Continuing our Brontë Summer, we move on to the only novel written by Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. This novel reveals the dangers of marrying within the family and lacking imagination when naming your children. For your convenience, I have supplied a helpful family tree at the end, and will try to use their first names to lessen the chaos.
We start our novel with a completely random man, Mr. Lockwood, who appears to be narrating at us as though we were his journal. At least he isn’t writing us a 340 page letter like last month. Mr. Lockwood is the brand new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, renting from a “capital fellow” (his words, not mine) named Heathcliff, who politely tells him to go to the devil and invites him in to his house at Wuthering Heights, which is not at all a contradictory invitation. Heathcliff is somewhat dark skinned, and we upstanding Victorian readers fan ourselves because we all know what that means. (Hint: it’s racism.)
Nevertheless, Lockwood tries to make conversation with the lady of the house, Mrs. Heathcliff, but it gets more and more awkward with each sentence – he thinks she is Heathcliff’s wife (she isn’t), assumes she is going to offer tea (she’s not), and tries to figure out which kitten in a basket is her favorite (they turn out to be dead rabbits, not live kittens). He asks what he is supposed to do during the storm, but no one offers him hospitality to stay for the night. Eventually Heathcliff takes him home to Thrushcross Grange and his housekeeper, Zillah, puts him to bed.
Lockwood’s room is, of course, haunted. The library, upon perusal, belonged to a Catherine Linton / Healthcliff / Earnshaw. He finds her diary and starts to read it (because when you rent a house, the first thing to do is invade the privacy of former occupants). He nods off, and suddenly hears a scratching at the window. He knocks on the glass and a ghostly hand grabs him.
The ghost introduces herself as Catherine Linton and would like very much to come in. She doesn’t let go of his hand and he tries to slit her wrist on the broken window pane, which is just rude. When he has his hand free, he blocks up part of the window and yells at her. Heathcliff comes running, but he’s too late. He gets upset at Lockwood for interrupting his sleep, and then gets mad at Zillah for letting someone stay in “Cathy’s room.” Lockwood calls the ghost a minx and that just doesn’t sit well with Heathcliff. He sends Lockwood out of the room and bursts into tears, shouting for Cathy at the windowsill. She doesn’t show up again.
Lockwood catches a cold, which is inevitable when one sets foot outside during a Victorian thunderstorm, and this gives him an excuse to get the family dirt from a servant, Mrs. Nelly Dean. She tells him that the Mrs. Heathcliff he met is the widow of Heathcliff’s son, which is only the beginning of a long history of family tree confusion. Suddenly the narration shifts to Nelly, because Lockwood is an outsider and a pretty tedious point of view.
Many years ago, old Mr. Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights went to Liverpool and brought back a present for his children, Cathy and Hindley. This present happened to be a little black haired homeless boy. (When you see kids who don’t speak English on the streets in Liverpool, it is of course acceptable to take them home with you.) They christen the kid Heathcliff, who, like Madonna, only needs one name. Heathcliff quickly turns into Cathy’s best friend, which means they both end up as rude brats. Hindley hates Heathcliff and doesn’t stop calling him a gypsy until he decides to run away to college.
A little time passes, and Mr. Earnshaw dies. Hindley brings a new wife, Frances, to the funeral. She is about as weak and flimsy as we expect a plot point to be. Cathy, meanwhile, is running over the moors with Heathcliff, all the way up to Thrushcross Grange, where they peek in the windows at the Linton children, Edgar and Isabella, who are fighting over a dog. Cathy and Heathcliff laugh when the poor thing is nearly ripped in half, and, upon hearing the sadistic weirdos outside, the children call for their parents. Cathy and Heathcliff try to run, but as the damsel in distress, it is a requirement that Cathy trip and be “attacked” by the dog. The Lintons catch up to them, throw a few racist remarks at Heathcliff and put Cathy on a couch to pamper her. For five weeks.
