Critical Interpretations of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

It is not surprising that critics debate the character of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'. There are many ways to interpret this interesting and complex character.

Early Critics

Though some early critics were sympathetic to the character of Heathcliff, others found him an off-putting figure. H.F. Chorley in 1847 found Heathcliff distasteful to the point of wishing the novel had been less focused on him. Chorley said Heathcliff '. . . might have been indicated with far fewer touches, in place of so entirely filling the canvas that there is hardly a scene untainted by his presence.' Edwin P. Whipple called him 'a deformed monster.'

Sympathetic Character

More recently, Heathcliff has come to be viewed as a sympathetic character. Part of the reason for this more positive view of Heathcliff lies in the character's humble beginnings. Heathcliff arrives at Wuthering Heights as an orphan who has been abused and neglected. Though Heathcliff falls for Catherine Earnshaw, she decides to choose wealth over love, and Heathcliff is cast aside by the woman he loves.

Though he finds a home, Heathcliff's life takes a darker turn. 'Heathcliff showed signs of becoming good natured, but his background and failures in life turned him into a devilish persona,' Vivekananda Satavarshiki Mahavidyalaya writes. This critic, while agreeing that Heathcliff has some monstrous qualities, looks to the character's history for an explanation.

Incest Theory

Many readers find themselves uncomfortable with Heathcliff's obsession with Catherine. Some critics believe this is because the novel hints at the possibility that Heathcliff and Catherine are actually half-siblings. After all, Catherine's father is vague about Heathcliff's origins. It is possible that old man Earnshaw is Heathcliff's father. This would make their relationship incestuous.

Psychological Interpretations

Many readers are interested in the psychological theories regarding the complex characters in Wuthering Heights. Freudian interpretations views the love triangle - Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar - as id, ego, and superego. A Freudian reading would cast Heathcliff as Freud's id, the part of the personality that is obscured and focused on the sensual, sexual, and dark.

Jungian critics, on the other hand, view Catherine and Heathcliff as two sides of the same persona. Heathcliff may represent the darker side consisting of anger and rebellion, while Catherine is representative of the more positive aspects of human nature.

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