Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: A 19th-Century Synopsis
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Writing as “Ellis Bell,” Emily Brontë‘s only novel,Wuthering Heights, was published in December 1847. The brooding and complex story follows the intersection of two families — the Earnshaws and the Lintons. Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff have sparked romantic imaginations as star-crossed lovers whose dramas and tragedies reverberate into the next generation.
Reviewers in Emily’s time were rather perplexed by the novel. Charlotte Brontë felt that her sister Emily’s magnum opus was poorly understood and supplied her own preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights. By this time, Emily (1818 – 1848) had already died at the age of thirty, and Charlotte had become something of a literary celebrity for the far more successful reception of Jane Eyre. She wrote:
“Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is. But this I know: the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master — something that, at times, strangely wills and works for itself.”
Literary critic Angus Ross commented: “If Wuthering Heights is not approached as a ‘morbid romance’ it can be seen to have a very skillful arrangement. She deals with evil and good, not right and wrong, and the wildness and fierceness of her vision gives her one long work a kind of elemental power not matched in any other novel.”
Any synopsis of Wuthering Heights must, by necessity, mirror its long and complicated story. I found this 19th-century synopsis by Mary F. Robinson to be quite up to the task of encapsulating the narrative. The following is from the book Emily Brontë by Mary F. Robinson (1883). This selection has been edited for clarity. Long quoted sections of dialog have been excluded.
For the unedited selection, go to Emily Brontë and scroll to Chapter XIV, Wuthering Heights: The Story. And before reading the synopsis that starts with the next paragraph, I recommend getting to know the cast of characters to understand their relationship to one another.
A visitor’s nightmare
The first four chapters of Wuthering Heights are merely introductory. They relate Mr. Lockwood’s visit there, his surprise at the rudeness of the place in contrast with the foreign air and look of breeding that distinguished Mr. Heathcliff and his beautiful daughter-in-law. He also noticed the profound moroseness and ill-temper of everybody in the house.
Overtaken by a snowstorm, he was, however, constrained to sleep there and was conducted by the housekeeper to an old chamber, long unused, where (since at first he could not sleep) he amused himself by looking over a few mildewed books piled on one corner of the window-ledge. They and the ledge were scrawled all over with writing, Catherine Earnshaw, sometimes varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and again to Catherine Linton.
Nothing save these three names was written on the ledge, but the books were covered in every fly-leaf and margin with a pen-and-ink commentary, a sort of diary, as it proved, scrawled in a childish hand. Mr. Lockwood spent the first portion of the night in deciphering this faded record; a string of childish mishaps and deficiencies dated a quarter of a century ago.
Evidently this Catherine Earnshaw must have been one of Heathcliff’s kin, for he figured in the narrative as her fellow-scapegrace, and the favorite scapegoat of her elder brother’s wrath. After some time Mr. Lockwood fell asleep, to be troubled by harassing dreams, in one of which he fancied that this childish Catherine Earnshaw, or rather her spirit, was knocking and scratching at the fir-scraped window-pane, begging to be let in.
Overcome with the intense horror of nightmare, he screamed aloud in his sleep. Waking suddenly up he found to his confusion that his yell had been heard, for Heathcliff appeared, exceedingly angry that any one had been allowed to sleep in the oak-closeted room.
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An unwelcome foundling
The story of Wuthering Heights is the story of Heathcliff. It begins with the sudden journey of the old squire, Mr. Earnshaw, to Liverpool one summer morning at the beginning of harvest. He had asked the children each to choose a present, “only let it be little, for I shall walk there and back, sixty miles each way” — and the son Hindley, a proud, high-spirited lad of fourteen, had chosen a fiddle; six-year-old Cathy, a whip, for she could ride any horse in the stable; and Nelly Dean, their humble servant, had been promised a pocketful of apples and pears.
It was the third night since Mr. Earnshaw’s departure, and the children, sleepy and tired, had begged their mother to let them sit up a little longer—yet a little longer—to welcome their father, and see their new presents. At last, just about eleven o’clock Mr. Earnshaw came back, laughing and groaning over his fatigue; and opening his greatcoat, which he held bundled up in his arms, he cried:
“‘See here, wife! I was never so beaten with anything in my life: but you must e’en take it as a gift of God; though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil.”
