Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë (1818-48) started writing Wuthering Heights in 1845. The novel was published in 1847 and received a mixed reception. Since then, it has been recognised as a masterpiece. It has multiple adaptations on screen and remains a source of inspiration to artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers around the world.

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Table of contents

    Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights

    Below is a summary of Brontë's most well-known novel, Wuthering Heights.

    Overview: Wuthering Heights
    Author of Wuthering HeightsEmily Brontë
    GenreGothic fiction, romance fiction
    Brief summary of Wuthering Heights
    • The novel tells of the ill-fated love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, two orphaned children brought up at the remote and wild estate of Wuthering Heights.
    List of main charactersHeathcliff, Catherine Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, Ellen Dean, Isabella Linton, Hindley Earnshaw
    ThemesMorality, religion, love, class, jealousy, the destructive power of obsession
    SettingYorkshire moors in Northern England, around 1770s-1800s.
    • The novel challenges traditional notions of romantic love, portraying it as a destructive force that can lead to obsession, jealousy, and violence.
    • It is notable for its complex narrative structure, which features multiple narrators and flashbacks.

    Wuthering Heights: summary

    Wuthering Heights has two main narrators. The first, Mr Lockwood, is the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, and the second, Nelly Dean, is the housekeeper at the Grange.

    Mr Lockwood

    In 1801, Mr Lockwood visits his landlord, Mr Heathcliff, who lives at Wuthering Heights. After an inhospitable welcome, the weather worsens. Lockwood is snowed in and experiences a haunting experience in the bedchamber previously belonging to Catherine Earnshaw.

    Lockwood returns to Thrushcross Grange and develops a bad cold. Confined to bed, he asks his housekeeper to tell him about the morose family inhabiting Wuthering Heights. The housekeeper, Nelly Dean, now becomes the main narrator and continues the story.

    Nelly Dean’s story

    Wuthering Heights is an old manor house originally owned by the Earnshaw family, whereas Thrushcross Grange was previously the property of the Lintons. Late one night, Mr Earnshaw returned home from a business trip to Liverpool with a little foundling. Mr Earnshaw named him Heathcliff and proceeded to treat him as one of the family.

    They don’t know anything about Heathcliff, who remains a mystery throughout the whole novel. Earnshaw’s son, Hindley, never accepts Heathcliff, and a profound enmity grows between them. Hindley’s sister, Catherine, on the other hand, develops a deep and fatal bond with the boy. Their relationship is the basis of the novel.

    After being attacked on the Linton estate by their dogs, Catherine is taken in by the Lintons and experiences the life of a family that is urbane, socially polished, and ‘civilised’. When she returns to Wuthering Heights she hardly recognises Heathcliff who has become increasingly withdrawn and rough in her absence.

    It soon becomes clear that the Lintons’ son, Edgar, is in love with Catherine. When asked how she feels about marrying Edgar, Catherine is divided between her head and her heart. Logically she wishes to marry Edgar for status and elegance, while emotionally her heart is Heathcliff’s, yet she feels she cannot marry him because of his poor status. Heathcliff overhears her, but she doesn’t realise until it is too late: Heathcliff has disappeared into the night and can’t be found. Because of this, Catherine falls into a fever and is ill for several months.

    Wuthering Heights, an actress playing Cathy laying sick in bed while the actor playing Heathcliff looks over her with a hand on her forehead, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Heathcliff at Cathy’s deathbed. Scene from William Wyler’s 1939 film of the same name.

    Three years later Heathcliff returns a wealthy man who speaks and dresses like a gentleman. However, Catherine has married Edgar Linton and is expecting their first child.

    Edgar’s sister, Isabella, is quickly infatuated with Heathcliff. Meanwhile, Edgar, infuriated with Catherine’s continued friendship with Heathcliff, attempts to ban Heathcliff from visiting her. Catherine retaliates by locking herself in her room and refusing to eat. Heathcliff elopes with Isabella and Edgar disowns his sister.

    Catherine’s mental and physical health quickly deteriorate. On discovering that Catherine is dying, Heathcliff visits her in secret and they unburden their feelings for each other, which only worsens Catherine’s condition.

    Catherine dies soon after giving birth to her daughter, Cathy, and Heathcliff in despair calls upon the ghost of Catherine to haunt him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Isabella runs away and gives birth to Heathcliff’s son, whom she names Linton. Hindley’s death later in the year leaves Heathcliff the owner of Wuthering Heights.

    Twelve years later, a dying Isabella sends Linton to live with his uncle Edgar, but Heathcliff intervenes and takes the boy to live with him. Cathy, Edgar’s daughter, develops a fondness for Linton, and Heathcliff conspires for them to marry. After Edgar’s death, Cathy remains at Wuthering Heights to look after Linton, who is in the final stages of consumption.

    At this point, Heathcliff reveals to Nelly that he dug up Catherine’s grave and has been haunted by her ghost every since.

    Linton dies and we find out that Thrushcross Grange now goes to Heathcliff through his marriage to Isabella. Soon after, Heathcliff seeks a tenant for the place: Lockwood.

