This ambiguity in Heathcliff’s character has sparked much discussion among critics, who debate whether his role in the novel is that of hero or villain. In some sense, he fulfills both roles. He certainly behaves cruelly and harmfully toward many of the other characters; yet, because he does so out of the pain of his love for Catherine, the reader remains just as attuned to Heathcliff’s own misery as to the misery he causes in others. The love between Catherine and Heathcliff constitutes the center of Wuthering Heights both thematically and emotionally, and, if one is to respond at all to the novel, it is difficult to resist sympathizing with that love. Correspondingly, as a participant in this love story, Heathcliff never becomes an entirely inhuman or incomprehensible character to the reader, no matter how sadistically he behaves.
Many scholars believe that Brontë intended her novel to be a moralizing, cautionary tale about the dangers of loving too deeply. If this is true, then one might argue that the book, in creating such charismatic main characters as Heathcliff and Catherine, defeats its own purpose. For instance, Isabella, though innocent and morally pure, never exerts the same power over the reader’s imagination as Heathcliff and Catherine. As a result, it becomes unnervingly easy to overlook Isabella’s suffering, even though her suffering would otherwise function as one of the novel’s strongest pieces of evidence in its condemnation of obsessive passions. Similarly, Heathcliff suffers the ill treatment of characters who seem his intellectual and spiritual inferiors; thus when he seeks revenge on a brute such as Hindley, the reader secretly wishes him success. As a result, once again, Brontë’s strong characterization of Heathcliff undermines any possible intent she might have had to warn her readers about the perils of an overly intense love.
In addition to exploring the character of Heathcliff as a grown man, this section casts some light on the character of Nelly Dean as a narrator. Her narrative has always shown certain biases, and throughout the book she harshly criticizes Catherine’s behavior, calling her spoiled, proud, arrogant, thoughtless, selfish, naïve, and cruel. It is true that Catherine can be each of those things, but it also seems clear that Nelly is jealous of Catherine’s beauty, wealth, and social station. It is important to remember that Nelly is not much older than Catherine and grew up serving her.
Some readers have speculated that Nelly’s jealousy may also arise from a passion for Edgar Linton—whom she praises extravagantly throughout the novel—or even for Heathcliff, whom she often heatedly denounces. This section of the book offers some evidence for the latter view. For instance, when Catherine teasingly tells Heathcliff in Chapter X that Isabella has fallen in love with him, she does so by saying, “Heathcliff, I’m proud to show you, at last, somebody that dotes on you more than myself. I expect you to feel flattered.” She then says, “Nay, it’s not Nelly; don’t look at her!” This comment suggests that Heathcliff looks at Nelly after Catherine’s first statement. Perhaps in the past he has suspected Nelly of having feelings for him. Certainly, a reader might interpret Catherine’s words in a different manner. Nevertheless, Catherine’s comments substantiate the idea that Nelly’s feelings for the other characters in the novel are deeper and more complicated than she reveals to Lockwood.