Who or what does Heathcliff represent in Wuthering Heights? Is he a force of evil or a victim of it and how important is the role of class in the novel, particularly as it relates to Heathcliff and his life?
The ‘moral ambiguity, glamour and degradation that is Heathcliff’ (same as below) forms the ultimate focus for the novel Wuthering Heights, beginning as Heathcliff is brought into the Earnshaw family, with his evil machinations completely driving the story and his death marking the conclusion of the novel. Throughout Bronte’s work he is portrayed as a strong figure who remains mysterious, magnetic and charismatic, keeping countless readers engaged throughout centuries through the desire to understand both Heathcliff’s character and his motivations. Tortured, brooding, passionate and dark, Heathcliff is undoubtedly the embodiment of the Byronic hero, i.e. a self-destructive anti-hero who is isolated from society, much like Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre or, more recently, Edward Cullen from the Twilight series.
While his actions throughout the novel are neither likeable, nor condonable, they are driven by passion, an emotion synonymous with a typical literary hero and this, alongside his torturous love for Cathy, means that readers cannot help but feel empathy for him, bringing them closer to Heathcliff than any other character in the novel. Wuthering Heights provoked a good deal of anxiety when published, most of which was caused by the character of Heathcliff. The Examiner felt outraged by the mixture of affection and loathing he inspired, and even Emily’s sister, Charlotte felt ‘hard put to justify Heathcliff’s ‘repulsiveness’ and was forced onto the defensive. The creation of Heathcliff, she conceded, may not have been advisable.’ (Cambridge companion to the Bronte’s, page 166)
Not solely a Byronic hero, Heathcliff is also seen to be a ‘nightmarish manifestation of subtler fears about self-making gone too far’. (Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture p. 13) Heathcliff is the epitome of a self-made man, rising from a degraded and abused orphan on the streets of Liverpool to a man of property, wealth, success and culture, a man ‘in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire’ (Wuthering Heights p.21) a mere twenty five years later. This climb to wealth fundamentally embodies the anxieties that upper and middle class Victorians possessed regarding the working
classes. The upper classes were very ambivalent about the people below them socially; feeling charitable towards the lower-classes, yet weary of the idea that they may escape their circumstances through the acquisition of power, be it political, social, economic or cultural. The role of class in the novel is something of a constant struggle for Heathcliff, as although he manages to obtain property and therefore wealth, he can never change his appearance, which implies more socially than his wealth ever can. For even as Lockwood notes his gentlemanly appearance, he also recognises Heathcliff as a ‘dark-skinned gipsy in aspect’ (Wuthering Heights p.21), showing how his ethnic background presents an unusual contrast to his master of the house image, and how he can never truly escape his social standing. This social standing has an enormous effect on the character of Heathcliff and his life as the novel progresses.
Rescued from the streets of Liverpool, Heathcliff enters the Earnshaw household a poor orphan, which automatically deems him to be on a lower level than any other character. He is immediately characterised as a ‘villain’, ‘imp of Satan’, with a language of ‘gibberish’ (Wuthering Heights) and is cruelly referred to as “it” by Catherine’s father, seen as an object rather than a person. This poor treatment is not much of an improvement on his difficult childhood and it is clear to see that he becomes a product of this neglect and abuse. Racially different, Heathcliff can and will never be accepted by his adoptive family, something which is highlighted to readers through the fact that he is never given the Earnshaw family name.
Nelly uses an interesting choice of words to describe how the occupants of Wuthering Heights felt about Heathcliff’s arrival, saying ‘from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house.’ (Wuthering heights ch. 4) These words are evocative as there is much speculation surrounding Heathcliff’s heritage. Coming from Liverpool, a town with high rates of immigrants, and with his dark looks, Heathcliff is likely of mixed race, with some critics suggesting that he is black, or, like Patrick Bronte, descended from Irish immigrants, either of which would lower his social standing even further.
The theme of class is further intertwined in the plot as Heathcliff’s low class ranking is one of the sole reasons that Catherine chooses to marry Edgar rather than to be with him, despite the fact that while her feelings towards Edgar fluctuate, she loves Heathcliff so intensely that she claims they are the same person. She finds Edgar ‘handsome and pleasant to be with’ (Wuthering Heights), yet these are merely superficialities; Catherine truly marries Edgar because he is a part of the right social class, possessing the ability to provide financial security for her. She has clearly considered the prospect of marrying Heathcliff as she not only tells Nelly that if Heathcliff and she were to marry ‘we should be beggars’ (Wuthering Heights) but also reveals plans to use Edgar’s money to help Heathcliff rise in the class system.
