Reading Heathcliff

Since its publication in 1847, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has always caused its critics trouble, for while it is obviously a powerful novel, its ‘meaning’ is hardly easy to grasp. This was doubly true to its contemporary critics who saw only “glimpses or secondary meanings” and “refrained from assigning any” moral to the work (Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, 1848). This was mostly due to the highly controversial personality of its main character, Heathcliff. We shall speak more of that later. However, this begs the question: is there really an underlying moral to the story? My answer to that would simply be, ‘Yes; several of them, in fact.’

This may seem now  a preposterous statement due to the fact that it is the very nature of morals that they should be a succinct maxim, a simple universal truth that one derives from a tale or historical fact, and can then happily apply to their reality. However, I would argue that every person’s reality is somehow different and, therefore, the morals which they derive are, by a logical progression, also different. Such as, the moral a child takes from Little Red Riding Hood could be, ‘don’t talk to strangers’ or ‘obey your mother’ or ‘beware of wolves’. While the moral for the parents’ would be ‘keep close watch of your children’ and for grandmothers’, ‘make sure to check who it is before opening the door’. They are all different, but still derived from the same story by different readers. Therefore, one could say that a moral, as a universal truth which holds true for all that come into contact with the text, is nonexistent. One could then, questionably, reply that the ‘moral’ of a text is the intended message of its author; most literary critics are, however, well acquainted with the impossibility of ascertaining such a message (Barthes, 1977).

Wuthering Heights has especially troubled critics for being particularly difficult to grasp in ‘moral’ terms. The tragic love story of Heathcliff and Catherine, and the former’s consequential ‘moral teething’ of their oppressor’s and agents of her ‘fall’, told in a narration within a narration by ‘common sense’ filled Nelly Dean to her ‘city gentleman’ listener Lockwood, is a surprisingly ambiguous text which paradoxically screams of moral lessons. It is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel the means by which its readers and critics are driven to derive their own morals from the book for, while the readings clearly vary, the way in which they are achieved hardly does. For a better look at how the text leads its readers into generating their own reading and possibly the reasons behind it, a closer look into three of its more conventional readings, namely, Marxist, feminist and psychoanalyst analysis, will carried out in the first part of this paper. I will then analyse the way in which such readings are based on defining factors of the text and how these factors, examined against the text itself, generate further meanings of their own.

A Marxist reading of the text, as befitting this school of thought, focuses on the social aspects of the novel. The young Heathcliff, a gipsy child found in Liverpool, and the young Catherine, both wild children and oppressed by the head of their household, Hindley who later forces Heathcliff to work the land, are seen to represent the more natural proletariat and the French Revolution ideals of equality and brotherhood of men. This is especially so in the case of Heathcliff. Opposed to the couple we have not only their oppressor, Hindley, but also the world of gentility, represented by Trushcross Grange and its almost artificially bourgeois inhabitants, the Lintons.

Upon his quasi-mythical return as a ‘gentleman’ in the second part of the novel, Heathcliff then turns into a social avenger by wielding the weapons of his oppressors (capital, arranged marriages and property) against them, symbolising thus a form of the rise of the proletariat against their former masters. Catherine, by deciding to marry Linton, because of his superior social status, is in turn driven insane as a result of distancing herself from Heathcliff and the ideals he embodies (Eagleton, 1993, p. 119). Eagleton also attributes Heathcliff to symbolise the ideal as opposed to the real, therefore making Catherine’s inability to marry Heathcliff represent the impossibility of the idealised to come to fruition in reality (1993, p. 129). This is a reading that resonates with the failure of Socialism to deliver its ideals in the socio-historical reality of the former Soviet Union. The moral is thus being in the danger of repressing your fellow men and the consequential generators of your wealth and also in the maddening failure of the perfect ideal to come to fruition in a reality riddled with imperfections.

A feminist reading of the text has Heathcliff as the psychological counterpart of Catherine, and thus representing the empowered female who resists the power of patriarchal society. Hence, Catherine becomes the true subject of the book. Her first encounter with the Lintons and, consequential maiming by the bulldog Skulker, acquire sexual and social overtones representing the coming of age and subsequent social castration of the girl (Gilbert, 1993:141). She is then socially conditioned and constrained from being a wild and natural child into a ‘young lady’ by the Lintons. Her marriage to Edgar, which occurs only after Heathcliff has exiled himself, then concludes her fall into conformity of patriarchal rule (p.144).