They finally let her go home at Christmas, after they have tamed the wild out of her and turned her into some semblance of a “lady.” She goes looking for Heathcliff and immediately laughs at him for being black and grumpy. (And oh how nice, she’s learned some bigotry as well.)
Hindley mocks Heathcliff too, telling him to shake Cathy’s hand nice and proper, but Heathcliff isn’t willing to play the game. Later, he asks Nelly to give him a makeover so he’ll look at least as respectable as Edgar Linton, despite the fact that he is dark-skinned in a racist world.
He doesn’t get a chance to prove himself, however, because Hindley is determined to keep Heathcliff out of the dining room when the Lintons are over. Ever the paragon of the Victorian gentleman, Edgar chooses that moment to walk in and insult Heathcliff’s long hair. Heathcliff throws some applesauce at him and runs off. Edgar and Isabella start to cry as usual and Cathy refuses to eat because she knows Hindley is going to flog Heathcliff. While everyone else gets over it soon enough because they’re hungry, Heathcliff plots his revenge. Dinner as usual. (Also, it is a very elaborate and long-range revenge plan, as we shall see over the course of the novel.)
Summer comes, and Hindley’s wife Frances gives birth to a boy. In typical Victorian fashion, she dies shortly thereafter, having completed her mission in life. Nelly turns from housekeeper into babysitter for the infant Hareton, while Hindley turns into a raging drunkard.
Cathy, of course, remains a little turd. While waiting for Edgar one day, she yells at Heathcliff until he leaves, pinches Nelly until she leaves, starts shaking baby Hareton until he cries, and accidentally slaps Edgar, who chose the wrong minute to walk in. He almost walks back out the door, but for some reason, sticks around. Even worse, Edgar and Cathy immediately profess their love to each other. I guess violence makes the heart grow fonder.
Hindley comes home drunk and catches Nelly trying to stash Hareton in a kitchen cupboard to save the kid from his dad’s rampages. It’s too late, and Hindley grabs Hareton and dangles him over the banister. Fortunately, Heathcliff is below and manages to catch the baby just in time. Hindley, of course, then accuses Nelly for not hiding the baby properly before storming off. Cathy comes in and confesses to her that Edgar has proposed marriage and asks what Nelly thinks her answer should have been. Nelly won’t give a proper reply until she knows the details. For instance, Cathy loves Edgar, but only because he’s handsome and rich, apparently. She is frustrated, however, because she also loves Heathcliff, even she thinks it would degrade her to marry him. At this point, Nelly realizes Heathcliff has been sleeping on a bench nearby, but he slinks out of the room, unnoticed by Cathy, who goes on to say that their souls are the same, and Heathcliff is more Cathy than Cathy is, though I’m not terribly certain if she means that to be a compliment or not.
Nelly prefers to go on to more practical things, such as arguing with Joseph over who’s going to take the food tray up to drunken Hindley (presumably after a few games of rock-paper-scissors, they agree to let him come down if he’s hungry). Joseph, I should mention, is one of those characters in literature that makes me cringe every moment he speaks because Brontë gave him a dialect. In this scene, for example, he says “Und hah isn’t that nowt comed in frough th’ field, be this time? What is he abaht? Girt eedle seeght!” Is that supposed to be Middle English? Ancient Anglo-Saxon? No, it’s just an eyesore that requires reading the sentence aloud in a terrible Cockney English accent and referring to at least one page of very helpful footnotes.
Heathcliff does not come back. Cathy becomes deliriously ill. When she’s a little better, Mr. and Mrs. Linton invite her over to recover at Thrushcross Grange. Then, having served their purpose, they are dispatched quickly via fever. Three years later, Edgar marries Cathy. Nelly is dragged from Wuthering Heights to accompany Cathy to Thrushcross Grange, leaving little five year old Hareton at the sole mercy of his drunken dad.