So the child entered ‘Wuthering Heights,’ a cause of dissension from the first. Mrs. Earnshaw grumbled herself calm; the children went to bed crying, for the fiddle had been broken and the whip lost in carrying the little stranger for so many miles. But Mr. Earnshaw was determined to have his protégé respected; he cuffed saucy little Cathy for making faces at the newcomer, and turned Nelly Dean out of the house for having set him to sleep on the stairs because the children would not have him in their bed. And when she ventured to return some days afterwards, she found the child adopted into the family, and called by the name of a son who had died in childhood —Heathcliff.
Mrs. Earnshaw disliked the little interloper and never interfered in his behalf when Hindley, who hated him, thrashed and struck the sullen, patient child, who never complained, but bore all his bruises in silence. This endurance made old Earnshaw furious when he discovered the persecutions to which this mere baby was subjected; the child soon discovered it to be a most efficient instrument of vengeance.
Young Heathcliff continues to sow discord
So the division grew. This malignant, uncomplaining child could only breed discord in that Yorkshire home … Insensible, it seemed, to gratitude … cruel, and violently passionate. One soft and tender speck there was in this dark and sullen heart; it was an exceedingly great and forbearing love for the sweet, saucy, naughty Catherine.
But this one affection only served to augment the mischief that he wrought. He who had estranged son from father, husband from wife, severed brother from sister as completely; for Hindley hated the swarthy child who was Cathy’s favorite companion. When Mrs. Earnshaw died, two years after Heathcliff’s advent, Hindley had learned to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as an intolerable usurper. So, from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house.
In the course of time Mr. Earnshaw began to fail. His strength suddenly left him, and he grew half childish, irritable, and extremely jealous of his authority. He considered any slight to Heathcliff as a slight to his own discretion; so that, in the master’s presence, the child was deferred to and courted from respect for that master’s weakness, while, behind his back, the old wrongs, the old hatred, showed themselves unquenched. And so the child grew up bitter and distrustful.
The death of Mr. Earnshaw does nothing to allay a bitter rivalry
Matters got a little better for a while, when the untamable Hindley was sent to college; yet still there was disturbance and disquiet, for Mr. Earnshaw did not love his daughter Catherine, and his heart was yet further embittered by the grumbling and discontent of old Joseph the servant.
But Catherine, though slighted for Heathcliff, and nearly always in trouble on his account, was much too fond of him to be jealous … Suddenly this pretty, mischievous sprite was left fatherless; Mr. Earnshaw died quietly, sitting in his chair by the fireside one October evening. Mr. Hindley, now a young man of twenty, came home to the funeral, to the great astonishment of the household bringing a wife with him.
A rush of a lass, spare and bright-eyed, with a changing, hectic color, hysterical, and full of fancies, fickle as the winds, now flighty and full of praise and laughter, now peevish and languishing. For the rest, the very idol of her husband’s heart. A word from her, a passing phrase of dislike for Heathcliff, was enough to revive all young Earnshaw’s former hatred of the boy.
Heathcliff was turned out of their society, no longer allowed to share Cathy’s lessons, degraded to the position of an ordinary farm-servant. At first Heathcliff did not mind. Cathy taught him what she learned, and played or worked with him in the fields. Cathy ran wild with him, and had a share in all his scrapes; they both bade fair to grow up regular little savages, while Hindley Earnshaw kissed and fondled his young wife utterly heedless of their fate.
Encountering the Lintons
An adventure suddenly changed the course of their lives. One Sunday evening Cathy and Heathcliff ran down to Thrushcross Grange to peep through the windows and see how the little Lintons spent their Sundays. They looked in, and saw Isabella at one end of the, to them, splendid drawing-room, and Edgar at the other, both in floods of tears, peevishly quarreling. So elate were the two little savages from Wuthering Heights at this proof of their neighbors’ inferiority, that they burst into peals of laughter.
The little Lintons were terrified, and, to frighten them still more, Cathy and Heathcliff made a variety of frightful noises; they succeeded in terrifying not only the children but their silly parents, who imagined the yells to come from a gang of burglars, determined on robbing the house.
They let the dogs loose, in this belief, and the bulldog seized Cathy’s bare ankle, for she had lost her shoes in the bog. While Heathcliff was trying to throttle off the brute, the man-servant came up, and, taking both the children prisoner, conveyed them into the lighted hall.
