathcliff’s death.
- The novel explores the powerful and long-lasting effect of upbringing on a person’s character and behavior – both positive and negative.
- Both Catherine and Heathcliff are highly-strung, but display this in different ways: in Heathcliff, it shows in his tendency to violence and dark moods, in Catherine, in her extreme capriciousness. Brontë (in true Victorian fashion) uses both as warnings against the danger of giving in to extreme emotion.
- The novel contrasts emotion and reason – while Heathcliff’s decisions and actions are mostly driven by his emotions, Catherine often follows reason in her decision making.
- Despite its violent main narrative, the novel advocates the belief in the power of good and the final victory of good over evil.
- The outer appearance of the characters reflects their personalities – whereas Heathcliff is dark-haired and dark-eyed, Catherine, her husband and her daughter are all fair.
- Cathy and Hareton’s union gives a strong redemptive ending to the narrative: In the end, their love triumphs over Heathcliff’s hate.
Romance, Realism and the Gothic
Brontë’s Wuthering Heights manages to combine two great literary traditions: Romanticism and Realism. It has elements of a Gothic novel, with its wild, remote setting, the appearance of Catherine’s ghost and Heathcliff displaying characteristics of a vampire. Heathcliff’s character also reminds the reader of Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, who kills out of unrequited love – a theme picked up in Heathcliff’s passionate but (in his view unrequited) love for Catherine. However, these extremes of character, actions and atmosphere are set within the mundanity of everyday life, as represented for example in Joseph’s dialect, Nelly’s down-to-earth narrative and the confines of family life in which the story unfolds.
Despite the fact that there are no references that allow the reader to place the novel within a particular historical time period, the novel reflects its time in the healthy dose of social criticism that it includes – whether that’s patriarchal power structures, the injustice of inheritance law or institutionalized religion. In this respect, it foreshadows the changes that were to shake Victorian society towards the end of the nineteenth century, including the emancipation of women, education, economic deprivation and so on, which in Brontë’s time were still in their infancy.
Emily’s father, Patrick Brontë, also had literary ambitions, writing poems and two novels. He passed on his love for literature to Emily and her siblings, who from a young age invented stories and dreamed up their own fabled country called Gondal. However, another, much more mundane factor that motivated Emily (and her sisters) to write was a need to earn money. The family struggled financially, and her prospects of marrying well were slim.
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 by Thomas Cautley Newby, under Emily’s pen name Ellis Bell. Emily wrote the novel between 1845 and 1847, and its first edition was published together with her sister Anne’s novel Agnes Grey in a three-volume format, with Wuthering Heights making up the first two parts of the volume. After Emily’s death, Charlotte, who by then was a successful author, wrote a preface to the book, corrected spelling mistakes and tempered Joseph’s thick Yorkshire dialect to make it easier to understand for a Southern readership. This second edition was published by W.S. William, Charlotte’s publisher.
Little is known about the inspiration for and background to Wuthering Heights. Emily herself didn’t leave any notes and died shortly after the publication of her one and only novel. It is believed that Emily took inspiration for Joseph’s character from her aunt, who came to care for the children after their mother died in 1821. It is also not clear whether Wuthering Heights the place is based on a real building. There are several candidates, including Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse near the village where Emily and her family lived, and High Sunderland Hall, which was located near Halifax.
Reviews and Legacy
When Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, it was a commercial and literary failure, selling very few copies. The Victorian public treated it with bewilderment and resentment, taking offense at its matter-of-fact brutality and unrestrained passions. While most critics recognized the power of Emily’s storytelling, the novel’s depiction of human depravity was too much for some. It took several decades before the novel’s status as a literary masterpiece was established. Even contemporary authors struggled with the novel. The English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, described the book as “an incredible monster” with its action “laid in hell.”
The novel has inspired many adaptations, including films, radio and television dramatizations, a musical, a ballet and operas. The most famous film adaptation is probably William Wyler’s version of 1939, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, which won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The 1992 adaptation with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the starring roles is one of the few that includes the story of Cathy, Linton and Hareton. There are also several foreign language film adaptations, including a Spanish version by Luis Buñuel set in Catholic Mexico and a Japanese version by Yoshishige Yoshida, which is set in medieval Japan.
The book also inspired a number of songs and creative works, most notably Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and Running Up That Hill. The English rock bank Genesis also refers to the novel in its album Wind & Wuthering.
About the Author
Emily Brontë was born on July 30, 1818 in Thornton, North Yorkshire, the fifth child of Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. Her father was a vicar and had literary ambitions himself, publishing some poems and two (unsuccessful) novels. In 1821, he moved his family to Haworth, a poor and isolated village in Yorkshire. Emily’s mother died only a few months later, and her sister Elizabeth came to look after Emily and her siblings. When Emily was six years old, she and her older sisters Charlotte, Elizabeth and Maria were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School, a strict boarding school with appalling living conditions. Elizabeth and Maria became seriously ill and died of tuberculosis in 1825. Emily and Charlotte returned home, where they were educated by their father together with their younger sister Anne and their brother Branwell. Despite the lack of education, the children had access to many books and published material. At seventeen, Emily began attending the school where Charlotte was a teacher, but she suffered from extreme homesickness and soon left. Anne took her place as the sisters were planning to achieve enough education to start their own school. In 1838, Emily began work as a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax, but she could not cope with the long working hours and soon returned home. In 1842, Emily and Charlotte went to Brussels to improve their French and German but returned home when their aunt Elizabeth died. In 1846, the three sisters published a volume of their poems under pseudonyms but only managed to sell two copies. Undeterred, they announced the forthcoming publication of their novels a year later. While Charlotte and Anne’s novels found a receptive audience, Emily’s Wuthering Heights confounded the critics. Emily did not live to see its later success: She died of tuberculosis only a year after its publication, on December 19, 1848, in Haworth, aged just 30.
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