Many people would agree that Heathcliff is the most controversial and complex character in ‘Wuthering Heights’, yet can we make a fair judgement about him. It is hard if the book repeatedly offers it’s own moral judgements (usually in the form of Nelle Dean’s self-righteous comments) and blatant condemnations. It is easy to be blinded by these and therefore unable to look any further in to the motives and passion that drive Heathcliff.
Throughout the book we see Heathcliff responsible for terrible deeds. He could easily be interpreted as an unrelenting force of evil, due to the many demonic and wild animal-like descriptions of him; ‘He howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast.’
Heathcliff beats Hindley, so much so that he is probably responsible for his death. It seems almost impossible to have any sympathy or even respect for a man who ‘kicked and trampled’ on Hindley when he had ‘fallen senseless with excessive pain’ and therefore could not defend himself. But this is only one of many, Heathcliff also beats Isabella and keeps Cathy and Nelle as prisoners at the Heights. On a lesser level, Heathcliff hangs Isabella’s dog and kills some young chicks by putting a cage over them so that they couldn’t be fed. This, though is actually maybe more disturbing than his beating of Hindley or Isabella due to the base nature of the act of wanting to harm something so helpless and innocent.
Heathcliff continues this trend of taking anger and vengeance out on those that are innocent, by treating the ‘second generation’ abysmally. He forces Cathy to work for him at the Heights, demands that Linton stay at Wuthering Heights where he is sure to die due to his cruel treatment only so that he may gain Thrushcross Grange. Also, he brings up Hareton as a little barbarian and turns him against his father. It seems that Charlotte Brontï¿½ is justified in saying that ‘Heathcliff…never once swerving in his arrow straight course to perdition.’ But why did Charlotte Brontï¿½ decided to take this view of Heathcliff? If she isolated his actions, like I have done above, then her statement can not be argued with. Undoubtedly her opinion is also due to the way Heathcliff was described by various narrators.
From the very onset of the book Nelle refers to Heathcliff as a ‘sullen’ child. She makes no mention of his irrepressible energy and love for Cathy, instead referring to their relationship as ‘Miss Cathy and he were very thick’, making it seem that their partnership had one purpose only – to cause destruction.
Almost as soon as we are introduced to Heathcliff, we are told by Nelle that ‘Hindley hated him, and to say the truth, I did the same’. Therefore, we are immediately turned against him, because our narrator, the presence that will guide us through the book, dislikes him, and therefore everything she says will be tinted by this view. Especially as we take into account that she is talking with hindsight and we realise that she could have mentioned that she was wrong in her view of him, as she does not we can only conclude that she never changed her opinion of Heathcliff, which is undoubtedly shown by her statement;
‘He complained so seldom, indeed, of such stirs as these, that I really though him not vindictive. I was deceived, completely, as you will hear.” – Page 40
Therefore, even if we grow to like Heathcliff, we will feel that we too are being deceived and hence cannot trust our own opinion.
Heathcliff is always seen as a destructive element. He upsets the Earnshaws by turning Hindley against his father and later Hareton against his father, and he upsets the marriage between the Earnshaws and Lintons. Nothing he does produces a good effect and therefore it is possible to feel that Heathcliff is evil even as a child;
‘….from the very beginning he bred bad feeling in the house’- Page 38
Mr Earnshaw is never thanked by Heathcliff for being looked after; in fact he seems to take it as a right. It is understandable that Hindley dislikes him because in the early years it was Heathcliff that treated Hindley as though he were below him, or rather, not as important as him, clearly demonstrated when their father bought them horses;
‘…Heathcliff took the handsomest but it soon fell lame…’You must exchange horses with me; I don’t like mine, and if you don’t I shall tell your father of the three thrashings that you gave me.’
Above Heathcliff even uses blackmail, therefore we could almost say that receiving a beating from Hindley was a benefit to him, which he took good advantage of.
Hindley’s childhood could be said to have been as bad as Heathcliff’s and in fact it was due to Heathcliff because Hindley ‘had learnt to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as an usurper of his parents affections, and his privileges.’ Heathcliff never takes this into account, that he destroyed Hindley’s life as a child, without much effort, which would have hurt Hindley even more. But Heathcliff is unrelenting with his vengeance and has not one sympathetic thought for Hindley as he wastes his adult life with drink;
‘…He delighted to witness Hindley degrading himself past redemption; and became daily more noticeable for his savage sulleness and ferocity’ PAGE
Heathcliff is easily fanatical and obsessive, nothing can stop him it seems and no ideas or plans are too sadistic or cruel. When Hindley drops Hareton Nelle notes the ‘intense anguish’ present on Heathcliff’s face for saving Hareton and that ‘had it been dark, I dare say, he would have tried to remedy his mistake, by smashing Hareton head on the steps.’ This is not a fact and yet it is presented to the reader for them to feel horror at Heathcliff’s merciless desire to get back at Hindley with any grim action, in this case involving the defenceless Hareton.
