Published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights is Emily Brontë’s only novel. It describes the stormy relationship between a man called Heathcliff and the love of his life, Catherine Earnshaw. Their tale is told through a complex narrative comprising the observations of an outsider, the reminiscences of an old housekeeper, excerpts from a diary, plus accounts of dreams or hauntings.
A Revelatory Diary
Mr. Lockwood is a wealthy visitor to the Yorkshire moors who has rented a large house called Thrushcross Grange. Lockwood decides to visit his landlord, Heathcliff, at his home, Wuthering Heights. The name ‘Wuthering’ is a Yorkshire term meaning ‘characterised by strong, blustery winds’. Lockwood’s reception is as chilly as the climate, but a wild blizzard forces him to stay overnight. Unable to sleep, Lockwood reads an old diary he finds near his bed. It is written by a young woman called Catherine Earnshaw and narrates some harrowing episodes of her life. When Lockwood at last falls asleep, he has a dream in which, disturbed by the tapping of a branch against his window, he smashes his fist through the glass to snap the branch off.
“[...] stretching an arm to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in - let me in!’“
“[...] stesi il braccio al di fuori per afferrare il ramo importuno, ma la mia mano strinse invece le dita di una piccola mano diaccia. L’intenso orrore dell’incubo m’invase; cercai di ritrarre il braccio, ma la piccola mano vi si aggrappava, e una voce malinconica ripeteva singhiozzando: — Lasciami entrare! Lasciami entrare!“
The child identifies herself as Catherine Linton, Catherine Earnshaw’s married name before she died. This suggests that, rather than a dream provoked by reading the diary, the girl might actually be a ghost. Apart from the theme of the supernatural, the theme of cruelty and sadistic violence is also introduced; Lockwood is so terrified that he rubs the child’s wrist on the broken glass of the window pane in an effort to free himself.
When Lockwood returns to Thrushcross Grange he becomes ill, and, to pass the time, asks his housekeeper, Nelly, to tell him Heathcliff’s history. And so unfolds the tale of how Heathcliff was discovered as a child on the streets of Liverpool by old Mr. Earnshaw, who took him home and treated him the same as his own children Hindley and Catherine. At Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is reduced to living like a servant by Hindley, who hates him. But Catherine and Heathcliff become inseparable.
Fate and Money
A series of twists of fate leads Catherine to marry Edgar Linton, the heir to Thrushcross Grange, but before she can do so, Heathcliff runs away to “better himself”. In so doing, he misses what is possibly one of the most famous declarations of love in English literature:
“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m all aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind.“
“Il mio amore per Linton è simile al fogliame del bosco; il tempo lo muterà, ne sono sicura, come l’inverno muta gli alberi; il mio amore per Heathcliff somiglia alle eterne rocce che stanno sottoterra: una sorgente di gioia poco visibile, ma necessaria. Nelly, io sono Heathcliff! Lui è sempre, sempre nella mia mente.“
When Heathcliff returns rich and powerful some years later, his vengeance is terrible. He becomes master of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange until their occupants are either dead or living in virtual slavery.
The obsessive love between Heathcliff and Catherine, and the latter’s repeated attacks of violent emotion leading up to her death, have led some modern-day psychologists to diagnose both characters with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress or borderline personality disorder. How else to explain the fact that, nearly eighteen years after her death, when her husband is being buried next to her, Heathcliff opens Catherine’s coffin to see her face once more?
“I thought, once, I would have stayed there: when I saw her face again – it is hers yet! [the sexton] had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it.“
“Quando ho rivisto il suo volto ancora intatto, ho pensato per un momento di rimaner là: il sacrestano ha durato fatica per farmi allontanare; mi ha detto che se l’aria l’avesse sfiorato si sarebbe alterato; così ho ricoperto subito la bara."
Love and Death
In spite of Heathcliff’s violence and Cathy’s arrogance, they remain engaging and sympathetic characters, their love transcending life and death, like the violent weather of the moors. Wuthering Heights has been adapted many times for stage and screen, and famously inspired a 1978 song by recording artist Kate Bush. A recent British biographical drama film called Emily (2022) suggests a possible inspiration for Brontë’s formidable novel.