Ian Matthews has taught composition, creative writing, and research at the college level for more than 5 years; he's also been an Instructional Designer for more than 3 years. He holds a Master's of Education in Learning and Technology from Western Governor's University and a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University.
Story vs. Plot
The surface-level, present-tense, beginning-to-end story of Wuthering Heights is really simple: Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights, settles down at Thrushcross Grange, and gets caught up on the goings on at Wuthering Heights overnight in a snowstorm. Nelly, the maid, tells him the story of how everything got so bad at the house over the course of a couple of days. Lockwood leaves, comes back in three months to visit, then leaves again. The end.
The plot of Wuthering Heights is all contained in Nelly's (and a few other characters') storytelling. Nelly goes deep into the history of Wuthering Heights and its prickly, mysterious owner, Heathcliff. Nelly's mother was a servant there, and had a part in raising Hindley Earnshaw. So, Nelly knows a lot about the history because she's been there since she was a kid. The narrative goes back about fifty years and wraps up right before Lockwood comes back for his visit at the end of the novel, with Heathcliff's death. Along the way, several characters jump in to add a layer to the narration, so that at times Nelly is telling Lockwood what another character told her about a third character. It's like this: Lockwood is telling us a story that's being told to him by Nelly, who's at times including information that was told to her by a third character. It's tricky -- let's unpack it.
A Whole Gang of Narrators
The use of characters as narrators at various times throughout the novel lets the characters speak their minds even more than they could in a traditional, third-person omniscient narrative, where the narrator is an objective, all-knowing, third party to the story that's being told. All of Wuthering Heights is told from a first-person perspective, always by one of the characters we've already met. Heathcliff and Zillah, a housewife, both take a turn as narrator at some point, telling Nelly their version of events.
Here's where it gets tricky: Nelly, Lockwood, and everybody else are what's known as unreliable narrators. They have their own perspectives on events and other characters, and that influences the things that they include or don't include in their narration. Nelly is very fond of Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw, for example, so her narration is kinder toward them. She doesn't care for Heathcliff, so her narration is less favorable toward him when it counts.
Layers on Layers
Here's where it gets even trickier: all of this is filtered to us, the reader, through the view of the book's top-layer narrator, Lockwood. Lockwood is an outsider to the moors, and he forms some snap judgements that influence what he believes of Nelly's narrative. He thinks he could possibly woo Cathy Linton, for example, and he initially thinks Heathcliff is a stand-up guy. He's unreliable as well, but he doesn't know it.
What's It All Mean?
Tie all this in with the fact that Wuthering Heights might be slightly haunted, and Wuthering Heights starts to feel like a ghost story told around a campfire. Characters bounce opinions off of each other, disagree with each other, and have relationships with each other, all focused around the spooky ghost. In this way, Wuthering Heights is adjacent to the Gothic horror tradition of books like Frankenstein.
In Wuthering Heights, the ghost is a little less literal than in a standard haunting story. Catherine's ghost does show up, but it's unclear whether it's an actual ghost or just a dream. The real, and scarier ghost is love -- Heathcliff's love for Catherine Earnshaw, which drives him to carry out his elaborate revenge scheme which ends with him owning Wuthering Heights.
Bronte is able to use multiple characters to tell the story of Heathcliff's lost love because different characters intersect with that story at different times. If Heathcliff isn't around for a few years, Nelly can fast-forward; it's not really important to the story she's communicating to Lockwood. If Nelly isn't at Wuthering Heights for a while, she can turn to Zillah for a narrative of what happens during her absence. The clever use of narrator shifts keeps the focus where it matters -- on Heathcliff and his reaction to losing his great love, Catherine.
Told by a whole bunch of unreliable narrators, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights bounces through time and character viewpoints to tell the story of Heathcliff and his unrequited love for Catherine Earnshaw. In its use of unreliable narrators and supernatural elements, Wuthering Heights shares several characteristics with Gothic horror classics like Frankenstein.
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