The Character of Catherine Earnshaw

Born in 1818 at Thornton in Yorkshire, Emily Bront� lived for most of her life at Haworth, near Keighley. The fifth of the six children of Reverend Patrick Bront�, she became familiar with death early. When she was three years old in 1821, her mother died of cancer, and when she was seven her two older sisters, boarding at Cowan Bridge School, died of consumption.

Emily and her sister Charlotte, who also attended this school, returned to Haworth where, with their sister Anne and brother Branwell, were brought up by their aunt. Emily was apparently an intelligent, lively child, becoming more reserved as she grew older. Emily remained at Haworth, looking after her father and the household. She continued writing, and in 1846, persuaded by Charlotte, the sisters published a joint collection of poems, under the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

Wuthering Heights, probably begun in autumn 1845, and was published in December 1847. Reviews were mixed. The novel’s power and originality were recognized, but fault was found with its violence, coarse language, and apparent lack of moral.

In September 1848, Branwell, whose various attempts at making a career ended in addiction to opium and drink, died. After his funeral, Emily became ill but, refusing a doctor, carried on with her household duties. She died on 19th December 1848 of consumption, with characteristic courage and independence of spirit. Charlotte wrote in the 1850 addition of Wuthering Heights.

When analyzing Catherine Earnshaw’s character, one can draw many conclusions from observing her relationships with other characters in Wuthering Heights. The three most significant people in Catherine’s life are Heathcliff, Edgar Linton and Nelly Dean. Catherine was a stubborn, playful but an appealing child. Although Catherine tends to not like Heathcliff at first, she becomes his friend, where they share time together playing on the moors. She says: ‘My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning’ (p75).

Catherine and Heathcliff have an unusual type of love for one another; their love is more spiritual than physical. They together rather than living together. They make love not by giving each other pleasure but by inflicting pain. Heathcliff and Catherine are meant to be. In fact, she confides to Nelly one night that Heathcliff is: “more myself than I am… Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” (p73).

The main focus in Wuthering Heights is the passionate, self-destructive love of Catherine and Heathcliff. Cathy describes her love, in chapter 9: ‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible light, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff!’

After returning from the Grange, Catherine has become more ladylike but still has a temper, as seen in Chapter 8 where she pinches Nelly and slaps Edgar. Her clinginess to Heathcliff remains, but the wealth and social position associated with marrying Edgar also attracts her. Catherine is honest and self-aware enough to admit her instinct that marrying Edgar is wrong, but convinces herself that it won’t hinder her friendship with Heathcliff.

When Heathcliff returns, Catherine is forced to choose between him and Edgar. Unfortunately, Catherine becomes ill with brain fever. In her feverish state, she begins to understand her condition, whilst feeling grief with separation from Heathcliff and being ‘wrenched’ from Wuthering Heights to be ‘the lady of Thrushcross Grange, and the wife of a stranger’ (p116).

However, she makes the decision to marry Edgar Linton because it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff. This choice proves to be fatal. On her deathbed, she realizes what she has done. When Heathcliff comes to see her during her last days, she tells him bitterly, “I with I could hold you ’till we were both dead! I shouldn’t care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do.” (p145). Although she dies halfway through the novel, her spirit lingers and continues to haunt Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights.

The location of Catherine’s coffin symbolizes the conflict that tears apart her short life. She is not buried in the chapel with the Linton’s. Nor is her coffin buried among the graves of the Earnshaws. Instead, as Nelly describes in Chapter 16, Catherine is buried ‘in a corner of the kirkyard, where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor’. Catherine is buried with Edgar on one side and Heathcliff on the other, suggesting her conflicted loyalties. Her actions are motivated by her social ambitions, which are awakened during her first stay at the Linton’s, and which eventually force her to marry Edgar.

Catherine’s death is the conclusion of the conflict between herself and Heathcliff and removes any possibility that their conflict could be resolved positively. After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff purely extends and deepens his drives toward revenge and cruelty.

Catherine and Heathcliff’s language is often poetic in its use of imagery and rhythm to convey emotions, as in Catherine’s description of her love for Heathcliff in Chapter 9, with natural images of winter, trees and rocks. Heathcliff speaks in a similar way, for example in Chapter 33 when he describes seeing Catherine: ‘In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object’ (p298), and the changes in the weather in chapter 17 after Catherine’s death.

Nelly asks Lockwood, in connection with Catherine’s death: ‘Do you believe such people are happy in the other world, sir? I’d give a great deal to know’ (p153). Different characters in the book have different ideas of heaven or hell, but it is the story of Heathcliff and Catherine that is the most centrally concerned with the idea of death.

In Chapter 3, we come across the supernatural in the form of Catherine’s ghost, which is given a powerful sense of reality. As I read on, the visit of the ghost is put in context. Catherine says to Nelly, ‘surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you’ (p75). Before Catherine’s death, Nelly notices that her eyes seemed to gaze beyond the objects round her, ‘you would have said out of this world’ (p144). She anticipates a world where she will be ‘incomparably beyond and above you all’ (p148). After her death, Heathcliff asks her to haunt him: ‘I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always’ (p155).

At the end of the novel, two spirits are seen walking together on the moors. I can conclude that the two have finally found happiness together. Love is linked with dreams, through which Catherine finds the truth about her deepest feelings (Chapters 9 and 12).

When describing their relationship, the language of Heathcliff and Catherine is obsessive and dramatic. I.e. in Heathcliff’s description of visiting the Grange in Chapter 5, his account in Chapter 29 and his revelations to Nelly in the Final Chapters. His description of how he sensed Catherine’s presence after his funeral is characteristic, with its exclamations, short sentences, dashes and powerful images:’ I looked round impatiently – I felt her by me – I could almost see her, and yet I could not! I ought to have sweat blood then…’ (p226).