Of course, Heathcliff eventually comes back with muscles and a beard. Cathy is delighted at his return, and Edgar less so (one can’t imagine why). He dramatically tells Cathy how he planned to see her, kill Hindley and commit suicide, but has since decided otherwise. That night, Cathy comes down to chat with Nelly, since she tried to talk about Heathcliff with her husband and that just made him burst into tears. However,
Things settle for awhile until we learn that Edgar’s sister Isabella has a thing for swarthy broody gentlemen. Then she and Cathy get into brutal namecalling fights over Heathcliff. Of course, Cathy is a little turd, so she later invites Heathcliff to come in and sit with them and tells him that Isabella admires him. After Isabella flees the room, Cathy and Heathcliff take turns insulting her, though Heathcliff soon recalls that Isabella will be heir to Thrushcross Grange after Edgar dies. No sinister thoughts going on here, folks.
The next time Nelly visits Hareton, he throws rocks at her. She learns that Heathcliff has been teaching him all sorts of swears and bad habits. It turns out nobody seems to like anybody anymore, and these houses that were once full of such angels have degraded into ruinous dens of violence. Oh, who am I kidding – they were all horrible people to begin with.
Edgar insists that Cathy stop seeing Heathcliff, Heathcliff tries to fight with Edgar (it’s hardly worthy of the term), and Edgar tries to get Isabella to talk about him one way or another. For some reason, all arguments of this kind tend to send women into illnesses. Cathy goes delirious again, imagining she’s home at Wuthering Heights. While the doctor declares her to be mentally infirm and everyone panics over it, Isabella meanwhile runs off with Heathcliff and gets hitched.
Isabella writes a letter to Nelly a few months later, inquiring if Heathcliff is actually a human. They have moved back in to Wuthering Heights, and Isabella is not sure whether she wants protection from the drunk and violent Hindley or the devilish Heathcliff. It also turns out she needn’t have worried, as Heathcliff doesn’t even want to share a bedroom with her.
Nelly goes to Edgar to ask if she can visit the poor woman. He doesn’t mind if she does, but he refuses to write any little note for Isabella. Nelly likewise tells Isabella that Cathy’s illness is all her fault and she had better leave the country. Heathcliff on the other hand, does want to see Cathy, and hopes Nelly will arrange a meeting in which Edgar will be conveniently absent. At first Nelly refuses, but Heathcliff keeps her prisoner until she agrees to deliver a letter to Cathy.
Nelly hesitates to deliver the letter for awhile, but eventually gets tired of avoiding Heathcliff (who is skulking around Thrushcross Grange). Cathy reads his letter and it’s the first time in months that she reacts. Heathcliff comes in (he’s been hovering in the garden) and he and Cathy start making out. They then get overly dramatic, with wet eyes and heaving bosoms, accusing each other of torturing, killing, and abandoning each other. Then they make out some more, and Nelly (who has been here the whole time) stands around awkwardly. She does not know the protocol for being the unseen narrator in tortured Victorian romances. She clears her throat, announces that Edgar will probably be coming back soon, and Heathcliff tries to extract himself from Cathy, who is moaning about how she’s going to die. Then she faints and Heathcliff swears to be back the next day.
Around midnight, Cathy gives birth to a daughter. It’s a miracle! Nobody even mentioned her being pregnant (especially when she was making out with Heathcliff earlier) but suddenly there is a baby. Cathy, in true Victorian fashion, dies two hours later. They name the baby Catherine, because that’s not morbid or confusing at all.
Nelly dreads telling Heathcliff, but he already knows about Cathy’s death and insists on trampling the flowers in the garden anyway. He grieves in the natural way: cursing Cathy to never find rest so long as he lives, hoping that she’ll haunt him until he’s driven mad. (Halfway there already!)
