Heathcliff can be a difficult character to sympathize with and understand. He acts with a great deal of cruelty, often to individuals who are particularly weak or defenseless. He marries Isabella Linton knowing that he does not love or respect her, and his behavior after their marriage quickly makes her regret her decision to marry him. Isabella tells Nelly that Heathcliff is a “Monster! Would that he were blotted out of creation.”

Heathcliff purposefully sets out to force Hareton into a repressed and uneducated life, and he also torments his own son, Linton. Nelly explains that Heathcliff “bent his malevolence on making [Hareton] a brute.” Heathcliff later essentially imprisons Cathy Linton, forcing her to marry a boy she doesn’t love. Even in relatively insignificant interactions, Heathcliff is usually gruff, abrupt and rude. His actions are shocking and would have been especially so to Victorian readers due to his status as a property owner. 

However, life experiences have warped Heathcliff and driven him to be a cruel man who is in many ways a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Heathcliff had a traumatic early childhood, and even after being adopted by the Earnshaws, he is never fully accepted by the family. While Catherine loves him, she does not think of him as an equal or a possible suitor; she states that “it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now.” As a result, Heathcliff has to suffer through watching the woman he loves marry another man, and then he experiences the agony of losing her at a young age. As he tells Catherine before her death, “What kind of living will it be when you—oh God! Would you like to live with your soul in the grave?” Heathcliff’s emotional traumas offer an explanation for why he becomes so tormented and, in turn, so fixated on tormenting others. 

In the end, Heathcliff is a victim who becomes a villain because he is denied opportunities to become a better person. Hindley hates Heathcliff because of the latter’s close relationship with Mr. Earnshaw, and when Hindley becomes master of the house, he treats Heathcliff very badly. “He drove him from their company to the servants, deprived him of the instruction of the curate, and insisted that he should labour out of doors.”

Read about another morally conflicted character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Even as a young boy, Heathcliff is very conscious of how his appearance and class position limit his opportunities. He wistfully tells Nelly that “I wish I had light hair and a fair skin, and was dressed and behaved as well, and had a chance of being as rich as he will be.” Even when he comes back to Yorkshire a wealthy man, Heathcliff will never be treated as the equal of the landowning families. Thus, he ends his life in bitter loneliness, telling Nelly that “the entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that [Catherine] did exist, and I have lost her.”