Characterization in Wuthering Heights

Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

In her novel 'Wuthering Heights', Emily Bronte paints a picture of characters from two families: the Earnshaws and the Lintons. She uses many different characterization techniques along the way -- let's take a look.

Meet the Cast

The main characters of Wuthering Heights are members of two families: the Earnshaw family, who own Wuthering Heights, and the Linton family, who own the much fancier Thrushcross Grange. In the middle of it all is the character of Heathcliff (no last name). The two families tangle over the course of the novel, eventually becoming mostly united into one as Heathcliff takes over control of both houses.

The way that each character interacts with the other family and with Heathcliff is a big factor in the characterization at play in Wuthering Heights.

All in the Family

In general, the Linton family is fancier and wealthier than the Earnshaws. How each character reacts to that class disparity is a big indicator of what kind of character they are. Catherine Earnshaw views the Linton family as a way to get out of Wuthering Heights and increase her own social status; when she's with them, she changes her personality to be much kinder and gentler than when she's at the Heights.

Nelly, the narrator of the book who serves as a maid at both of the houses at some point, isn't as focused on the gap. She's more interested in the juicy gossip that each family provides and in the way they treat her and the other characters she likes. She prefers the Lintons, as they're nicer.

Heathcliff is an outlier, since he's not part of either family, really. He has next to no social standing, so he's not welcome with the Lintons, and other than Catherine and Mr. Earnshaw, he's not really accepted at Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff's difference from everybody is a huge part of his characterization in the book.

Like Father, Like Son

Another way Bronte characterizes the people of each house is through their names. Children often have the same names as their parents or other ancestors. Hareton Earnshaw shares a name with the original owner of Wuthering Heights, as we see on the plaque outside its gates, and Cathy Linton shares a name with her mother, Catherine Earnshaw. Cathy parallels Catherine in personality, attitude, and looks.

Bronte also characterizes Heathcliff by having him act in parallel to another character. Hindley Earnshaw, Hareton's father, abused Heathcliff throughout his childhood. So when Hindley dies, Heathcliff abuses Hareton in the same way, berating him verbally and treating him like a servant.

But when it comes to names, Heathcliff, again, is the outlier. He's the only character in the book that lacks a surname; he's just Heathcliff. It's another way that he's out of place among the other characters of Wuthering Heights.

Characters & The Other

Heathcliff is an example of the Other, a concept from literary theory meaning any person or group that's perceived as out of the ordinary. Frankenstein's monster, the aliens in Independence Day, and the African villagers in Heart of Darkness are all examples of the Other: an external force against which characters define themselves.

As the Other, Heathcliff provides a backdrop for Bronte to characterize just about everybody in Wuthering Heights. Catherine Earnshaw is intrigued by Heathcliff's Otherness, and she becomes fixated on it to the point of destructive obsession. Hindley Earnshaw hates Heathcliff for his Otherness, and he abuses him as a result.

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