After all, reception for Wuthering Heights was mixed; many Victorian audiences found its narrative form (double-, and sometimes even triple-framed narration), dark Gothic elements, and difficult-to-ascertain moral lessons to be strange amidst the more common realist novels of the era.
One of the structurally difficult aspects of Wuthering Heights is its genealogy, where doubled-identities and symmetrical intermarriages often make it hard to keep track of who is who. For a genealogy of Wuthering Heights, see the following.
The novel begins with one Mr. Lockwood renting out the property at Thrushcross Grange. He encounters the landlord at Wuthering Heights (Heathcliff), and overstays his welcome there, not being able to leave due to inclement weather. At Wuthering Heights, Lockwood completely misreads the relations between Heathcliff, Catherine, and Hareton. A servant allows Lockwood to stay overnight at the Heights, and before bed, Lockwood snoops around and reads snippets of the older Catherine's writing in the margins of book when she was a child with Heathcliff and Hindley. At night, Lockwood has a disturbingly violent dream in which Catherine is at the window and instead of letting her in, he smashes her bleeding arm into the window's broken glass.
Disturbed, on his return to the Grange, Lockwood solicits Ellen Dean, the lifetime servant of the Earnshaw's at Wuthering Heights who has been acquainted with their lives for several generations. Ellen, known familiarly as "Nelly," begins her story, and the majority of the novel is narrated through her first-person account.
In the beginning, Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw adopt the gypsy-like Heathcliff off of the streets and he quickly becomes the favorite of Mr. Earnshaw. This leads to some tense relations between Heathcliff and Hindley, the oldest child of the Earnshaws. However, Heathcliff becomes very close to Catherine Earnshaw (the older Catherine) and the two of them seem kindred spirits with a "mischievous" streak. Mr. Earnshaw dies, and things become worse for Heathcliff. One day, Heathcliff and Catherine sneak off together once to the Linton family's Grange and are caught: the Linton's, however, take Catherine in for five weeks but throw the dark, gypsy-like Heathcliff out. Through, Nelly, we are given Heathcliff's first-person account of this incident, and it is clear that Heathcliff has been hurt by the Lintons' snubbing. Meanwhile, Hindley, now master of the house of Earnshaw, treats Catherine and Heathcliff not so well. After Catherine's return from the Lintons', relations become even more strained with Heathcliff who deeply feels the snootiness of Catherine's new friends, Edgar and Isabella Linton. At this point in the narrative, Nelly wants to skip ahead a few years, but Lockwood does not allow it.
Hindley leaves for college and returns with a wife, Frances, and Hareton Earnshaw is born. Frances, however, dies during Hareton's birth. Hindley continues to treat Heathcliff poorly, consigning him the subordinate status of doing labor in and around the grounds. Relations between Catherine and Heathcliff further deteriorate when Hindley is out one day and Catherine invites Edgar over and prefers his company over Heathcliff's. Though Edgar sees Catherine's violent side in this episode, they reconcile and become lovers. Catherine still loves Heathcliff even though she marries Edgar.
Heathcliff disappears, and Ellen leaves Wuthering Heights to go off with her mistress Catherine to Thrushcross Grange. When Heathcliff returns, he seems to have a revenge plan against everyone who has snubbed him. Isabella falls in love with Heathcliff, and seeing an opportunity to hurt Edgar Linton, he courts her despite clearly not being interested in her. Meanwhile, Heathcliff is barred from visiting the Grange by Edgar, but in protest, Catherine begins to starve herself. Isabella soon runs away with Heathcliff and becomes estranged from her family.
Soon Nelly receives a letter from Isabella which tells of her ill-treatment at Heathcliff's hands and their return to Wuthering Heights. Nelly goes to the Heights to visit Isabella, and runs into Heathcliff who exacts a promise from her that she will arrange a meeting with Catherine for him. Catherine and Heathcliff meet in a passionate reunion, but Edgar Linton intercedes. Caught between the quarrel between these two men, Catherine soon dies, but not before little Catherine is born. to her and Edgar. Subsequently, Isabella escapes from Wuthering Heights, Hindley dies and Heathcliff gets Wuthering Heights and also custody of Hareton Earnshaw, much to his delight.