It would seem impossible to understand the real Heathcliff through Lockwood self imposed views of Heathcliff at the beginning of the story after having met with him for a few minutes, (‘I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him’) , to Nelle’s struggling and clumsy misinterpretations of Heathcliff’s actions and motives. But it is through Heathcliff’s own language and speeches which are almost soliloquys in styles that the reader can learn most about him and deduce whether he is worthy of the moral judgements and condemnations offered about him. Whether Emily Brontï¿½ intended us to see Heathcliff as a fiend or used his speech to express something that no one in the book could quite explain leaving it to the reader to see past the distortion and blindness of other misinformed views to the ones that really count is left ambiguous.
On pages 285-288, Heathcliff talks with passion of how he was going to open Cathy’s coffin to take a look at her. It is basically a monologue apart from Nelle’s interruptions at the beginning, which Heathcliff promptly stops. Nelle tries to shock Heathcliff at what he has done with;
‘And if she had been dissolved into earth, or worse, what would you have dreamt of then?’
Heathcliff answers with no hint of disgust or astonishment at the thought and it is at this point that we are instantly reminded that Heathcliff is used to extreme and base behaviour, it is what is most natural to him and therefore this statement of Nelle’s had probably already crossed his mind. It creates a sense of inevitability and makes his character more attractive as we see that is love for Cathy is not on the material level, as he does not care if she rots, what matters to him is will ‘I share it’ with her. Also this is yet another instance where his grief and pain are not shared or sympathised with but rather provoked and deepened by spiteful comments, in this case from a one time friend (i.e. Nelle); ‘You were very wicked, Mr Heathcliff!’
The sheer fact that Heathcliff’s speeches tend to be soliloquy’s, in itself shows that he is a very private man who is greatly inverted in his own thoughts and feelings. His language is always passionate and intense showing his depth of emotion.
‘I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul’
and ‘Because misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it.’
Therefore even though he may have committed horrific deeds, we see that he is full of inner turmoil and pain and that as he is a passionate man it would only be natural for him to be responsible for negative actions as strong as his love for Cathy is. I.e. He will love and hate with equal intensities, as he is a man of extremes.
His language portrays the way his mind seems to dart from one idea to the next as it quickly changes, in a set of short, snappy statements, loosely strung together.
‘I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again – it is hers yet – he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change…’
When Heathcliff talks, he often seems to go off on a tangent, like he has entered a dream world where all threads of his mind are taken into consideration and therefore hi speech often appears abstract. But paradoxically though this type of speech is quite revealing, it confuses the reader even further when trying to understand Heathcliff. Basically we must realise that Heathcliff always seems to have several agendas, that at times contradict His thoughts are fleeting and convey the priorities Heathcliff feels at particular moments and his openness to emotions and the passion with which he feel them; ‘He dashed his head against the knotted tree trunk and howled…’
Heathcliff often starts a speech with one desire in mind and ends it with a completely new desire. When Heathcliff tries to open Cathy’s coffin he starts off calmly with ‘in the evening I went to the churchyard. It blew bleak as winter – all round was solitary’ and yet ends violently with ‘I wish they may shovel in the earth over us both! And I wrenched at it more desperately still.’ Likewise, earlier in his speech he talked of his meeting with the Sexton at Cathy’s grave. He starts talking about his love for Cathy ‘I thought once I would have stayed there when I saw her face again’ and yet ends with thoughts of vengeance and retribution ‘…not Linton’s side damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead.’ From this it seems that Heathcliff is at the mercy of his emotions, they distract him from his main goals and in the end they seek to destroy him.
Heathcliff describes his frantic action of trying to open Cathy’s coffin as his ‘labour of agony’ thus reminding us that Heathcliff is a very personal character, he does talk about how he feels to people. Heathcliff said himself a short time before he died; ‘…my mind is so eternally secluded in itself, it is tempting, at last, to turn it out to another.’ Therefore his seeking of Cathy is a way to release all his pent-up emotion that has only be building up inside him. This too helps to creates his receptiveness and eagerness to hear Cathy sighing or see her ghost on the moor.
After hearing the first sigh it reminds him of his isolation from Cathy and how impossible it is for him to be with her in a physical way and therefore after hearing the second sigh he ‘turned consoled at once, unspeakable consoled,’ as this to him confirms the first sigh as genuine, and thus reinforces his hope and dreams that she is with him; ‘Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where?’ and ‘You said I killed you – haunt me, then!…Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad!’. Hence, we tend to see Heathcliff drawn more to Cathy as a metaphysical being rather than a physical body and drawing comfort from this fact. This of course is not common in any other main narrator in the book and aspect of Heathcliff’s character is important as it highlights his rejection of society, as a product of their rejection and therefore we feel more sympathetic for him.
