Nelly continues by telling the story of her early years at Wuthering Heights. When Catherine and Hindley are young children, Mr. Earnshaw takes a trip to Liverpool and returns home with a scraggly orphan whom the Earnshaws christen “Heathcliff.” Mr. Earnshaw announces that Heathcliff will be raised as a member of the family. Both Catherine and Hindley resent Heathcliff at first, but Catherine quickly grows to love him. Catherine and Heathcliff become inseparable, and Hindley, who continues to treat Heathcliff cruelly, falls into disfavor with his family. Mrs. Earnshaw continues to distrust Heathcliff, but Mr. Earnshaw comes to love the boy more than his own son. When Mrs. Earnshaw dies only two years after Heathcliff’s arrival at Wuthering Heights, Hindley is essentially left without an ally.
Time passes, and Mr. Earnshaw grows frail and weak. Disgusted by the conflict between Heathcliff and Hindley, he sends Hindley away to college. Joseph’s fanatical religious beliefs appeal to Mr. Earnshaw as he nears the end of his life, and the old servant exerts more and more sway over his master. Soon, however, Mr. Earnshaw dies, and it is now Catherine and Heathcliff who turn to religion for comfort. They discuss the idea of heaven while awaiting the return of Hindley, who will now be master of Wuthering Heights.
The strange, deliberately confusing opening chapters of Wuthering Heights serve as Brontë’s introduction to the world of the novel and to the complex relationships among the characters, as well as to the peculiar style of narration through which the story will be told. One of the most important aspects of the novel is its second- and third-hand manner of narration. Nothing is ever related simply from the perspective of a single participant. Instead, the story is told through entries in Lockwood’s diary, but Lockwood does not participate in the events he records. The vast majority of the novel represents Lockwood’s written recollections of what he has learned from the testaments of others, whether he is transcribing what he recalls of Catherine’s diary entry or recording his conversations with Nelly Dean. Because of the distance that this imposes between the reader and the story itself, it is extremely important to remember that nothing in the book is written from the perspective of an unbiased narrator, and it is often necessary to read between the lines in order to understand events.
The reader can immediately question Lockwood’s reliability as a conveyer of facts. A vain and somewhat shallow man, he frequently makes amusing mistakes—he assumes, for instance, that Heathcliff is a gentleman with a house full of servants, even though it is apparent to the reader that Heathcliff is a rough and cruel man with a house full of dogs. Nelly Dean is more knowledgeable about events, as she has participated in many of them first hand, yet while this makes her more trustworthy in some ways, it also makes her more biased in others. She frequently glosses over her own role in the story’s developments, particularly when she has behaved badly. Later in the novel, she describes how she took the young Linton to live with his cruel father after the death of his mother. She lies to the boy on the journey, telling him that his father is a kind man, and, after his horrible meeting with Heathcliff, she tries to sneak out when he is not paying attention. He notices her and begs her not to leave him with Heathcliff. She ignores his entreaties, however, and tells Lockwood that she simply had “no excuse for lingering longer.” Nelly is generally a dependable source of information, but moments such as this one—and there are many—remind the reader that the story is told by a fallible human being.
Apart from establishing the manner and quality of narration, the most important function of these early chapters is to pique the reader’s curiosity about the strange histories of the denizens of Wuthering Heights. The family relationships, including multiple Earnshaws, Catherines, Lintons, and Heathcliffs, seem at this point in the novel to intertwine with baffling complexity, and the characters, because Lockwood first encounters them late in their story, seem full of mysterious passions and ancient, hidden resentments. Even the setting of this history seems to possess its own secrets. Wild and desolate, full of eerie winds and forgotten corners, the land has borne witness to its residents’ nighttime walks, forbidden meetings, and graveyard visits. Indeed, the mysteries of the land cannot be separated from the mysteries of the characters, and the physical landscape of the novel is often used to reflect the mental and emotional landscapes of those who live there.
While the odd characters and wild setting contribute to a certain sense of mystery, this sense is most definitively established by the appearance of Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost. Yet while Lockwood’s account of the event greatly influences the feel of the novel, and while his subsequent account of it to Heathcliff provokes a reaction that may offer us clues as to his relationship with the late Catherine, the reader may still conclude that the ghost is a figment of Lockwood’s imagination. Because Lockwood has proven himself flighty and emotional, and he is still half asleep when he encounters the ghost, one could infer that he never actually sees a ghost, but simply has an intense vision in the midst of his dream. It seems likely, however, that Emily Brontë would have intended the ghost to seem real to her readers: such a supernatural phenomenon would certainly be in keeping with the Gothic tone pervading the rest of the novel. Moreover, Heathcliff refers to Catherine’s ghost several times during the course of the novel. Clearly he concurs with Lockwood in believing that she haunts Wuthering Heights. Thus the ghost, whether objectively “real” or not, attests to the way the characters remain haunted by a troubling and turbulent past.