Emily Bronte’s novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ is full of atmosphere and mystery, most of which is caused by the protagonist Heathcliff. Powerful and brooding, Heathcliff forms the central pillar of intrigue in this famous story. He unites the fragmented narration by being present throughout, unlike all other characters and is such a potent and intense creation the reader is unable to fail to be moved by him. One either feels repulsion towards him or is seduced by his rather crude and brutish manner.
To emphasise Heathcliff’s importance in the novel Bronte introduces him three times, an unusual technique that immediately catches the reader’s attention. Even more unusually the introductions of Heathcliff do not happen in chronological order, it is actually the opposite. We first see him as an embittered adult, then as a love struck teenager and finally as a child. This builds the cloud of mystery around the character by not revealing him all at once but rather giving us tantalising snippets of his past which make the reader want to read on to discover who he is. Somewhat frustratingly, we never find out everything about Heathcliff. We never find out where he is from or where he goes during the story.
But the writer’s method of introduction is undoubtedly effective in engaging and sustaining the interest of the reader.
Bronte uses unimportant and trivial characters to relate the story instead of using her own voice. This colours the narrative with the opinions of the characters being used at the time and adds interest. It also allows the reader to see how the actions of those in the story are judged by those around them instead of getting the self-centred approach that first person narrative would have.
The first narrator in ‘Wuthering Heights’, Lockwood, is a newcomer to the area who has no impact on the story and no previous knowledge of the drama that has preceded his arrival in Thrushcross Grange, a large house near Wuthering Heights which he rents from Heathcliff. This makes him an impartial narrator. Lockwood is presented as a civilised city man who fancies the solitary life the countryside offers. However, we soon realise that he has exceptionally bad character judgement when he tells the reader that Heathcliff is a ‘capital fellow’, when his description of Heathcliff’s body language in reaction to Lockwood gives the reader a very different picture of his temperament. We are told that when Lockwood introduces himself to Heathcliff his ‘black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows’ and ‘his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat’. This behaviour is defensive and unpleasant. Heathcliff also speaks with ‘closed teeth’ and when Lockwood attempts to enter Wuthering Heights on his horse, it is only when his horse’s breast was ‘fairly pushing the barrier’ that Heathcliff lets him through, and then he merely walks off leaving Lockwood to make his own way.
Despite all these clear signs that Heathcliff is a disagreeable man, Lockwood still presents him as simply a misanthropist, someone who, like Lockwood, is fed up with the ‘stir of society’. Therefore, the reader must come to their own conclusions about Heathcliff’s personality, without much regard for Lockwood’s judgement. Lockwood also gives the next introduction we read but instead of Heathcliff, we are introduced to Wuthering Heights the house. It is presented in a rather negative light. The first thing that is commented on is the name of the house, and specifically the word ‘wuthering’ which we are told is ‘descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather’. This and the continuing descriptions of trees bent in the wind reflect not only the suffering that Heathcliff has been exposed to, and how he, like the trees had been twisted but also the misery he now inflicts on those around him, creating a similar effect. Lockwood also notes the ‘narrow windows’ and the ‘corners defended with large jutting stones’. This gives the house castle like features and echoes Heathcliffe’s defensive nature. The ‘grotesque carving’ and name and date above the door, not Heathcliff’s name but rather ‘Hareton Earnshaw’ give an air of unknown mystery to the house.
The unease is added to by the description of the interior of Wuthering Heights. Lockwood talks of a ‘clatter of culinary utensils, deep within’, meaning that the kitchen, and therefore the life of and nurture of the house, like Heathcliff’s warmth and kindness, is confined to the back rooms, while the living room is filled with imposing dark furniture, like Heathcliff’s unpleasant front. He describes the chairs as ‘primitive structures’ and says that they are ‘lurking in the shade’. This personification of the chairs to make them threatening seems to reflect Heathcliff’s brooding and coarse nature. The guns above the chimney that are described as ‘villainous’ again introduce violence to the atmosphere that surrounds Heathcliff.
