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  • Subject area(s): English Literature
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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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Melissa Wells

Ms. Alfonso

AP Literature & Composition

14 October 2016

Distortion of Human Nature in Wuthering Heights

There is no doubt that Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s only masterpiece, is regarded as one of the more captivating novels of English literature. What defines Wuthering Heights? Written in a didactic nature, the novel’s narrative structure is riddled with mysterious settings, supernatural elements, symbols and so on. Throughout this paper, the distortion of Heathcliff’s human nature in Wuthering Heights will be revealed to be a journey portrayed through social discrimination  and Heathcliff’s childhood experience that tragically lead to Heathcliff’s loss of humanity. In fact, Heathcliff’s distorted human nature is the consequence of his own split personality, his distorted love tragedy, and the unfair, isolated, and distorted society in which Wuthering Heights is set.

Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847 under Brontë’s pseudonym Ellis Bell, a gloomy tale following the consequence of one couple’s love, hatred, and revenge played out in the Yorkshire Moors. Underlying this twisted tale is the human desire to chase happiness until it is exploited by the cruelty of reality. Thus, Heathcliff is one of the many characters whom’s desires warp from whatever healthy and positive portions of his human nature he had into diseased and negative ones. Catherine and Heathcliff share an uncanny similarity in character differentiated by the backdrop of a radically different family background. “My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” However, the characters in Brontë’s novel are the unfortunate victims of an unbalanced society, which mars any reality in which Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is enough. Catherine’s values, vanity and selfishness drive her eventual betrayal to Heathcliff. It can be said that Catherine’s betrayal and her choice of a romantic partner in Edgar Linton instead of Heathcliff is the fundamental reasoning for the distortion of Heathcliff's personalities. “Have you considered how you’ll bear the separation, and how he’ll bear to be quite deserted in the world?” In order to “cure” the deep hurt in his heart, his thirst for revenge was fostered as an extreme approach to protect his cowardice, and a result of this distortion of the humanity he had left.

The story occurs in an isolated, rural area of northern England in the 18th century when the Industrial and Agricultural Revolution thrived, accompanied by the profound effects of the technologically stunted socioeconomic and cultural conditions of the times. The rich lived a leisure lifestyle, while the poor struggled to survive. This economic gap between the rich and the poor is the unequal relationship between different roles in the story that reflects this unfair society and eventually leads to revenge and death. Prior to entering Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff was a starving, homeless little boy suffering from this cruel society’s discrimination. Although old Earnshaw took him in, Heathcliff’s childhood only gradually distorted his spirit. He thought of himself as a person not needed by this world, especially when Catherine looked down on him. Deprived the protection of his parents, Hindley’s lash, the cruel world and his bitter life added to his extreme love and hatred. Heathcliff had said, “The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against him; they crush those beneath them” (Brontë, 2000:89) He swallowed the humiliation, despite being taught that reality wouldn’t change. Heathcliff’s complex personality emerged from his childhood.

Heathcliff is wild, just as the love between Heathcliff and Catherine is. Their love is fierce and feverish and it leads to the tragedy directly. “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…” Aside from Catherine, Heathcliff is an outsider, but it is their identical nature that draws Catherine and Heathcliff: crazy and susceptible to change. They grow up in the same environment, under the oppression of her brother and their lacking of family warmth drives their need to always run freely in the wilderness. The wilderness is, in itself, the distorted common home to their spirit, where their love is pure without temptation. For Heathcliff, as long as he can get together with Catherine, he will forget all the oppression from Catherine’s brother, the rigorous and filthy farm work, reciting the Bible. Catherine is just as wild and evil as he is - his co-conspirator. “...they forgot everything the minute they were together again: at least the minute they had contrived some naughty plan of revenge.” Heathcliff succumbed to the disguise that Catherine would be together with him forever.