Cathy is transformed
Cathy stayed five weeks at Thrushcross Grange, by which time her ankle was quite well, and her manners much improved. Young Mrs. Earnshaw had tried her best, during this visit, to endeavor by a judicious mixture of fine clothes and flattery to raise the standard of Cathy’s self-respect. She went home, then, a beautiful and finely-dressed young lady, to find Heathcliff in equal measure deteriorated; the mere farm-servant, whose clothes were soiled with three months’ service in mire and dust, with unkempt hair and grimy face and hands.
From this time Catherine’s friendship with Heathcliff was checkered by intermittent jealousy on his side and intermittent disgust on hers; and for this evil turn, far more than for any coarser brutality, Heathcliff longed for revenge on Hindley Earnshaw.
Hindley Earnshaw’s reputation grows ever more terrible
Meanwhile Edgar Linton, greatly smitten with the beautiful Catherine, went from time to time to visit at Wuthering Heights. He would have gone far oftener, but that he had a terror of Hindley Earnshaw’s reputation, and shrank from encountering him.
For this fine young Oxford gentleman, this proud young husband, was sinking into worse excesses than any of his wild Earnshaw ancestors. A defiant sorrow had driven him to desperation. In the summer following Catherine’s visit to Thushcross Grange, his only son and heir had been born. An occasion of great rejoicings, suddenly dashed by the discovery that his wife, his idol, was fast sinking in consumption.
Hindley refused to believe it, and his wife kept her flighty spirits till the end; but one night, while leaning on his shoulder, a fit of coughing took her—a very slight one. She put her two hands about his neck, her face changed, and she was dead. Hindley grew desperate, and gave himself over to wild companions, to excesses of dissipation, and tyranny. “His treatment of Heathcliff was enough to make a fiend of a saint.”
Heathcliff bore it with sullen patience, as he had borne the blows and kicks of his childhood; the aches and wants of his body were redeemed by a fierce joy at heart, for in this degradation of Hindley Earnshaw he recognized the instrument of his own revenge.
Cathy is engaged to Edgar Linton, but not in love
Time went on, ever making a sharper difference between his gypsy soul and his beautiful young mistress time went on, leaving the two fast friends enough, but leaving also in the heart of Heathcliff a passionate rancor against the man who had made him unworthy of Catherine’s hand, and of the other man on whom it was to be bestowed.
For Edgar Linton was infatuated with the naughty young beauty of Wuthering Heights. Her violent temper did not frighten him, although his own character was singularly sweet, placid, and feeble; her compromising friendship with such a mere boor as young Heathcliff was only a trifling annoyance easily to be excused. And when his own father and mother died of a fever caught in nursing her he did not love her less for the sorrow she brought.
A fever she had wilfully taken in despair, and a sudden sickness of life. One evening pretty Cathy came into the kitchen to tell Nelly Dean that she had engaged herself to marry Edgar Linton. Heathcliff, unseen, was seated on the other side the settle, on a bench by the wall, quite hidden from those at the fireside.
Cathy was elated, but not at all happy. Edgar was rich, handsome, young, gentle, passionately in love with her; still she was miserable. Nelly Dean, who was nursing the baby Hareton by the fire, finally grew out of patience with her whimsical discontent.
“Your brother will be pleased,” she said; “the old lady and gentleman will not object, I think; you will escape from a disorderly, comfortless home into a wealthy, respectable one; and you love Edgar, and Edgar loves you. All seems smooth and easy; where is the obstacle?“
“Here! and here!” replied Catherine, striking one hand on her forehead and the other on her breast. “In whichever place the soul lives. In my soul and in my heart I’m convinced I’m wrong.”
Heathcliff, who had walked out of the house, her rejection burning in his ears, not to enter it till he was fitted to exact both love and vengeance. He did not come back that night, though the thunder rattled and the rain streamed over Wuthering Heights; though Cathy, shawl-less in the wind and wet, stood calling him. Through the violent storms that drowned and baffled her cries.
All night she would not leave the hearth, but lay on the settle sobbing and moaning, all soaked as she was, with her hands on her face and her face to the wall. A strange augury for her marriage, these first dreams of her affianced love—not dreams, indeed, but delirium; for the next morning she was burning and tossing in fever, near to death’s door as it seemed.
