For all his Byronic
“For all his Byronic / Gothic excesses, Heathcliff exists and steps out of the confines of fiction…easily”
“He stands unredeemed never once swerving in his arrow straight course to perdition”
With reference to these and other readings of the character of Heathcliff, explore your own interpretation of this character.
In your essay you should:
* Consider the role and function of Heathcliff within the novel
* Explore the characterisation
* Consider the various interpretations of his character by
A) Characters within the novel
* Make a personal response to the character.
Teacher’s Name: Mrs Gowdy
When Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights, she received much criticism for the character of Heathcliff.Heathcliff was believed to be the complete opposite to what a Victorian Gentleman should be:
“It is almost definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain”
(Cardinal Newman, 1852)
Her sister, Charlotte, could not understand why Emily had a character of such evil in her book:
“Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is.” (1)
Considering Emily’s background, it is logical to see why Charlotte might feel like this.Emily was born July 30th 1818 at Thornton, near Bradford, Yorkshire, and was the fifth of six children born to Patrick Bronte and his wife Maria Branwell.
When she was two the family moved to Haworth, where Mr Bronte had been appointed the vicar. Except for short periods away as a student and later as a teacher, Haworth would remain her home for all her life. By the time she was seven, Emily had experienced three deaths in her family- her mother and her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Because of her reclusive life, she therefore might not be expected to know of such people to base the character of Heathcliff on. A suggestion for the way Heathcliff behaved is her brother Branwell, who was an alcoholic and dabbled with drugs:
” It would have been impossible for Emily to render Hindley’s alcoholic degradation and Heathcliff’s ranting misery without the protracted spectacle of Branwell’s breakdown before her eyes day in and day out.”
(Katherine Frank, 1990)
However, Heathcliff is a character who stirs emotions in the reader, and our sympathy returns to him again and again throughout the novel, despite his many violent deeds. But why? Why do we feel pity for a man who is presented as an embodiment of dark powers?
We are introduced to Heathcliff right at the opening of the first chapter by Mr. Lockwood, (who ironically could be a type of the Victorian Gentleman,) who is delighted to discover that he is somewhat of a misanthropist like himself:
“Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us”(2)
However, Mr Lockwood soon discovers that Heathcliff is not all that he seems to be. Heathcliff winces at the mention of Thrushcross Grange, when Mr Lockwood inquires about it:
” ‘Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir’ he interrupted, wincing. ‘I should not allow any one to inconvenience me, if I could hinder it – walk in!’ ” (3)
This suggests to the reader that this comment touches on a delicate part of Heathcliff’s history, and is something in which he would rather keep secret. Lockwood in chapter two makes a vain attempt to be sociable with the tenants of Wuthering Heights, only to be laughed at by Heathcliff:
“My amiable lady’ he interrupted with an almost diabolical sneer on his face” (4)
Heathcliff is quite rude to Lockwood, and we can come to the conclusion that he was one who was not brought up with any manners. (This proves to be true later on in the book). Heathcliff clearly shows no sympathy toward him, and wishes for Lockwood to mind his own business.
“Mr Heathcliff may have entirely dissimilar reasons for keeping his hand out of the way when he meets a would-be acquaintance, to those which actuate me” (5)
Bronte has chosen to keep this side in the dark, instead choosing to present him as a cold hearted recluse, only at first and then we are quickly shown his passionate side in chapter three.
Mr Lockwood’s character is naturally inquisitive, and therefore this episode with the landowner only makes Mr. Lockwood more interested in Heathcliff and his background.
Catherine’s diary shows insight into Heathcliff’s past and the way he was treated.
“Hindley is a detestable substitute- his conduct to Heathcliff is atrocious” (6)
From this, we can establish that Heathcliff was subject to hostility and was surrounded by harsh treatment. Hindley always saw Heathcliff as a threat to him, especially as he is the ‘outsider’ in the family. Nelly reports to Mr. Lockwood:
“He bred bad feeling in the house; and at Mrs. Earnshaw’s death… the young master had learned to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent’s affections and his privileges; and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries.” (7)
Hindley, when they were boys, would thrash Heathcliff, and call him names such as ” Imp of Satan”. Later on as young men, Hindley degrades him in front of Catherine, as he soon picks up on the fondness between the two, and makes him a servant. Naturally, this treatment he received had an effect on Heathcliff. Being this cold-hearted character is normal to him, having no other example of morals, except in Catherine. He rejects conventional Christian morality at an early age, (no thanks to Joseph whose methods of teaching the young children the Bible in a repressive and forbidding way could be questioned!) and also fails to pick it up as an adult. This rejection of faith could be possibly the reason why he is always referred to in a diabolical way. He has chosen not to be Christian, and therefore the powers of darkness are now ‘controlling’ him. Characters such as Mr Earnshaw’s comment on the impression of darkness he gives in the novel and of his tyrannical sadistic actions.