Further sympathy is given to Heathcliff as never recovers over the death of Cathy and creates illusions for himself to help himself cope:
‘I’ll have her in my arms again! If she be cold, I’ll think it is this north wind that chills me; and if she motionless, it is sleep’
We must remember that Heathcliff was first introduced to us as ‘a dirty, ragged, black-haired child’ orphan and the first greeting he received from Mrs Earnshaw was a threat to ‘fling it out of doors’, the children ‘refused to have it in their bed with them, or even in their room’ and Nelle chose to ‘put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow.’ In all these instances Heathcliff is referred to as ‘it’ and of course treated no better. In summary, on Heathcliff’s first introduction to the family he faces rejection and disgust.
This motif becomes familiar throughout Heathcliff’s life with it’s next appearance with he confided to Nelly ‘make me decent, I’m going to be good.’ Here we see Heathcliff’s prominent desire to improve himself so that he is more acceptable. He is prepared for change and it seems that he has been through some personal hell and thorough thinking to arrive at this decision. As his action is out of character it makes his ridiculed rejection by Hindley and Linton, even more distressing and wounding both to Heathcliff and the reader.
Heathcliff’s action had been a very vulnerable move, one that made him feel insecure as he was trying to change, to give up everything he had once been to try to becomes ‘good’. Of course, now, all that Heathcliff can possibly deduce is that the ‘good’ is not for him. Hence we can feel that when Heathcliff was younger it was not his wish to be bad, but in fact to become one of ‘them’ (i.e. part of society) and to please. Due to his rejection at their hands, the fault of his turn upon all mankind can be said to be the responsibility of those that mocked him when he was younger.
There are other characteristics that were evident in Heathcliff as a child and help to explain and interpret his more obscure actions as an adult that make him appear wild and reckless. So we shall be looking at the clear and carefully reasoning behind his apparent irrational behaviour.
On page 39, we see Heathcliff being subject to Hindley’s violence as an iron weight is thrown at him and he is knocked under the hooves of a horse, all because he wants Hindley’s horse. Nelle, herself, reacts surprised to ‘how coolly the child gathered himself up, and went on with his intention.’ Therefore from this it is apparent that Heathcliff is prepared to suffer and endure pain, as long as he receives whatever he is striving for at the end of it, in this case, Hindley’s horse. As Heathcliff is demonstrated here as stubbornly determined to get what he wants, at any cost, and although it does seem irrational, and reckless, it is clearly Heathcliff’s point of view, or rather, plan of action in that situation. This helps to explain his disappearance after he hears Cathy say;
‘It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff’ because Hindley had ‘brought Heathcliff so low’. (Page 81)
Hence, when Heathcliff returns he has made himself fit for marriage to Cathy and is described as ‘tall athletic, well formed man; beside whom my master seemed quite slender and youth-like…His (Heathcliff’s) countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr Linton’s; it looked intelligent and retained no mark of former degradation’.
Heathcliff has suffered in being separated from Cathy and he has ‘fought through a bitter life’, but he has removed any barriers between himself and Cathy. This trait of Heathcliff to take on anything in order to change reality can also be highlighted in the way he makes himself see Cathy’s ghost to convince himself that she is still there, even though this means killing himself ‘not by inches, but by fractions of hair-breadths’.
One can easily conclude that Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy is very important as his whole life is devoted to her. He never seems to properly enjoy one minute of his life, and after she is dead he lives for eighteen years each second hoping to be with her. When he describes their relationship he always views it as something which causes him immense pain; ‘I could almost see her, and yet I could not! I ought to have sweat blood’, ‘sport of that intolerable torture’ and ‘beaten’ and ‘racked’ are both words used to describe the effect of Cathy on him who he refers to as a ‘devil’. Yet when talking of death he refer to it as ‘sleep’ and that the presence of death ‘unspeakable consoled’ him as ‘relief flowed’ through him. This underlines the extremes in Heathcliff and also that for him, death is peace and harmony, while life is torment and misery. Therefore we feel a great deal of sympathy for Heathcliff and feel it is wrong for people to condemn him even if their allegations are true because he has had such a hard and sad life.
Heathcliff’s behaviour is always erratic, for example he says;
‘I thought, once, I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again – it is hers yet – he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change, if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose…’
Here Heathcliff’s behaviour seems totally illogical as when the Sexton says her face would change if the air blew on it, we expect Heathcliff to protect her face from the air, but instead he exposes it even more. Therefore Heathcliff responds not to what is evident or maybe even implied, but to his own hidden intentions which he doesn’t even stop to explain. This, of course, makes him very hard to understand as he appears to be heading in one direction due to his spoken words yet his actions lead him elsewhere. All this is a product of his inner turmoil; therefore how can any judgement be made on him throughout ‘Wuthering Heights’ be justified when his accusers are not aware of his intentions?
