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The Significance of The Structure in "Wuthering Heights"

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A complete structural study of a novel demands preoccupation with structure as both organizational and temporal; in the case of Wuthering Heights especially, the two are inextricably linked. The novel is largely predicated on organization and temporality, and therefore, neglecting to adequately address both aspects of structure simultaneously would yield incomplete analysis. Lockwood acts as scribe and primary first person narrator – yet is often invisible as the bulk of the novel is told in Ellen (Nelly) Dean’s terms. Through both narrators, the reader is presented with empirical evidence from various sources and times, among them oral recollection of speech and events – both first and second hand, diary excerpts and diurnal entries, letters – both corporeal and recollected, etc. Wuthering Heights’ organizational and temporal structure affects the way the novel is read; it places focus on reader perception of character and reality, the eternal and supernatural, and the relationship between narrator and reader.

Bronte chose to assemble Wuthering Heights peculiarly. Lockwood’s diary – from 1801 to 1802 – is, in essence, Wuthering Heights: it is the text that frames and encapsulates the amalgam of narration, external sources, and secondary recollection that makes up the novel. Wuthering Heights can be divided into two broad structural frames. The first frame begins with the novel’s commencement and ends with Lockwood’s departure for London (Lockwood’s 1801-dated entry); the second frame begins with his return to Thrushcross Grange and ends with the conclusion of the novel (Lockwood’s 1802-dated entry). These two broad frames encapsulate other narratives and sources. The structural eclecticism is not limited to the weaving of narrators and written sources: temporality, and specifically, the peculiar temporality of Wuthering Heights, is crucial.

The novel commences with Lockwood’s first diary entry upon having arrived at Yorkshire. His diary entries represent the ‘present’ state of Wuthering Heights; his entries are composed soon after the events that comprise them have occurred. However, Lockwood only delineates time twice, and then very generally (1801 and 1802).

Catherine Earnshaw’s diary is the first corporeal, external text incorporated into Lockwood’s diary. He uncovers a collection of dilapidated volumes, which collectively were the diary of young Catherine Earnshaw. Lockwood records within his diary the scribbling of these ‘injured tome[s]’ (p. 20), his ‘present day’ diary therefore framing entries from the past. The incorporation of this text is a prime example of the link between organizational structure and temporal structure. The inclusion of these entries marking simultaneously the first instance of temporal dislocation and of structural fracturing; the entries ‘break’ Lockwood’s narrative and temporally disrupt it.

Once Nelly’s oral narrative begins, Lockwood is no longer perpetually, perceptibly present, as before; though his diary frames Nelly’s tale, he becomes invisible. Nelly’s tale is syntactically assimilated into his diary, and therefore it becomes easy to forget his pervading presence as scribe. He reemerges intermittently, fracturing Nelly’s narrative (see 62, 89, 157). The first of the novel’s two, broad structural frames ends with the ‘[completion of] Mrs. Dean’s story’ (p. 298) and Lockwood’s return as sole first person narrator for Chapter XVII of Volume II; consequently, structural symmetry is satisfied.

Lockwood’s second (and final) explicitly dated diary entry (1802) begins the second of the two broad structural frames, the second functioning much as did the first, only on a lesser scale. Part two of Nelly’s tale is framed within this second section of Lockwood’s diary, Lockwood emerging only in the book’s last paragraphs, thus once more satisfying structural symmetry.

Nelly Dean’s narrative is orally rendered to Lockwood and assimilated fully into his diary: her tale is not quoted though she is speaking, but is rendered syntactically as if she were writing herself. Effectually, she becomes a second first person narrator. Crucially significant to Nelly’s narrative is its temporal relation to Lockwood’s diary; her tale is presented to Lockwood entirely in flashback. Once more, a shift in structural organization is also a temporal shift.

Isabella’s letter is an external, material source preserved in Lockwood’s diary (p. 136) through Nelly’s narrative flashback. (Hence, Lockwood’s present day diary frames Nelly’ flashback narrative which frames Isabella’s letter.) The letter occupies the temporal space of roughly a ‘fortnight’ (p. 136); the events of the letter having taken place before Nelly received it (obviously) means that the letter is, theoretically, a framed flashback within a framed flashback.

Nelly’s narrative can also be evaluated as a significant structural frame in and of itself. Nelly’s flashback narrative primarily consists of her own first-hand accounts of the interactions of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange; but, within her narrative are external sources and recorded speech distinctly enough non-native that they occupy a space separate from her observational accounts. Isabella’s letter, for instance, exists within Nelly’s narrative structure, but it remains the only part of Nelly’s narrative to have been composed by another and set apart specially. Other sources of information are not specially set apart, but exist on a theoretically different narrative plane. Her inclusion of Zillah’s account of rumors circulating in Gimmerton (p. 278), for instance, is an example of this separate narrative type: it is rendered typically – as a conversation between the two ladies – yet is distinct from Nelly’s first hand observations. It is comparable to Catherine’s diary entries as framed by Lockwood’s diary; not assimilated syntactically, but nevertheless separate. Also, Nelly’s narrative is often populated by long stretches of speech from central characters. Edgar, ‘half-soliloquizing’ says Nelly, muses on his imminent death (p. 257) and Catherine discusses her relation to Heathcliff with Nelly after having accepted Edgar’s proposal (p. 81-82): such things are similarly separate. They are framed within Nelly’s narrative.

