The concept that almost every reader of Wuthering
focuses on is the passion-love of Catherine and Heathcliff,
often to the exclusion of every other theme–this despite the fact that
other kinds of love are presented and that Catherine dies half way
through the novel. The loves of the second generation, the love of
Frances and Hindley, and the "susceptible heart" of Lockwood receive
scant attention from such readers. But is love the central issue in
this novel? Is its motive force perhaps economic? The
desire for wealth does motivate Catherine's marriage, which
results in Heathcliff's flight and causes him to acquire
Wuthering Heights, to appropriate Thrushcross Grange,
and to dispossess Hareton. Is it possible that one of
the other themes constitutes the center of the novel, or are the other
themes secondary to the theme of love? Consider the following themes:
Clash of elemental forces.
The universe is made up of two opposite forces, storm and calm.
Wuthering Heights and the Earnshaws express the storm; Thrushcross
Grange and the Lintons, the calm. Catherine and Heathcliff are
elemental creatures of the storm. This theme is discussed more
fully in Later
Critical response to Wuthering
The clash of economic interests and social classes.
The novel is set at a time when capitalism and industrialization are
changing not only the economy but also the traditional social structure
and the relationship of the classes. The yeoman or respectable farming
class (Hareton) was being destroyed by the economic alliance of the
capitalists (Heathcliff) and the traditional power-holding gentry (the
Lintons). This theme is discussed more fully in
Heights as Socio-Economic Novel.
Striving for transcendence [transcendence: passing beyond a
human limit, existing above and independent of this world].
It is not just love that Catherine and Heathcliff seek but a higher,
spiritual existence which is permanent and unchanging, as Catherine
clear when she compares her love for Linton to the seasons and her love
for Heathcliff to the rocks. The dying Catherine looks forward to
this state through death. This theme is discussed more fully in Religion, Metaphysics, and Mysticism.
The abusive patriarch and patriarchal family.
The male heads of household abuse females and males who are weak or
powerless. This can be seen in their use of various kinds of
imprisonment or confinement, which takes social, emotional, financial,
legal, and physical forms. Mr. Earnshaw expects Catherine to behave
properly and hurtfully rejects her "bad-girl"
behavior. Edgar's ultimatum that Catherine must make a final choice
him or Heathcliff restricts Catherine's identity by forcing her to
an essential part of her nature; with loving selfishness Edgar confines
his daughter Cathy to the boundaries of Thrushcross Grange. A
Heathcliff of his position in the family, thereby trapping him in a
laboring position. Heathcliff literally incarcerates Isabella (as her
and legal overseer), and later he imprisons both Cathy and Nellie;
Cathy is isolated from the rest of the household after her marriage to
Linton by Healthcliff's contempt for and hatred of them.
Study of childhood and the family.
The hostility toward and the abuse of children and family members at
Wuthering Heights cut across the generations. The savagery of children
finds full expression in Hindley's animosity toward Heathcliff and in
Heathcliff's plans of vengeance. Wrapped in the self-centeredness of
childhood, Heathcliff claims Hindley's horse and uses Mr. Earnshaw's
partiality to his own advantage, making no return of affection. Mr.
Earnshaw's disapproval of Catherine hardens her and, like many
mistreated children, she becomes rebellious. Despite
abuse, Catherine and Heathcliff show the strength of children to
and abuse at least partly forms the adult characters and behavior
Catherine and Heathcliff and forges an important bond between
The effects of intense suffering.
In the passion-driven characters–Catherine, Heathcliff, and
Hindley–pain leads them to turn on and to torment others. Inflicting
pain provides them some relief; this behavior raises questions about
whether they are cruel by nature or are formed by childhood abuse and
to what extent they should be held responsible for or blamed for their
cruelties. Is all their suffering inflicted by others or by outside
forces, like the death of Hindley's wife, or is at least some of their
torment self-inflicted, like Heathcliff's holding Catherine responsible
for his suffering after her death? Suffering also sears the weak;
Isabella and her son Linton become vindictive, and Edgar turns into a
self-indulgent, melancholy recluse. The children of love, the degraded
Hareton and the imprisoned Cathy, are able to overcome Heathcliff's
abuse and to find love and a future with each other. Is John Hagan
right that "Wuthering Heights is such a remarkable work partly
because it persuades us forcibly to pity victims and victimizers
Self-imposed or self-generated confinement and
Both Catherine and Heathcliff find their bodies prisons which trap
their spirits and prevent the fulfillment of their desires: Catherine
yearns to be united with Heathcliff, with a lost childhood freedom,
with Nature, and with a spiritual realm; Heathcliff wants possession of
and union with Catherine. Confinement also defines the course of
Catherine's life: in childhood,
she alternates between the constraint of Wuthering Heights and the
of the moors; in puberty, she is restricted by her injury to a couch at
Thrushcross Grange; finally womanhood and her choice of husband confine
her to the gentility of Thrushcross Grange, from which she escapes into
the freedom of death.
Displacement, dispossession, and exile.
Heathcliff enters the novel possessed of nothing, is not even given a
last or family name, and loses his privileged status after Mr.
Earnshaw's death. Heathcliff displaces Hindley in the family structure.
thrown out of heaven, where she feels displaced, sees herself an exile
Thrushcross Grange at the end, and wanders the moors for twenty years
a ghost. Hareton is dispossessed of property, education, and
Isabella cannot return to her beloved Thrushcross Grange and brother.
Linton (Heathcliff's son)
is displaced twice after his mother's death, being removed first to
Grange and then to Wuthering Heights. Cathy is displaced from her home,
Communication and understanding.
The narrative structure of the novel revolves around communication and
understanding; Lockwood is unable to communicate with or understand the
relationships at Wuthering Heights, and Nelly enlightens him by
the history of the Earnshaws and the Lintons. Trying to return to the
in a snowstorm, Lockwood cannot see the stone markers which outline the
road. A superstitious
Nellie refuses to let Catherine tell her dreams; repeatedly Nellie does
not understand what Catherine is talking about or refuses to accept
Catherine is saying, notably after Catherine locks herself in her room.
refuses to heed Catherine's warning and Nellie's advice about
Heathcliff. And probably the most serious mis-communication of all is
hearing only that it would degrade Catherine to marry him.
Recently a number of critics have seen the story of a fall in this
novel, though from what state the characters fall from or to is
disputed. Does Catherine fall, in yielding to the comforts and security
of Thrushcross Grange? Does Heathcliff fall in his "moral teething" of
revenge and pursuit of property? Is Wutheirng Heights or Thrushcross
Grange the fallen world? Is the fall from heaven to hell or from hell
to heaven? Does Catherine really lose the Devil/Heathcliff (this
question arises from the assumption that Brontë is a Blakeian
subbversive and visionary)? The theme of a fall relies heavily on the
references to heaven and hell that run through the novel, beginning
with Lockwood's explicit reference to Wuthering Heights as a
"misanthrope's heaven" and ending with the implied heaven of the ghosts
of Heathcliff and Catherine roaming the moors together. Catherine
dreams of being expelled from heaven and deliriously sees herself an
exile cast out from the "heaven" of Wuthering Heights–a literal as well
as a symbolic fall. Heathcliff, like Satan, is relentless in his
destructive pursuit of revenge. Inevitably the ideas of expulsion from
heaven, exile, and desire for revenge have been
connected to Milton's Paradise Lost and parallels drawn between
epic and Brontë's novel; Catherine's pain at her change from free
to imprisoned adult is compared to Satan's speech to Beelzebub, "how
chang'd from an angel of light to exile in a fiery lake."
Brontë: Table of Contents
October 13, 2011