There are only two contrasts to the dark nature of the house. The first is the ‘huge fire place’ that ‘reflected splendidly both light and heat’. This seems a surprising feature of a room that has otherwise been described as fairly bare and cold. The fire symbolises the heated passion in Heathcliff that is hidden under the many layers of coldness and cruelty. It is the first sign we get in ‘Wuthering Heights’ that he is not simply a villain, but has a depth of character that is yet to be revealed. Secondly, the floor that is made of ‘smooth, white stone’. This is peculiar because it does not immediately seem to imitate Heathcliff, who is coarse and certainly not refined and smooth like the floor. However, it is explained later by Lockwood when he remarks that Heathcliff is a, ‘dark skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman’. The disparity suggested by the polished floor is one that is posed by Heathcliff’s character as well, and this adds depth to an already puzzling character. Indeed the whole house gives the reader a sense of foreboding as Heathcliff’s unique combination of characteristics is revealed through it.
Emily Bronte has therefore used the house, not only as a backdrop to the story of ‘Wuthering Heights’, but also as a way of reflecting Heathcliff and introducing parts of his character that we might otherwise not understand. The house, like him, has been subjected to violence which has distorted it and made it bleak and unwelcoming. However, the house is also used to show a flicker of humanity in a soul that could seem simply disagreeable. The kitchen may be confined to the back rooms, but it does exist, as does warmth in Heathcliff, although it may be deeply buried. The fire is a more passionate force, and an introduction to a side of Heathcliff that seems hard to believe exists when we first meet him.
As well as creating a sense of foreboding through the introduction, Emily Bronte also creates a sense ofsuppressed anger and violence by including a scene with Heathcliff’s dogs that has no immediate bearing on the plot. Upon entering Wuthering Heights Lockwood sits down on one of the chairs he has described only to be approached by a growling dog, ‘sneaking wolfishly to the back of my legs, her lip curled and her white teeth watering for a snatch.’ When Lockwood tries to stroke her the dog ‘provoked a long, guttural growl.’ This is similar to Heathcliff’s unpleasant replies to Lockwood trying to be friendly when they first meet when he spoke through ‘closed teeth’. When Heathcliff leaves Lockwood alone with the dogs, he taunts them by pulling faces. This causes all of the dogs, including those who had originally been still, to pounce upon him. The mood and reaction of the dogs externalises Heathcliff’s inner anger. Although he is not pleasant, his violence had been contained. However, the scene makes the reader wary, the author makes us wonder if Heathcliff were provoked would he unleash his built up violence like the dogs did by linking them by using the verb growl to describe the way Heathcliff speaks.
The next narrator we meet is not a person, but rather a diary. Despite Lockwood’s first visit to Wuthering Heights being unpleasant in many ways, he returns the next day because he says, ‘It is astonishing how sociable I feel myself compared with him (Heathcliff).’ He receives the same frosty welcome as he did during his first visit, but this time not from Heathcliff, but from the other occupants of Wuthering Heights, Joseph and Catherine Heathcliff both of whom are bitter and rude. However, it is not until a blizzard sets in and Lockwood is unable to go home in the evening that he discovers the diary that reveals more of Heathcliff’s past and character. The housekeeper Zillah shows him to a room, and while she leads him upstairs she tells him, ‘her master had an odd notion about the chamber she would put me in, and never let anybody lodge there willingly.’
This creates suspense and we wonder what could have caused Heathcliff to be scared. The bed in the room is enclosed in a large oak box. Lockwood gets into bed and begins to look at the ‘mildewed books piled up in one corner.’ The first thing he reads is a name, or three names, ‘Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton.’ This establishes the owner of the books, but is also confusing. The reader wonders why the writer’s name is written with three different surnames. The narration begins when Lockwood flicks to a page that has been written on and reads. We then discover the teenage Heathcliff.
The narrator we discover is a young girl, and the reader trusts her to some degree because although she is biased towards her friend, Heathcliff, the diary is for her eyes only, so she is being completely honest with herself. She also evokes sympathy when she cries for Heathcliff, and the reader finds her loyalty and love for her companion touching.