Nelly is stuck raising a baby again. Isabella comes crashing back into the house and throws Heathcliff’s ring into the fire. (Presumably it was forged in Mordor.) She’s been avoiding all the men of Wuthering Heights (in other words, everyone) and has only managed to escape now. Heathcliff is not far behind her, though, locked out but scrabbling at the door. He breaks in and gets into a knife/gun showdown with Edgar (who loses, as usual). After it’s all over, Isabella heads south to London and gives birth to a sickly little boy called Linton. I really do love these parthenogenetic births.
You know the drill by now – it’s time to make a path for the new generation by killing off the old. Hindley dies six months after Cathy, stone drunk. Isabella also dies, though surprisingly she politely waits until her son is twelve.
Meanwhile, Edgar calls his daughter Cathy instead of Catherine because he always called her mother Catherine. (For clarity’s sake, though, I’m going to keep calling Cathy Jr. “Catherine” here). Heathcliff inherits the house at Wuthering Heights somehow and he intends to raise Hareton as his own. When Edgar tries to send for him, Heathcliff threatens to find his own son Linton, which shuts everyone up for awhile. The master plan begins to come to fruition.
So twelve years pass, and Catherine turns into her mother, going on adventures and wandering over the moors, ending up at Wuthering Heights to visit Hareton. (Fortunately, Heathcliff isn’t home.) Nelly informs Catherine that she and Hareton are cousins, and Catherine has the natural reaction that Hareton is a coarse young man who can’t possibly be related to her. Hareton, for his part, may have a rough manner and speech, but given his history, he is surprisingly not a completely terrible human being like everyone else.
Edgar, meanwhile, has learned that Isabella is dead and is picking up Linton to bring home to the manor. Linton is a sickly little blond boy who looks nothing like his dad. He is also a spoiled brat, which pretty much goes without saying in this family. Heathcliff sends for him right away, and Nelly takes him the next morning after much fussing and complaining on his part. She tries to describe his father to him (because his mother never told him he had one) but Linton is still terrified on first meeting Heathcliff.
Little wonder, as Heathcliff inspects him, poking and prodding, and decides he’s worse than expected. He also calls Isabella a slut and makes it well known that his kid is heir to everything. Linton refuses to eat what’s put in front of him, and when Nelly goes to leave, he tries to scramble after her in a blind panic, begging her not to leave him at Wuthering Heights alone. Not the greatest of first impressions, but in all fairness, it doesn’t get much better.
Time passes and Catherine hits that dangerous age of 16. She’s never had a real birthday party, because she was born the day her mother died. Instead of a party, she takes Nelly on a wild grouse chase (haha) and winds up on the property of Wuthering Heights (which was purely unintentional on her part, I’m sure).
Heathcliff finds them and invites them in pleasantly. Nelly smells a trap, but Catherine is elated. On the walk back to the house, Heathcliff tells Nelly his master plan: He’s going to try and get Catherine to hook up with Linton so they’ll rule both houses. At least he’s honest about it.
Catherine is elated to meet Linton, who is now a tall pretty boy, and decides she’s going to visit every day and bring her dad sometimes too. That’ll go over well. Heathcliff mentions the quarrel he had with Edgar and tells her to keep her visit secret if she doesn’t want her dad to forbid her from coming.
Heathcliff encourages Linton to show Catherine around the yard, somewhere outdoors, but Linton just wants to stay in and play video games. So Heathcliff has Hareton show her around instead, taking pleasure in embarrassing the poor guy before he goes (because apparently he likes to torment the people most like him). He sends Linton after them. Linton and Catherine gang up on Hareton, teasing him for not being able to read and for having a rough accent.
Catherine gets home and completely forgets her promise. She tells her dad all about nice Mr. Heathcliff and how awful her dad is for never mentioning the people at Wuthering Heights. As expected, she is forbidden from visiting them ever again.
Which means, of course, that Catherine and Linton start up a secret correspondence through a dairy delivery boy. By the time Nelly finds them, Catherine has already declared herself to be desperately in love. Nelly becomes excessively harsh, dropping all the little mementos into the fire.
