'I am Heathcliff': Quote Explained

Instructor: Ian Matthews

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

'I am Heathcliff!' Spoken by Catherine Earnshaw to the maid Nelly in Chapter 9 of Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights,' these words send a powerful message about friendship, love, and marriage. Let's dive in.

The Quote In Context

One night at the Heights, while Nelly is comforting Hareton during his father Hindley's rampages, Catherine comes to talk to her. Catherine tells Nelly that Edgar Linton has proposed to her, and that she's accepted. Nelly is shocked, both because Catherine has just treated Edgar so badly and because Catherine doesn't really have a good reason to love him at all.

Catherine even admits to Nelly that marrying Edgar feels wrong, both in her head and in her heart. But marrying Heathcliff would 'degrade' Catherine. Nelly soon realizes that Heathcliff has been listening at the door, but he leaves after that last part. Catherine goes on to tell Nelly that she feels bonded to Heathcliff, but his class is too low -- if they married, they'd be beggars in the street.

She does, though, feel very bonded to Heathcliff. His miseries are her miseries, and if everything on Earth died except for Heathcliff, Catherine would be okay. 'I am Heathcliff,' she says to Nelly, and even marrying Edgar won't change that in her mind.

The Classic Love Triangle

Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff form a perfect love triangle. Edgar is the socially acceptable romantic interest for Catherine, but Heathcliff is her best friend -- really her only friend, after she's alienated the rest of the people around her. Edgar is more outwardly affectionate where Heathcliff is dark, brooding, and prickly.

Catherine tells Nelly that she has similar feelings toward each man, but with different intensity. She loves Edgar in a way that she realizes will change as she gets older, 'as winter changes the trees.' Catherine and Edgar are different from each other, as different as 'frost from fire,' but she likes that enough to agree to marry him.

In the conversation leading up to the 'I am Heathcliff' quote, Catherine is feeling the tension of preserving the love triangle. She wants the status and money of being Edgar's wife so that she can help Heathcliff make something of himself. She wants to stay friends with Heathcliff because they understand each other so well. She thinks she can make both things happen, but we know that Heathcliff won't go for it. When he finds out that Catherine has chosen Edgar, he leaves Wuthering Heights and vows revenge on Edgar -- this moment sets each character on their path for the rest of the novel.

Catherine and Heathcliff

Heathcliff and Catherine have a special bond, to say the least. Catherine says that her love for Heathcliff is like the rocks beneath the ground, never seen or expressed but necessary for existence. She's not lying: she really feels it, but the class difference between them is too much for them to ever be together.

The bond between Heathcliff and Catherine goes back to their shared childhood, when they both had to deal with Hindley's drunken rages. Since Catherine was the only person that was ever nice to him during that time, Heathcliff has basically pledged himself to her for life. It's not hard to understand why he'd be hurt when Catherine chooses somebody else to marry.

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