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In Emily Bronte’s famous novel Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is indisputably an evil character. He commits innumerable atrocious acts, yet Bronte ensures that one cannot help but feel sympathy towards him. One reason that the book is considered a study in psychology is the manner in which Bronte tricks the reader into justifying and accepting Heathcliff’s cruelty. The author’s virtuosic manipulation of conflicting emotions is what gives the simple plot and characters of Wuthering Heights‘ their intensity and intrigue.
Heathcliff is first introduced as “a dirty, ragged, black-haired child” (Bronte 34) that Mr. Earnshaw brings home from Liverpool. Earnshaw names the boy after his deceased son, but the other members of the family refer to him as “it.” The reader cannot help but pity Heathcliff due to Bronte’s description of how “he would stand Hindley’s blows without winking or shedding a tear” (Bronte 35). The reader also thinks less of the other children because of their cruelty, which only serves to amplify sympathy for Heathcliff. As Heathcliff grows older, he and Catherine become friends; but after Catherine becomes friends with the Lintons, Heathcliff feels unworthy of her. Young Heathcliff naively asks Nelly at one point to “Make me decent” because “I’m going to be good” (Bronte 52), before a dinner with the Lintons. The reader also adores young Heathcliff for his desires; as Van Ghent points out, the reader desires that “the beautiful dark boy will be brightened, made angelic and happy, by the beautiful golden girl” (165). Heathcliff believes that he “must wish for Edgar Linton’s great blue eyes and even forehead” (Bronte 53) to fit in with the others and thus secure Catherine’s affections for himself. To the reader’s dismay, Heathcliff fails in this attempt at being proper, and upon overhearing Catherine say that she could never marry him disappears for about a year’s time. What Heathcliff overhears, though, is not the complete story; Catherine goes on to describe how much she loves Heathcliff and how she cannot live without him. The reader cannot help but feel sorry for Heathcliff’s misfortune which was due to his rashness, a flaw in his character that is no fault of his.
A year later, when Heathcliff returns from his trip to an unknown place, he is a changed man. “The transformation of Heathcliff” (Bronte 90) wins the reader’s respect with the newly-educated, militant impression he leaves on the characters in the book. It is at this stage that it becomes apparent how cruel Heathcliff truly is. Incredibly enough however, Bronte manages to keep Heathcliff at least partially in the reader’s favor. When Edgar becomes enraged at Catherine’s affection for the outsider, he strikes Heathcliff, and even Catherine laughs at him, calling him a “suckling leveret” (Bronte 110). Bronte intentionally does this to highlight Heathcliff’s strength of character in contrast with Edgar’s feebleness. The reader can’t help but imagine that his victims are weak and deserve to suffer, despite the fact that his cruelty “baffles and confounds the ethical sense” (Van Ghent 164).
The conflicting reactions that Wuthering Heights evoke in the reader make it both a philosophically and psychologically engaging work. When Heathcliff rejects and scorns Isabella, it is as if he is mocking the audience by exposing their “bookish expectations of him” (Oates 5); the audience is shocked that he would laugh in the face of her innocent infatuation with him, given his own rejection by Catherine. The reader also sympathizes with Heathcliff when Catherine dies. His maddening love for Catherine, though practically mythical in its strength, is designed to evoke pangs from most people’s romantic sensibilities.
For a while, Heathcliff seems cold and cruel, with almost no suggestion of humanity within. But towards the end of the novel, Heathcliff’s suffering becomes more apparent. In an unusual moment of honesty, Heathcliff even confesses to Nelly Dean how he dug up Catherine’s coffin so that he could see her dead body, and how he had a sexton remove a side wall of the coffin so that when he is buried next to her their remains can mingle together (Bronte 276). The reader is concerned and curious about Heathcliff during his spiral into insanity; the previously insensitive and untouchable villain is suddenly weak and vulnerable. He is so taken with Catherine’s spirit that his “whole being and faculties are yearning to attain it” (Bronte 312). Heathcliff is so absorbed in “the finite and tragically self-consuming nature of ‘passion'” (Oates 2) that he is unable to eat or sleep until, after several days “he manages to die” (Bump 3). Bronte shows the strength of Heathcliff’s devotion to Catherine by allowing him to find peace only as he approaches his death; Heathcliff could never attain peace by taking revenge on those around him. When Heathcliff dies, few people care. But Hareton “sat by the corpse all night, weeping in bitter earnest” (Bronte 322). Readers love Hareton because he changed for the better as a result of a “beautiful golden girl” (Van Ghent 165), as Heathcliff never did. The book closes with Haerton morning Heathcliff’s death, and thus resolves most feelings of ill will towards the ghost of Heathcliff.
Bronte’s method of creating sympathy for theoretically unlovable characters, keeps Wuthering Heights from being too emotionally alienating for readers. She intentionally creates incongruent emotions within the reader. The realization of these contradictory feelings exposes a thematic conviction of the novel that not everything is what it seems. The reader is forced to think more analytically about the book and about their own reactions to characters when this truth is realized. By exploring the nature of Bronte’s fictional characters, the reader is forced to explore the same theme in his or her own life. Through this technique, Bronte creates a compelling novel. The characters themselves are interesting, but the archetypal emotions she describes haunt us even after we finish reading.
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