    Nelly Dean’s story ends here, and Lockwood picks up the narrative again.

    Heathcliff’s death

    Lockwood, disillusioned with life on the moors, moves away. Several months later, he visits Wuthering Heights while travelling the area and meets Nelly Dean again. She tells him how Heathcliff began seeing visions of Catherine:

    ‘Come now’, I exclaimed, pushing some bread against his hand, ‘eat and drink that, while it is hot: it has been waiting near an hour’.

    He didn’t notice me, and yet he smiled. I’d rather have seen him gnash his teeth than smile so.

    ‘Mr. Heathcliff! master!’ I cried, ‘don’t, for God’s sake, stare as if you saw an unearthly vision’.

    ‘Don’t, for God’s sake, shout so loud’, he replied. ‘Turn round, and tell me, are we by ourselves?’

    ‘Of course’, was my answer; ‘of course we are’.

    Still, I involuntarily obeyed him, as if I was not quite sure. With a sweep of his hand he cleared a vacant space in front among the breakfast things, and leant forward to gaze more at his ease.

    Now, I perceived he was not looking at the wall; for when I regarded him alone, it seemed exactly that he gazed at something within two yards’ distance. And whatever it was, it communicated, apparently, both pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes: at least the anguished, yet raptured, expression of his countenance suggested that idea. The fancied object was not fixed, either: his eyes pursued it with unwearied diligence, and, even in speaking to me, were never weaned away. I vainly reminded him of his protracted abstinence from food: if he stirred to touch anything in compliance with my entreaties, if he stretched his hand out to get a piece of bread, his fingers clenched before they reached it, and remained on the table, forgetful of their aim.

    (Chapter XXXIV)

    Heathcliff eats less and less, and his visions of Catherine occur with increasing frequency. As they increase, Heathcliff’s vengeful nature softens. At one point Nelly Deans wonders if he has gone mad:

    As soon as he heard the other members of the family stirring he retired to his den, and I breathed freer. But in the afternoon, while Joseph and Hareton were at their work, he came into the kitchen again, and, with a wild look, bid me come and sit in the house: he wanted somebody with him. I declined; telling him plainly that his strange talk and manner frightened me, and I had neither the nerve nor the will to be his companion alone.

    (Chapter XXXIV)

    One morning Heathcliff is nowhere to be found. Nelly Dean goes in search of him and eventually discovers him in Catherine’s old bedroom:

    Having succeeded in obtaining entrance with another key, I ran to unclose the panels, for the chamber was vacant; quickly pushing them aside, I peeped in. Mr. Heathcliff was there—laid on his back. His eyes met mine so keen and fierce, I started; and then he seemed to smile. I could not think him dead: but his face and throat were washed with rain; the bed-clothes dripped, and he was perfectly still. The lattice, flapping to and fro, had grazed one hand that rested on the sill; no blood trickled from the broken skin, and when I put my fingers to it, I could doubt no more: he was dead and stark!

    (Chapter XXXIV)

    Heathcliff dies in the same bedchamber Catherine originally slept in. The locals have seen Heathcliff and Catherine’s ghosts walking the moors together. The book ends with Lockwood visiting Heathcliff’s fresh grave in the churchyard where he meditates:

    And I wondered how anyone could imagine a restless sleep for the sleepers in that quiet land.

    (Chapter XXXIV)

    Wuthering Heights: characters

    We can divide the novel’s characters into two groups: the narrators and the main characters.

    The narrators

    Mr Lockwood is a vain, rather superficial man of means who has taken Thrushcross Grange as a tenant.

    Nellie Dean, the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange, has known Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw since childhood.

    Main characters

    Heathcliff is a foundling, discovered by old Mr Earnshaw in Liverpool, and brought back to Wuthering Heights. His origins and parentage remain a mystery. His character tends to be brooding and vengeful. By the time Lockwood encounters him at the opening of the novel, Heathcliff is morose, tight-fisted, and misanthropic, with little affection for life in general.

    Cathy Earnshaw is wild, imperious, and unfettered. Her bond with Heathcliff is so absolute that they are inseparable as children, yet she marries Edgar, believing that she can help ‘raise’ Heathcliff above his status. Her temper, never very stable, becomes uncontrollable once Heathcliff returns from his three-year absence, thus throwing herself (and thereby Heathcliff) perilously out of balance.

    Edgar Linton is the rich boy next door. Edgar is everything Heathcliff is not: wealthy, calm, gentle, civilised with fair skin and golden hair. He is the satellite that is pulled into Cathy and Heathcliff’s orbits. He is helpless against the forces that subsequently engulf him.

    Note that there are many other characters in the novel, but these are the primary ones that drive the story forward.

    Wuthering Heights: themes and quotes

    The novel explores themes such as love, revenge, jealousy, and the destructive power of obsession.

