The Ravaged Family Garden – An Essay on Wuthering Heights

30 April 2010 | 1 Comment

Note: The following critical essay was written for Tracking British Literature in the spring of 2010.

Imagine flipping through a family photo album and not recognizing anyone in the pictures: all of your family members – your father, your mother, and your siblings – are strangers, and none of this is due to amnesia or any other kind of memory loss. Picture showing up at a family reunion as a teenager and meeting your father or mother for the first time. Can one love a stranger? What if those strangers are your family? If family is a key ingredient in forming one’s identity, are the love, order, and structure that family relationships provide part of human nature or must they be nurtured? In Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë subverts conventional expectations about family relationships by destabilizing familial love and structure in order to stress the importance of these components and their effects on the development of both the individual and the family as a whole.

Brontë introduces outsiders into families to challenge traditional notions of who is family and who is not, and the introduction of the outsider Heathcliff into the Earnshaw family most prominently illustrates the tension between stranger and family member. While Mr Earnshaw and Catherine have little problem welcoming Heathcliff into the household, the rest are more skeptical. Nelly Dean, the Earnshaw’s household servant, describes to Mr Lockwood Heathcliff’s appearance when Mr Earnshaw first brought him home from Liverpool, using words like ‘dirty, ragged, black-haired,’ and ‘as good dumb’ (Ch. 4, p. 25). Immediately Heathcliff is classified more as an unwanted creature, and his role within the Earnshaw family creates dividing lines. Mrs Dean admits that she ‘was frightened, and Mrs Earnshaw was ready to flight it out of doors: she did fly up, asking how he could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house, when they had their own bairns to feed and fend for?’ (Ch. 4, p. 25). Mrs Dean seems to reject Heathcliff based on his appearance, while Mrs Earnshaw rejects him because he is not blood-related or of the same class (‘gipsy brat’) – and for financial reasons – why spend money on something worthless? The fact that the Earnshaws simply call him ‘Heathcliff’ – not Heathcliff Earnshaw – reveals the ambivalence of the Earnshaw family’s stance on the boy (Ch. 4, p. 26). Is he a member of the family or not? Miss Cathy and Heathcliff may be ‘very thick’ and Mr Earnshaw may favor Heathcliff, ‘believing all he said … and petting him up far above Cathy’ but that does not save Heathcliff from Hindley’s hate – and his punches (Ch. 4, p. 26). Heathcliff is Brontë’s prime example of someone whose sense of belonging – a key element in the traditional, romantic view of families – is messed up. Brontë complicates the notion that love is a given within a family. Though Heathcliff is not an Earnshaw by nature, he is by nurture the product of such brutal mistreatment and rejection: Heathcliff becomes a ‘sullen,’ ‘patient,’ ‘hardened’ individual, ready for revenge (Ch. 4, p. 26). Through the development of Heathcliff, even early on, Brontë shows the results of family members’ individual actions as they seek to find their place within the family and how their decisions on who is an Earnshaw and who is not have real consequences in shaping not only the family dynamic, but also an individual’s identity or life.

The scant role of parents who either die early from illness or in childbirth demolishes any sort of structure within the Earnshaw and Linton families and their descendants. Mrs Earnshaw disappears from the picture early on. Mr Earnshaw’s early departure worsens the situation for Heathcliff, as Heathcliff loses one of the only people that supports him (Ch. 5). Frances, Hindley Earnshaw’s wife, dies giving birth to Hareton Earnshaw (Ch. 8). Mr and Mrs Linton catch an infection from Catherine and die (Ch. 9). Catherine Earnshaw, one of the novel’s central figures, dies giving birth to her daughter, Cathy Linton (Ch. 16). Isabella dies when her son, Linton Heathcliff, is only twelve or thirteen (Ch. 17). Edgar Linton dies when his daughter Cathy is still a teenager (Ch. 28). Only Heathcliff outlives his sickly son Linton, but only by less than a year. Whether Heathcliff actually cared for Linton or not is unknowable, yet his story remains one of those horrible fates when parents survive their children. Brontë slaps the characters – as well as her readers – with nine parental deaths in all, with the result that adult figures are rarely – if ever – present to give a good example of maturity and to sufficiently provide for and love their children. This is partially to blame on the times – the novel is set in the early 1800s – when death and disease frequently ravaged families in their younger years, compared to today. Even so, Brontë uses the lack of parental figures as another device to break down the romantic notion of family order, that every child has two loving parents and a stable, flourishing environment in which to grow. This destruction of family order leaves the characters of Wuthering Heights in a desolate landscape, a desert where love seems nearly impossible.

