Love preoccupies nearly all of the characters in Wuthering Heights. The quest for it motivates their actions and controls the development of the plot. Heathcliff, the character at the heart of the novel, is the most impassioned lover. But if love drives him, the desire for revenge drives him equally. Almost from the start, outrage at his mistreatment at Catherine’s hands inflames him, and after her marriage and eventual death, fury at being denied the chance to marry her spurs him to take drastic, sometimes monstrous action. While Heathcliff is perhaps best known for his love for Catherine, it is his vengefulness that truly makes him memorable, in part because that vengefulness produces such intense and mixed responses in us. Paradoxically, Heathcliff’s thirst for revenge makes us simultaneously loathe and admire him.

When Heathcliff comes home determined to seek revenge for Catherine’s betrayal, his behavior can be interpreted as at best childish, and at worst cruel. Hindley may be half the man Heathcliff is, but nevertheless, the two were raised as brothers. Moreover, whatever Hindley’s childhood sins, he is now a broken man, a drunk and a gambler. In light of these facts, we cannot help but look askance on Heathcliff’s willingness to coldly and methodically wrest Wuthering Heights from him and to turn Hindley’s own son, Hareton, against him. Heathcliff treats Isabella equally unmercifully. She is a silly woman, but an innocent one. Heathcliff, who thinks of her as nothing more than a pawn in his revenge game, treats her unfairly. And his professed willingness to punish her for her brother’s crimes may strike us as slightly unhinged.

Heathcliff’s quest for revenge is never seemly, but it becomes downright grotesque as the years pass. After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff’s vengefulness is less easy to understand: After all, the woman he loves, the woman he wants to punish and impress, is no longer around (at least in bodily form). As Heathcliff’s motivations turn sour and confusing, his actions spiral downward, too. In an attempt to get Edgar’s estate, Heathcliff manipulates Cathy and his own son, Linton, into an ill-advised romance and then forces the two to wed after kidnapping Cathy and holding her prisoner. Out of general ill will and a specific desire to punish Catherine’s relatives, he abuses Hareton, the character who most closely resembles him. By denying the intelligent boy an education and keeping him in a state of servitude, Heathcliff re-creates the very ill treatment that was visited on him when he was young. It is a crime just as morally repugnant as is his manipulation of his own son.

Yet however bad Heathcliff’s behavior, his desire for revenge makes him just as endearing as it does objectionable. First, while Heathcliff is a brute, he is an intelligent, capable brute. Those he controls are frailer and stupider than he, and part of us understands his desire to manipulate them as the natural dominance the strong feel over the weak. Second, his vengefulness arises from his deep love for Catherine. He is cruel not for cruelty’s sake, but because the woman he loves has broken his heart. This is a familiar motivation in literature, and a difficult one to dismiss or condemn.

After Catherine’s death, even the shocking manifestations of Heathcliff’s vengefulness can be interpreted as touching. Were his need for revenge to die with Catherine, it would suggest that his love for her was a temporary passion. Because his need for revenge only increases after her death, we are likely to conclude that his love for her is timeless, undying, and classically romantic. In one interpretation, the more outrageous and monstrous his actions are, the more clear, concrete, and passionate his love seems.

By the time Heathcliff dies, his hunger for revenge has also passed away. But that vengefulness is what keeps him alive in our minds, and makes him the most vivid of Brontë’s fictional creations.