Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, initially got a cold reception – the intense love and revenge the novel dwelt on, was neither acclaimed by the critics nor did it appeal to Victorian sentimentalism. It was only when the book was published a second time by Emile Bronte’s sister Charlotte Bronte, after the author’s death that it received the recognition it deserved and till date, it persists.
The Major Themes
An Ethereal love
Heathcliff and Catherine, the two major characters of the novel share a bond that seems to transcend all human boundaries and equates itself with the everlastingness of the heath. To quote Catherine,
“My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I AM Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
Thus, Catherine makes it rather clear how Heathcliff dominates her mind; he is as if an essentially necessary element, remaining steadfast amidst the numerous layers of her mind. A passion blossomed in childhood; it also does not adhere to any change effected by time. Much like a wild growth, left to survive on its own, their passion thrives unchained, with potential enough to destroy all those that interrupt. After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff exclaims,
“Come in! come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh, do—once more! Oh! My heart’s darling, hear me this time—Catherine, at last,”
thereby demonstrating, how his affection remains alive even in death. Finally, it is death that unifies them.
Identity and Escape
Contrary to such overwhelming attachment, a natural and pleasant love grows between Cathy and Hareton. Eventually, their fondness promises a stable resolution of all commotions in both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The two youths create a space for themselves, discover their identities and thus furnish ways of escaping the raging miseries.
Revenge, Jealousy, Betrayal and Hatred
If love forms one of the dominant themes of the novel, then the other one is unquestionably revenge, with its facets manifested in varying proportions in many of the characters. The foremost character who initiates this spiteful chain is Hindley. His jealousy over his father’s soft corner for the orphan, Heathcliff, turns him cruelly vengeful towards the latter, with the result that Heathcliff is hated and piteously ill-treated. Nelly states,
“He [Hindley] has been blaming our father (how dared he?) for treating H. [Heathcliff] too liberally; and swears he will reduce him to his right place.”
However, far more destructive than Hindley is Heathcliff’s sadistic pursuit of causing the downfall of all who had mistreated him. And surprisingly, it is his failure to get Catherine that propels him to make use of Hindley’s uncontrollable gambling and drinking, to plan and attain his ruin. Hindley’s son, Hareton also becomes a victim of his ruthless malevolence. Heathcliff deliberately leaves him uneducated so that he becomes like him. To avenge Catherine’s death, he forcefully makes her daughter Cathy, marry his son, Linton and thus after the latter dies, has control over her actions too. Lastly, it is Catherine who employs this vice. Catherine willfully embraces an easy death to teach both Heathcliff and Egar a lesson; melancholic for not having either by her side in times of need, she resolves to end her life, thus employing death as a vehicle of her reprisal.
Though Bronte’s novel does not involve the faintest reference to the historical happenings of her age, yet class distinction manifested by varied characters offer a glimpse of the society of those times. The Lintons and the Earnshaws belong to the gentry, a class that upholds its characteristic traits by its behavior and possessions. Thus, we see how socially important the Lintons are – since they own a carriage, so much that Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton solely to become “the greatest woman of the neighborhood.” It is also the class consciousness that makes Hindley leave Heathcliff uneducated; being a servant, he would never even desire to rise. Nonetheless, social class consciousness, despite being overbearing, is precarious and susceptible to disintegration. Thus Heathcliff, an illiterate vagabond, returns and slowly owns all property.
The Moors Providing a Supernatural Element and Conflict Between Calm and Storm
The moors, somber and sinister, seem to be a perfect setting for the development of the novel’s core theme – the overbearing passion between Catherine and Heathcliff. For, despite being dangerous, it is the moors where the two ramble at random and find the true expression of their relation. In fact, some of the portions of the novel deliberately hint at the presence of some unknown power. Thus, early in the novel, Lockwood states of having seen Catherine’s ghost when he stumbles upon the latter’s diary. Later, Nelly recounts,
“Oh, Mr. Lockwood, I cannot express what a terrible start I got by the momentary view! Those deep black eyes! That smile, and ghastly paleness! It appeared to me, not Mr. Heathcliff, but a goblin.”
It is perhaps the moors again that lay grounds for another idea to grow – the eternal struggle between calm and storm. The inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, especially Catherine and Heathcliff, suggest wilderness, while the family members of Thrushcross Grange, symbolize order. Thus, when Catherine returns from Thrushcross Grange, she brings with her calmness and regularity, which are eventually disrupted by her stronger association with Heathcliff.
Some Other Themes Central to the Story
Death and Suffering
In Wuthering Heights, death seems to be an invisible character, always lurking around, ready to pounce at the slightest error – a radically mistaken choice, a whimsical deception of one’s heart. Thus, Catherine loves Heathcliff, but to be socially significant, weds Edgar Linton, betraying her heart. After that, she remains disturbed and finally attains bliss in the realms of death. Much later, Cathy, her daughter, marries Linton and thereby prepares to endure a life full of misery under the ruthless Heathcliff. Heathcliff, on his part, opts for a speedy death by subjecting himself to prolonged starvation, which is again a matter of choice. And these faulty decisions in the long run, help in making the novel adopt a fatalistic outlook. Interestingly, the ominous inclination of the characters, to surrender their lives to death for love, highlights a rather vital aspect of the novel – its predetermined negation of conventional religion. Some of the other deaths occurring in the story are that of Isabella’s, Hindley’s, and Edgar’s, etc.
Madness and Violence
The two central characters exhibit varying degrees of madness several times in the novel. Catherine suffers fits of madness twice in the novel – once when Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights and later when Heathcliff and Edgar have a terrible fight. In the second case, angered over Edgar’s unconcern regarding her failing health, she starves herself and consequently enters a semi-conscious state, where past and present get mixed up. Heathcliff’s tremendous hatred against Hindley and Edgar that makes him neglect Hareton and subject Cathy to forceful imprisonment also points at his madness, his weird frame of mind.
Wuthering Heights, by being dark and mysterious, traces its roots to the so-called Gothic Novel that similarly dwelt on forlorn landscapes and heinous beings. However, it transcends from being a mere reminder of a particular type of novel; this tempestuous tale using a complicated narrative remains to this day, one of the most powerful pieces of literature ever written.