    Wuthering Heights themesDescriptionQuotes
    LoveThe novel explores the intense and passionate relationships between the characters, particularly the love triangle between Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar.'Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.' - Catherine (Chapter IX)
    RevengeHeathcliff is driven by a desire for revenge against those who have wronged him, and his actions have devastating consequences for himself and those around him.'I have not broken your heart - you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.' - Heathcliff (Chapter XV)
    Social classThe novel examines the rigid social hierarchies of nineteenth-century England and the ways in which they restrict and confine the characters.'It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now.' - Catherine (Chapter IX)
    NatureThe wild and untamed moorlands of Yorkshire serve as a metaphor for the passions and emotions of the characters, and the novel explores the connections between nature and the human psyche.'I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.' - Catherine (Chapter IX)
    DeathDeath is a recurring theme in the novel, as many of the characters die young and tragically. The novel also explores the ways in which death can bring people together or tear them apart.'"Let me alone! Let me alone!" sobbed Catherine. "If I've done wrong, I'm dying for it."' (Chapter XV)

    Wuthering Heights: the book's genre

    Wuthering Heights is considered a Gothic novel, written during the Victorian period.

    The key components of the Gothic novel are:

    • Haunted houses/graveyards.
    • Phantom(s)/the supernatural.
    • The macabre.
    • The fantastic.

    Fun fact: Gothic texts often featured the trope of the ‘setting as a character.’ This means that the creepy house/castle/manor that the story is set in would be so atmospheric that it would give the impression of being ‘alive.’

    Some examples include the castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the house in Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The Netflix show Haunting of Hill House based on the gothic novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson also features this trope. The house seems to ‘lure’ back the family that once lived there to claim their lives.

    Emily Brontë stands with one foot in Romanticism and the other in the metaphysical. In her world, the supernatural exists as part of the metaphysical (and as such, is no longer even supernatural, but ‘natural’). Wuthering Heights transcends the gothic in its study of the cosmos, of chaos and calm, and of the natural forces in conflict and then in unity.

    Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that seeks answers to the question of existence and the universe.

    Wuthering Heights: controversy and cosmos

    As mentioned earlier, Wuthering Heights received a mixed reception when it was first published. Although recognised as a powerful work, many did not understand it and were put off by what they perceived as the extreme violence and cruelty described in it. Others thought the author must be a very angry man.

    Gradually, the novel gained popularity for its sense of brooding magnificence and imagination, yet it was still not truly understood until in 1934 Lord David Cecil analysed it in Early Victorian Novelists Essays In Revaluation. His analysis helped to increase understanding and recognition of Brontë’s novel as a masterpiece.

    In his analysis, he proposes that Emily Brontë’s work had been underestimated owing to the general notion that she was writing a traditional Victorian novel. He explains that Brontë’s intent was something else altogether: a study of humanity in terms of the cosmos, of chaos and order as part of the universal scheme of things.

    He compares Brontë with William Blake and Thomas Hardy, yet with a different perspective: the conflict in her work ‘is not between right and wrong, but between like and unlike’.¹

    As a part of this cosmic scheme, Catherine and Heathcliff are children of the storm, forces of nature that can’t be quite contained in their human form. Their affinity outdoes like and dislike, love and hate: in Catherine’s confession of her feelings she says:

    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.

    Throughout the whole novel, Brontë never comments or judges her character’s behaviour. There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the novel just as in the cosmos there is no good or bad, only energy. And where that energy is blocked, it must burst out somewhere, destroying whatever happens to be in the way.

    Study tip: At one point, Brontë refers to Edgar as ‘a moonbeam’. When reading, can you find other ways she uses natural elements in her descriptions?

    Wuthering Heights - Key takeaways

    • Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 to mixed reviews.
    • Wuthering Heights is a Gothic novel.
    • The key components of the Gothic novel are:
      • Haunted houses/graveyards.
      • Phantom(s)/the supernatural.
      • The macabre.
      • The fantastic.
    • Wuthering Heights is unique for its cosmic scheme and metaphysical quality.
    • Wuthering Heights was recognised as one of the great novels after Lord David Cecil’s analysis in 1934.
    • Initially, readers mistook Wuthering Heights for a traditional Victorian novel.

    1 Lord David Cecil, Early Victorian Novelists Essays In Revaluation, 1934.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Wuthering Heights

    Who wrote Wuthering Heights?

    Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, which was published in 1847.

    What is Wuthering Heights about?

    Wuthering Heights centres on the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine and how it continues after death.

    When was Wuthering Heights written?

    Wuthering Heights was written in 1845. It was published in 1847.

    How does Heathcliff die in Wuthering Heights?

    Heathcliff eats less and less, and his visions of Catherine increase. One morning Nelly finds him dead in Catherine’s old bedroom, with his eyes open, smiling.

    Why was Wuthering Heights controversial?

    Although recognised as a powerful work, many did not understand it and were put off by what they perceived as the extreme violence and cruelty described in it. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

     Wuthering Heights became immediately popular after its publication.

    Emily Brontë’s novel is a novel about:

    According to Lord Cecil, the conflict in Brontë’s work ‘is not between like and unlike, but between right and wrong'.


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