After Heathcliff returns, Catherine cannot contain her happiness, forcing Edgar to ask her to choose between Heathcliff and him. She refuses to honour that request, later blaming both men for breaking her heart as she could not choose between her love for Heathcliff and the life that Edgar could offer her. Marrying Edgar guaranteed Catherine a higher social standing. Overall, Heathcliff’s role in the Victorian class hierarchy plays an integral role in major events of his life. It is the reason he is abused by the master of the house, the reason that Catherine chooses Edgar over him, leading him to seek revenge and to make something of himself, but, above all, it is the reason he acts so despicably in the latter half of the novel, encouraging Isabella’s infatuation and acting aggressively. None of these events would have taken place if Heathcliff was of a higher social class, as he would have simply been able to marry Catherine.
Throughout the text, Heathcliff is repeatedly referred to as being evil in ‘nature… an unmannerly wretch’ (wuthering heights), with his own wife even asking if he is mad or a devil. Most of the characters assume that individuals are born good or evil, with people having little control over their personalities or actions. However, is Heathcliff truly a force of evil or merely a victim of it? Is it possible that he could represent both? It is undeniable that Heathcliff is a product of his upbringing. He was neglected, which in turn made him neglectful. He was abused, and so became abusive. He was segregated from the other characters, and so he cast everyone aside from himself. He was treated unfairly throughout his upbringing, making him violent and resentful in later life.
Heathcliff is the utmost paradigm of a victim turned perpetrator, and often falls back on violence as a means to express his feelings of both love and hatred. His anger is due to the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of Mr. Earnshaw, Hindley and Catherine, tying it to the revenge which he so passionately seeks. Despite this, Heathcliff also undertakes dishonourable, cruel acts against those who have done no harm to him in the past, demonstrating a side of him which shows that he is not solely a victim of evil, but also possesses a dark streak. The best example of this is the hanging of Isabella Linton’s dog, when Heathcliff says:
The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one possibly she took that exception for herself. (WH chapter 12)
Ultimately though, Heathcliff’s violence and darkness stems from bearing a chip on his shoulder and hanging onto the complexes gained from his past. He may possess a mean streak, however this has ultimately come as a consequence of his early life. Therefore, he is not a force of evil as such, as he had reason for the majority of his actions. No matter how violent or despicable Heathcliff may be by times, he cannot help but remain likeable, due in part to his love of Catherine. His love for her is violent in the sense that it is extremely passionate, but it stirs a brutal defensiveness; Heathcliff would never do anything to harm Catherine. Towards the end of the novel, he confesses to Nelly that he no longer has any interest in violence. This is not so much because he has sated his appetite for it, but rather he has gone past the need to inflict suffering onto others as a form of vengeance, proving that cruelty was never truly an inbuilt feature of his character.
The real discomfort created by the novel when published was not ‘so much that Heathcliff is atrocious, but that he is not, after all, entirely despicable.’ (cambridge 167) The novel consistently gives the impression that there is more to Heathcliff’s actions than meets the eye, for example, his cruelty is seen as merely an expression of his frustrated love for Catherine, or his sinister behaviour conceals the heart of a romantic hero. His character is expected to have a hidden virtue as he resembles a romantic hero, partly due to his overt masculinity, although this is taken to extremes of aggressiveness by times. Traditionally, heroes of romanticism appear dangerous, brooding and cold only to later emerge as loving and devoted.
While Heathcliff does not reform as expected, there is no need for him to do so, as he remains permanently devoted and passionate about Catherine, although unable to clearly portray these emotions. Certain malevolence proves difficult to explain, as it cannot be deemed a form of revenge against people who have previously wronged him. As he himself points out, his abuse of Isabella is purely for his sadistic amusement, seeing how much she will endure while still returning. Critic Joyce Carol Oates argues that Brontë does to the reader that which Heathcliff does to Isabella, testing to see how much the reader can be shocked by Heathcliff’s gratuitous violence and still, masochistically, insist on seeing him as a romantic hero. Oates has a valid point, as, for all his flaws and sadistic actions, one cannot hate, or even dislike the character of Heathcliff, seeing him solely as a wounded soul who tries to get back at those who previously hurt him, making him the ultimate Byronic hero of Nineteenth Century literature.
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