Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë's 1847 novel, is an incredibly complex narrative. It's crammed with stories-within-stories, generations of characters (many of whom have the same name) and flashbacks to minute plot details about who married whom.
It can be a little difficult to keep all of the details straight (the Victorians seemed to have longer attention spans than we do), but the most important thing to keep in mind is the fierce and passionate love between Catherine and Heathcliff. Although social conventions prevent them from marrying, their obsession with one another continues even beyond the grave.
Backstory & Characters
In the opening chapters, we meet Lockwood, who has just rented a home in northern England. He has an upsetting run-in with his landlord, Heathcliff, who lives across the moor in a sprawling old house called ''Wuthering Heights.'' A troubled soul, Heathcliff is cruel to his family and convinced that his house is haunted by the ghost of a woman named Cathy. Lockwood asks his housekeeper, Nelly, to tell him the backstory.
According to Nelly, 30 years ago, Catherine and her brother Hindley lived in Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff, an orphan taken in by their father. Catherine and Heathcliff both have fiery tempers and soon become best friends. Their father comes to love Heathcliff more than Hindley, and as a result, Hindley starts to treat Heathcliff cruelly. When Hindley eventually inherits the house, he and his wife turn Heathcliff into a servant.
Catherine is secretly in love with Heathcliff, but she chooses to marry the proper and wealthy Edgar Linton instead in an effort to climb the social ladder. Heathcliff runs away in despair.
Bent on revenge, Heathcliff returns three years later and tries to make Catherine jealous by flirting with Edgar's sister, Isabella. Catherine takes to her bed, sick with rage, and dies after giving birth to a daughter, Cathy.
Isabella and Heathcliff elope, and they have a son named Linton. Heathcliff is now master of Wuthering Heights, but his wife won't live with him because he's cruel to her. Isabella moves away, taking her son with her. It seems that Heathcliff never really wanted anyone but Catherine.
Cathy & Hareton
Flash forward a dozen years. This time around, a situation similar to the one between Catherine and Heathcliff is playing out. Catherine's daughter, Cathy, who's beautiful and spunky, just like her mother, becomes good friends with Heathcliff's son, Linton.
Cathy falls for Linton. If Heathcliff's machinations go according to plan, Cathy and Linton will marry and he'll own the Linton household as well, completing his revenge on Edgar. When Edgar dies, Heathcliff forces Cathy and Linton to marry. Linton dies soon afterwards, leading Cathy to live a miserable life as a servant at Wuthering Heights.
The flashback is over, and we find ourselves again in the present. Mr. Lockwood, appalled, has left, but returns several months later for an update. He finds that Heathcliff has died after a strange illness during which he saw visions of Catherine's ghost. Heathcliff is buried next to Catherine. Meanwhile, Cathy has fallen in love with Hareton, her deceased uncle Hindley's son, and they plan to marry.
Nature plays a major part in Wuthering Heights. Just like the characters in the story, author Emily Brontë grew up in the moors, or rolling hills, of Yorkshire, England. The moors are famous for their misty, melancholy atmosphere, and like Heathcliff and Catherine, Emily Brontë was known to wander about in the relatively uninhabited land around her family home. The stormy moorland provides a spectral, almost violent backdrop for the novel, mirroring the characters' inner turmoil.
Wuthering Heights created something of a scandal when it appeared in 1847. In fact, Emily Brontë had to publish it under a male pseudonym because women weren't supposed to write about the escapades of cruel debauchers like Heathcliff, and polite Victorian society definitely wasn't ready for a stormy female character like Catherine.
Victorian homes were supposed to be polite and proper, with an emphasis on family values and strict gender roles. Wuthering Heights included references to cruelty, drunkenness, pregnancy, and sensuality, and even contained some starchy language.
Most of all, Emily Brontë's take on love was an unsettling one. Rather than an angelic bond between a husband and wife, love was a wrenching force that drove people to madness and death.
Additionally, Wuthering Heights has many characteristics of what we call the gothic novel, Victorian-era stories that deal with key settings and themes, like gloomy landscapes, haunted houses, the past, and sensuality, all of which make an appearance in Brontë's tale. Gothic plot lines can appear hyper-dramatic to the modern reader. That said, consider 21st-century movie and television shows about hauntings, murders, and supernatural events. Readers have always been intrigued by the darker aspects of human nature, and that's just what the gothic novel is all about.
Let's review. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë's 1847 novel, is a story of love triangles, scandalous passions, and supernatural events. Just like the characters in the story, author Emily Brontë grew up in the moors, or rolling hills, of Yorkshire, England.
The story is based upon Catherine and Heathcliff's ill-fated love, as described by Nelly, Lockwood's housekeeper to her employer. Catherine makes a socially advantageous marriage to Edgar Linton, while Heathcliff elopes with Edgar's sister, Isabella. Later in the story, Catherine's daughter, Cathy, marries Heathcliff's son, Linton, who dies soon afterwards, relegating Cathy to a miserable life as a servant at Wuthering Heights. She eventually falls in love with Hareton, her deceased Uncle Hinley's son, and they plan to marry.
When it was published, Wuthering Heights created quite a stir, its characters breaking from the polite and proper vision of Victorian life. It's a gothic novel that deals with key settings and themes, like gloomy landscapes, haunted houses, the past, and sensuality.
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Wuthering Heights: More Activities
This lesson introduced you to the complex plot and themes of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Use these prompts to get to grips with what this novel has to offer and to explore further.
In order to remember the characters and their relationships to each other in this novel, try writing out a family tree and a dramatis personae indicating how they are all connected. Be sure to note who marries whom and who is in love with whom. Refer back to your list and diagram when you need to study the novel or to refresh your memory.
Race in Wuthering Heights
One of the aspects of Wuthering Heights that was initially controversial is the fact that Emily Brontë strongly implies that Heathcliff is a person of colour. The 2011 film adaptation of the novel reflects this. Write an essay exploring race in Wuthering Heights and how reading Heathcliff as black or mixed race changes his character and his relationships, particularly his relationship with Catherine.
This lesson discussed the major characters in Wuthering Heights and how their lives change over two generations. Write a short scene that either depicts a missing but important scene in the narrative or that tells part of the story from a different character's perspective. Think about who the speaker in your writing is and what their life is like. Consider when your scene would fit into the narrative and what it would contribute.
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