Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff is epitomised throughout Wuthering Heights as a vengeful character, who becomes corrupted through his overwhelming jealousy and his rejection from Catherine. Rather than a protagonist of an admirable disposition, Heathcliff rebels against social niceties and plots against other characters to create the central conflict. However, Bronte allows the responder to sympathise with him, as his flaws are the consequence of his traumatic childhood and the tyranny Hindley Earnshaw enacts on him. Heathcliff is not a hero in the tradition of ‘saving the day’ rather he conforms to the concept of the Byronic hero.
He is a moody and cynical character, implacable in revenge, though the responder admires him from his strong and moving affection; it is his love of Catherine which makes him human. Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella is much the same as Catherine’s marriage to Edgar, as both are facades to mask their actual feelings and increase their social standing. Catherine uses her marriage to attain economic prosperity and an increased social standing, whilst Heathcliff uses his to take revenge against Catherine and Isabella, with prospects to acquire possession of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
’The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it he first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one… But no brutality disgusted her… I’ve sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention, in my experiments on what she could endure, and still she creeps shamefully cringing back! ” Bronte casts Heathcliff as a vengeful and cold hearted, through his treatment of Isabella and yet she continues to stand by him.
Literary critic, Joyce Carol Oates, associates this with the responder’s perception of him, who continue to believe that Heathcliff cannot be harboring only a vengeful disposition, and theorises him as person corrupted by the deprivations he encountered in his youth. The English economy fell into a depression during the 1840s, which sparked enormous financial burdens and depressed living conditions for all factory workers from industrialised areas. With the advent of the industrial revolution, labour and work became a viable means of achieving economic prosperity.
Heathcliff epitomises this shift in society, as he is born a penniless orphan then becomes adopted and thus raised to the status of a gentleman’s son, before finally acquiring ownership over both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. The responder can sympathise with Heathcliff due to his traumatic and deprived childhood, though upon acquiring wealth this significantly drops. This same perspective was held by the aristocratic society of the 1840s, who sympathised with the lower class though still feared them acquiring wealth and becoming their equal.
As Heathcliff is never entirely happy or content, an omnipresent sense of sympathy remains, thus his poverty and neglect through childhood tend to compensate for his behaviour. Heathcliff’s genealogy remains anonymous in the novel, with Mr Linton remarking “that strange acquisition on my late neighbour made in his journey to Liverpool – a little Lascar, or an American of Spanish castaway. ” However, in comforting Heathcliff, Nelly suggests, “Who knows, but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian Queen.
The anonymity creates a sense of intrigue, an almost ‘fairy tale’ quality, emphasised through his physical descriptions, “…when I beheld his blacks withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up…” Heathcliff conforms to the conventions of the romantic novel hero, who is traditionally dangerous, brooding, and cold at first, only later to emerge as fiercely devoted and loving. His moral transgressions then become peripheral, as the emphasis is on his desire for transcendence, which can never be achieved in life.
Therefore, Heathcliff’s death is made more emphatic to the responder, as they can see the hero finally reunited with his lover. As the text draws to its conclusion, Heathcliff reaches a stage of insanity, deriving from his love of Catherine. “He got on to the bed and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears, ‘Come in! ’ he sobbed. ‘Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! my heart’s darling, hear me this time – Catherine, at last! ” Generally Heathcliff’s speech encompasses more figurative language, abound with visual imagery and blunt descriptions; this is more so than in any other character.
In this passage, Bronte creates life-like rhythms, expression and captures Heathcliff’s individual nuances of speech, by use of ungrammatical and fragmented sentences, in order to convey the stress and emotion, which is occurring. His pain is made palpable, so the responder is able to sympathise with him. However, as his madness becomes more consuming, rather than sympathy, the composer evokes horror through the gothic echoes which resound. He muttered detached words, also; the only one I could catch was the name of Catherine, coupled with some wild term of endearment, or suffering; and spoken as one would speak to a person present – low and earnest, and wrung from the depth of his soul. ”
The gothic mode of writing was highly popular during this period, though Heathcliff’s insanity would generally be met with criticism as it rebelled against social laws, and does not conform to the conventions of the romantic hero. Bronte’s devaluation of the Romantic Movement is further reiterated through Heathcliff’s wanderings of the Earth after death.
The responder does not receive closure, as their hero is condemned to a restless after-life, when traditionally the Romantic Movement would assume that while the hero is bound by bodily limitations in life, death would overcome this. The aristocracy of the 1840s empathized with the lower class due to the atrocious working conditions they encountered. Heathcliff is adopted and his social standing is raised to that of a gentleman’s son, however upon Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is essentially a poor servant.
Consequently, the responder continues to sympathise with him throughout the text, as he never attains a prominent social standing, thus his behaviour can be excused. Heathcliff is the protagonist of Wuthering Heights, though he is also the hero as the responder is able to forgive his flaws through his unfortunate childhood and the presumption that beneath his aggressive and volatile facade, there is a good man. The responder perceives Heathcliff as a hero, as they become engaged in the text through the longing to see him betrothed with Catherine and the anticipation of his ‘happy ending’.