Emily Brontė published Wuthering Heights under the pseudonym Ellis Bell
in 1847. Her only novel, it is a story set on the Yorkshire moors centring
around the Earnshaw and Linton families. It is highly imaginative, notable
for its spirit of passion and rebellion, and it attains an almost mystical
intensity. After it was published, it was believed to be the work of Emily's
brother, Branwell, because it was considered that no woman, let alone
one who led such a circumscribed life, could have written such a turbulent
and passionate book. However, Branwell had no literary talent, and his
mental state would hardly have allowed him to execute such a work. Considered
a classic today, the book was quite controversial in its time for challenging
the social and religious values of the Victorian era, in particular, morality,
gender inequality, and class, and for its explicit depiction of domestic
abuse, mental illness, and raw passion. Emily died one year after her
novel was published.
Synopsis by H. Pearl Adam from 'Famous Books by Women: Wuthering Heights
by Emily Brontė'
The Hero of the Story
A kind-hearted Yorkshireman one day, in a slum in a big town, came upon
a neglected, homeless little boy—a ' little black-haired, swarthy
thing, as dark as if it came from the devil'. He carried him home to his
house on the moors, called Wuthering Heights. 'Wuthering' is a local word,
and anyone can find out what it means merely by saying 'the wind was wuthering
round the house'. So the name of the house in which the action passes
already strikes the note of the book. The little waif is known as 'Heathcliff',
and he grows up a violent, gloomy, boorish lad, at war with everyone except
the little wild-hearted daughter of the house, Catherine. Earnshaw is
the name of the family into which he is introduced, and a more oddly constituted
household it would be impossible to find. The elder Mr Earnshaw is dead,
and his wife dies before him. Hindley Earnshaw, the son, succeeds—a
young man given to dissipation, and of no very pleasing character. His
colourless young wife scarcely appears at all; she just fades away, after
giving birth to a son, called Hareton. (All the men at Wuthering Heights
have surnames instead of Christian names.) Hindley's young sister Catherine
runs wild for years, for apparently education is hardly thought of, and
Heathcliff is her chosen companion. The two are in a way kindred spirits.
Hindley hates them both, particularly Heathcliff, and treats the two children
cruelly, partly out of ignorance and thoughtlessness.
After a while Catherine comes under the influence of two cousins, Edgar
and Isabella Linton. These live in a sheltered grange under the moors,
and they are really civilised people, which apparently made it difficult
for Emily Brontė to tolerate them. Catherine goes down to have lessons
with them, and comes back to the Heights a little, fine lady. She sneers
at Heathcliff's ignorance and boorishness, and drives him nearly mad.
Yet his devotion to her never wavers. He would have murdered her at any
moment with something approaching satisfaction, but that is merely his
little way of loving. To tell the first part of the story briefly, Catherine
grows up and marries Edgar Linton, who loves her, and would not dream
of murdering her. For this she never forgives him, as he seems to her
tame and insipid after Heathcliff, who has now vanished from the scene.
So Catherine is installed at Thrushcross Grange, and is just beginning
to settle down when Heathcliff turns up again, with some appearance of
cleanliness and education about him, but otherwise just the same as ever.
The story now becomes obscure; Heathcliff is always raving violently,
but we cannot be quite sure what he would be at. But he has a power which
seems to paralyse everybody; instead of being horsewhipped for hanging
round Catherine, it is her husband who creeps about like a culprit. Meanwhile,
Heathcliff is busy killing Hindley Earnshaw up at the Heights, by way
of paying off old scores; and teaching his little son to swear.
One day Edgar Linton comes home and finds Catherine and Heathcliff locked
in an embrace which seems to hold them as in a spell. (Previous to this
Catherine has fallen into a half-tranced state, subsequent to an illness.)
That night her little daughter Catherine is born, and the young mother,
whom, with all her wildness, we cannot help liking, even in spite of her
dreadful rudeness, slips away from the world. Heathcliff is really a madman
from this moment. Hindley dies, and Heathcliff, having won everything
from him at cards, enters into possession of Wuthering Heights, where
he lives for years, bringing Hareton up as even a greater savage than
he is himself. But another thread has now entered into the story. Edgar
Linton's sister has conceived an odd infatuation for Heathcliff, before
Catherine's death, and with almost incredible brutality Catherine has
told Heathcliff of this in the presence of Isabella. The next thing is
the elopement of Isabella with Heathcliff, who thinks this a good move
in the vengeance he has sworn to wreak on Linton for marrying Catherine.
Of course, she cannot stand him, and runs away to a hiding place, where
a son is born.
A Pause in the Story
So now we have Heathcliff and young Hareton living like beasts up at Wuthering
Heights; Isabella bringing up Heathcliff 's son in the south country;
and Edgar Linton, broken-hearted and fragile, rearing little Cathy almost
as a prisoner in Thrushcross Grange. The story seems to pause, while the
two cousins are growing up; but with Isabella's death, and Linton Heathcliff's
consequent arrival at Thrushcross Grange, matters move again. Linton is
a puling, peevish creature, who would be as brutal as Heathcliff if he
were not too weak in body and mind. Brilliant little Catherine pities
him from the bottom of her heart, and she dazzles him. Heathcliff insists
on having him up at the Heights, and there matures a further scheme. He
will marry Linton to Catherine, and thus get possession of all Edgar Linton's
lands and money. So he would at last ruin the whole family of Earnshaw
and Linton. This he brings about just before Edgar Linton's death; and
his son dies very shortly after. Catherine, cruelly used and penniless,
lives on at the Heights.
A Haunted Man
But Heathcliff is a haunted man. The spiritual presence of the first Catherine,
his only love, is for ever tormenting him. He feels always that she is
just out of sight that she is in the next room; but she never vouchsafes
him a glimpse of herself. So strong is the haunted feeling about the house
that a weather-bound stranger, sleeping in the room used by Catherine
when she was a little girl, dreams of a child's face appearing outside
the window, of a voice crying, 'Let me in! Let me in!' in the moaning
of the wind. He is so horrified that he dreams he breaks the window, catches
hold of the child's wrists, and pulls it backwards and forwards across
the broken glass. Even the dreams in that house are violent and inhuman.
After years of torture Heathcliff has his reward. Catherine appears to
him, and for three days he gazes upon her presence in her old places.
He eats nothing, speaks to no one. At the end of that time he is found
dead, and is buried, as he had long ago arranged, next to Catherine, the
two sides of the coffins being withdrawn so that their dust may mingle.
And Catherine the younger and Hareton Earnshaw, who is softened and civilised
by her, fall in love and marry, so that this wild and fearful story ends
on a gentle note of happiness. But none who have not read it can appreciate
its stormy grandeur.