Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.
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).
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.
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.
Heathcliff: Madman or Devil?
Not long after this, Isabella falls in love with Heathcliff, who has returned to Wuthering Heights after a three-year absence spurred by Catherine's marriage to Edgar Linton. Despite Catherine's warnings about Heathcliff's bad character, Isabella marries him and instantly regrets it. In her letters to Ellen, the new 'Mrs. Heathcliff' asks: 'Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?' Just as Lockwood labels Catherine as inhuman, Mrs. Heathcliff--in a far more serious sense--finds her husband too malicious to be human, and genuinely thinks he may be a demon. According to her letters, Hindley also calls Heathcliff a 'hellish villain' and a 'fiend.' In describing her first encounter with him as a child near the beginning of the novel, Ellen herself refers to the orphan as 'it.' Throughout Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is described in dark, diabolical terms.
Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff
Wuthering Heights: A Resting Place for Restless Spirits
It is important to remember that none of the three characters are buried inside the chapel at Gimmerton Kirk, which is the traditional resting place of the Lintons and other local Christians. This highlights the fact that they exist separately from conventional society, and suggests that they are something other than ordinary humans. At her request, Catherine is buried outside in a corner of the churchyard next to the moor beyond it. (Edgar Linton, against his preference, is buried here as well, so he can be next to Catherine). Although the exact location of Hindley's grave is not mentioned, he is likely buried outside in the churchyard as well, but near where the other Earnshaws are laid. Heathcliff, of course, arranges to be buried on the other side of Catherine. Having led savage, passionate lives, they feel most at home close to the wild moors of Wuthering Heights.
A Moor in North Yorkshire, UK
In this lesson, we learned about supernatural elements in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. We discussed how these elements are a main feature in the Gothic novel during the Romantic Period, and how they characterize Brontë's novel as more Romantic than Victorian. We also noted the supernatural characterizations of Catherine, Hindley, and Heathcliff in terms of a ghost, a changeling, an omen, and a devil. Finally, we saw how the wild moors of Wuthering Heights have a role in the novel as the home and final resting place of these three characters.
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