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.

Some rights reserved.  ©  British Library Board / British Library

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.

Explore further

Related videos

Hands holding a handwritten illustrated diary entry by Emily Bronte

The Brontës’ early writings: Combining fantasy and fact

Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria, created by the Brontë children, and the lasting influence of these on the sisters’ later novels. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth. - video

Professor John Bowen speaking to camera on the moors around Haworth

Wuthering Heights: Violence and cruelty

Professor John Bowen explores Emily Brontë’s extraordinary use of violence in Wuthering Heights. Filmed on location on the moors around Haworth. - video

Exterior of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire

The Brontës: Life in Haworth

Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the poor sanitary conditions in Haworth in the 19th century and the mix of rural and industrial influences on the Brontë sisters and their writing. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth. - video

Professor John Mullan turning the pages of a manuscript inside the Bronte Parsonage Museum

Jane Eyre: Bertha Mason

Professor John Bowen explores the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, revealing the depths of her character and the context in which Charlotte Brontë created her. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth. - video

Related articles


Who is Heathcliff?

Professor John Bowen considers the enigmatic outsider of Wuthering Heights.


Melding fantasy and realism in Wuthering Heights

Professor John Bowen explores the intertwined nature of fantasy and realism within Emily Brontë’s novel.


Walking the landscape of Wuthering Heights

Situating Emily Brontë in her hometown of Haworth – a small Yorkshire mill town surrounded by moors – Professor John Bowen reflects on the representation of landscape in Wuthering Heights.


The origins of the Gothic

Professor John Mullan examines the origins of the Gothic, explaining how the genre became one of the most popular of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the subsequent integration of Gothic elements into mainstream Victorian fiction.

Related themes

Crop of front cover to one of Charles Dickens's installments, with illustations of a figure rowing on a river at night, a woman and a man who has a prosthetic hand in the form of a hook

The novel 1832–1880

How did the writers of this period incorporate fantasy, realism, sensationalism, and social commentary into their work?