But she won through, and Edgar’s parents carried her home to nurse. They took the infection and died within a few days of each other. Nor was this the only ravage that the fever made. Catherine, always hasty and fitful in temper, was henceforth subject at rare intervals to violent and furious rages, which threatened her life and reason by their extremity.
The doctor said she ought not to be crossed; she ought to have her own way, and it was nothing less than murder in her eyes for any one to presume to stand up and contradict her. But the strained temper, the spoiled, authoritative ways, the saucy caprices of his bride, were no blemishes in Edgar Linton’s eyes.
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Emily Brontë page on Amazon
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A happy marriage at first, and the return of Heathcliff
Despite so many gloomy auguries the marriage was a happy one at first. Catherine was petted and humored by everyone, with Edgar for a perpetual worshipper; his pretty, weak-natured sister Isabella as an admiring companion; and for the necessary spectator of her happiness, Nelly Dean, who had been induced to quit her nursling at Wuthering Heights.
Suddenly Heathcliff returned, not the old Heathcliff, but a far more dangerous enemy, a tall, athletic, well-formed, man, intelligent, and severe. Cathy, though she was really attached to her husband, gave him cruel pain by her undisguised and childish delight at Heathcliff’s return; he had a presentiment that evil would come of the old friendship thus revived, and would willingly have forbidden Heathcliff the house; but Edgar, so anxious lest any cross be given to his wife, with a double reason then for tenderly guarding her health, could not inflict a serious sorrow upon her with only a baseless jealousy for its excuse.
Thus, Heathcliff became intimate at Thrushcross Grange, the second house to which he was made welcome, the second hearth he meant to ruin. At this time he was lodging at Wuthering Heights. On his return he had first intended, he told Catherine, “just to have one glimpse of your face, a stare of surprise, perhaps, and pretended pleasure; afterwards settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself.”
Settling scores with Hindley
Catherine’s welcome changed this plan; her brother was safe from Heathcliff’s violence; but not from his hate. The score was being settled in a different fashion. Hindley—who was eager to get money for his gambling and who had drunk his wits away—was only too glad to take Heathcliff as lodger, boon-companion, and fellow card-player at once.
And Heathcliff was content to wait and take his revenge sip by sip, encouraging his old oppressor in drink and gaming, watching him lose acre after acre of his land, knowing that sooner or later Earnshaw would lose everything, and he, Heathcliff, be master of Wuthering Heights, with Hindley’s son for his servant. Revenge is sweet. Meanwhile, Wuthering Heights was a handy lodging, at walking distance from the Grange.
Isabella Linton falls in love with Heathcliff
But soon his visits were cut off. Isabella Linton—a charming girl of eighteen with a thin sweetness of disposition that could easily turn sour—fell in love with Heathcliff. To do him justice he had never dreamed of marrying her, until one day Catherine, in a fit of passion, revealed the poor girl’s secret. Heathcliff pretended not to believe her, but Isabel was her brother’s heir, and to marry her, inherit Edgar’s money, and ill-use his sister, would, indeed, be a fair revenge on Catherine’s husband.
One day, when he had been detected in an experimental courting of Isabel, Edgar Linton, glad of an excuse, turned him out of doors. Then, in a paroxysm of hatred, never-satisfied revenge, and baffled passion, Heathcliff struck with the poisoned weapon ready to his hand. He persuaded Isabel to run away with him—no difficult task—and they eloped together one night to be married.
Isabella—poor, weak, romantic, sprightly Isabel—was not missed at first; for very terrible trouble had fallen upon the Grange.
Catherine tries to starve herself
Catherine, in a paroxysm of rage at the dismissal of Heathcliff, quarreled violently with Edgar, and shut herself up in her own room.
For three days and nights she remained there, eating nothing; Edgar, secluded in his study, expecting every moment that she would come down and ask his forgiveness; Nelly Dean, who alone knew of her determined starving, resolved to say nothing about it, and conquer, once for all, the haughty and passionate spirit which possessed her beautiful young mistress.