Also, it is inevitable that other character will see Heathcliff’s actions from their point of view and measure it by their standards, therefore we need Heathcliff’s own speech as a way of gathering Heathcliff’s perception of certain incidences. For example when Heathcliff narrates the event where he returns home late and then beats Hindley, which is also narrated by Isabella, his narration makes Isabella and Hindley’s main preoccupation seem insignificant, and his violence and demonic likeness which Isabella makes the highlight of her narration (‘his black countenance looking blightingly through’ and ‘his mouth watered to tear you with his teeth; because, he’s only half a man’,) is wholly absent from Heathcliff’s narration which is based on his love for Cathy that consumes his mind.
This is highlighted in the way that Heathcliff only takes a sentence to narrate how he treated Hindley, and he relates it as a necessity, like a bare fact rather than giving a description of it. Therefore to him it was not important or made an impression on his sense or emotions, he barely noticed it. It could be said that it does not matter how bad Heathcliff’s deeds are but rather whether he savoured and enjoyed doing them as much as his love for Cathy, hence here one could almost dismiss his beating of Hindley.
Brontï¿½ uses this idea of comparison between two different narrators very effectively because the reader identifies or has respect for Heathcliff’s depth of emotion compared to Isabella or Hindley’s shallowness so much that it reminds the reader of her squabbling with Edgar over a puppy when they were younger (portrayed by their emphasis on different points of the same event). In fact, it is possible to say that the terrible deeds Heathcliff committed is a small price to pay to have a character so powerfully moving.
Heathcliff can be condemned for his behaviour that seems to be devoid of caring for others and constant thirst for vengeance, yet surely this is only natural, because how can we expect Heathcliff to show love and forgiveness to all men when his childhood was so horrific. For a start, we don’t know where he came from apart from ‘the streets of Liverpool’ and therefore his history before he reached the Heights is probably a sad tale of hardship and misery. Though Heathcliff may have had a brief period of love from Mr Earnshaw, this was countered by the cruel beating he received from Hindley, and that was while Mr Earnshaw was still alive. Hindley’s treatment of Heathcliff once he is master of the house is soul destroying;
‘He (Hindley) drove him from their company to the servants, deprived him of the instructions of the curate, and insisted that he should labour out of doors instead, compelling him to do so, as hard as any other lad on the farm.’
What Hindley was doing was little short of trying to destroy Heathcliff’s life, and not only was Heathcliff subject to the mental torture of being separated from Cathy, humiliated and degraded by Hindley’s constant barrage of insults and banished from the house, he was also subjected to various beatings. Brought up like that could not have taught him love and kindness, and so it is amazing that he can show any depth of feeling and love that he shows for Cathy, hence making his passionate and resilient nature remarkable in his circumstances. Therefore his cruel deeds are a product of how he was brought up, and therefore inevitable, hence he can not be blamed for them. But the love he shows is something he has had to really search for and find in the depths of him, it has grown from nothing and therefore outweighs anything else that he may be responsible for.
The fact that Heathcliff is often referred to as a devil, or described in terms of evil, could in fact be Emily Brontï¿½’s way of being ironic in so much as that she is not trying to show Heathcliff as a devil but how society and all those that dismiss Heathcliff as being cruel and cold in their lack of effort to accept him and love him, instead of making him an outsider.
There is an ironic stream running through Wuthering Heights that highlights Heathcliff as a bad character but only to point out the way that others so quickly put their fault on his shoulders without realising the hypocrisy in their words. For example on his first introduction to the Lintons they refer to him as a ‘gipsy’ and make such comments as ‘Frightful thing! Put him in the cellar, Papa,’ and ‘a wicked boy…quite unfit for a descent house’. The Lintons see Heathcliff as a person that is unfit for their company because he is ungracious in manner and speech, yet the way they treat him is appalling. They are rude and speak as though he is not in the room. Heathcliff would never get away with treating them the way they treat him.
Heathcliff can’t be happy in a normal world, as he is too intense and passionate, the only person who understands him is Cathy, and of course the fact that she too seemed to reject him in favour of Linton, makes his life powerful moving. Heathcliff’s life has been full of great passion and yet it is also a tale of great suffering. Heathcliff is a hero who is also a rebel, he surpasses moral codes, and because he is always the victim of rejection, we feel great respect for him, as we realise that his way of life and actions are much harder to do than those of Edgar Linton’s for example as every action Heathcliff is accountable for will be against society. Hence we want to support Heathcliff’s actions, especially as society is represented by pretentious, shallow busy-bodies such as Linton and Lockwood.