The passage that Lockwood reads, one he selects at random, tells of a Sunday at Wuthering Heights some time ago. Within the first few lines he discovers that Heathcliff was badly treated, ‘Hindley’s conduct to Heathcliff is atrocious’, which shows that the subject is important to Catherine because it is one of the first things she writes. The house at this point is under the rule of Hindley, Catherine’s brother, and his wife, and we are told that Catherine’s father is already dead. This helps the reader develop a sense of chronology, because with the strange order of the narration it is easy to get lost. It soon becomes obvious that there is a close bond between Heathcliff and Catherine and there is a description of them escaping the other people in the house and making a den together, ‘We made ourselves as snug as our means allowed in the arch of the dresser.’ But they do not stay long because Joseph, the old servant Lockwood had already met, finds them and they get into trouble. We then see a side of Heathcliff that is rather unexpected, a playful, mischievous side. He suggests to Catherine that they should take the dairywoman’s cloak and, ‘Have a scamper on the moors, under its shelter’. This is the only time we see Heathcliff in such an innocent way.
The next passage Lockwood reads is the most telling about Heathcliff’s treatment, and it begins to explain his bitter personality at the beginning of the book. Catherine is distraught and writes, ‘Poor Heathcliff! Hindley calls him a vagabond, and won’t let him sit with us anymore; and, he says, he and I must not play together, and threatens to turn him out of the house if we break his orders.’ This makes readers sympathise with the young Heathcliff whereas until this point they may not have empathized with him. We also wonder why Hindley behaves so badly towards Heathcliff, which leads to the next introduction of him.
The next passage in the book is deliberately rather strange. It creates an atmosphere of the supernatural that leads to the strange events which happen at Wuthering Heights. After reading the section of Catherine’s diary Lockwood drifts into sleep, and he dreams. Firstly, a strange dream about a sermon, which is simply related to the book the diary is written in. But secondly, and more importantly, he dreams that a branch is tapping on the window, and when he cannot open it he smashes his hand through the glass. His fingers are clutched at by ‘A little, ice-cold hand!’ A voice then cries at Lockwood to, ‘Let me in’. He is horrified and frightened by the apparition, who calls herself Catherine Linton, so much so that he rubs its arm on the windowpane brutally, before waking in terror. This is used to show that everyone has an internal core of violence. It just needs something to awaken it. It seems as though Emily Bronte is trying to justify Heathcliff’s cruelty and also allow the reader to identify with him, so that he is not simply a hated villain.
The next point of interest in Emily Bronte’s presentation of Heathcliff is in chapter 4, after Lockwood has returned to Thrushcross Grange. After battling through the snow that had made him stay at Wuthering Heights, he feels ill and weak. But more importantly, he feels curious about Heathcliff and his background, as does the reader. So, when the Housekeeper Mrs. Dean brings him his supper he asks her about the present occupants of the house. This is a way of making the story of ‘Wuthering Heights’ more extraordinary, by contrasting it with an ordinary setting. She reels off a list of how they are all related, but this only serves to confuse the reader and inject more mystery into the tale. However, it is not until Lockwood asks the question that is most important about Heathcliff, ‘Do you know anything of his history?’ Mrs. Dean replies, ‘It’s a cuckoo’s, sir.’
This suggests that Heathcliff, a newcomer to the family is like a cuckoo, since their eggs are planted in the nests of other birds and then they take over when they hatch and destroy all the other eggs which makes them the outsider and the usurper. She then goes on to say, ‘I know all about it; except where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money.’ This prompts a certain disappointment in the reader because we now know that many of our questions will remain unanswered, but it does make Heathcliff more interesting and his mystery adds to the supernatural feel of the novel. Heathcliff could be an ‘Imp of Satan’, as he is described. Mrs. Dean starts her story with the arrival of Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. She says that Mr Earnshaw, the father of Catherine and Hindley who were both part of the last piece of main narration, went on a trip to Liverpool, walking the whole way. When he returned several days later he brought with him a little boy, who Mrs Dean describes as, ‘A dirty, ragged, black-haired child.’
The reaction to him is immediately negative, with Mrs Earnshaw shouting, ‘How could he fashion to bring that gypsy brat into the house, when they had their own bairns to feed, and fend for?’ Mrs. Dean does not make Mr. Earnshaw’s explanation as to where he found Heathcliff clear and we never really know, but we can guess. The first things he says are described as ‘Some gibberish that nobody could understand’. This would suggest that he is foreign, and that he was found in Liverpool a big dock seems to corroborate this theory.