“It’s as dark as if it came from the devil” (8)
It is almost as if he enjoys this evil impression he gives, and he learns he can attack people’s weaknesses, such as Hindley and his enjoyment of gambling, which he uses to his advantage to gain ownership of Wuthering Heights.
“You would imagine I was the devil himself- to excite such horror” (9)
Heathcliff is such a contrast to what men where like in the Victorian era, which as Cardinal Newman suggests:
” Is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him…carefully avoids …all clashing of opinion, or collision of felling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at ease and at home.”
It wouldn’t be surprising that the character was criticised, but Bronte did accomplish a much-debated character.
Heathcliff does have emotions, and passionate ones at that, and this spurs him on in life. If Catherine was not at Wuthering Heights at the beginning, Heathcliff would not have stayed very long and bore all the physical and emotional torment he was given. Catherine seemed to keep him there, and when he fled, it was only because she had deserted him for a gentleman. We see how much he truly loves Catherine when Lockwood has his dream:
“He got on to the bed, and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. ‘Come in! Come in!’ he sobbed. ‘Cathy do come. Oh, do- once more! Oh! My hearts darling! Hear me this time, Catherine at last!” (10)
Lockwood is startled at this and comments that “he seemed so powerfully affected” and “struggled to vanquish an excess of violent emotion”. The desperation in Heathcliff’s voice shows us how he grieves for a lost one. We are now shown that he is not so evil as he displays himself to be, but still carries some violent tendencies with him, even though that is not expected when you are grieving. However knowing the love he carries for Catherine and his pain for her deserting him when they were young, we can understand why he reacts this way. The way Bronte uses this language to describe Heathcliff, makes him believable to the reader. Our sympathy lies with him, and Lockwood has now changed his perspective on Heathcliff, as has the reader.
Nelly, like the reader, changes her opinion of Heathcliff according to the actions he does. When Nelly first met Heathcliff, she referred to him as ‘it’, she did not regard Heathcliff as a person due to his physical appearance.
” I had a peep at a dirty ragged child…yet when it was set on its feet, it’s face looked older than Catherine’s” (11)
Nelly was a child when Heathcliff arrived, and childishly was jealous, along with Catherine and Hindley of having someone which did not look like them being part of the family.
However as they both grow up together both have some kind of respect for each other, though it may be small at some times.
Nelly fells sympathy towards Heathcliff during the time of Hindley’s harsh treatment, and was genuinely surprised that he seemed so immune to it, as if it didn’t affect him. However the reader knows that treatment like that does affect a person emotionally, and this cultivated a great resentment towards his tormentors.
“He seemed a sullen, patient child, hardened, perhaps to ill treatment” (12)
Her loyalties were torn between Heathcliff and Hindley, and we see her compassion for Heathcliff when he confides in her about Catherine. We learn that Heathcliff is completely devoted to Catherine.
” The nation of envying Catherine was incomprehensible to him but the notion of grieving her he understood completely”
So much in fact she helps him clean himself up, due to Heathcliff not caring about her appearance since Cathy left. Nelly is also Heathcliff’s confidant. She tells him how Cathy is, and what her feelings are towards him. Nelly clearly understands how deep his love is for Cathy.
Catherine plays an enormous part in Heathcliff’s life, and his love for her seems to be a redeeming feature. Catherine and Heathcliff become very “thick” when they are young, as Nelly comments to Mr Lockwood, and this weakness that Heathcliff has, this love for Cathy, is manipulated by Hindley as a means of punishment, and is also the reason in my mind why Heathcliff is so determined to seek revenge. As Pinkmonkey, a literature Internet guide, points out in its character analysis of Heathcliff:
“During adolescence, Heathcliff simply assumes that they will always be together”
This assumption proves to be wrong. Edgar Linton proposed to Catherine, and she agreed, because she thought that Heathcliff was in fact, too uncivilised and uneducated to be her husband. Although this may sound selfish to Heathcliff when he eavesdropped on the conversation between Nelly and Cathy, we find out soon that after her own interests, she intends to help him in the future.