The formal organization of Wuthering Heights affects the way one reads the novel. It’s incongruous with typical modes of storytelling, the narrative moving backwards and forwards through time and utilizing different narrative sources.

Character explication is particularly striking. It is inseparably married to organizational and temporal structure: the structure of the novel controls dissemination of information, and consequently, reader perception of character. We are introduced to the characters of 1801 Wuthering Heights by Lockwood’s earliest diurnal entries – characters inscrutable to the uninitiated reader. What is significant is that Bronte chose to first introduce her characters in the present (1801) as opposed to a gradual depiction of causal character evolution. Initial impressions of Heathcliff, Catherine, and Hareton are challenged as Nelly’s narrative and the sources therein reveal their respective and collective past experiences, the people who previously inhabited their lives, and what led them to their current station.

Typical temporal logic is rejected by Bronte’s provocative structure, thus temporal disorientation is another effect of Wuthering Heights’ structure. The novel is arranged in such a way that the narrative moves back and forth through temporal space, Lockwood’s stay effectually representing stasis. His entries themselves echo the unimportance of temporality in their lack of temporal specificity; ‘weeks’ and ‘days’ are mentioned, but dates are never given. During Nelly’s more comprehensive narrative sections, years pass over the course of mere chapters. Chronology is unimportant; it becomes a fruitless venture to attempt to reconcile event with time.

Wuthering Heights is structured in such as way as for Lockwood to see as the reader does. Had Lockwood compiled his diary – which is effectually the novel, Wuthering Heights – chronologically, relocating his experiences to fall within the holistic scheme of Wuthering Heights’ history, the readers’ experience would not be unified with his. The reality of the organization is that Lockwood’s diary presents information as he received it; therefore, the readers’ understanding is always in step with Lockwood’s.

A sound comprehension of structural purpose is beneficial when one is searching for meaning within a literary work. Some themes of Wuthering Heights are predicated upon the novel’s structure while others are enriched by the holistic structural peculiarity: Reality is called into question by the illogical structure; perceptions of character are altered as the novel moves back and forth through time; obscure temporal structure reduces importance of ephemeral and shifts focus to eternal.

The novel’s atemporal structure inverts conventional perception of time and places focus instead on that which is eternal, timeless, and supernatural. The novel’s central relationship, that between Heathcliff and Catherine, transcends time, and therefore it is appropriate that the novel should strive to destroy the reader’s preconceptions of importance of chronology. Chronology is irrelevant in a relationship in which the ultimate goal is union in death. Their love is meaningful is terms of the cosmic and the soul, not ephemeral institutions such as marriage. Their bond is wholly ‘other’ and ‘beyond’; time is meaningless as their focus is only on ultimate, eternal union.

Wuthering Heights’ structure not only challenges the way in which readers typically understand fictive characters, but uses this convention to ask something of human interpersonal dynamics. As readers, we form conceptions of Wuthering Heights’ characters upon our introduction to them. Our understanding of these characters is wholly superficial prior to commencement of Nelly’s narrative. The plethora of sources, essentially an amalgam of anecdotes, helps draw a more complete image of who the characters are. Therefore, the novel is structured so that our understanding of Wuthering Heights’ characters more closely resembles the reality of human interaction: an introduction followed by gradual revelation; causal understanding comes only after initial conceptions have been formed. It is then provocative that readers never have a very complete conception of character, even at the novel’s close. The question becomes, even with a veritable excess of observational knowledge, can one every really know another human being?

Wuthering Heights’ structure is inherently illogical. It is an extensive collection of sources amalgamated to create a complex narrative. In reading the novel, it is imperative that one recognize the complexity of presentation. We are not presented with objective truth, but instead are given the fragments of perception of others, from this expected to discover the reality of Wuthering Heights. One can only reach a conclusion of reality subjectively because human perception is ultimately controlled by the perceptions and notions of others. (This relates importantly to the relationship in the novel between Nelly and Lockwood, one that may be evaluated as comparable to author and audience.) In this way, Wuthering Heights is akin to a microcosmic world in which – realistically – objective understanding cannot be reached. Elements are too ambiguous, motives unclear; we only get a broad, subjective idea, an idea that would be entirely different had the story been told from another perspective.

Structure controls the way Wuthering Heights is communicated to the reader. It is the arrangement of narrators and other sources and their temporal relationships with one another that color the way one must read the novel and ultimately, thematic conclusions that may be drawn. A thorough knowledge and understanding of this structure and how it functions independent of narrative must be of primary concern; without it, meaningful analysis of structure is impossible. From this understanding, one may discover how the novel’s content is affected by structure. Finally, holistic meaning may be evaluated in context of structural understanding. Structure affects readers’ final perceptions of character and the characters’ relation to one another, reality, and the eternal; structure in Wuthering Heights transcends usual bounds and not only complements, but is the substance of the novel.

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The Significance of the Structure in “Wuthering Heights”. (2018, Jun 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 25, 2022, from
“The Significance of the Structure in “Wuthering Heights”.” GradesFixer, 03 Jun. 2018,
The Significance of the Structure in “Wuthering Heights”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Jun. 2022].
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