Unluckily, the potential gap between them does exist. Heathcliff represents this underclass of poverty, while Catherine is of the middle class of wealth. To Heathcliff, Catherine’s betrayal cultivated his split personality. The question is, what made Catherine give up Heathcliff? The answer was the unfair distortion of the isolated society in which the two existed. “[Hindley] wished earnestly to see her bring honour to the family by an alliance with the Lintons…” Catherine occupied an obvious higher status than Heathcliff, with which she had the free right to choose whom to marry. However, in the Victorian period, the deformed society reflected people in England stripped of freedom and liberty, specifically all women, whom could not direct their own fates. Although middle class women didn’t need to work, they still had no freedom. They were merely symbols of property and status by men (their lifelong support). To those women, their life’s goal was the end result of marriage. That said, being matched for marriage was how families “transacted” their children. The only other choice aside from a woman’s matched marriage would be to elope, an action equivalent to social suicide.

Under such confining circumstances, Catherine was left with this dilemma. “You think me a selfish wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggar? Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother's power” (Brontë, 2000:64). This reflected Catherine’s selfishness - she couldn’t bear poverty and discrimination from her society as the implication of marrying Heathcliff. So she would marry Linton, a young and rich man rather than her beloved.

The true reasoning behind this decision was the distorted reality that, in the unbalanced society in which she existed, Catherine really had no right in making her decision. If she had, she might have actually married Heathcliff. She didn’t because of the entrenched traditional values with which she was infused. Hindley and his wife raised Catherine’s self-respect through fine clothes, flattery and reforming her to be dignified. Servants’ sneering at Heathcliff and Catherine when they stayed together were also unconsciously influential on Catherine. The effects of all of these factors increased Catherine’s vanity, shaped her so she was incapable of rejecting the lure of property and status. “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now.” Catherine’s painful decision resulted from her split personality, which ironically hurt Heathcliff so much so it led to his distorted split personality.

And so it is that the different family background of Catherine and Heathcliff reflect the social contradiction of the English society Wuthering Heights is set in. Their love distorted social class lines, but the very distortion of their isolated society was the underlying factor as to how each character ultimately lived their lives. Catherine accepts marrying Linton to quench her own desire for material wealth and vanity at the expense of betraying her love and soul. As a result, Heathcliff refuses to forgive her for it. “You teach me now how cruel you’ve been—cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself…” In terms of Heathcliff, after the betrayal of Catherine, the idea of revenge invades his mind. The distortion of his mind prompts him to take a deadly course of action. The emotion alters from love to hatred and he can’t persuade himself to put down the burden of hatred.

Heathcliff angrily left home when his beloved Catherine got married with Edgar Linton.  Three years later, Heathcliff returns as the wolf in sheep’s clothing; his revenge after Catherine’s betrayal contorts into an even crazier, extremely abnormal representation of his distorted nature driven by hate. “Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone.”  She is responsible for the loss of his humanity, which instigates Heathcliff’s appetite to revenge violently for his trampled personality, self-esteem and love with a demonic attitude. “He is ingenious and untrusting in seeking to gain my abhorrence…” In that sense, Heathcliff becomes a cold-blooded killer, his weapon of choice being hate, which kills the people around him.  He drives Hindley and Edgar to a miserable death, seizes both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange to himself, and makes it so even their innocent children suffered from his bitter fruit. His distorted nature made it so that with each attempt at revenge, Heathcliff didn’t have the slightest pity. “I meditated this plan—just to have one glimpse of your face, a stare of surprise, perhaps, and pretended pleasure; afterwards settle my score…” Although he would come to achieve his revenge target, he becomes insane - a devil full of hatred and malevolence.

The love tragedy in Wuthering Heights is sincere, an emotion only capable of originating from the human heart to be distributed into human nature. Heathcliff had experienced the coldness of life, having developed a strong love and hate in a cruel reality where he carried an unyielding struggle against his miserable fate. He failed all his life to stay together with Catherine, and as long as two decades isolation, suffering the price for his love and hate in a fate crueler than anyone else. That anxiety and anticipation in the loneliness, fear and despair tore his soul apart, little by little eroding his flesh and conclusively putting him to death. Heathcliff’s desolate love story is the tragedy of an unjust society, but also the tragedy of the era he stays in. Before he died, he gave up revenge on the next generation, which shows that his nature is good, but the distortion of the brutality of his reality forced him to become cold and even deranged. “I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

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