” It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how much I love him… My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath, a source of little visible delight, but necessary” (13)
Cathy uses nature to contrast the two young men, and chooses a tree’s foliage for Linton. Foliage can be trimmed and blooms, which is what Cathy is feeling for Linton now, but she knows when the harsh weather and the seasons change, all the foliage will die. She knows that she won’t love Linton eternally, and problems facing the two will speed up the process. Heathcliff however is symbolised as rocks and are not affected by the weather. Rocks are wild and jagged, which matches Heathcliff’s personality, and when the bad weather comes, the rocks are not affected because they are strong. The last comment she says, ” a little visible delight but necessary.” could mean she knows that Heathcliff is not likeable but she needs him, as he provides sturdy foundations for her.
Unfortunately for Heathcliff, he never gets to hear this part of the conversation, and flees Wuthering Heights. This moment in Heathcliff’s history symbolises his turning point, as a character. He now feels a great sense of loss and betrayal, and Heathcliff never forgives Cathy for what she does, but nevertheless still loves her as passionately as before.
When he returns after three years, he finds that she has married Edgar Linton and is now mistress of Thrushcross Grange. His plans at first were to seek revenge on Hindley and merely check up on Cathy to see if she is happy. However his suffering at seeing her again overwhelms him and he starts to torment the others, especially Isabella.
Isabella is instantly attracted to Heathcliff, possibly because he has returned with an air of mystery around him, and seems dark and brooding. Linton is unhappy because he knew that his property could possibly fall into Heathcliff’s hands if they should marry. Heathcliff at first, has no interest in her whatsoever, and is completely unaware of her affection towards him, until Catherine spitefully makes it known, embarrassing Isabella in the process. Heathcliff has no interest in Isabella, simply because he is still infatuated with Catherine. However the appeal of getting one over on Edgar is too great for him, and starts to woo Isabella.
This infuriates Catherine and her husband, but Heathcliff only wanted to affect the latter. It seems that he blames Edgar for not being with Cathy, that if he had never been there as a child, Cathy and he would be together. There is also the possibility that Heathcliff, when he was younger was jealous of the social acceptance that others had. Heathcliff was picked on because he wasn’t ‘one of them’- not actually be blood related to the Earnshaws; he was found on the streets of Liverpool. Now he has returned, gentleman in appearance, but still the same emotionally affected person, willing to wreak havoc on the people who mocked him.
Isabella was warned about Heathcliff- but she chose to ignore it. She knows that by marrying Heathcliff it will anger Cathy who has a ‘if I don’t have him no-one can ‘ attitude, and will gain her revenge for embarrassing her. She truly believes that Heathcliff does love her. Catherine on the other hand knows deep inside that Heathcliff only loves her and cannot understand why he would like Isabella.
” Oh, the evil is that I am not jealous, is it? Well, I won’t repeat my offer of a wife: it is as bad as offering Satan a lost soul. Your bliss lies, like his, in inflicting misery. You prove it… I begin to be at secure and tranquil; and you, restless to know us at peace, appear resolved on exciting a quarrel. Quarrel with Edgar if you please, Heathcliff, and deceive his sister: you’ll hit on exactly the most efficient method of revenging yourself on me.” (14)
Heathcliff and Isabella run away together, but not before Heathcliff shows us his sadistic side –
” Miss Isabella’s Springer, Fanny, (was) suspended to a handkerchief, and nearly at its last gasp” (15)
Soon enough, the ‘honeymoon’ is over, and Isabella realises just who her husband really is. He is cruel and violent, and Isabella questions Nelly in a letter about her husband:
” Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not is he the devil?” (16)
Abraham Lincoln once said ” If you want to test a man’s character, give him power” and this could be said for Heathcliff. Heathcliff gains power of Wuthering Heights by manipulating Hindley. Hindley at this point is an alcoholic and likes to bet. He loses his money through betting and is attracted to Heathcliff’s newly found wealth, thinking he could win it. However, in the need Hindley dies deep in debt, and Heathcliff loaned him so much money that now he owns Wuthering Heights.
Hindley still detested Heathcliff, even though he allowed him to stay there, and on many occasions as told to Isabella, has tried to kill him. We as the reader, however still think of Heathcliff with sympathy, even though we disapprove of his actions, especially towards Hindley and Isabella. We still remember his treatment as a child from Hindley, and so when he seeks out his revenge, we find it extremely difficult not to wish him success.
