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Any serious discussion of Wuthering Heights must consider the complex point of view that Brontë chose. Lockwood tells the entire story, but except for his experiences as the renter of Thrushcross Grange and his response to Nelly and the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, he repeats what Nellie tells him; occasionally she is narrating what others have told her, e.g., Isabella's experiences at Wuthering Heights or the servant Zillah's view of events. Consequently, at times we are three steps removed from events. Contrary to what might be expected with such narrative distance from events, we do not feel emotionally distant from the characters or events. Indeed, most readers are swept along by the impetuosity and tempestuous behavior of Heathcliff and Catherine, even if occasionally confused by the time shifts and the duplication of names. Brontë's ability to sweep the reader while distancing the narration reveals her mastery of her material and her genius as a writer.

To decide why she chose this narrative approach and how effective it is, you must determine what Lockwood and Nelly contribute to the story–what kind of people are they? what values do they represent? how reliable are they or, alternately, under what conditions are they reliable? As you read the novel, consider the following possibilities:

  • Lockwood and Nelly are opposites in almost every way. (1) Lockwood is a sophisticated, educated, affluent gentleman; he is an outsider, a city man. Nelly is a shrewd, self-educated servant; a local Yorkshirewoman, she has never traveled beyond the Wuthering Heights-Thrushcross Grange-Gimmerton area. Nelly, thus, belongs to Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange in a way that the outsider Lockwood (or Heathcliff either) never does. (2) Lockwood's illness contrasts with her good health. (3) Just as the narrative is divided between a male and a female narrator, so throughout the book the major characters are balanced male and female, including the servants Joseph and Nelly or Joseph and Zillah. This balancing of male and female and the lovers seeking union suggests that at a psychological level the Jungian animus and anima are struggling for integration in one personality.

  • Does Lockwood represent the point of view of the ordinary reader (that is, us). If so, do his reactions invalidate our everyday assumptions and judgments? This reading assumes that his reactions are insensitive and unintelligent. Or do he and Nelly serve as a bridge from our usual reality to the chaotic reality of Wuthering Heights? By enabling us to identify with normal responses and socially acceptable values, do they help make the fantastic behavior believable if not understandable?

  • Does the sentimental Lockwood contrast with the pragmatic Nelly? It has been suggested that the original purpose of the novel was the education and edification of Lockwood in the nature of passion-love, but of course the novel completely outgrew this limited aim.

Nelly–as main narrator, as participant, and as precipitator of key events–requires more attention than Lockwood.
  • To what extent do we accept Nelly's point of view? Is her conventionality necessarily wrong or limited? Is it a valid point of view, though one perhaps which cannot understand or accommodate the wild behavior she encounters? Does she represent normalcy? Is she a norm against which to judge the behavior of the other characters? How much does she contribute, whether unintentionally, semi-consciously, or deliberately, to the disasters which engulf her employers? To what extent is Nelly admirable? Is she superior to the other servants, as she suggests, or is she deluded by vanity?

  • Is Nelly's alliance or identification with any one character, one family, or one set of values consistent, or does she switch sides, depending on circumstances and her emotional response? Does she sympathize with the children she raised or helped to raise, a group consisting of Heathcliff, Catherine, Hareton, and Cathy? If Nelly's loyalties do keep shifting, does this fact reflect the difficulty of making moral judgments in this novel?

  • Is her interpretation of some characters or kinds of events more reliable than of others? Is she, for instance, more authoritative when she speaks of more conventional or ordinary events or behavior than of the extreme, often outrageous behavior of Heathcliff or Catherine?  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that although Heathcliff talks about himself to Nelly with honesty and openness, she persists on seeing him as a secretive, alienated, diabolical schemer. Is Sedgwick's insight valid? If so, what does it reveal about Nelly? Another question might be, why do so many people confide in or turn to Nelly?

There are two more questions that can be raised about the reliability of Lockwood and Nelly. The first is, did Lockwood change any of Nellie's story? This is, it seems to me, a futile question. I see no way we can answer this question, for there are no internal or external conversations or events which would enable us to assess his narrative integrity. The same principle would apply to Nellie, if we wonder whether she deliberately lied to Lockwood or remembered events incorrectly. However, it is entirely another matter if we ask whether Nellie or Lockwood misunderstood or misinterpreted the conversations and actions that each narrates. In this case, we can compare the narrator's interpretation of characters and events with the conversations and behavior of the characters, consider the values the narrator holds and those held or expressed by the characters and their behavior, and also look at the pattern of the novel in its entirety for clues in order to evaluate the narrator's reliability.

Brontë: Table of Contents

Day 1

Overview of Emily Brontë
Publication of Wuthering Heights & Contemporary Critics
Later Critical response to Wuthering Heights
Film Versions of Wuthering Heights

Day 2 Themes in Wuthering Heights
The Narrator
Day 3 Wuthering Heights as Socio-Economic Novel
Psychological Interpretations of Wuthering Heights
Religion, Metaphysics, Mysticism and Wuthering Heights
The Gothic and Wuthering Heights
Romanticism and Wuthering Heights
Day 4

"I am Heathcliff"
Emily Bronte's Poetry


 October 13, 2011