The story of Heathcliff, an enigmatic and vengeful ‘Byronic hero’ of Wuthering Heights, unravels in front of the reader as the novel progresses. The gypsy-like child faces the challenges of growing up as a hated outsider within his own adopted family, developing into a bitter and, ultimately, miserable man. Heathcliff’s life-long loneliness causes him to become obsessed with the one person he ever felt connected to – Catherine, – which makes her rejection of him much more devastating. This complex character, being incredibly vulnerable himself due to his traumatic past, shows little sympathy to the people around him, choosing the revenge path instead.
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Heathcliff’s traumatic childhood, as well as the prevailing feelings of loneliness and isolation, led to his emotional vulnerability guarded by the brutish exterior and the mistrust of others. Heathcliff, the “rather slovenly” and barely civilized young man, represents the Id, the “unconscious… impulsive”, with “no moral rules”, and “governed by sexual and aggressive impulses” (Brontë 7; Giordano 30). Although Heathcliff and Catherine become inseparable when Mr. Earnshaw takes the “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” in, he is otherwise “shown at every turn that he is most unwelcome in the family” (Brontë 24; Peter 3). He is described as a “sullen, patient child; hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment”, and was often abused physically and mentally by Hindley, Earnshaw’s heir. Childhood traumas often lead to unexpected problems in adulthood. Although Heathcliff chose not to retaliate during those moments of mistreatment, and instead presented himself as a trouble-less and disciplined child, the many years of adversity fed into his ultimate desire for revenge.
The unusual protagonist, unable to control the intensity of his feelings, became obsessive over the love of his life, Catherine, and his misery and guilt eventually killed him. Heathcliff is often named of the most romantic literary characters for his eternally loyal love for Catherine. However, upon finding out that she married Edgar, he chooses to exact revenge on her and her child, instead of letting her live her life as happily as she could. Bittered by the constant rejection – by his parents, by his adoptive family, by his love, – Heathcliff himself rejects any thoughts of happiness for himself and instead focuses on hurting others. On her deathbed, Catherine blames Heathcliff for her demise, which haunts him until his very death. In addition, perhaps hurt by the perceived betrayal by his only love, he chooses never to trust or show affection to anyone again. The only other man he feels any sort of respect or affection for, Hareton, becomes a pawn in Heathcliff’s revenge plan nonetheless.
Heathcliff, who loved Catherine so deeply and loyally, showed little to no sympathy or kindness to the other characters. While not causing any trouble as a child and not even fighting back in cases of abuse, it was due to his hardened, wolf-like personality rather than politeness and kind-heartedness. Once rejected by Catherine, he, like a wounded puppy, becomes bitter at the world and even those that he loves and becomes selfish in striving to make others hurt in revenge. An incredibly miserable and lonely man, he died just as he lived, suffering and alone, unable to let other people in.
Brontëë, Emily. Wuthering Heights: With an Introduction and Contemporary Criticism. Edited by Joseph Pearce, Ignatius Press, 2008.
Giordano, Giuseppe. “The Contribution of Freud’s Theories to the Literary Analysis of Two Victorian Novels: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.” International Journal of English and Literature, vol. 11, no. 2, 2020, pp. 29-34.
Peter, Aringo-Bizimaana. “The Complexity of Characterization in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: Focus on Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw (N.B: All Quotations in the Article, on the Novel, Come from the 1971 Edition).” Shanlax International Journal of English, vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1-18.
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