By gaining this power, he is able now to control the future, by arranging marriages and so on. Catherine before she died, gave birth to young Cathy, and Isabella gave birth to young Linton in London. When she died, Edgar wanted to have custody of the child. However, Heathcliff has seen the possibilities and demands that he should come to live with him. After all, he is the father. Linton is quite the opposite of his father; he is pale, weak and quite spoilt in his ways. When Heathcliff finally meets him, he does not even pretend to love him, he calls his mother a slut, and mistreats him.
” I’m jealous of monopolising his affection…yes Nell, …my son is the prospective owner of this place, and I should not wish him to die till I was certain of being his successor. Besides, he’s mine, and I want the triumph of seeing my descendant fairly lord of their estates: my child hiring their children to till their father’s lands for wages. That is the sole consideration, which can make me endure the whelp: I despise him for himself, and I hate him for the memories he revives!”(17)
Heathcliff arranges meetings between young Cathy and Linton because he knows that if they were married, his son could own Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff then has to find some way to claim it himself, and he was delighted to find out the Linton was in ill health without his interference. Heathcliff used emotional torment on Linton, who has a weak disposition anyway, to make him worse. He forces young Cathy to marry Linton for his benefit, which the young girl is not happy about, especially since her father is dying and Heathcliff won’t let her see him. When Cathy shouts at him, through Nelly’s words we can see how Heathcliff is affected by Cathy’s words:
” Heathcliff you are a cruel man, but you’re not a fiend; and you won’t, from mere malice, destroy irrevocably all my happiness…I’ve given over crying: but I’m going to kneel here, at your knee; and I’ll not get up, and I’ll not take my eyes from your face till you look back at me! No, don’t turn away! Do look! Have you never loved anybody in all your life, uncle? Never? Ah! You must look once.” (18)
Heathcliff can see his Catherine in her daughter’s eyes, which is heart breaking for him, as he can’t even bear to look at her. Heathcliff is not hated by Cathy, which also affects him emotionally.
” He shrigged his sholders; shook himself, indeed, as if his flesh crept with aversion;” (19)
I do not think he should inflict his revenge on the younger generation, simply because they were not to blame for the pain that Heathcliff bore in the past, especially Hareton, who is Hindley’s son. Hindley was brought up badly by his father, who was always drunk and violent to him. Heathcliff wished to bring him up after his father’s death. Heathcliff treats Hareton in a way, which reflects the way Hindley treated him, except that Hareton is completely oblivious to the fact that this is happening to him, because he wasn’t educated. So, Hareton, who should have been the finest gentleman in the area, is reduced to living at Wuthering Heights as a common, uneducated servant, friendless and without hope, and surprisingly he likes Heathcliff.
As Heathcliff comes closer and closer to realising his final revenge, he seems more preoccupied with his memory of Catherine. The horrible image of Heathcliff uncovering her grave just to see her face shows us his depth of passion for her.
” I got the sexton to remove the earth off her coffin-lid, and I opened it. 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, and covered it up: not Linton’s side, damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead…when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too; I’ll have it made so: and then, by the time Linton gets to us, he’ll not know which is which!” (20)
The thought of Edgar and Catherine’s bodies decomposing together is too much for him. He states that he wants to be buried next to Catherine, and even punches a hole in her casket and asks that the same would be done to him so that their dust can mingle.
Near the time of his death, he becomes more and more isolated from everyone and increasingly obsessed with his dead love, imagining that she is haunting him, and Heathcliff becomes more cheerful, and feels happy that when he dies he will be reunited with Catherine.
” I have neither a fear, nor a presentiment, nor a hope of death. Why should I? … It is a long fight; I wish it were over!” (21)
It is only at this time he feels reconciled to her spirit that he abandons his cruelty towards Catherine and Hareton.
Heathcliff is a truly interesting character and our sympathy lies with him, because we understand why he is so determined to seek his revenge on the people who opposed him in the first place.
With regards to the quotations at the start of my essay, Heathcliff is a character who seems vivid. The manner in which he speaks and the emotion that he carries with him throughout the book makes him ” step out of the confines of fiction”. We never really hate him for what he does, simply because we know why he does it. He was badly treated when he was younger, and this developed into revenge. Still, our sympathy lies with him. Charlotte Bronte may not have liked his ” arrow straight course to perdition” but modern readers who read Wuthering Heights justify why, without prejudice.