Heathcliff In Wuthering Heights: Character Analysis

Heathcliff arrives in the summer of 1771, a small, withdrawn boy. The old Mr. Earnshaw found him in the streets of Liverpool, and feeling compassion for the dirty, ragged black-haired child, he took him back to Wuthering Heights.

He becomes an adopted member of the Earnshaw family and as they know nothing about him background he is immediately labelled as a gypsy and destined to remain an outsider, in exile from society due to his actions and personality.

Straight away, his actions begin to put him apart from other people. He is a “sullen, patient child; hardened perhaps, to ill treatment”. An example of this is when Hindley throws a rock at Heathcliff, and, instead of crying he receives the blow and gets up again. Hindley sees Heathcliff as a usurper of his father’s affections, and he grows bitter because of this, referring to Heathlcliff as an “imp of Satan”.

Heathcliff let each incident like this pass, and showed no outward emotion towards his abuser. Instead opting to ‘bottle it’ and let his vengeance build up, e.g. “I’m trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait, if I can only do it, at last. I hope he will not die before I do”. For Heathcliff, the world becomes an increasing trying place to be in – either to be shrunk back from, or lashed out at.

To cope with the torrent of abuse directed at him from almost everyone he meets, he takes on a ‘devilish’ character. After adopting this role, he uses it to get revenge by making everyone else’s life as difficult as possible.

While Heathcliff is pondering on how to get back at Hindley and the others, he becomes oblivious to any insults or hardship he comes across; allowing it only to stoke the fire of revenge and letting him be secure in the fact that they shall get what is due in time. For example when asked why he should not leave retribution to God, Heathcliff replies “No, God won’t have the satisfaction that I shall. I only wish I knew the best way! Let me alone and I’ll plan it out: while I’m thinking of that, I don’t feel pain.

Although at this point, Heathcliff could be called evil for making people’s lives around him miserable, even Nelly, with her simplistic view of the situation decided that Hindley, because of Frances’ death, had become so malicious that it “was enough to make a fiend of a saint”. This is not enough to let Heathcliff completely off the hook though as Hindley’s actions are partly justified and Heathcliff interprets them differently, as he is quite young (all he sees is the abuse, not the reason why the abuse is given). In this way, Heathcliff’s actions later in the novel are partly down to his naivety/ignorance when confronted with certain situations.

Heathcliff is not especially bright (at least consciously). This means that he sometimes does not take all of the factors of a situation into account when he makes up his mind to do something. Something I think Heathcliff has extreme difficulty in interpreting other people’s actions through their perspectives. For instance when Hindley threw a rock at Heathcliff when he was younger, Heathcliff only saw Hindley as the person who hurt him, not Hindley as an insecure boy who saw his father being taken away from him. Even Catherine did not see or help Heathcliff understand this, she only served as a catalyst that made Heathcliff want to look strong and think of better times when they would be together.

As life at Wuthering Heights was continually wearing him down, Heathcliff’s assumed character began to assert itself even more. The next paragraph illustrates this;

“He had, by that time, lost the benefit of his early education: continual hard work, begun soon and concluded late, had extinguished any curiosity he once possessed in pursuit of knowledge, and any love for books or learning.” And also;

“Personal appearance sympathised with mental deterioration; he acquired a slouching gate, and ignoble look”

They serve to make evident that the hard physical labour, combined with the mental anguish Heathcliff is constantly suffering is taking its toll. Heathcliff loses all interest in bettering himself and conforming to established rules of etiquette and society. Instead he becomes withdrawn and so subdued that it seems as though he wakes up only to get the day over with. “He took a grim pleasure, apparently, in exciting aversion rather than the esteem of his few acquaintance”.

When Heathcliff returns after running away, his character is more refined, cleaner and less confused. He no longer has mixed emotion and acts as if he has a plan to apply to life and steadily works on each waypoint towards the final goal.

“A half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows, and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified, quite divested of roughness though too stern for grace”.

