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Wuthering Heights and The Symbolic Meaning of Mirrors, Windows and Glass

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Wuthering Heights and The Symbolic Meaning of Mirrors, Windows and Glass essay
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Various glass objects, usually mirrors and windows, play a seemingly ubiquitous role in the construction of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; rarely does a chapter go by where the reader is not given some description of a character passing by a window, looking into a mirror, or some other such activity. Yet we should not find this persistent imagery too peculiar; the natural properties of glass ‘impermeability, lucidity, fragility’ make it an excellent symbolic correlative for several of the characters of the novel. Most specifically, Catherine and Heathcliff are thoroughly reflected (both literally and figuratively), and thereby enlarged as characters, in the various glass imagery that abounds throughout Wuthering Heights.

Catherine, like all great tragic characters, ultimately fails (in life, at least) because of her tragic flaw, namely the insistent wrongness of purpose with which she makes important decisions. Her decision to marry Edgar Linton, for instance, is predicated on her desire to aid Heathcliff by becoming wealthy, and while the sentiment is sincere, it is equally misplaced; we know that it is her very marriage to Linton which ultimately leads to Catherine’s death and Heathcliff’s lifelong torment. Catherine’s self-destructive nature is symbolically embedded in the injurious glass imagery that continually surrounds her. This system of glass-images makes itself present from the book’s earliest chapters, such as when the ghost of Catherine infiltrates Mr. Lockwood’s dream and tries to enter at his window:

‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself.

‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied shiveringly (why did I think of Linton’ I had read Earnshaw twenty times for Linton), ‘I’m come home, I’d lost my way on the moor!’

‘As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window ‘ terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, ‘Let me in!’ and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear. (III, 18)

This passage, one of the most vivid and gruesome in all of Bronte, presents itself as a proleptic scene of violence and carnage. Because it takes place within the frame of Lockwood’s dream, Bronte is able to introduce her symbolic imagery without fetters; the limitless possibilities of dreams allow the narrator to introduce her harsh themes of broken glass (anticipating Catherine’s own fragility) and blood (representing the anemic descent of Catherine’s life) without having to maintain any kind of faithful realism.

The images of glass and self-destruction, so hyperbolically introduced in this early passage, reassert themselves in Chapter XII at a crucial juncture in Catherine’s life. Having already made the fateful choice to marry Linton, and now barely tethered to her own sanity, Catherine beholds herself in the mirror and is confused, mistaking her own form for some more insidious creature:

‘It’s behind there still!’ she pursued, anxiously. ‘And it stirred. Who is it’ I hope it will not come out when you are gone! Oh! Nelly, the room is haunted! I’m afraid of being alone!’

I took her hand in mine, and bid her be composed; for a succession of shudders convulsed her frame, and she would keep straining her gaze towards the glass.

‘There’s nobody here!’ I insisted. ‘It was yourself, Mrs. Linton: you knew it a while since.’ (XII, 91)

Once again glass has proven itself a symbol of Catherine’s demise, as the earlier devastation of slit wrists and bloody glass is here recast as a destruction of identity, sanity, and self. Catherine’s inability to recognize her own figure reveals the extent of her self-destructive impulse, her penchant for viewing herself as something monstrous, something deserving of pain and ruin. When Nelly rebuffs Catherine for her foolishness, stating ”Why, what is the matter’ ‘ Who is coward now’ Wake up! That is the glass – the mirror, Mrs. Linton; and you see yourself in it, and there am I too by your side” (XII, 91), the reader recognizes that it precisely the ‘coward[ice]’ that Nelly cites which allows Catherine to be so easily represented and repressed by the glass imagery. Just as Catherine was too much a coward to marry Heathcliff rather than Edgar, so does her cowardice now prevent her from literally viewing herself or the gravity of her actions. The glass, therefore, is a corporeal realization and reflection of Catherine’s own repressed guilt; by denying the reality of her actions to the extent that she can no longer recognize herself, Catherine allows herself to be wounded, forces herself to be wounded, on the very shards of her own fractured consciousness.

