Heathcliff is the main character in Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights, and the whole plot revolves around this fascinating man from the time when he arrives at Wuthering Heights as a dark and dirty foundling and until he ends his days as a powerful landlord of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. This evolvement of the character and the fact that he is merely described by three narrators and never makes a clear statement of his own makes him one of the most fascinating characters in literature.
The very first time we meet Heathcliff in the novel is through his tenant’s narrative, where the character is established in the very first sentence of the novel. His tenant has just returned from a visit, and he describes him as a “solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with” and hints about him being a misanthropist. This is all fairly vague in comparison to the much stronger statement: “A capital fellow!” and the fact that the tenant’s heart warmed towards him, leaving us with the impression of a strong, but just man although we sense that there are some hidden menace lurking in the background.
This menace is also emphasized by the manner his dialogs and actions are described throughout the novel. Heathcliff does not speak – he growls. He does not smile – he grins, and even sneers on occasion. In the tenants narrative the uses of adjectives like “diabolical” certainly gives an extra flavour to the reader’s interpretation of the character. The effect of the choice of words is further enhanced by putting his dogs in the scene with him early in the novel, and thereby creating a link between the dogs and himself, and an image of him not being man-like. And indeed, dogs are just the thing for portraying a man like this, as dogs can be both dirty and pitiful, and strong, powerful sentinels or even predators at the same time – mirroring the general development of the character.
With this image firmly planted in the reader’s mind, the narrative changes to that of Mrs. Dean, the housewife of both Wuthering Heights and the Grange, who takes us back to when Heathcliff arrives at Wuthering Heights as a foundling. The diabolic image is further enhanced by remarks such as “…it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil” and the fact that Mrs. Earnshaw “was ready to fling it outdoors” upon his arrival. Even the housekeeper is afraid of him, but when everybody calms down, the child is washed and tucked into bed along with Hindley and Catherine, the Earnshaw children. The diabolic image is later modified somewhat with the way Heathcliff responds to the ill-treatment from Hindley, as he would not cry or speak up when harassed. This, however, does not necessarily make him seem more human to the reader. It might just be that this contributes to the aura of unearthliness that follows him throughout the text.
Hindley’s ill-treatment of him is a key point both in the novel and in the development of the character of Heathcliff, and it is the trigger to everything that goes so wrong in the end. Heathcliff forms a special bond with Catherine, and they spend a lot of time playing together out on the moors. One night they decide to go spy on the Lintons, which results in Catherine spraining her ankle and getting an invitation to stay until it is healed. Heathcliff, on the other hand, does not receive this invitation and must return to Wuthering Heights alone.
The turning point of the novel is when Catherine finally comes home, and this is also when Heathcliff truly is contrasted for the first time. The Lintons are portrayed as fine, cultivated creatures, and what is worse; they seem to have tamed and made a lady out of Catherine. This makes a sharp contrast to the black haired and dirty Heathcliff who has kept in the background until Catherine calls him forth. She kisses him at first, and then she turns right around and laughs at him in his face for being so “black and cross”. Needless to say, this hurts him deeply and it has a major impact on his development throughout the rest of the novel. At first, he makes a serious attempt to change his appearance by having the housekeeper groom him. This is also the first time his appearance is thoroughly described, making it very hard for the reader to believe that such a face could ever be anything else than dark and wild in the comparison of the angel-like Lintons.
“Do you mark those two lines between your eyes, and those thick brows, that instead of rising arched, sink in the middle, and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil’s spies? Wish and learn to smooth away the surly wrinkles, to raise your lids frankly, and change the fiends to confident, innocent angels, suspecting and doubting nothing, and always seeing friends where they are not sure of foes – Don’t get the expression of a vicious cur that appears to know the kicks it gets are its desert, and yet, hates all the world, as well as the kicker, for what it suffers”.