So three days went by. Catherine still refused all her food. On the third day Catherine unbarred her door and asked for food; and now Nelly Dean was too frightened to exult. Her mistress was wasted, haggard, wild, as if by months of illness; the too-presumptuous servant remembered the doctor’s warning, and dreaded her master’s anger, when he should discover Catherine’s real condition.
It is characteristic of Emily Brontë’s genius that she should choose so very simple and homely a means production of most terrible results. A fit she had had alone and untended during those three days of isolated starvation had unsettled Catherine’s reason.
This scene was the beginning of a long and fearful brain-fever, from which, owing to her husband’s devoted and ceaseless care, Catherine recovered her life, but barely her reason. That hung in the balance, a touch might settle it on the side of health or of madness.
Isabella’s flight is discovered
Not until the beginning of this fever was Isabella’s flight discovered. Her brother was too concerned with his wife’s illness to feel as heart-broken as Heathcliff hoped. He was not violent against his sister, nor even angry; only, with the mild steady persistence of his nature, he refused to hold any communication with Heathcliff’s wife.
But when, at the beginning of Catherine’s recovery, Nelly Dean received a letter from Isabella, declaring the extreme wretchedness of her life at Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff was master now, Edgar Linton willingly accorded the servant permission to go and see his sister.
Arrived at Wuthering Heights, she found that once plentiful homestead sorely ruined and deteriorated by years of thriftless dissipation; and Isabella Linton, already metamorphosed into a wan and listless slattern, broken-spirited and pale. Nelly Dean, unhindered by the sight of Isabella’s misery, or by the memory of the wrongs her master already suffered from this estimable neighbor, was finally cajoled into taking a letter from him to the frail half-dying Catherine, appointing an interview.
The letter was taken and given; the meeting came about one Sunday when all the household save Nelly Dean were at church.
Cathy dies after giving birth to her namesake daughter
Catherine, pale, apathetic, but more than ever beautiful in her mazed weakness of mind and body; Heathcliff, violent in despair, seeing death in her face, alternately upbraiding her fiercely for causing him so much misery, and tenderly caressing the altered, dying face.
Never was so strange a love scene. It is not a scene to quote, not noticeable for its eloquent passages or the beauty of casual phrases, but for its sustained passion, desperate, pure, terrible.
At last they parted: Catherine unconscious, half-dead. That night her puny, seven-months’ child was born; that night the mother died, unutterably changed from the bright imperious creature who entered that house as a kingdom, not yet a year ago. By her side, in the darkened chamber, her husband lay, worn out with anguish. Outside, dashing his head against the trees, Heathcliff raged, not to be consoled.
From this time a slow insidious madness worked in Heathcliff. When it was at its height he was not fierce, but strangely silent, scarcely breathing; hushed, as a person who draws his breath to hear some sound only just not heard as yet, as a man who strains his eyes to see the speck on the horizon which will rise the next moment, the next instant, and grow into the ship that brings his treasure home.
Isabella gives birth to Heathcliff’s son Linton
Soon after the birth of the baby Catherine, Isabella Heathcliff escaped from her husband to the South of England. He made no attempt to follow her, and in her new home she gave birth to a son, Linton—the fruit of timidity and hatred, fear and revulsion—from the first she reported him to “be an ailing, peevish creature.”
Meanwhile little Catherine grew up the very light of her home, an exquisite creature with her father’s gentle, constant nature inspired by a spark of her mother’s fire and lightened by a gleam of her wayward caprice. She had the Earnshaws’ handsome dark eyes and the Lintons’ fair skin, regular features and curling yellow hair. Cathy was in truth a charming creature, though less passionate and strange than her mother, Catherine Earnshaw, not made to be loved as wildly nor as deeply mistrusted.
Edgar, grown a complete hermit, devoted himself to his child, who spent a life as happy and secluded as a princess in a fairy story, seldom venturing outside the limits of the park and never by herself. Edgar had never forgotten his sorrow for the death of his young wife; he loved her memory with steady constancy.
Heathcliff takes possession of Wuthering Heights
The years passed, nothing happened, save that Hindley Earnshaw died, and Heathcliff—to whom every yard had been mortgaged, took possession of the place; not Hareton, who should have been the first gentleman in the neighborhood.