It shows how Heathcliff still has the strong, passionate outward shell. But inwardly he has learned to control how he reacts. The alternate ‘evil’ side has completely taken over, leaving Heathcliff emotionally cold, yet bent on revenge. Only now he is equipped to carry it out using his head rather that his hands. He knows how he is to accomplish it and will stop at nothing to finish what has been started.

It is noticeable that he does not try and hide what he is doing. Instead giving ‘deep’ speeches to anyone who will stand to listen. His craving for revenge is so intense that it seems to ‘leak’ as an aura around his body and disrupt the lives of those who come into contact with him. Has but to speak to cause tempers to flare, emotions to rise, and situations to go to excess.

The realisation that Heathcliff has not changed in his attitude since going away is to late for action to be taken to stop it and the ‘groomed’ version of Heathcliff is described as he was when he first arrived. “An unreclaimed creature, without refinement – without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone.”

He bends people towards his will with ease, and before they know it he has coolly, calmly, and collectedly used them for his own purpose and then dropped them with nothing.

Edgar sums up Heathcliff to a poignant sentence; “Your presence is a moral poison that would contaminate the most virtuous.” And, as Isabella writes after she has eloped with Heathcliff; “Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?”.

Isabella does not explain what Heathcliff has been doing, but to constitute the above questions, it cannot have been normal.

Heathcliff’s revenge plan begins to fall into place when he confronts Hindley in his house. Catherine again acts as a catalyst by confining the two to a room and Heathcliff manages to rile Hindley so much that he draws a gun and knife on him. Hindley realises that he has been duped out of his house, his money, and all his possessions and wants to kill Heathcliff for it.

“Oh, damnation! I will have it back; and I’ll have his gold too; and then his blood; and hell shall have his soul! It will be ten times blacker with that guest than it ever was before!”.

Heathcliff must have been pleased to see that Hindley was now suffering in the same way that he had and also that he had mostly accomplished what he came for.

Heathcliff’s effect can also be illustrated by the change in appearance and character of Isabella. When she first eloped with Heathcliff, she was young, na�ve, and very outgoing. When she came back however; “she already partook of the pervading spirit of neglect which encompassed her. Her pretty face was wan and listless; her hair uncurled; some locks hanging lankly down, and some carelessly twisted round her head. Probably she had not touched her dress since yester evening.”

A double side to Heathcliff begins to emerge when Catherine begins to get ill. Edgar hides in his books and studies as anything he does will not help her to recover, while Heathcliff continues his vendetta when he could help Catherine.

The only thing stopping him is Catherine’s love for Edgar.

“The moment her regard ceased, I would have torn his heart out, and drank his blood! But, till then, I would have died by inches before I touched a single hair of his head!”

This shows that although Heathcliff’s ‘darker’ side is plainly visible, he has a set of morals that he stands by. One of them being that any close friends of those who have no revenge due are out of the firing line as far as a vendetta goes.

Heathcliff succeeds in gaining all the material possessions he wants but does not have ‘the icing on the cake’. Because of this, the intensity of his need for more revenge grows exponentially and he becomes even malevolent as he bottles even more anger.

“I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms write, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails!”

Catherine remains self-centred and, as a final example, drives Heathcliff insane by refusing him any pity.

Heathcliff finally loses his drive for retribution and lets his true feelings be known. He loves Catherine, and she loves him, but settling both of their scores kept them sharing their final goal – being together.

To conclude, I will decide that Heathcliff is indeed not the Devil, but has had all of the worst coincidences happen to him that lead to him being as unnatural as he is.

An extremely bad childhood, combined with his lack of intelligence and empathy, finally amalgamated with the fact that he has very strong emotions anyway make Heathcliff’s actions easy to understand, yet hard to forgive.

A large number of headstrong characters, isolation, and two sets of conflicting values made distress highly unavoidable.

Therefore Heathcliff is a product of circumstance and misfortune rather than the spawn of the Devil or a wild beast.

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