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Good and Evil in Wuthering Heights

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    Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights in 1847, at the tender age of twenty-eight. Few novels of any era have taken hold of the public’s imagination with such a firm grasp. Even those who have never read the book are probably familiar with the idea, if not the character, of Heathcliff. The novel has been transformed into musicals, films and even a hit song for the then sixteen year old British songstress, Kate Bush. Nothing, however, compares to the book. Whether we can separate the authoress from her accomplishment is debatable. The fact is, given Emily’s young age, her relatively sheltered upbringing, and the times in which she wrote, the novel is astonishing quite apart from its significant literary merit. That it is a romance–albeit of the highest order–is obvious. The novel is also, however, an examination of Heaven, Hell, the Fall, questions of origin and the nature of good and evil. Religious references abound–not surprising for the daughter of a clergyman–but her world view is far from the simplistic one of traditional Christianity. Good and evil, as are heaven and hell, seem inextricably intertwined in this wild setting. Rather than being two opposing forces, each resides in us. The real evil is committed when we go against our true selves, as Heathcliff and Catherine do. This may be seen, perhaps, most clearly in Bronte’s depiction of place, and in the characters of the two lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff.

    The myth of Emily Bronte is almost as potent a story as is her novel; one of four (surviving children) of the widowed clergyman, Patrick Bronte; a secluded childhood in Haworth parsonage on the edge of a cemetery in Yorkshire; a dissolute brother (a portrait of the four children painted by Bramwell famously shows his features blotted out) and two sisters, both of whom wrote. (The youngest, Anne, is unjustly overshadowed by her older sisters. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is excellent, containing an undoubtedly painfully accurate depiction of Branwell’s dissolution.) The gloominess of the Bronte upbringing has been overdone. Their childhood was filled with imaginative games and it is obvious that their father encouraged intellectual pursuits and debate. The fact, for example, that Emily uses a knowledge of the property law when fashioning Heathcliff’s revenge (Isabella’s land falls to him as her husband) speaks to at least a passing acquaintance of the outside world.

    There can be no doubt, however, that Emily’s experience was prescribed. How then, to explain Wuthering Heights and its depiction of such a grand passion? A case might be made that a young girl of an intense disposition, and with an acute and highly developed imagination, might well have yoked together her religious fervor (her poems attest to this), her passion for the moors and the perfectly ordinary sexual yearnings she might likely have felt, and created the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff. His name, after all, suggests someone who has been hewn from the rockface and, as is well known, he acts as a force of nature in the novel, ungoverned by the niceties of polite society to which Catherine is briefly, and disastrously, drawn.

    Before we approach these two, we need to look at a more elemental character of the novel–the landscape. As with the human characters, it is impossible–or, at least, misguided–to affix the single appellation of either “good” or “evil” to either the moors or to Wuthering Heights or to Thrushcross Grange. Not merely because it anthropomorphizes the landscape–although Emily Bronte in a sense does that by naming Heathcliff as she does; he is the human embodiment of the land–but because the author sees the land as both good and evil, Heaven and Hell. Thus, Thrushcross Grange, for example, is not depicted as a place which, in contrast with the gloomy Wuthering Heights, is “good” although it is certainly less wild; on the surface at any rate. The more cultured, mild-mannered Lintons do succeed, however, in transforming Catherine from a wild girl into something approaching a young lady:

    The mistress visited her often in the interval, and commenced her plan of reform by trying to raise her self-respect with fine clothes and flattery, which she took readily; so that, instead of a wild, hatless little savage jumping into the house, and rushing to squeeze us all breathless, there lighted from a handsome black pony a very dignified person, with brown ringlets falling from the corner of a feathered beaver, and a long cloth habit, which she was obliged to hold up with both hands that she might sail in. (Wuthering Heights,p. 53)

    This alteration in a more straightforward romance would be seen as “good” and Edgar Linton, as the gentle knight parfait. This is Bronte territory, though, and the opposite may also be said to be true. The circumstances of Cathy’s stay at Thrushcross are such that she “falls” there, and is gripped by what might be seen almost as the hounds of hell— “Run, Heathcliff, run!” she whispered, “They have let the bulldog loose, and he holds me!” It is at this point that Cathy is in effect cast out of her heaven; the heaven of being with Heathcliff on the moors. Again, Bronte is not so simplistic that she does not make us see how inviting Thrushcross Grange could be to a girl surrounded by the mad Hindley, and the morose Joseph. And Edgar, too, is seen throughout the novel as both loving and kind. We can almost convince ourselves, as Cathy in effect does, that Edgar is a better match for her. But when we come back to the landscape, and Cathy’s feelings for it, we know better. In Chapter Nine, as she is explaining to Nelly both her acceptance of Edgar’s proposal and her resistance to it, Cathy utters one of the great speeches not only of the novel but in English Literature:

    I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy…I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton that I have to be in heaven…(WH, p.83)

    It seems that Cathy’s defection to Thrushcross Grange is indeed a fall, into her own hell, and one largely of her own making. A different sort of woman would have made Edgar a happy wife, as Cathy knows all too well. The evil, here, Bronte seems to be saying, is to disregard your own nature and to try and turn it into something it is not.

    In this sense, the moors, and even Wuthering Heights for all the misery associated with it, may be viewed as good, insomuch as they are honest. Wuthering is a Yorkshire word “descriptive of the atmospheric tumult” – the wild winds – to which the house is exposed in stormy weather. The continuous battering by the winds has stunted the trees around Wuthering Heights, and the house itself has survived only because it is built of rugged stones and huge, rough, wooden beams. But it does survive, a constant in the wildly fluctuating fortunes of its tenants, and even Heathcliff in the end cannot bring himself to destroy it:

    I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules , and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished!… I could do it and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand. (p.339)

    Just as Thrushcross Grange has its darker side, Wuthering Heights is associated–for the two lovers, at least–with the moors and with their passion for each other. During Cathy’s illness, she makes specific to Nelly her identification with the place she shares with Heathcliff:

    … ‘Why am I so changed? Why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words? I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. Open the window again wide: fasten it open! Quick, why don’t you move?’ ‘Because I won’t give you your death of cold.’ I answered. ‘You won’t give me a chance of life, you mean,’ she said sullenly. (WH,p.132-33)

    There are numerous Miltonic overtones in this section–Cathy refers to herself as “an exile, and outcast, thenceforth, from what had been my world.” She speaks of an “abyss” and in her outcry “Why am I so changed?” she echoes Satan’s words to Beelzebub in Paradise Lost “If thou be’est he; But O…how changed.” Everything Cathy says speaks to being exiled from the Heaven, or good, that the moors, along with Heathcliff, represent. As harsh as the landscape can be, there is a beauty there that Cathy, and later her daughter, recognize as being “Heaven”.

    Similarly, if the setting of the novel may be seen to embody elements of both “good” and “evil” in an unusually complex and sympathetic manner, so too do Cathy and Heathcliff. Few characters in English literature are drawn in as uncompromising a way. Although the religious references are many, leading us to believe that Emily Bronte’s vision of the book exceeded that of writing a simple romance, the characters are far from being mere allegories. Indeed, if they were to be seen as such then it would be as allegories of being human. Frailty and strength, the capacity to both love and hate, reside in us all as they do in Heathcliff and Cathy. Bronte rejects the idea of creating characters who embody “good” or “evil” (as even the genius Dickens tended to do, especially with his feminine characters; and even as Emily’s sister, Charlotte, did with the insipid, but undeniably virtuous, Jane Eyre.)

    If any character were to be seen as evil then, of course, Heathcliff would be our first choice. He is undeniably brutal and vengeful, and it is a dangerous temptation, although a common one, to see him as the “rough diamond” favored by contemporary romance novelists. (Contemporary novelist, Alice Hoffman has taken the character of Heathcliff and modernized him, having the character of “Cathy” return to live with him only to discover that the violence of his passion is too overwhelming to live with.) Bronte seems to have wanted to create a male character as suffused with the forces of nature–and as undiscriminating in how he applies them– as the landscape around him. In fact, he may well have been created from the earth for we, or anyone else, knows. In a novel where most of the parents are rarely seen, or die young, Heathcliff has no parents at all. Indeed, Mr. Earnshaw, who has rescued the foundling, sets the tone for Bronte’s exploration of good and evil when he says:

    ‘See here, wife! I was never so beaten with anything in my life: but you must e’en take it as a gift of God; though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil. (WH, p.36)

    This uncertainty as to whether Heathcliff comes from God or the devil continues throughout the novel. In Chapter 13, the poor, silly Isabella who has married Heathcliff despite the clearest signs–he hangs her dog just before they elope– that she is making a grave mistake, writes to Nelly:

    The second question, I have great interest in; it is this— Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil? I shan’t tell my reasons for making this inquiry; but I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married…(WH, p. 144)

    And in Chapter 33, Nelly comments that “conscience had turned his heart to an earthly hell.” (WH, p. 341)

    Bronte takes a great risk by introducing Heathcliff to the reader not as the abused, orphan child but as the cruel adult he has become. However, if we look closely at the description of Wuthering Heights we see a correspondence between it and its owner (unlike the sympathy the asinine Lockwood imagines may exist between him and his landlord):

    …one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving the alms of the sun. (WH, p.2)

    As we learn later, the winds that blow through Heathcliff’s life are cold and powerful indeed– Hindley’s cruelty, Joseph’s unbending religiosity, Cathy’s betrayal of his affection –all do their bit to distort Heathcliff as the winds do the thorns. In addition to the early link between Heathcliff and this inhospitable landscape, there are obvious religious overtones to this passage. The thorns of the crucified Christ and the tree on which Judas hung himself sit side by side. Savior and outcast, “good” and “evil”. Bronte never lets one stray too far out of reach of the other.

    In Chapter 9 there is a sign that Bronte regards Heathcliff as possessing a basic, if not goodness, then humanity. Hindley, drunk, is terrorizing his young son, Hareton, by shaking him over the banister. Distracted for a moment, Hindley drops the child:

    There was scarcely time to experience a thrill of horror before we saw that the wretch was safe. Heathcliff arrived underneath just at the critical moment; by a natural impulse, he arrested his descent, and setting him on his feet, looked up to discover the author of the accident. (WH, p.77)

    Thwarted of his long-desired revenge against Hindley, Heathcliff immediately regrets his action– Bronte would not be true to her creation if he did not–but it was a natural impulse that prompted Heathcliff to save the child. And it is that natural impulse, the one that lays below the contrived impulse to wreak revenge on his tormentors, which we need to believe in and which Cathy certainly responds to.

    At the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethos is love and while Cathy and Heathcliff’s love is more carnal, more mystical, plain wilder than most Christians are comfortable with, it is that love which Bronte seems to see as redemptive. While both Cathy and Heathcliff can be heartless, selfish and destructive, the evil is not in that but in their denial of their passion for each other. Pride sinks its teeth into them as surely as the Lintons’ bulldog does into Cathy’s ankle and in a novel filled with falls, pride seems an appropriate vice.

    In many ways, Cathy and Heathcliff seem like mystics, anxious to shed their earthly confines in order to join together in a union which combines the carnal and the holy. At the end of their lives, both choose starvation as a means to hasten their ends and starvation has long been favored by holy men as a way to produce visions:

    I shall love [Heathcliff] yet; and take him with me: he’s my soul. And…the thing that irks me most is this shattered prison, after all. I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it and in it. (WH, p. 165)

    Heathcliff, too, yearns for a world beyond the confines of Wuthering Heights:

    I have a single wish, and my whole being and faculties are yearning to attain it. They have yearned towards it so long, and so unwaveringly, that I’m convinced it will be reached–and soon–because it has devoured my existence: I am swallowed in the anticipation of its fulfillment. (WH,p.341)

    Heathcliff’s “long fight” which he prays will soon be over is, of course, to be re-united with his other self, Cathy. The near mystical ecstasy with which they anticipate their re-union is undoubtedly religious in their fervor. Bronte appears to find nothing wrong in linking this love between two people, whose earthly behavior has never been exemplary, with that of the love for God. Love is the ultimate “good” and heaven whatever place which will accommodate it. Thus, at the end of the novel, when Lockwood returns, he sees no hint of disquiet; on the contrary, God’s in His heaven and all is right with the world:

    I lingered round [the graves], under the benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth. (WH, p. 355)

    Bronte’s vision extends, like her characters, beyond the prim, prescribed world of the average Victorian. Like the moors which she loved, and on which the freezing winds and the harebells co-exist as best they can, she created a world in which good and evil do the same. To adopt the odious style of a modern romance for a moment, love blossoms in a house which previously, in Isabella’s words, knew nothing of “the common sympathies of human nature”. Wuthering Heights, the place, withstands great passions of whatever stripe; perhaps may even be said to transcend them. So too do Bronte’s characters transcend the limited appellations of “good” and “evil”. Human beings share with the moors the capacity to do, and to be, both. Find more interesting papers at


    • Bronte, Emily, Wuthering Heights, Longmans, London, 1959

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