I see Catherine now and then in a concerned, sometimes in an unconcerned light. I witness her nastiness to Isabella in Chapter 10, her self-interest and determination to get her own way when she assumes Edgar must put up with Heathcliff, because that’s what she wants, and when she determines to break both men’s hearts by breaking her own (Chapter 11), we are shown her inappropriate tearing of the pillow with her teeth (Chapter 12).

I also have sympathy for Catherine by first meeting her through her childhood and her devotion to Heathcliff and love for him (p75). Finally, the fact that Nelly misunderstands Catherine and underestimates her illness, dismissing her of her love for Heathcliff in Chapter 9 and her painfully won insights in Chapter 12 as ‘nonsense’, it increases my eagerness to sympathise with her and see her at her tragic moments.

Linked with love is the subject of being separated and being reunited. Heathcliff and Catherine experience this when Catherine stays at the Grange, then when Heathcliff leaves, and again at Catherine’s death. There is also the love between Catherine and Edgar, which Nelly sees as ‘deep and growing happiness’ (p84), but which Catherine sees changing ‘as winter changes the trees’ (p75).

Edgar Linton brings out the more sensitive, civilized side of Catherine. Since she considers Heathcliff below her in social standing, she marries Edgar thinking it is the right thing to do. She tries to convince herself that she loves him. “…because he is young and cheerful…because he loves me…and he will be rich, and I shall be the greatest woman in the neighborhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband.” (p71).

Forced to work as a labourer by Hindley, Heathciff deteriorates mentally and in appearance, whilst Catherine becomes ‘the queen of the countryside’ (p59). When Heathcliff overhears her say marrying him would ‘degrade’ her, he also hears her say she ‘had not brought Heathcliff so low’ (p.73). So it is Hindley along with Edgar, whose wealth and property I find Catherine finds so attractive, which separate Heathcliff from his love and inspire his ruthless revenge.

Catherine is attracted to Thrushcross Grange, but knows in her heart and soul it is the wrong path to take. Edgar is just the opposite of Heathcliff. He is cheerful, pleasant, and tender hearted. For example, when his sister dies, he takes in her child, Linton, as his own – that is until Heathcliff steps in. Although he loves her very much and he has his child, she does not love him back.

Unlike Heathcliff and Edgar, Nelly Dean does not like Catherine. She is the narrator throughout the novel. Through Nelly’s comments I am able to understand that she doesn’t like any one of these three characters. She labels Catherine as being a spoiled little brat who always gets her way. She also blames the entire tragedy of the two houses on Catherine and her passions.

In one particular instance, Catherine cries out to Nelly that she is ‘very unhappy’ Nelly replies, ‘A pity. You’re hard to please: so many friends and so few cares, and can’t make yourself content!’ (p70). Another comment she makes later in the novel is ‘she behaved infinitely better than I dared to expect.’ (p83). Although Nelly Dean was not fond of Catherine, she was loyal and respectful to her and her family.

Being the idol of the novel, Catherine Earnshaw is a very complex character. Emily Bront� I feel does an excellent job characterizing her not only on the surface, but also through the other characters. Through each character, I am able to see from a different perspective a better ability to analyze Catherine’s character.

Catherine Earnshaw’s iron will, immaturity, and search for high-profile acceptance cause her character to star in the tragedy of a lost generation. She is loving and violent, gentle and passionate, affectionate and stubborn. Her chaotic and aggressive personality rivals only that of Heathcliff. Like Heathcliff, certain traumas experienced feed the fire of their passion, self-interest, and youthfulness. For example, she is the offspring of a man who says that because he can’t understand her, he can’t love her.

Meanwhile, Catherine finds the inner core and a deep connection with the stranger who enters her own father’s affection and her life so long. While her brother feels evicted and threatened by Heathcliff, Catherine sees the ‘dirty, gypsy boy’ a reflection of her own wild nature. Perhaps Catherine and Heathcliff never leave their selfishness and wildness of childhood because they are satisfied in their obsession just before they start to grow up.

Possibly, they prefer to look upon each other as a childlike mirror image, rather than to progress to the stage of adults. Catherine and Heathcliff never appear to feel sexual desire for others, and are prevented in discovering it in each other as well. Possibly, they are both emotionally trapped in their natural habitat taking in the beauty of the moors while escaping adult mind games and romantic rules and actions.

The great tragedy in the novel is when Catherine, in all her elegant enhancement, attempts to grow up and marry an established man. With the exception of wealth and position, all is lost in this hasty decision.

Catherine and Heathcliff’s relations are further let down, and upon their long-awaited reunion, fireworks go off: ‘With straining eagerness Catherine gazed toward the entrance of her chamber,’ (p140) Nelly recalled. Heathcliff’s reaction is not surprisingly similar, ‘In a stride or two was at her side, and he had her grasped in his arms. He bestowed more kisses than ever he gave in his life before’ (p140). It is at this point that Cathy and Heathcliff differ the most. Remarkably, Cathy further displays he lack of maturity by attempting to make her beloved feel guilty that she is suffering, although it is caused by her own lack of consideration.

The dramatic and suffering scene is described as, ‘The two, to a cool spectator, made a strange and fearful picture’ (p141). Catherine’s gift of pain to Heathcliff and Heathcliff’s ability to change her justification in a brief conversation suggest he is the most loyal lover. She submitted to the pressures of marrying a man for his position as Heathcliff changed his own life to be that man. However wicked Heathcliff becomes, he never betrays his dream and his own private vision of eternal bliss alongside Cathy, while she seeks a worldly success in the marriage of Edgar Linton for its own sake. Although they each admit that they are necessarily part of one another, exclusively Heathcliff is willing to face the consequences.

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