But Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman, that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure—and rather morose. Possibly, some people might suspect him of a degree of under-bred pride; I have a sympathetic chord within that tells me it is nothing of the sort: I know, by instinct, his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling—to manifestations of mutual kindliness. He’ll love and hate, equally under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence to be loved or hated again—No, I’m running on too fast—I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him.
This passage, from the first chapter and spoken in the voice of Lockwood, constitutes the first of many attempts in the book to explain the mysterious figure of Heathcliff, his character and motivations. Outside of the novel, when critics and readers discuss Wuthering Heights, the same question arises repeatedly. How is Heathcliff best understood? We see here that the question of his social position—is he a gentleman or a gypsy?—causes particular confusion.
The situation of the reader, just beginning to enter into Wuthering Heights as a novel, parallels the situation of Lockwood, just beginning to enter into Wuthering Heights as a house. Like Lockwood, readers of the novel confront all sorts of strange scenes and characters—Heathcliff the strangest of all—and must venture interpretations of them. Later illuminations of Heathcliff’s personality show this first interpretation to be a laughable failure, indicating little beyond Lockwood’s vanity. Lockwood, in claiming to recognize in Heathcliff a kindred soul, whom he can understand “by instinct,” makes assumptions that appear absurd once Heathcliff’s history is revealed. Lockwood, while he rather proudly styles himself a great misanthrope and hermit, in fact resembles Heathcliff very little. In the many misjudgments and blunders Lockwood makes in his early visits to Wuthering Heights, we see how easy it is to misinterpret Heathcliff’s complex character, and the similarity between our own position and Lockwood’s becomes a warning to us as readers. We, too, should question our instincts.
The ledge, where I placed my candle, had a few mildewed books piled up in one corner; and it was covered with writing scratched on the paint. This writing, however, 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. In vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton, till my eyes closed; but they had not rested five minutes when a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid as spectres—the air swarmed with Catherines; and rousing myself to dispel the obtrusive name, I discovered my candle wick reclining on one of the antique volumes, and perfuming the place with an odour of roasted calf-skin.
In this passage from Chapter III, Lockwood relates the first of the troubling dreams he has in Catherine’s old bed. The quotation testifies to Lockwood’s role as a reader within the novel, representing the external reader—the perplexed outsider determined to discover the secrets of Wuthering Heights. Upon Lockwood’s first arrival at the house, no one answers his knocks on the door, and he cries, “I don’t care—I will get in!” The same blend of frustration and determination has marked the responses of many readers and critics when facing the enigmas of Wuthering Heights.
The connection between Lockwood and readers is particularly clear in this passage. Catherine first appears to Lockwood, as she does to readers, as a written word—her name, scratched into the paint. When Lockwood reads over the scraped letters, they seem to take on a ghostly power—the simile Brontë uses is that they are “as vivid as spectres.” Ghosts, of course, constitute a key image throughout the novel. In this instance, it is crucial to note that what comes back, in this first dream, is not a dead person but a name, and that what brings the name back is the act of reading it. We see that Brontë, by using Lockwood as a stand-in for her readers, indicates how she wants her readers to react to her book; she wants her words to come vividly before them, to haunt them.
In this passage, one also can see an active example of Wuthering Heights’s ambiguous genre. The work is often compared to the Gothic novels popular in the late eighteenth century, which dealt in ghosts and gloom, demonic heroes with dark glints in their eyes, and so on. But Brontë wrote her book in the 1840s, when the fashion for the Gothic novel was past and that genre was quickly being replaced as the dominant form by the socially conscious realistic novel, as represented by the work of Dickens and Thackeray. Wuthering Heights often seems to straddle the two genres, containing many Gothic elements but also obeying most of the conventions of Victorian realism. The question of genre comes to a head in the appearances of ghosts in the novel. Readers cannot be sure whether they are meant to understand the ghosts as nightmares, to explain them in terms of the psychology of the characters who claim to see them, or to take them, as in a Gothic novel, as no less substantial than the other characters. Brontë establishes this ambiguity carefully. The “spectres” here are introduced within a simile, and in a context that would support their interpretation as a nightmare. Similarly subtle ambiguities lace Lockwood’s account, a few pages later, of his encounter with the ghost of Catherine.
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and [Edgar’s] is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.
Catherine’s speech to Nelly about her acceptance of Edgar’s proposal, in Chapter IX, forms the turning-point of the plot. It is at this point that Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights, after he has overheard Catherine say that it would “degrade” her to marry him. Although the action of Wuthering Heights takes place so far from the bustle of society, where most of Brontë’s contemporaries set their scenes, social ambition motivates many of the actions of these characters, however isolated among the moors. Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar Linton out of a desire to be “the greatest woman of the neighbourhood” exemplifies the effect of social considerations on the characters’ actions.
In Catherine’s paradoxical statement that Heathcliff is “more myself than I am,” readers can see how the relation between Catherine and Heathcliff often transcends a dynamic of desire and becomes one of unity. Heterosexual love is often, in literature, described in terms of complementary opposites—like moonbeam and lightning, or frost and fire—but the love between Catherine and Heathcliff opposes this convention. Catherine says not, “I love Heathcliff,” but, “I am Heathcliff.” In following the relationship through to its painful end, the novel ultimately may attest to the destructiveness of a love that denies difference.
“I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, 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—and I bribed the sexton to pull it away, 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!” “You were very wicked, Mr. Heathcliff!” I exclaimed; “were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?”
When Heathcliff narrates this ghoulish scene to Nelly in Chapter XXIX, the book enters into one of its most Gothic moments. Heathcliff, trying to recapture Catherine herself, constantly comes upon mere reminders of her. However, far from satisfying him, these reminders only lead him to further attempts. Heathcliff’s desire to rejoin Catherine might indeed explain the majority of Heathcliff’s actions, from his acquisition of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, to his seizure of power over everyone associated with Catherine.
He tries to break through what reminds him of his beloved to his beloved herself by destroying the reminder, the intermediary. Readers can see, in the language he uses here, this difference between the objects that refer to Catherine and Catherine herself. When he opens her coffin, he does not say that he sees her again. Instead, he says, “I saw her face again,” showing that her corpse, like her daughter or her portrait, is a thing she possessed, a thing that refers to her, but not the woman herself. It seems that, in this extreme scene, he realizes at last that he will never get through to her real presence by acquiring and ruining the people and possessions associated with her. This understanding brings Heathcliff a new tranquility, and from this point on he begins to lose interest in destruction.
That, however, which you may suppose the most potent to arrest my imagination, is actually the least, for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree—filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day, I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women—my own features—mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!
In this passage from Chapter XXXIII, Heathcliff confesses to Nelly his inner state. What Nelly calls Heathcliff’s “monomania on the subject of his departed idol” has now reached its final stage of development. In the passage in which Heathcliff describes his excavation of Catherine’s grave, the reader gains insight into Heathcliff’s frustration regarding the double nature of all of Catherine’s “memoranda.” While Catherine’s corpse recalls her presence, it fails to substitute fully for it, and thus recalls her absence. Heathcliff’s perception of this doubling comes through in his language. The many signs of Catherine show that “she did exist” but that “I have lost her.” In the end, because his whole being is bound up with Catherine, Heathcliff’s total set of perceptions of the world is permeated by her presence. Consequently, he finds signs of Catherine in the “entire world,” and not just in localized figures such as her daughter or a portrait of Catherine.
Take a Study Break!