Professor John Bowen considers the enigmatic outsider of Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff is one of the greatest enigmas in all of English literature. When we ask what seems a simple question of Wuthering Heights
– why, for example, is Heathcliff so appallingly vengeful to those such as Hareton Earnshaw who have done him no harm? – we can find explanations in the terrible misfortunes of his life: he is an orphan; he is brutalised by Hindley; he is relegated to the status of a servant; Catherine marries Edgar. But the novel matches these kinds of social or psychological explanations by quite other ones: by the suggestion (as Charlotte believed) that he may be diabolical, a vampire or a ghoul. The novel gives us both kinds of understanding together; neither is allowed to trump the other. The passionate intensities of Wuthering Heights
create a world of revenge without law or justice, in which Heathcliff is the dominant, overbearing presence, both outsider and insider, starving orphan and cruel landlord. Like the book itself, he is both remarkably self-disciplined and completely wild. What is most remarkable in Brontë’s description of him is the combination of two apparently contradictory qualities; on the one hand a reckless and passionate intensity that is indifferent to the feelings of others; on the other, an ability rationally to plan and sustain his vengeance over decades. Like a great novelist, Heathcliff is a brilliant great constructor of plots involving other people, which bring them (and us) into the presence of the most raw and deep emotions. This is why we can never be sure about Heathcliff.
Copyright: © By arrangement with the Estate of Clare Leighton
‘A sentiment fierce and inhuman’
In 1850, after her sister’s death, Charlotte Brontë
wrote a preface to the novel in which she describes Heathcliff as ‘unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition’, someone who only once shows human feeling, in his treatment of Hareton Earnshaw. His love for Catherine, writes Charlotte, is ‘a sentiment fierce and inhuman: a passion such as might boil and glow in the bad essence of some evil genius; a fire that might form the tormented centre--the ever-suffering soul of a magnate of the infernal world.’ Apart from his regard for Hareton, he is like ‘a man's shape animated by demon life - a Ghoul - an Afreet.’ This is too simple a view but it shows how violently disturbing a figure Heathcliff is, how he seems hardly to belong to the human world at all.
Copyright: © British Library Board