The end of the novel, with Heathcliff’s death – for he has already done his part- sees the inversion of roles in the Wuthering Heights household. The second Catherine is the one who commands culture and instructs Hareton, who, despite being named after the first patriarch of the Earnshaws and still being the ‘master’ of the house, is culturally ignorant and, therefore, lorded over by his wife to be. It represents an idealised and more peaceful status quo with a higher role and position in society for women after the reactionary destructive vengeance of the oppressed female upon its male oppressors.

One of the problems with such a reading is the fact that Heathcliff, when compared to Edgar Linton, is obviously the more masculine figure, being the ‘tall and athletic’ Heathcliff when compared to the slender Linton. Gilbert in her essay, however, argues that Linton represents the legal and intellectual dominion of Patriarchy (p. 145). Hence, the gentleman reborn Heathcliff represents a rise of femininity into cultural power reaping revenge unto patriarchy. The madness which afflicts Catherine is due to her imprisonment unto marriage which leaves her powerless by the time her revolutionary feminist self, Heathcliff, returns to haunt her. It leads her to a breakdown of her sense of self, and she, tellingly, cannot recognize her own image in the mirror any longer.

A psychoanalyst reading of the text views Heathcliff as the Id, the Freudian term for the suppressed sub-consciousness of human nature which incorporates unbridled passions such as incestual sexual desire and desire for revenge. Heathcliff and Catherine are raised as, and might actually be, brother and sister and, with buried vengeful emotions, the young ‘gipsy’ quietly takes the abuse of his stepbrother Hindley to later wreck it upon Hareton, the Lintons and even, arguably, himself.  Due to his dialectic nature with Heathcliff, Edgar Linton, therefore comes to represent the Superego, the controlling and suppressing aspect of the psyche associated with culture. Tellingly, Trushcross Grange is a house filled with light, open spaces and open windows while Wuthering Heights is dark and foreboding with dark rooms, small windows and a constant roaring fire.

Once more we come to one of the main points of the story, Catherine’s madness. In this reading madness is caused by the return of the suppressed psyche, a very Freudian theme, which then wreaks havoc upon her reality to the point of causing a form of schizophrenia. After Catherine’s death Heathcliff then turns into a more general sort of Id, transformed from being her suppressed psyche into being the ethos of the society of the time. In consequence the book becomes a form of criticism of the culture and the way of life of the author’s time, marked as the rise of reason over emotion, and a warning against the suppression of one’s desires. Lockwood as a character and narrator adds weight to such a reading with his highly significant dreams and his obviously self-deceiving nature, which tends to reiterate facts in a manner to better suit his own ego

The examination of these three different theoretical readings can provide a better insight into the workings of the book: it is by imbuing the character of Heathcliff with symbolic meanings that one reaches his own reading of Wuthering Heights. In a way the character works as a sort of mirror showing us that which we want to see: an idealised social avenger to a disillusioned Marxist; a powerful revolutionary female to a feminist; and the dangers of suppressed subconscious to a psychoanalyst. Moreover, as a mirror he is not without his own frame: his is the role of an avenger; one who seeks retribution from those he thinks have wronged him. However his character is such as he is basically devoid of an identity by himself – he is a dark and foreign looking child who is suddenly thrust into the world of the Wuthering Heights manor from the streets of Liverpool and is then given the name of a deceased son. No other hints are given as to his origin and his voice is seldom heard without a commentary from its narrator.

From the very beginning Brontë makes him the subject of others’ interpretation, to the point where his very identity is taken over by Catherine with her ‘I am Heathcliff’ (Brontë, 1992: 59) speech. And yet the inverse is also true for it is through Heathcliff that the other characters gain higher symbolical meaning, for without him not only there would be no story but its characters would also lose any moral meaning. In a way, the biggest enigma of the text is also its greatest generator of meaning. Brontë is not oblivious of this paradox, since she has her main narrator, Nelly, encourages the young Heathcliff to dream up his own origins and identity,

Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together? And you were kidnapped by wicked sailors and brought to England. Were I in your place, I would frame high notions of my birth; and the thoughts of what I was should give me courage and dignity to support the oppressions of a little farmer! (p. 40)

Later Heathcliff himself scoffs the idea of romanticising his character when he describes his own wife, Isabella Heathcliff ye Linton, to Nelly,

‘She abandoned them under a delusion,’ he answered; ‘picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character, and acting on the false impressions she cherished. (p. 109)

If one is to read into the character of Heathcliff, one does so at one’s own expense and risk. In some ways it is the great sin of almost all the characters in the novel that they let their own notions and prejudices take precedence over their experience of the other. Nelly’s disgust with his skin colour leads her to call the young Heathcliff by ‘it’ and to ‘put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow’ (p.26). Lockwood upon first meeting Heathcliff, and seeing him as a gentleman with the same ‘misanthropist’ inclinations as he deems himself to have, calls him ‘A capital fellow!’(p.1). Edgar Linton still considers Heathcliff to be a ‘ploughboy’ and ‘a runaway servant’ (p.68) even though it had been three years since he last saw him.

