Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights: Character Analysis & Revenge

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  • 0:01 Wuthering Heights
  • 0:52 Heathcliff & Catherine
  • 3:54 Revenge
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Fonseca
Heathcliff is a character in Emily Bronte's ''Wuthering Heights''. His Romantic and Byronic traits lead him to seek vengeance. We will look at his primary relationship and how it provides a metaphor for the natural world versus the civilized world.

Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, her only published novel, was written during the Romantic period, which lasted approximately from 1789-1870. Literature of this period was concerned with the conflict between nature and society. Many writers of this period wrote pieces illustrating how society actually corrupts the natural goodness in humans.

Heathcliff, one of the main characters of Wuthering Heights, is an example of this concept. He is a savage in the sense that he is untouched by social norms. Heathcliff also possesses traits of the Byronic hero. A Byronic hero is a type of Romantic hero with dark characteristics. He is brooding, ostracized from society in some way, intelligent, arrogant and hyper aware of himself. This type of hero grew from Lord Byron's work, which featured such characters.

The Climb to Top Withens, thought to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights
The Climb to Top Withens

Heathcliff and Catherine

Wuthering Heights is set in the moors, a place of solitude, far away from any village or city. There are two main households depicted in the story, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Both are isolated from society, forcing each household to create a society of their own.

There are two families in Wuthering Heights: the Lintons, who are polite and civilized, and the Earnshaws, who are less civilized. It seems appropriate that Heathcliff, a child of the wilderness, should end up fostered by the less civilized Earnshaws. The Earnshaw children, Hindley and Catherine, are uncivilized themselves, with no concept of how to properly behave since they have few proper adult role models. Yet Heathcliff, who remains silent and takes the abuse of the Earnshaw children, is referred to as an 'other.' In introducing Heathcliff, our narrator, Nelly Dean, refers to Heathcliff with the pronoun 'it.' Heathcliff's initial identity is not as a human, but as a thing.

Wuthering Heights Family Tree
Wuthering Heights Family Tree

Hindley wastes no time in abusing Heathcliff. The rivalry is almost immediate. But Catherine sees a kindred spirit in Heathcliff, and they quickly become inseparable. Catherine's childlike savageness complements Heathcliff's, and they vow to remain savages together. This vow, however, faces difficulties once Catherine spends time with the Lintons.

The Lintons, in the five weeks Catherine spends as their guest, attempt to civilize her. Catherine is about 12 years old at this point and is at the time in her life when she should be learning how to be a lady of breeding. The problem is that the savage and the civilized cannot coexist within one body.

Upon meeting Heathcliff again, Catherine says, ''What are you sulky for? It was only that you looked odd. If you wash your face, and brush your hair, it will be all right, but you are so dirty!'' None of these things bothered Catherine before, but now that she has had a taste of society, her perception is beginning to change. Heathcliff, however, remains as he is. Her desire to maintain her relationship with Heathcliff as it was and is at odds with her desire to become a lady.

Inevitably, Edgar Linton proposes to Catherine. She knows that she does not belong with Edgar, yet she accepts his proposal anyway. We, as readers, finally discover Catherine's deep love for Heathcliff as she tries to voice her confusion to Nelly. Heathcliff, as an eavesdropper, partially discovers her dilemma, and what he hears motivates him to leave.

Heathcliff disappears for three years, perhaps to better find himself so that he would not be degrading to Catherine. We never know where he goes or what he does to become a gentleman, but we do know that his discovery that Catherine married Edgar in his absence sets Heathcliff on a path of vengeance. We understand Heathcliff's anger, especially in the fact that he knows Catherine still loves him more than she loves her husband. He has been abused, exiled and wronged by the only person he ever could love.


Even though it appears that Heathcliff has adopted characteristics of the gentry, his motivations are still savage in nature; an eye for an eye type of justice must be enacted. He begins with the offspring of his first tormentor. He teaches Hindley Earnshaw's son, Hareton, to be a savage just like himself. Hindley loses his property to Heathcliff in gambling. Heathcliff marries Isabelle Linton, injuring both Edgar and Catherine simultaneously. He manipulates his own son, named Linton, and forces Catherine's daughter (also named Catherine) to marry Linton.

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