In Chapter four, Nelly Dean begins her narration of the novel. Lockwood, who is still confined to his bed at the time, begins a conversation with Nelly that leads to her detailing the events of Catherine and Heathcliff’s childhood, including Heathcliff’s initial appearance at Wuthering Heights and the subsequent events leading to his inclusion into the family.
Mr Earnshaw left on a business trip to Liverpool, promising to bring his children gifts on his return. When he does return he brings with him an orphan boy, Heathcliff. The children’s hopes are dashed, as the presents that were promised to them have been broken or forgotten to accommodate Heathcliff.
From early in the chapter we can tell that there is a definite dislike for Heathcliff on the part of Nelly, who has no real reason to dislike him except for a lack of tolerance and possible increase in workload. This comes across quite plainly in Nelly’s narrative. Hindley and initially Cathy share this dislike for him, as he is leeching their father’s attention from them.
Heathcliff’s initial description does not paint a positive image of him. Nelly describes him as ‘a dirty, ragged, black-haired child’, reinforcing the image of Heathcliff as a street urchin. This presents us with an immediate class difference between Heathcliff and the other children. He is a child who has been taken from his natural environment and introduced to a new, much different one.
It is not only a different environment, but Heathcliff is presented as a completely different kind of child. Not only does he have a darker hair colour and deeper skin tone but is described as repeating ‘over and over again some gibberish that no-one could understand’. We are given the distinct impression that Heathcliff is foreign, and as his background is completely unknown but to him, it is also believable. He was discovered in Edinburgh, which at the time was a major port, so there would have been a lot of different nationalities and cultures mixing there.
They seem to find it hard to acknowledge Heathcliff as being a human boy, often referring to him as it instead of he, as if he were some form of subspecies.
“…Wash it, and give it clean things, and let it sleep with the children.”
The children however would not allow him in the same room, and as Nelly has no liking for him, he is left to sleep on the landing of the stairs. The general feeling of most of the family is to try and ignore Heathcliff, hoping that he would just vanish and they would have nothing else to worry about, which is a very negative attitude to have towards a young boy who’s life has just been changed irrevocably. This way of treating people as if they don’t exist, therefore they are no longer a problem, is a common attitude by the upper classes towards the homeless and people in similarly low situations in society. We can assume Heathcliff has already gone through, allowing him to better handle the situation.
As well as the different appearance, there is a huge contrast in his behaviour to that of the other children. When he arrives at Wuthering Heights, he brings with him a huge wave of anger and jealousy amongst the other children.
“So, from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house…”
As well as giving the image of a very negative childhood environment, it also seems to foreshadow the kind of atmosphere in Wuthering Heights that is indicative of Heathcliff’s presence later in the novel.
He, however, remains uncharacteristically calm and collected for a boy of his young age. Even in the face of violence on the part of Hindley, he remains neutral, allowing Hindley to take out his aggression on him.
“He seemed a sullen, patient child; hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment…”
We could expect this kind of attitude from a homeless person, who would quickly become hardened to a tough lifestyle on the streets. In an environment where emotions are best not shown as there is rarely any one to form emotional contact with, it is best to put up a barrier and remain stoic throughout.
However this kind of behaviour is not reminiscent of his character later in the novel. The older Heathcliff is outspoken and often extremely violent, so his younger character bares a contrast not only between himself and the other children, but also with his childhood character and him as a man.
This change is probably brought about by him having to adapt to a new environment, which is encouraged by him owning Earnshaw’s favour over Hindley, which allows him to command some power. We learn that Earnshaw once had a son called Heathcliff who died at a young age, so when he chooses to call Heathcliff the same name, we get the distinct impression that Earnshaw’s compassion for the child is not completely selfless. Heathcliff is essentially being used as a replacement, giving Earnshaw another chance to be a father to the son he lost.
“…They had christened him ‘Heathcliff’; it was the name of a son who died in childhood…”
This means that he seems to greatly favour Heathcliff, as he doesn’t want to see any flaw in Heathcliff, as in his eyes it reflects the same things on the son he lost, which he cannot cope with doing.