Bronte employs a curious linguistic stratagem in the above section by repeatedly using the word ‘mirror,’ a word that appears in no other section of the novel. For all of the work’s other characters, such as Heathcliff, mirrors are referred to as ‘the glass’:

Oh, Heathcliff, you are showing a poor spirit! Come to the glass, and I’ll let you see what you should wish. Do you mark those two lines between your eyes; and those thick brows, that, instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil’s spies’ (VII, 41)

This scene is rather telling of Heathcliff’s character, and perhaps helps to explain precisely why only Catherine looks into ‘mirrors’, while Heathcliff gazes into ‘glass’; besides the obvious implications of the Latinate vs. Anglo-Saxon connotations of the two words, this bifurcation in naming underscores the important fact that the mirror-glass represents different traits in different characters. While for Catherine the glass reflects internal currents of self-defeating behavior, Heathcliff’s relationship seems to be one of imprisonment and domination. The passage above, for instance, enumerates a series of Heathcliff’s shortcomings, inherent physical features that eternally prevent Heathcliff from assuming a station equal to that of Edgar Linton. This failure to live up to society, to fail in one’s outer aspect, is echoed again near the end of the book, shortly before Heathcliff’s death, when Nelly tells Heathcliff that he ‘need only look at [him]self in a glass to see how [he] require[s] both [food and sleep]’ (XXXIV, 244).

For Heathcliff, then, glass imagery represents something rather opposite than what it represents for Catherine; while the glass presents Catherine with a reality that she cannot accept, it presents Heathcliff with a vision of self-limitation that he must accept, one that is all too real. The glass reconstructs for Heathcliff his own socially-wrought impotence; indeed, even when not looking at himself in it, glass still represents Heathcliff’s exclusion from society, as it does in Chapter VI when Heathcliff watches Catherine and the Lintons from the opposite side of a windowpane. This exclusionary property of glass resurfaces throughout Wuthering Heights, such as when Heathcliff first returns from his long voyage and observes a window at Thrushcross Grange which gives no hint of access or penetrability: ‘[he glanced] up to the windows, which reflected a score of glittering moons, but showed no lights from within’ (X, 68). Heathcliff’s true quest, then, must ultimately be to break through the glass, to shatter the unfair reality and get to the other side.

Hence, knowing the aim of Heathcliff’s heart, it is not at all surprising that Bronte should give us a scene of shattered glass, one in which Heathcliff literally transports himself through the symbolic and literal barrier:

‘The charge exploded, and the knife, in springing back, closed into its owner’s wrist. Heathcliff pulled it away by main force, slitting up the flesh as it passed on, and thrust it dripping into his pocket. He then took a stone, struck down the division between two windows, and sprang in. (XVII, 131)

This moment represents a turning point in Wuthering Heights in that it provides the hinge between the novel’s two sections; by breaking into the Heights, Heathcliff has smashed the societal blocks and crowned himself king of internal space. Sadly, however, Heathcliff’s action comes too late; Catherine has already died, and thus he no longer has any real reason, other than anger, to break the glass barricade. Though he has ‘struck down the [material] division’ that had originally kept him from his love, he must now deal with another, greater division, the division between life and death. However hard he tries, it seems that Heathcliff will always find himself on the wrong side of the glass.

For both Catherine and Heathcliff, glass seems to be a rather maleficent medium; one might wonder, then, how it is that such beautiful moments can also take place involving glass barriers, such as the window in the final meeting between the two lovers:

‘I must go, Cathy,’ said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion’s arms. ‘But if I live, I’ll see you again before you are asleep. I won’t stray five yards from your window.’ (XV, 120)

We have already seen that the imagery of glass represents opposite yet equally devastating afflictions to Catherine and Heathcliff – to one a charged sense of self-destruction, to the other a sense of imprisonment and impotency ‘ yet when the two combine it seems as if their union negates the harmful connotations of that toxic symbol. Perhaps Catherine and Heathcliff each resolve the flaws of the other, thereby transforming the heretofore harmful glass imagery into something positive, a kind of common bond; indeed, it is this very common bond which is present in the final image of glass noticed by Lockwood as he walks towards the lover’s graves:

My walk home was lengthened by a diversion in the direction of the kirk. When beneath its walls, I perceived decay had made progress, even in seven months: many a window showed black gaps deprived of glass; (XXXIV, 248)

We see here that the glass which had once represented the lovers’ tragic flaws is now missing, utterly removed from the church windows; thus, death has ultimately trumped the destructive powers symbolized by the various glass images. Where the hard, frangible panes had once kept the lovers apart, there are now only soft ‘black gaps’ symbolizing the lovers’s infinite union.

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Wuthering Heights and the Symbolic Meaning of Mirrors, Windows and Glass. (2018, April 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
“Wuthering Heights and the Symbolic Meaning of Mirrors, Windows and Glass.” GradesFixer, 19 Apr. 2018,
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