Several months later, Heathcliff shows up to inform Catherine that Linton is wasting away from lovesickness because she stopped writing back to him. She decides this must not be allowed to happen, and leaps upon her horse to rescue the damsel – er, lordling – in distress.
Linton is there, pleasant as always, as he tells Catherine she should have ridden over more often instead of writing letters, because letters are such hard work. He goes on to call everyone in the house “odious beings.” Still, Catherine thinks he’s charming and pets his hair and wishes he were her brother. Which is…not weird at all.
Linton thinks it would be better if she were his wife, but Catherine is practical enough to say that people sometimes hate their wives, but they always love their siblings. Which I guess is a fair point in the pleasant family dynamics these guys have grown up with. Then they go on to insult each others’ father and Catherine shoves Linton into a chair.
He coughs violently like the weak baby he is, and racks up the pity points with everyone. He guilts Catherine with a “you’ve hurt me so, that I shall lie awake all night, choking with this cough!” He tries to send them away, but they come running back when they hear him screaming because he’s slid from the chair to the floor and started rolling around. Nelly isn’t falling for it, but Catherine treats him like a baby, adjusting his cushion whenever he decides it’s too high or too low. She promises to return, even though Nelly threatens to lock her up. Instead Nelly just takes comfort in the fact that Linton will probably die before he’s twenty years old. (While we were all thinking it, the fact that she says this out loud to Catherine is a little concerning.)
Soon, everyone at Thrushcross Grange has caught a cold, from Edgar to Nelly. This is why it takes Nelly so long to realize that Catherine has been sneaking out to Wuthering Heights at night. On her travels, she and Linton play a few games before he dissolves into coughing, and she laughs at Hareton because he can only make out the letters of his own name (he’s been practicing). Then Linton usually starts coughing blood and falls on the ground again. Despite the trauma, Catherine comes back the next night to find that, no, he isn’t dead, but he is blaming her for upsetting his delicate nature. This goes on for awhile until, eventually, Linton professes his love for her. Catherine for some reason expects Nelly to keep quiet about the whole thing, but Nelly goes and tells Edgar about the secret visits anyway. He forbids her from going to Wuthering Heights again, but says he’ll allow Linton to come and visit.
This doesn’t work at all because Linton is a sickly couch potato. Several months pass and Catherine’s father finally gives in and lets her go visit him. He has wasted away at this point, barely able to walk out to meet them, and the visit doesn’t last long. The second meeting doesn’t go much better, except Catherine loses her patience because her own father is also wasting away and she’d rather spend time with him. Linton begs her to stay (crying, of course), and Heathcliff invites them all inside. Where he holds them prisoner. And hits Catherine on the face when she tries to escape. And forces her to marry Linton before she’ll ever be allowed to leave the house again.
Nelly is outraged, and demands to know why anyone on earth would want to marry a “little perishing monkey” like Linton. She says this to Linton’s face, of course, because she’s not the most tactful of servants. Linton starts coughing again and Heathcliff sends him to bed. Nelly finally remembers that there are laws and things preventing people from kidnapping girls and forcing them to marry their sons, but this just makes Heathcliff more insistent. Catherine tries to make a bargain that she’ll marry Linton so long as she can visit her dying father, but Heathcliff just drags her out of the room she and Nelly are locked up in, and leaves Nelly there for a few more days.
When they finally remember to let Nelly out, Zillah tells her that Edgar is still clinging to life and Catherine is locked up elsewhere in the house. She and Linton have been fighting like babies over everything in their newly married life, because Linton has laid claim to all her property, right down to the locket with pictures of her parents in it.
Nelly finally gets back to the dying Edgar. He learns of the plot and resolves to change his will so Heathcliff won’t be able to get his hands on it, but of course the lawyers have already been bought of by Heathcliff so everything’s a bit murky. Then, at last, Catherine is brought home to visit her dad. He kisses his daughter, and (say it with me now) dies immediately thereafter.