Likewise the reader is never given direct access to Heathcliff. His voice and image are always mediated by not only one but two narrators, both of which hardly qualify for the rank of reliable narrators, making our picture of him marred by their interference, with Nelly being even more morally dubious then her counterpart (Hafley, 1958: 199). Brontë also plays with her readership’s preconceived notions of genre and character. She has Heathcliff being constantly alluded as the devil by other characters, and has the former mentioning the latter in almost all his lines in the text, therefore, taunting with her readers’ Christian beliefs. This constant referencing links him to another character that revolts against his own fate even though he knows it will be his undoing, Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The constant mentioning of the devil also alludes to the monster of the Gothic genre since Heathcliff is, after all, the dark lord of a dark mansion on the top of a wuthering hill whose main endeavours upon losing his soul, as he would put it, are to bring misery and despair to all those around him. The play with Gothic expectations is further extended by means of the narrator Lockwood, who starts of the book in the style of a diary entry,

1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.

This is a literary gimmick classic to the Gothic genre to which this novel subscribes, but also subverts. Lockwood then proceeds to have nightmares with the wraith of a little girl. Wraiths are also present at the end of the novel where, after Heathcliff’s death, there are accounts that ‘he walks’ (p.244) alongside a fellow female spirit.

Last but not least, by aligning Heathcliff with the natural, Brönte also brings forth the views of the Romantic Movement thus allowing Heathcliff to personify its ideals or come to represent the Byronic Hero, a free-loving non-conformist spirit with a suicidal tendency. These figures are strongly counteracted not only by Edgar and Lockwood, but also by Nelly and her ‘common sense’ and social demeanour, which make her almost unable to even break a curfew under the order of her master (p.43/64), but still entirely capable of withdrawing information from the authorities (p. 244). They are, therefore, the keepers of the social conventions that Heathcliff subverts.

By examining the several readings that have been made out of Wuthering Heights we can conclude that Brönte drives the reader not to only generate multiple meanings, but also to be baffled by which to consider true. It is the very nature of the text to resist such  simplifying readings, just as Heathcliff denies the imparting of meaning upon himself, in the case of Isabella’s reading of his personality. However, it also entices these readings, just as he does through his lack of social identity, and welcomes it, as Heathcliff does in the case of Catherine’s self-identification with him. Yet, I would not go as far as Miller in his essay ‘Wuthering Heights and the Ellipses of Interpretation’ (1980: 52) in saying that, “The secret of Wuthering Heights is, that there is no secret truth.” For, from my point of view, all readings of the text are valid in their own right; even if they were not the author’s intention per se, since morals, as a concept, are used to guide and direct our understanding by enriching our experience of the text and, through it, of life.

In a way Brontë’s novel shows us that in a way we are all Heathcliffs and Catherines, constructing our own identity based on our surroundings and others. However, I would also reason that this is a novel that argues against the dangers, and the lure, of over moralising texts and/or facts to the point of one becoming blinded to reality by one’s own, often misguided, preconceptions, while still bringing forth the necessity of some sort of moral to make possible the generation of meaning and identities.


  • Barthes, R. (1977) “Death of the Author” in S. Heath (ed) Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Brontë, E. (1992) Wuthering Heights. Ware. Wordsworth Editions Limited.
  • Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, 15 January 1848.
  • Eagleton, T. Myths of Power in Wuthering Heights. In Stoneman, P. (ed) New Casebooks Wuthering Heights (1993). London. The Macmillan Press Ltd
  • Gilbert, S. Looking oppositely: Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell. In Stoneman, P. (ed) New Casebooks Wuthering Heights (1993). London. The Macmillan Press Ltd
  • Hafley, J. (1958) The Villain in Wuthering Heights. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3 pp. 199-215
  • Miller, J. H. (1980) Wuthering Heights and the Ellipses of Interpretation. Notre Dame English Journal, Apr. 1980.