Narrators of Wuthering Heights: Reliability & Analysis

Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, we will be thinking about the idea of reliability in narrators. We will also be applying some of these ideas to Emily Brontë's novel, Wuthering Heights, in trying to determine whether the novel uses reliable or unreliable narrators.

Reliable and Unreliable Narrators

Imagine you had a friend who liked complaining. He went to a concert you heard was really amazing. When you asked him how the show was, he started telling you about how the whole thing was a disaster. You might have started thinking that, if he were a little more optimistic, he'd be telling you more about the performance and less about the annoying person who was sitting behind him - who might not even have been annoying to anyone else. Congratulations! The moment you thought about the way his pessimism affected his story, you joined in the long-standing literary tradition of questioning the reliability of narrators.

Before we consider how to determine reliability in fiction, it might be useful to understand that it is very easy for us to become so immersed in a story when we are reading it, that we don't really consider the nature of the narrator. It's important to keep some guiding principles in mind when you're reading.

Guiding Principles

First off, there is a general assumption that, when the narrator is third-person omniscient, that is, a narrator who knows everything including every characters' thoughts, the narrative is automatically more reliable.

But, scholars normally assume that first-person narrators, ones who are in the story and use 'I' and 'me,' are less reliable. Since these narrators represent characters, they share our inability to know every detail about events and others' thoughts and feelings. And, because they are characters, aspects to their personalities might give us a sense their of reliability in general.

The Narrators in Wuthering Heights

In Emily Brontë's novel, there are two dominant narrators: Lockwood and Neely. There are others; in Chapter 30, for example, Zillah takes over the narrative, but it's only temporary. The framing narrative, that is, the story in which the main story is told, is presented by Mr. Lockwood. We know from his comments to the reader, and his conversations with the other characters, that he has rented Thrushcross Grange seeking isolation after a failed romance.

Although the format suggests that Lockwood is writing the text we are reading, large sections of the narrative are presented as if they come directly from another character - Ellen 'Nelly' Dean.

Nelly Dean, as we know from her own accounts, was a servant in the Earnshaw household from a young age and served the family at both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Unlike Lockwood, she features strongly as a character in the story, but also draws on others' accounts of events where she was not present.

The narrative structure presented in Wuthering Heights
Narrative Structure

Questions of Reliability

As both of the narrators in Wuthering Heights are characters in the story, we are dealing with two first-person narrators. That means we need to consider whether these characters are reliable. Let's think about what we know about them in an attempt to establish their reliability.

Mr. Lockwood

Mr. Lockwood was not present for most of the events in the novel. However, he shares some personal experiences, particularly at the beginning and end of the novel. During his initial visits to Wuthering Heights, we find hints of his weak sense of judgement. His first impressions of Heathcliff, for example, are favorable even though Heathcliff's actions towards him suggest that Heathcliff is a bitter and spiteful man. Even something as simple as Mr. Lockwood's mistaking a pile of dead rabbits for a litter of puppies might be a warning sign that he is misguided.

Lockwood wasn't present during most of the novel's events. His accounts rely on what Nelly tells him. However, even though Lockwood's writing style suggests that he is presenting Nelly's narrative exactly, it is reasonable to question what effect his personality has on his account.

Nelly Dean

As mentioned, Nelly is also a character in the novel and a servant to the Earnshaws. When we consider everything she's telling Lockwood, it's possible to identify when she was physically present and when she wasn't. Some of her statements to Lockwood indicate that she wants him to believe her, and some readers question her motive for that desire. Those who question Nelly's reliability might also mention that she's read many novels and that she admits to interfering at certain points in the narrative.

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