Disclaimer: this post will speak openly about the plot, characters, and themes of Wuthering Heights (a.k.a. Spoiler Alert).
While some classic novels have a nearly universal appeal, other classics are quite divisive—which, for me, always brings up the question of why? Maybe the novel touches on a controversial subject, or the style is so unusual that you either love it or hate it, or it’s so old that it’s hard for most modern readers to understand and enjoy. Wuthering Heights falls into that category for, I think, one simple reason: either people think it’s a sweeping, dramatic Gothic love story, or people think that it’s very much not a love story and are disturbed at it trying to be so. To a lesser degree, some people find the characters simply unlikeable and the plot depressing, while others dislike them but find them fascinating. But I’ve come to realize that I view the story in a different way than many other readers—and, thus, like it for a different reason. As a “love story,” I think it’s horrible, not only because nobody treats each other in a healthy romantic way but because there’s no satisfaction at the end of the novel for any of the characters (except two of the younger ones, who only become important in the latter half of the story). That, among many other things, first led me to realize this story isn’t about love: it’s about revenge. Below is my brief analysis of why I think it is, and why I think other readers should entertain the possibility.
Heathcliff is the focus of Wuthering Heights, not only because he drives the action of the plot but because he’s the only character apart from Nelly (one of the unreliable narrators) who was present from the start to the end of the tale. Thus, understanding the main themes of the story require examining his character. He’s brought to live at Wuthering Heights when Mr. Earnshaw takes pity upon his orphaned state, but it’s clear that early years of abandonment and lack of love are etched into his psyche and heart. In short, he doesn’t know how to find secure attachment, or how to truly love. Hindley’s resentment toward the unwanted adoptee and subsequent cruelty have a profound effect on Heathcliff; after Mr. Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff’s only ally is Catherine, who also felt a level of rejection and distance from her family. Their initial bond turns into the beginnings of unhealthy attachment because, in the isolated moors, they only have each other to provide relationship, meaning, and comfort. Heathcliff’s attachment to Catherine, then, begins unhealthily, and their unhealthy attachment is key to understanding later parts of the novel.
Heathcliff also shows a propensity for violence and retaliation, as well as intense jealousy, very early on in the story. After years of mistreatment by Hindley, he vows to get back at him and make him suffer, and he fulfills that promise: he leaves Wuthering Heights once he’s grown, then mysteriously returns years later with apparent education and money, which he leverages to take advantage of Hindley’s gambling and drinking and get the rights to Wuthering Heights to pay back debts. Heathcliff always views Catherine as “his,” and hates anyone or anything that tries to come between them. His hatred for the Linton’s begins because Catherine stays there to recover from a dog bite and seems to like the tame, affluent, high-society living at Thrushcross Grange. Catherine is torn between Heathcliff and Edgar because the two men present very different lifestyles—one that’s wild and free yet possessive and unhealthy, and one that’s more refined, safer, and potentially offers some peace, but might also be stifling and superficial for a woman of her temperament. But Catherine is also unhealthy and unstable, and cannot tear herself away from Heathcliff and what he represents enough to fully choose Edgar, nor fully reject the comforts that Edgar comes to provide. This tug-of-war torments her until her death, which also serves as the last severance of attachment that Heathcliff has to someone else. Remember, however, that Heathcliff and Catherine’s love for each other is fundamentally about attachment—about dependency upon another to fulfill emotional needs. Add also that they were essentially raised as siblings, and the romantic veneer of their relationship begins fading rather quickly.
Heathcliff’s revenge does not only extend to the Earnshaws, either—Heathcliff uses everyone and everything around him in order to make others pay for real or perceived wrongs. As mentioned earlier, he manipulates Hindley and gets Wuthering Heights as a payment for debt; in return, he treats Hareton (Hindley’s only son) with the same cruelty that Hindley showed to him. It’s a cruel, manipulative version of “an eye for an eye.” In order to get back at Edgar, he manipulates Isabella into marrying him, then treats her horribly and sends her away to London where she raises their son. Later, after Isabella dies, and his son, Linton, and Edgar’s daughter, also named Catherine, are old enough, he orchestrates their meeting and subsequent marriage in order to obtain Thrushcross Grange before Edgar’s death (which…is all very odd when you think about it, but, I digress). Once Edgar dies, he forces young Catherine to live at Wuthering Heights, where Linton also dies, leaving Catherine alone in the world (apart from Hareton, who still lives there) and at his mercy.
It is at that point, when all his “foes” are gone and all his vengeance brought to fruition, that Heathcliff has a breakdown. His whole life—indeed, all his passion and anger—was fueled by his bitterness and desire for revenge, but once that’s gone, he has nothing else to live for. He’s slowly driven mad, in part by Catherine’s ghost which continues to haunt him, and eventually dies. Then, in the one light moment of the novel, Hareton and young Catherine decide not to continue the cycle of abuse and revenge—they are hopeful for the future, even as their families lie ruined in the grave, because Heathcliff’s control over the moors and the estates has lifted.
There are so many levels of theme that can be extrapolated, but what I want to focus on is just how perfectly Wuthering Heights shows the self-destruction and cruelty that comes when someone devotes all their mental and emotional faculties to enacting revenge. Heathcliff is unable to view anything without that lens of bitterness clouding it—and, I’d argue, that’s why his love for Catherine is far less about romance as it is about dysfunctional attachment. It’s sorrowful to think that it stems from mistreatment in his youth, but he also continually feeds into it, and rejects opportunities to better himself and rise above those violent feelings. Catherine, who is not quite so deeply entrenched in unhealthy mindsets (since she isn’t driven by revenge), nevertheless shares that same dysfunction with Heathcliff, and that sharing binds them together in mutual understanding and torment; there are times when she tries to be better and rise above it, but she never fully can, and dies in that horrible in between. Heathcliff, rather than using the loss to spur positive change, uses it to fuel his vengefulness even more, which eventually leads to the destruction of both families and his descent into madness before his death.
Many will argue that Wuthering Heights is a Gothic romance story, but I see so little evidence for romance being the main focus of the novel, while there is ample support of it being a (beautifully done) story of the insidious, destructiveness of revenge, and how vengeance leads only to suffering and death. The moody backdrop of the moors only amplifies the unreliable narrators and dramatizes by the strong presence of each unlikable character. If you’ve read Wuthering Heights and didn’t like it, I’d encourage you to reframe the story in this way, and see if some of the off-putting qualities of the supposed “main romance” or unlikability of the majority of the cast can be diminished; if you’ve read Wuthering Heights and liked it, I’d still encourage you to examine the story in the light of revenge themes, and frame the unhealthy romantic dynamics in a way that’s more true to morality while not compromising the drama and suspense that makes the tale so appealing. And, if you haven’t read Wuthering Heights and, perhaps, didn’t want to because it seemed like a horrible romance, give it a try and see if you can uncover the thematic layers that I touched upon, as well as ones that I didn’t! I think more people could like or at least appreciate the story if it’s framed in a way that doesn’t condone unhealthy behavior or romanticize dysfunction.