This grim look, however, does not stop him from trying, resulting only in further humiliation by Hindley as he is shoved out of the room where Catherine and Edgar resides. From this point onward, Heathcliff is no longer the patient child enduring his torment in silence. He has had enough, and he starts fighting back for the first time, deciding that he will pay Hindley back no matter how long he has to wait for his revenge. He stays at Wuthering Heights a little while longer, but when Catherine decides to marry his exact opposite, Edgar Linton, after having rejected himself on several occasions, he cannot stand it anymore and leaves without saying a word.
Three years pass by without anyone knowing where he is, but when he reappears in the novel it becomes apparent that he has gone through some major changes. This absence is an artistic effect in itself, and it somewhat resembles a butterfly’s cocoon. The being that disappeared is not the same being that emerges afterwards, but the change itself becomes a hidden mystery of some kind, and it is more or less up to the reader to figure out what actually happened to Heathcliff while he was away. The author’s choice of narrators allows her to do so, as none of the narrators went away with him, and consequently there is no one to tell us what happened at this point. All we are left with is the new impression of a full grown man, as described by the housekeeper:
“…I was amazed, more than ever, to behold the transformation of Heathcliff. He had grown a tall, athletic, well-formed man; besides whom my master seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton’s; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows, and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified, quite divested of roughness though too stern for grace.”
Once again, the author uses contrast to establish the character, but this time the tables have turned: Heathcliff is now the one who is portrayed as the superior character in the plot, as Edgar “seemed quite slender and youth-like” in comparison and that his facial expression looks intelligent. The effect is further enhanced by mentioning the army, bringing to mind the ability to fight – both to defend and to conquer. This is indeed a capable and potentially dangerous man, and now he is back to settle the score with Hindley.
The first thing Heathcliff does upon his return is to call to gather information about Catherine so as he can meet her – just to have a glimpse of her face before he takes care of his business with Hindley and then executes himself to escape the law. However, he changes his mind when he sees her. This indicates that Catherine is able to control him to some degree, and that she could have stopped his plans of revenge by leaving Edgar for his sake. The suspense is held for quite a while, with Heathcliff coming and going at the Grange to see Catherine and with Edgar trying to prevent him in doing so without losing face. This ménage à trois takes on a whole new dimension when Isabella, Edgar’s younger sister, falls deeply in love with Heathcliff, thinking him a true, honourable soul. Catherine, who knows him very well by now, tries to talk her out of it but fails miserably. Again, the character of Heathcliff is established through the means of contrast, this time with the fair, frail and naïve Isabella. Also, it is enhanced by the words of Catherine, his true love, when she says to her:
“I’d as soon put that little canary into the park on a winter’s day as recommend you to bestow your heart on him! (…) He’s not a rough diamond – a pearl- containing an oyster of a rustic; he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.”
This is the first time Catherine herself makes a statement about Heathcliff’s true character, and it is the last evidence the reader was waiting for. If we were not convinced before, we certainly would be now, after the heroine makes her little speech. Sadly, it does not have the same effect on Isabella. Four months after Heathcliff’s return, he sweeps Isabella away from the Grange and marries her – not for love, as implied by both Catherine and Mrs. Dean, but for the opportunity of inheriting her brother’s property. Some months later, she sends a long letter to the housewife, providing the reader with her narrative, the third one in the novel. Here she asks: “Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?” and once again we are reminded of his diabolic features. She concludes her letter by assuring both the receiver and the reader that “a tiger, or a venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakens”, adding to the impression that all hell is, once again, loose in Heathcliff’s conduct. His revenge is starting to take form.
Meanwhile, Catherine has been taken ill from the eternal suspense between her husband and her love, as Heathcliff cares less and less about what her husband may think about his visiting the Grange. It all explodes in one final encounter between the three of them just before Heathcliff marries Isabella, which almost leads to a fight between the men, only prevented by the housekeeper’s wits. Edgar then requires Catherine to choose between himself and Heathcliff, pushing her into a frantic madness. A little while later, when Heathcliff learns of her illness, he decides that he should pay her a visit to see how she is. This is the first evidence of empathy or concern for other’s wellbeing in Heathcliff’s character, and shows just how much he really loves Catherine. This is further enhanced by his reaction when he finally sees her. As reported by Mrs. Dean:
“He neither spoke, nor loosed his hold, for some five minutes, during which period he bestowed more kisses than ever he gave in his life before, I dare say; but then my mistress had kissed him first, and I plainly saw that he could hardly bear, for downright agony, to look into her face! The same conviction had stricken him as me, from the instant he beheld her, that there was no prospect of ultimate recovery there – she was fated, sure to die.”