“He took to Heathcliff strangely, believing all he said…”
Heathcliff is not at all welcome in the eyes of Hindley who calls him a ‘beggarly interloper’, as if he is trying to usurp Hindley’s position as Earnshaw’s son, trying to steal his affections, to almost replace Hindley. As Earnshaw chooses not to fault Heathcliff, his aggression is in turn directed at Hindley, which leads to him harbouring a lot of resentment for both of them.
“…Had learnt to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent’s affections, and his privileges…”
Early on, Cathy is in a similar position to Hindley, coming second place to ‘the poor, fatherless child’, but as Heathcliff settles in, she and Heathcliff begin to form a tight bond of friendship. This is where the major divide between Cathy and her brother begins. Cathy can get past the initial bad feelings she felt towards Heathcliff and in that sense is more compassionate, her brother cannot. He is dead set in his ways and is quite stubborn in that sense, refusing to see Heathcliff as anything more than an intruder. Since he arrived, Hindley’s life has changed for the worst, and doesn’t look as if it’s going to pick up again until Heathcliff is gone.
Cathy however sees it as an opportunity to make a new friendship, which in the isolated area in which Wuthering Heights is located, is quite a novelty. Cathy becomes almost representative of what’s good about Heathcliff, bringing out his better qualities. Cathy’s friendship and the affections of Earnshaw allow Heathcliff to better express himself and bring out his true personality. Hindley seems to bring out the darker side of his character, which Heathcliff in turn seems to do for Hindley.
“Miss Cathy and he were now very thick; but Hindley hated him…”
These negative qualities are well expressed when Heathcliff demands that Hindley switch horses with him, as his had gone lame or he would tell Earnshaw of the beatings he had received. This sudden switch from the boy who accepted the pain ‘without winking or shedding a tear’, to a manipulative, cruel one, more reminiscent of his later self was quite powerful.
“You must exchange horses with me; I don’t like mine, and if you won’t I shall tell your father of the three thrashings you’ve given me…”
Hindley begrudgingly has to comply, although in the process he throws a heavy iron weight at him, which, although it hits him, he endeavours to ignore it, trying not to show weakness in himself to Hindley. The level of hatred between the two has escalated, as when Hindley leaves, he doesn’t just wish him gone, he wishes him dead, saying that ‘I hope he’ll kick out your brains!’
One thing that Nelly says at the end of the scene gives dark forebodings for the truth of Heathcliff’s character which we get glimpses of when he’s a boy.
“I really thought him not vindictive – I was deceived, completely, as you will hear.”
Heathcliff’s character as a boy develops greatly as he is introduced into a new environment. He adapts to his new situation well, taking advantage of the opportunities given to him, in some senses, regardless of what effect they have on other people. There are some stark contrasts between his childhood character and the man he grows into, though several character traits run through from childhood.
He remains emotionless up until he gets in to a situation in which he can exert his will over that of others that he does with Hindley now, and continues to do so. Even at this young age he has much adoration for Cathy, priding her above others and not seeking to hurt her. He comes from a very empty background, both financially and emotionally, which would explain how his unique way of forming relationships with people in later life, especially with Cathy as he is able to focus all this pent up emotion on her, and he doesn’t fully understand how to.
His unfeeling behaviour to begin with is very uncharacteristic of any youth, especially Heathcliff, suggesting that his past life was hard, and it for a time, continued to be at Wuthering Heights. Once given the chance flourish he has the opportunity to vent this malice in the only way he knows how, like in later life.
The contrast between Hindley and Cathy only begins to present itself when they accept that Heathcliff is going to be a staying with them. At this point they branch off in completely opposite directions. Cathy takes Heathcliff off on a much more positive route, becoming his friend and willing to accept him into the family.
Hindley has a flatly negative response to him, and when he realises that he’s going to be alone in his negative feelings, and often get punished for him, it instils bitterness in him. There is a deep felt hatred between the two of them, whereas there is a strong bond of friendship between him and Cathy, showing how different their personalities are, even though they are siblings.