Little Catherine grows up idyllically at the Grange, protected from the characters at Wuthering Heights by her father and Nelly, but eventually, she ventures out and meets Hareton by chance. She is generally disgusted by him (Hareton has been treated much in the same way by Heathcliff that Hindley once treated Heathcliff). Catherine is much more enamored with Linton, the son of Isabella and Heathcliff, who comes briefly to the Grange after Isabella dies. Unfortunately, Heathcliff claims Linton for Wuthering Heights, as he is his father. Catherine, drawn to Linton, secretly visits the Heights and despite their best efforts, Nelly and Edgar can't stop her. Nelly even burns Catherine and Linton's love letters to one another, and generally doesn't take their relations seriously, deeming them silly. However, the attachment remains, and when Heathcliff comes to tell her that Linton is sick and she must visit him, she goes. Catherine eventually confesses to Nelly about these visits, and Nelly tells Edgar. The visits are prohibited, and meanwhile, Linton becomes ill, and so does Edgar. Finally, Catherine is allowed to see Linton on the borderlands of the Grange, and she is frightened by how weak and fearful he has become.
It turns out that Heathcliff has a plan to trap Catherine and Nelly at Wuthering Heights, forcing Catherine to marry Linton on his timetable in order to worry Edgar to death, and to enable him to inherit the property at the Grange after Linton's death. Heathcliff succeeds at this plan and gets the Grange after Linton dies soon after he is married to Catherine. Nelly's narrative ends here, and Lockwood visits Wuthering Heights and decides to leave to go back to London, musing on a potentially unfulfilled romance between himself and Catherine. Nelly ends the narrative with the reconciliation of Catherine and Hareton, whom Catherine now treats more humanely and reforms into a gentler man, teaching him how to read and write. At the close of the novel, Heathcliff dies, seemingly haunted by older Catherine's presence before his death. Somewhat contradictorily, the narrator ends with imagining the three slumberers (Edgar, the older Catherine, and Heathcliff) abiding together peacefully and quietly in the earth.
CRITICAL APPROACH / ANALYSIS:
As Patsy Stoneman notes in the introduction to the Oxford edition of Wuthering Heights, the work is as difficult for literary critics today as it was for Victorian critics and audiences to pin down. Stoneman writes that the history of criticism of Wuthering Heights might as well be a history of modern literary criticism itself. Stoneman's history of criticism is worthy of summary:
- Two influential pieces of criticism: 1926 - Sanger published The Structure of Wuthering Heights which details the symmetry of intermarriages and disentangles temporal and spatial landscapes twisted into the frame narration. 1934 - Lord David Cecil published a "symbolic" reading which essentially holds that the text is not realist but that the characters symbolize two different cosmic principles: the spirit of the "wild" "dynamic," and "vital," and the spirit of calm. Cecil explains how these cosmic forces are upset by Heathcliff, and then his final "assimilation to the body of nature" balances out these forces once again. Both Sanger and Cecil offer readings which give the impression of neatly "tying up" loose ends (or perhaps ignoring them).
- "Landscape" readings: many critics have noted the vital role which nature and the landscape plays in Wuthering Heights - Catherine and Heathcliff are thus the most in touch with the vital forces of nature, in contrast to the social rules and conventions of those around them including Edgar, and of course, the narrators (Nelly and Lockwood).
- "Class" readings: Wuthering Heights operates on an agricultural economy (labor is visible), and the Grange is a place of leisure (labor is invisible and only the products of labor are visible). Heathcliff is a socially mobile agent who breaks this class structure.
- "Feminist" readings: Catherine is a prisoner of gentility at the Grange, and hence her passionate episodes of starvation evince hysteria resulting from the imprisonment; Heathcliff's legal and financial triumph and his violence represent the "twin poles" of masculine power.
Stoneman herself offers a powerful reading which connects Bronte's work to her potential encounter with Shelley's "Epipsychidion," arguing for Catherine's triumph over masculine ethics of propriety/ownership (Edgar) and of justice/revenge (Heathcliff). Catherine embodies a Shelleyan ethic of free love beyond the bounds of marriage in trying to love and care for both men, finally bringing them together in their graves: Catherine lies between the two of them, and in the locket which she wears contains Edgar and Heathcliff's hairs twisted together.