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.