The eventless years went by till Catherine was thirteen, when Mrs. Heathcliff died, and Edgar went to the South of England to fetch her son. Little Cathy, during her father’s absence, grew impatient of her confinement to the park; there was no one to escort her over the moors, so one day she leapt the fence, got lost, and was finally sheltered at Wuthering Heights, of which place and of all its inmates she had been kept in total ignorance.
She promised to keep the visit a secret from her father, lest he should dismiss Nelly Dean. She was very indignant at being told that rudely-bred Hareton was her cousin; and when that night Linton—delicate, pretty, pettish Linton—arrived, she infinitely preferred his cousinship.
The next morning she found Linton gone, his father having sent for him to Wuthering Heights; Edgar Linton, however, did not tell his daughter that her cousin was so near, he would not for worlds she should cross the threshold of that terrible house. But one day, Cathy and Nelly Dean met Heathcliff on the moors, and he half-persuaded, half-forced them to come home and see his son, grown a most despicable, ailing creature, half-violent, half-terrified.
Cathy’s secret engagement to Linton
Cathy’s kind little heart did not see the faults, she only saw that her cousin was ill, unhappy, in need of her; she was easily entrapped, one winter, when her father and Nelly Dean were both ill, into a secret engagement with this boy-cousin, the only lad, save uncouth Hareton, whom she had ever seen.
Every night, when her day’s nursing was done, she rode over to Wuthering Heights to pet and fondle Linton. Heathcliff did all he could to favor the plan. He knew his son was dying, notwithstanding that every care was taken to preserve the heir of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. It is true that Cathy had a rival claim; to marry her to Linton would be to secure the title, get a wife for his dying son to preserve the line of inheritance, and certainly to break Edgar Linton’s heart. Heathcliff’s love of revenge and love of power combined to make the scheme a thing to strive for and desire.
He grew desperate as the boy got weaker and weaker; it was but too likely that he would die before his dying uncle, and, if Edgar Linton survived, Thrushcross Grange was lost to Heathcliff. As a last resource he made his son write to Edgar Linton and beg for an interview on neutral ground.
Edgar, who, ignorant of Linton Heathcliff’s true character, saw no reason why Cathy should not marry her cousin if they loved each other, allowed Nelly Dean to take her little mistress, now seventeen years old, on to the moors where Linton Heathcliff was to meet them.
Cathy was loathe to leave her father even for an hour, he was so ill; but she had been told Linton was dying, so nerved herself to go once more on the moors: they found Linton in a strange state, terrified, exhausted, despondent, making spasmodic love to Cathy as if it were a lesson he had been beaten into learning.
She wished to return, but the boy declared himself, and looked too ill to go back alone. They escorted him home to the Heights, and Heathcliff persuaded them to enter, saying he would go for a doctor for his sick lad. But, once they were in the house, he showed his hand. The doors were bolted.
The death of Linton Heathcliff
Neither tears nor prayers would induce him to let his victims go till Catherine was Linton’s wife, and so, he told her, till her father had died in solitude. But five days after, Catherine Linton, now Catherine Heathcliff, contrived an escape in time to console her father’s dying hours with a false belief in her happiness; a noble lie, for Edgar Linton died contented, kissing his daughter’s cheek, ignorant of the misery in store for her.
The next day Heathcliff came over to the Grange to recapture his prey, but now Catherine did not mind; her father dead, she received all the affronts and stings of fate with an enduring apathy; it was only her that they injured. A few days after Linton died in the night, alone with his bride. After a year’s absolute misery and loneliness, Catherine’s lot was a little lightened by Mr. Heathcliff’s preferring Nelly Dean to the vacant post of housekeeper at Wuthering Heights.
For the all-absorbing presence of Catherine Earnshaw had nearly secluded Heathcliff from enmity with the world; he was seldom violent now. He became yet more and more disinclined to society, sitting alone, seldom eating, often walking about the whole night. His face changed, and the look of brooding hate gave way to a yet more alarming expression—an excited, wild, unnatural appearance of joy.
At last his mysterious absorption, the stress of his expectation, became so intense that he could not eat. Animated with hunger, he would sit down to his meal, then suddenly start, as if he saw something, glance at the door or the window and go out. Weary and pale, he could not sleep; but left his bed hurriedly, and went out to pace the garden till break of day.