But death is not the only factor in lost relationships, for some are broken because of past events, and this is most evident in the relationship between Heathcliff and his son, Linton. While Heathcliff is an example of a person not biologically – by nature – related to his family, his own son, Linton Heathcliff – in the second generation of novel – is placed in a nearly opposite predicament. Linton Heathcliff belongs by nature (biologically) to his father Heathcliff, but does not know him – only his mother’s side, the Linton relations. His name, in a similar way to his father’s single name, reflects the ambivalence within the family: Is Linton Heathcliff a Linton or a Heathcliff? While Linton is supposed to be an insider of the family – in the conventional notion of family – he is kept out of it until the scene in Chapter 20 when Heathcliff orders that his son be brought to him immediately. The conversation between Nelly Dean and the young Linton Heathcliff as she escorts him to Wuthering Heights, reveals the disconnection between child and parent, between son and father. Linton expresses surprise upon learning he has a father and becomes inquisitive about this man. Mrs Dean tells Linton that he ‘ “should be glad to go home, and to see him. You must try to love him, as you did your mother, and then he will love you” ’ (Ch. 20, p. 148). As Linton becomes increasingly more anxious about meeting the father he does not know, Mrs Dean continues to mollify him with her ‘delusive assurances’ (Ch. 20, p. 149). When Linton asks, ‘ “How am I to love papa? I don’t know him.” ’ Nelly quickly answers “ ‘Oh, all children love their parents” (Ch. 20, p. 148). Yet Mrs Dean’s answer is severely ironic because the plot of the novel thus far throws that expectation – that all children love their parents – into doubt. Is it really possible for Linton to love the father he does not know, one he did not even know he had? Does Hareton Earnshaw, for instance, love his drunkard father, Hindley, who used to make threats against his life (Ch. 9, p. 52)? Does Heathcliff love his adoptive father, Mr Earnshaw, or does the abuse he received from the rest of the family make him regret ever being taken from Liverpool, even though he was ‘poor’ and ‘fatherless’ (Ch. 4, p. 26)? Although all three of these characters do not share the exact same life experiences, each has reason enough to not love their fathers or families. Here Brontë creates characters, members of the same family – fathers and sons – who are strangers. How can a person love a stranger, especially if that stranger is a family member, someone who is, by convention, supposed to be an intimate companion in life? Linton’s probing questions get at the heart of Brontë’s question in Wuthering Heights – whether love is a given component in a family – and twists it further: is love even possible in a family as broken as the Heathcliff-Linton-Earnshaw family?

In line with theme, Brontë does not settle on a neat, tidy packaged answer, much like the family never fully settles. At the very least Brontë does not let the reader fall back on any sort of romantic vision of the family – as is evidenced by the many broken relationships in the novel – just as the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine are still said to haunt the moors (Ch. 34, p. 245). Yet Brontë does provide a bit of hope. After all the disharmony, disunity, and discord, only Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw are left. Near the end of the novel, Mr Lockwood describes Cathy and Hareton’s relationship in the following scene: ‘The red fire-light glowed on their two bonny heads, and revealed their faces, animated with the eager interest of children; for, though he was twenty-three, and she eighteen, each had so much of novelty to feel and learn, that neither experienced nor evinced the sentiments of sober disenchanted maturity’ (Ch. 33, p. 234). It is the ‘eager interest of children’ that washes away the ‘sentiments of sober disenchanted maturity,’ allowing seeds of new love to be sown in the soil of a wrecked past. Here Brontë gives the strongest hint that love is something that must be cultivated or nurtured, that it does not always come naturally because human nature is broken. Yet we are still left with a sense that it is not supposed to be this way completely – that love is supposed to come naturally – as the voice of Nelly Dean still rings: ‘all children love their parents’ (Ch. 20, p. 148). A world where all love comes naturally is not the world that Brontë describes, but she places a Hareton and a Cathy in it to grow the love necessary for enduring, for continuing – for moving on.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Wordsworth Classics ed. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions, 1992. Print.

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