Wuthering Heights: Who is Heathcliff?

Professor John Bowen discusses the enigmatic Heathcliff, from his early appearance as a rejected child, to his return as a powerful and violent antihero. Filmed on location on the moors around Haworth.

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Who is Heathcliff? Well, it's the question the novel keeps asking and I'm not sure really that it ever answers it – because he has so many contradictory qualities. You know, at the beginning, he's the most poor, the most dejected - the whole family reject him – but that when he comes back, he's like the landlord from hell. He becomes this extraordinary, powerful, charismatic character, who usurps the place of the family that first took him in. And you know, the novel gives you various clues, yet he's picked up in Liverpool – well, Liverpool's a great port, so he could be from Ireland – so the Brontë family come from Ireland. Patrick comes from Ireland, so he may have fled from the terrible famine that was there in the 1840s. But then again, Liverpool's a big colonial port, so he's often called ‘black’ or – Nellie says, “you might be an Indian Prince”, so there may be some racial difference too, that's there in Heathcliff. But the novel never really resolves that and never really tells you more than the barest minimum – we don't know his name, we don't know who his parents are, he's only got a single name – that's Heathcliff, he doesn't have a surname – don't know if it's a surname or a Christian name and all we know is what he does and they're often very violent things, very cruel things – it's a revenge story is Wuthering Heights and people often remember the first half of the book, but the second half, where Heathcliff is so cruelly vengeful to the family that initially took him in and so determined to be powerful, show you another very different side of him.

So, there are lots of literary antecedents for Heathcliff. You know, in some ways he's a Byronic figure – he draws on that tradition of the mad, bad, dangerous Lord Byron. He's also a bit like a Gothic character too, in that he's a violent sexual man, who often imprisons younger women and is not somebody you'd want safely to be married to. He's also got a supernatural air to him, of course. They call him a ghoul and an afreet – they worry if he's Satanic or he's somehow in touch with supernatural kinds of powers. 

So, Charlotte Brontë, when she writes the preface to Emily's novel, she says here, ‘Heathcliff never swerves once from his arrow-straight course to perdition’, like he's going to hell from the beginning, she said. Now I think it's a more complex and subtle novel than that, but it shows what a disturbing figure Heathcliff is to Charlotte and to many later readers.

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