During his first night at Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff made himself unpopular with the other children, including Mrs. Dean who worked there as a child. When it came to bedtime she was told to put him to bed with the other children, but they refused to have him in with them, so she just left him on the landing. When he was discovered in the morning, Mrs. Dean was sent out of the house for her, ‘cowardice and inhumanity’. This anecdote is used to show two things, firstly Mrs. Dean’s central position in the house and the events she is recalling which makes her the most reliable narrator. Secondly, that Heathcliff was a source of conflict as soon as he arrived, which suggests that he will continue this way.
Mrs. Dean goes on to describe how Heathcliff settled into Wuthering Heights. She says that, ‘Miss Cathy and he were now very thick; but Hindley hated him.’ She also says, ‘The mistress never put in a word on his behalf, when she saw him wronged.’ Heathcliff accepted this unjust behaviour. ‘He would stand Hindley’s blows without winking or shedding a tear, and my (Mrs. Dean’s) pinches moved him only to draw in a breath.’ From this the reader notices that Heathcliff seems to be used to violence and bad treatment. However, Mr. Earnshaw treated him far better than he treated the other children and we are told he, ‘Took to Heathcliff strangely. Believing all he said.’ Mrs. Dean then goes on to explain why in the diary entry Hindley was malicious towards Heathcliff, ‘In less than two years after, the young master had learnt to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent’s affections, and his privileges, and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries.’ It is unsurprising that Hindley was angry; someone he saw only as an orphaned gypsy had replaced him completely in his father’s affections.
The narrative is at this time fragmented as Mrs. Dean gives various accounts of things that give us a better idea of the politics within the house and Heathcliff’s character. She tells the reader how she came to sympathise with Heathcliff, and therefore leave Hindley with no one supporting him. She is swayed by the behaviour of the children when they all fell ill with measles, Heathcliff very severely. She says, ‘Cathy and her brother harassed me terribly: he (Heathcliff) was as uncomplaining as a lamb.’ Although she has no illusions about him and realises that it was through, ‘hardness not gentleness, made him give little trouble,’ Emily Bronte by combining the descriptions of being a ‘lamb’ and hardness to describe Heathcliff furthers the ambiguity which surrounds him.
The next tale is one that shows Heathcliff’s stubbornness and cut throat business instincts, which may explain how he managed to get his money and how he managed to get the house from Hindley effortlessly later in ‘Wuthering Heights’. Mr. Earnshaw bought two colts at a fair and brought them back, one for Hindley and one for Heathcliff. Since Heathcliff was the favourite, he got the most handsome but it soon fell lame, so he demanded Hindley should swap with him. He threatened, ‘If you won’t I shall tell your father of the three thrashings you’ve given me this week, and show him my arm which is black to the shoulder.’ He persisted in blackmailing Hindley until he lashed out and threw an iron weight at his chest and then gave in and shouted, ‘Take him and be damned, you beggarly interloper! And wheedle my father out of all he has: only afterwards, show him what you are, imp of Satan.’ This outburst sums up everything Hindley feels about Heathcliff, but he is unaffected. Indeed even after Hindley kicks his feet from under him, he just gets up and continues moving saddles. This shows his determination that he will achieve what he wants to.
Mrs. Dean’s narration forms the rest of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as she tells Lockwood what has happened before his arrival at Thrushcross Grange. She is the most reliable of all the narrators as commented on by Lockwood who calls her a, ‘worthy woman’. She was also there at the time of the events she is talking about, but wasn’t directly involved in them so isn’t biased like Catherine’s diary which was in favour of Heathcliff. As a servant, Mrs. Dean’s opinions are also down to earth and trustworthy, though she does reveal an alliance with the Lintons gradually through ‘Wuthering Heights’.
In conclusion, I think that the beginning of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and the introduction of Heathcliff by Emily Bronte are successful. The use of different narrators adds interest and gives several opinions of the characters, so that the reader can form their own opinions. By introducing Heathcliff backwards, first as an adult, then as a teenager and finally as a child she creates a mysterious air around him, and not revealing his entire history just adds to this. The use of Wuthering Heights to reflect him is another technique she uses and gives us a real idea of the depth of his personality and the many layers that make up his character. Finally, by using voices to tell the story and using the speech that they would use she gives the narration a warm, trustful feel, all of which amount to a very successful opening to the book that brims with passion and mystery.