After the funeral, Heathcliff shows up at Thrushcross Grange and insists Catherine come back to be with her husband. Despite his attempts to make the kids hate each other (honestly, what’s the point of that?) Catherine is insistent that she’s going to love Linton if it kills him. (Heathcliff at this point is more than a little nuts. He tells us that, as they were burying Edgar, he had them unearth Cathy and then knocked the outer side of her coffin open so he’ll be able to chat with her more easily when he’s buried right next door.)
Nelly is banished yet again. She hears later how Catherine got home and started to panic when Linton became even worse. Heathcliff had stopped caring at that point and told her to go ahead and nurse him if she wanted, otherwise she could just lock him up until he died. What a lovely father. Linton does die shortly after, and there is an overwhelming sense of relief that he no longer suffers, and we no longer have to suffer hearing about his suffering. Now that Heathcliff’s revenge is complete, he doesn’t really have a use for Catherine any more and leaves her to fend for herself. Hareton comes to her rescue, but of course she wants nothing to do with him.
Thus Nelly’s tale catches Lockwood up to present times. He goes to visit Wuthering Heights again (why he doesn’t run screaming from this corner of the world, I don’t know) and tries to pass a note from Nelly to Catherine. He is alarmed that she has no books or paper to reply with. She mentions how she found a stash of books in Hareton’s room once, but hasn’t had any access to them. Apparently he has been trying to teach himself to read, which Catherine finds excessively funny. Hareton gets mad and tries to give them back to her, but she doesn’t want them now, so he starts throwing them in the fire.
Time passes, and the next time Lockwood visits his home at Thrushcross Grange, he finds Nelly is no longer there. He decides to walk to Wuthering Heights, because he obviously hasn’t learned his lesson by now. He is puzzled by the smell of flowers and pleasant things and becomes alarmed by the fact that Catherine is teaching Hareton to read and kissing him when he gets something right. He slinks in through the kitchen to find Nelly, who informs him that Heathcliff is dead. Ah, that would explain it.
Apparently Nelly had been summoned back to Wuthering Heights when Heathcliff decided he didn’t want to look at Catherine any more, and Catherine felt bad that she’d laughed at Hareton so much that she started leaving books around the house as bait in an attempt to get him to read again. Finally they became friends. Nelly can’t wait for them to get hitched, because that’s how these things always work out, apparently.
In their budding love, Hareton and Catherine destroyed Joseph’s currant trees and put up a flowerbed instead. One assumes Joseph was angry about this, but no one can understand him anyway. I think he blames Nelly for it. When Heathcliff started shouting at Catherine for daring to do things with property that wasn’t hers, she threatened to have Hareton beat him up. This threat doesn’t really work out for her, but she vows to turn Hareton against Heathcliff anyway.
Nelly watched Hareton and Catherine sit by the fire, young and in love, and remarked that they have the exact same eyes. (Well, they are cousins. A bit of incest will do that.) Heathcliff also noticed their similarities and it unnerved him. He sensed a change was coming, as though he were getting closer to a welcome death.
Some time later, he went wandering in the garden, sleepwalking and fasting, and staring at the wall a good percentage of the time. He then informed Nelly exactly how his funeral and burial should go, and died sitting by the open window, letting all the rain in. Nelly didn’t find him until the next morning, when rigor mortis set in and she couldn’t close his eyes or stop his teeth-baring smirk. Way to be creepy even when you’re dead, Heathcliff. They bury him as asked, presumably in hopes that he won’t haunt them too. (According to the locals, no such luck – his ghost apparently roams the countryside.)
As our story closes, Hareton and Catherine decide (understandably) to move to Thrushcross Grange and leave only a couple of maintenance people at Wuthering Heights, effectively abandoning it to the ghosts. One assumes that Lockwood is probably better off renting a different place entirely.
Wuthering Heights Family Tree