Supernatural Elements in Wuthering Heights

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

In this lesson, we will discuss supernatural elements in the novel 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte. First, we'll review how these elements fit into literary history; then, we'll explore their links to the novel's main characters.

Supernatural Elements in Gothic Novels

Today, our most popular supernatural horror stories appear in the form of movies like The Exorcist, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, or the Insidious and Conjuring series. During the English Romantic period (approximately 1785-1830), longer horror narratives came in the form of the Gothic novel. In the late 1700s, these novels featured eerie atmospheric elements such as ancient castles, hidden passages, unreliable light sources, and mysterious sounds. Just as many box office horror hits do today, Gothic novels also included ghosts, demons, and vampires. Although Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights was not published until 1847, it contains many gothic elements and is generally read as more of a Romantic novel than a Victorian one (the Victorian period was approximately 1830-1901).


Castle Ruins

Ghosts, Changelings, and Devils in Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights contains only a few actual supernatural events, but its characters frequently refer to ghosts and devils, either as a matter of genuine belief or in figurative speech. Significantly, the only uncanny events or qualities in the novel are linked to Catherine, Hindley, and Heathcliff, and thus indirectly to Wuthering Heights.

Catherine Earnshaw: Ghost or Changeling?

The first supernatural element we encounter appears early in the novel, when Mr. Lockwood stays overnight at Wuthering Heights during a snowstorm. After having a nightmare, he finds his hand gripped by the child ghost of Catherine Earnshaw, who asks him to let her in. Because she won't let go, Mr. Lockwood angrily speculates to Heathcliff that she must have been a changeling in life. In Irish and British mythology, a changeling is a mischievous fairy disguised as an infant or child who switches places with a human child. Lockwood means that Catherine's ghost is too capricious for her living self to have been human.

Changeling Child

Painting of a Changeling Child

After he leaves the room, however, he finds that Heathcliff is jealous of his experience. Rather than fearing and avoiding the ghost, Heathcliff begs her to visit him instead. Later, we learn that before she died, Catherine vowed to haunt Heathcliff, saying she wouldn't rest until he was in the grave with her. Immediately after her death, he implores her to do so, proclaiming his belief in ghosts and insisting that he cannot live without her. Near the end of the novel, Heathcliff seems to finally perceive Catherine's ghost and to be content--and he dies of a mysterious cause shortly thereafter.

Hindley Earnshaw: An Apparition and an Omen

Halfway into the novel, housekeeper Ellen (Nelly) Dean sees the phantom of her childhood companion and Catherine's brother, Hindley Earnshaw. He appears as a young boy digging at the bottom of a pillar where he and Ellen used to hide small items. She feels compelled to visit Wuthering Heights, believing that the apparition is an omen of Hindley's death. Hindley passes away the following autumn, having dug himself into Heathcliff's debt by gambling, and having found the bottom of too many bottles of liquor.

Both Catherine and Hindley have now appeared to other people as spirits in the novel. Later, Isabella Linton describes her first impression of Hindley, noting that ''his eyes, too, were like a ghostly Catherine's.'' This emphasizes their connection as siblings with supernatural or non-human characteristics.

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