Heathcliff’s revenge plots crumbling
Meanwhile the schemes of a life, the deeply-laid purposes of his revenge, were toppling unheeded all round him, like a house of cards. His son was dead. Hareton Earnshaw, the real heir of Wuthering Heights, and Catharine, the real heir of Thrushcross Grange, had fallen in love with each other.
A most unguessed-at and unlikely finale; yet most natural. For Catharine was spoiled, accomplished, beautiful, proud—yet most affectionate and tender-hearted: and Hareton rude, surly, ignorant, fierce; yet true as steel, staunch, and with a very loving faithful heart, constant even to the man who had, of set purpose, brutalized him and kept him in servitude.
This odd, rough love story, as harshly sweet as wortle-berries, as dry and stiff in its beauty as purple heather-sprays, is the most purely human, the only tender interest of Wuthering Heights. It is the necessary and lawful anti-climax to Heathcliff’s triumph, the final reassertion of the pre-eminence of right.
“Conquered good, and conquering ill” is often pitiably true; but not an everlasting law, only a too frequent accident. Perceiving this, Emily Brontë shows the final discomfiture of Heathcliff, who was in the end compelled to see the property he has so cruelly amassed descend to his hereditary enemies.
And he was baffled, not so much by Cathy’s and Hareton’s love affairs as by this sudden reaction from violence, this slackening of the heartstrings, which left him nerveless and anaemic, a prey to encroaching monomania. He had spent his life in crushing the berries for his revenge, in mixing that dark and maddening draught; and when the final moment came, when he lifted it to his lips, desire had left him, he had no taste for it.
Isabella Linton was the most pitiable sufferer. Victim we can scarcely call her, who required no deception, but courted her doom. And after all, a marriage chiefly desired in order to humiliate a sister-in-law and show the bride to be a person of importance, was not intolerably requited by three months of wretched misery; after so much she is suffered to escape.
From Edgar Linton, as we have seen, Heathcliff’s blows fell aside unharming, as the executioner’s strokes from a legendary martyr. He never learnt how secondary a place he held in his wife’s heart, he never knew the misery of his only daughter—misery soon to be turned into joy. He lived and died, patient, happy, trustful, unvisited by the violence and fury that had their centre so near his hearth.
The younger Catharine and Hareton suffered but a temporary ill; the misery they endured together taught them to love; the tyrant’s rod had blossomed into roses. And he, lonely and palsied at heart, eating out his soul in bitter solitude, he saw his plans of vengeance all frustrated, so much elaboration so simply counteracted; it was he that suffers … Heathcliff let them go on, frightening them more by his strange mood of abstraction than by his accustomed ferocity.
The demise of Heathcliff
He could give them no attention any more. For four days he could neither eat nor rest, till his cheeks grew hollow and his eyes bloodshot, like a person starving with hunger, and growing blind with loss of sleep.
At last one early morning, when the rain was streaming in at Heathcliff’s flapping lattice, Nelly Dean went in to shut it. The master must be up or out, she said. But pushing back the panels of the enclosed bed, she found him there, laid on his back, his open eyes keen and fierce; quite still, though his face and throat were washed with rain; quite still, with a frightful, lifelike gaze of exultation under his brows, with parted lips and sharp white teeth that sneered—quite still and harmless now; dead and stark.
Dead, before any vengeance had overtaken him other than the slow, retributive sufferings of his own breast; dead, slain by too much hope, and an unnatural joy. Never before had any villain so strange an end; never before had any sufferer so protracted and sinister a torment, “beguiled with the spectre of a hope through eighteen years.”
Hareton passionately mourned his lost tyrant, weeping in bitter earnest, and kissing the sarcastic, savage face that every one else shrunk from contemplating. And Heathcliff’s memory was sacred, having in the youth he ruined a most valiant defender. Even Catharine might never bemoan his wickednesses to her husband.
His violence was not strong enough to reach that final peace and mar its completeness. His grave is next to Catharine’s, and near to Edgar Linton’s; over them all the wild bilberry springs, and the peat-moss and heather. They do not wreak of the passion, the capricious sweetness, the steady goodness that lie underneath. It is all one to them and to the larks singing aloft.
“I lingered round the graves under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
So ends the story of Wuthering Heights.
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See also: 1939 Film Adaptation of Wuthering Heights
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