She is also the only one who makes him show signs of agony or despair of any kind. One could of course argue that it is not Catherine he loves – it is himself in Catherine. As she herself states when she decides to marry Edgar:
“…[Heathcliff] shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he is handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…”
Another major turning point in the development in the character of Heathcliff is when Catherine dies. After this happens, Heathcliff takes on a different aspect, as he more or less resigns and makes him self invisible for long periods of time for the narrator. This is not to say he becomes passive in any way – he simply takes the form of a puppet master and cunningly manipulates everyone around him from behind the curtain. With Catherine gone, there are no softening elements to Heathcliff’s cruelty, and no romance to sugar coat the story of revenge. This is Heathcliff in his most scary aspect.
His character is almost fully evolved at this point of the novel. His cruelty and sternness has been thoroughly established through direct description, choice of adjectives and violent actions, and now the narrator adds another feature: his ability to deceive and plan ahead. This becomes evident when he tells Cathy, Catherine’s daughter, that his son Linton is heartbroken and cannot be told that she did not despise him after she is forbidden by her father to send him any more letters. The real story is that it is Heathcliff himself who has convinced him of this, and the manipulation becomes even more obvious when Linton becomes more and more terrorised by his father lurking in the shadows telling him how to behave in front of Cathy, beating him senseless when he fails to obey.
And sure enough, Heathcliff gets his revenge in the end. Hindley is driven to his death, Cathy and Linton marries just a few months before Linton dies, and Heathcliff inherits both the Grange and Wuthering Heights. Still, there are no hints about him being fulfilled or content in any way. The only thing that seems to calm him somewhat is to dig up Catherine’s grave eighteen years after she is buried so as he can hold her in his arms once again. This sequence is a very powerful one, conveying madness, sorrow, desperate passion and horror. This is also when it is revealed that Heathcliff has been haunted by Catherine’s ghost all these years, adding spiritual terror to the already violent picture.
After this, there is yet another change in Heathcliff’s character. He starts to feel like there is a change coming, but he can not make it out. Yet, by making him tell Mrs. Dean about it, the author is able to say something more about his character, something that has never been said before: Heathcliff makes an effort to smile. This is the first time in the novel where this emotional expression has not been described as a diabolical sneer or a grin – it is an effort to actually smile. This signifies that there in fact is a change coming, and that it perhaps will change Heathcliff’s character as well. This is also enhanced by Heathcliff making arrangements for his own funeral, so as he can be laid to rest besides Catherine. And as the reader already is well aware of: the only one who could make such a difference is Catherine herself.
With this in mind, his death scene is even more powerful as this is the only time he is described as actually smiling – without even making an effort to do so. As Mrs. Dean says: “His eyes met mine so keen, and fierce, I started: and then, he seemed to smile.” Heathcliff’s unearthliness follows him even in death, as the housekeeper seems to think that he smiles at her after she started, even when he lies there cold. This is also enhanced by the fact that she can’t seem to close his eyes, making the reader wonder if he really is dead and gone, after all.
And true enough, it does not take long before a little boy is found crying at the turn to the Heights, claiming that Heathcliff and a woman is “yonder, under t’ Nab”, and he dare not pass them. Even though Mrs. Dean concludes her narrative and the novel by “wondering how any could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth”, the reader is left with a certain feeling of ongoingness concerning Heathcliff and his woman.
In the end, therefore, Isabella’s questions still remain:
“Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?”
There are no apparent answers to these questions. Maybe that is what makes the character of Heathcliff so endlessly fascinating even 160 years after he was first bestowed on the reading world, and what makes Wuthering Heights a classic novel to this day, still worth reading.