Wuthering Heights is the only novel written by Emily Brontë, first published in 1847. It is a wild, violent and tempestuous story about love and vengeance and it is set among the wind-blasted moors of Yorkshire. The novel is dominated by Heathcliff, a passionate and embittered soul whose vindictive spirit finally burns itself out at the end. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the novel – from fastidious deconstruction exercises to Marxist essays. Even the Goon Spike Milligan has written his own zany 118-paged version of it. For my short talk this evening we will examine how three or four illustrators and film makers have tackled the same episode from the novel. The particular episode I have chosen is the pivotal section of the first part of the novel (Chapter 9) when Cathy intimates to Nelly Dean that, although she intends to marry Edgar Linton, it is really Heathcliff who she loves. Cathy is not aware that Heathcliff overhears the first part of her conversation with Nelly.
Synopsis of the `pivotal `episode in Chapter 9
The scene is set in the rural Victorian kitchen of Wuthering Heights, a large house situated on the bleak Yorkshire moors. Fifteen-year-old Cathy Earnshaw joins the maidservant Nelly (who is possibly in her early 20s) while she is singing young Hareton Earnshaw to sleep. At first Nelly didn’t think Heathcliff was within earshot but she realised later that he had only gone as far as the other side of the settle and had flung himself on a bench by the wall. Cathy intimated to Nelly that she could not marry Heathcliff now that he had become so degraded by her brother Hindley, who had become a drunken savage. Just as she mentioned that Heathcliff had become `degraded’ Nelly became aware of Heathcliff’s presence and she turned her head `and saw him rise from the bench, and steal out noiselessly’. Cathy couldn’t see him at the time because she was sitting on the floor and her view was blocked by the back of the settle which Nelly was sitting on. Cathy and Nelly continue to discuss matters with Cathy emphasising her real love for Heathcliff (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!” etc). At the end of the conversation Cathy hid her face into the folds of Nelly’s gown, but the servant jerked her forcibly away, since she was was out of patience with her. Joseph, the grumpy manservant of the household, arrives on the scene and the three of them wondered where Heathcliff had disappeared to when supper was ready. Nelly told Cathy that she thought that Heathcliff may have heard a good part of what they had been talking about earlier. Cathy became agitated and worried about what Heathcliff might do. Finally She searched for him during a stormy night. But Heathcliff didn’t return for several years.
A comment on the narrators
The story is told through the eyes (sometimes blinkered) and minds of two narrators – Mr Lockwood and Ellen (`Nelly’) Dean. The point of view shifts from Lockwood to Nelly and time moves from the present to the past and returns to the present. Lockwood is the voice of the `present’ and an `outsider’, while Nelly is the voice of the `past’ and an `insider’. Readers will realise the shortcomings of the narrators which enables them to form their own understanding of the characters and events. Lockwood is the principal narrator. He is a city gentleman from the south, somewhat priggish and a superficial dandy type. Nelly Dean is a housekeeper who has lived through most of the events described. She is a Yorkshire lass with homespun philosophy. She is the best person to `tell the story’ because she is confidante to most of the main characters (who in turn narrate personal events to her during the course of the narrative).
Indeed there are quite a number of passages of narrative from the other characters (ie Catherine’s diary in Chapter 3; Heathcliff’s account of a visit to Thrushcross Grange in Chapter 6; a short passage from Catherine in Chapter 12; Isabella Linton’s letter to Nelly Dean and a later narrative of her life at the Heights in Chapter 17; the younger Catherine’s narrative in Chapter 24; a short passage from Heathcliff in Chapter 29; another short passage, this time from the servant Zillah in Chapter 30. So we get an interesting balance of narrative voices from a range individual characters and sometimes different versions of the same event. Nelly Dean, then, transmits the story to Lockwood, who reports it in her own words, sometimes interposing sections of the narrative in his own voice in Chapters 31 and 32 and at the novel’s conclusion.
Summary (up till the end of Chapter 9).
Mr Lockwood (the principal narrator) visits Wuthering Heights and is received inhospitably by Heathcliff and the other inhabitants. Lockwood is resolved to make a return visit the next day.
Lockwood visits Wuthering Heights the next day and tries to fathom out the relationships between the inhabitants. He is gruffly treated again but is forced to stay there overnight because of a heavy snow fall.
Lockwood finds a diary of Catherine Earnshaw and reads it. In one of his nightmares he dreams of smashing the bedroom window and having his hand grasped by the ghost of `Catherine Linton’. He awakens Heathcliff and tells him about the nightmare. Lockwood witnesses Heathcliff’s desperate attempt to restore the ghost. Lockwood returns to his rented house Thrushcross Grange, accompanied by his landlord Heathcliff.
Lockwood’s Housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange (which is two miles away from Wuthering Heights) is Nelly Dean. She takes over the narrative for most of the novel and tells the curious Lockwood how the waif Heathcliff was first brought from Liverpool to Wuthering Heights by old Mr Earnshaw. Hindley (Earnshaw’s son) resented the new arrival but Catherine (Earnshaw’s daughter) struck up a bond with Heathcliff.
Ellen Dean’s narrative continues, telling of the very close relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine while Hindley is away at college. We learn of the servant Joseph’s gruff moralising, and the death of Mr Earnshaw.
Hindley Earnshaw (now married to Frances) becomes the master of Wuthering Heights and he banishes Nelly, Joseph and Heathcliff to the servants’ quarters. At midnight (just after the event he subsequently describes) Heathcliff tells Nelly about a recent escapade on the moors with Catherine when they came across Thrushcross Grange and watched the Linton family through the window. A bull dog was set on them and Catherine was bitten on the ankle. The Lintons, wanting to make amends when they discovered it was Catherine, invited her in the house and made a fuss of her. Heathcliff was refused entry and told to go back to Wuthering Heights on his own.
Catherine convalesced at Thrushcross Grange for five weeks. She has transformed from ‘Tom’ boy to young lady, while Heathcliff had been treated badly in her absence. The Lintons visit Wuthering Heights at Christmas and a remark by Edgar Linton irritates Heathcliff, causing him to throw hot apple sauce over him. Hindley treats Heathcliff roughly and locks him in his attic bedroom without Christmas dinner. Heathcliff swears to Nelly that he will pay Hindley back. At this point Nelly Dean breaks off her narrative for a moment but is persuaded by Lockwood to go on.
Hareton Earnshaw is born to Hindley and Frances; the mother dying of tuberculosis soon afterwards. Hindley becomes dissipated and cruel after her death and ill-treats Heathcliff, who in turn becomes savage. Joseph and Nelly Dean are now the only servants at Wuthering Heights and Nelly becomes nursemaid to Hareton. Cathy is now a beautiful 15-year old, becoming a somewhat headstrong and haughty adolescent. She lives a double life, being a polite lady in the society of the Lintons at Thrushcross Grange but resorting to bossy and bad-tempered behaviour at home in Wuthering Heights. She has less time for Heathcliff who becomes hurt by her negligence of him and surly.
One day Edgar Linton visits Cathy at the Heights. She is in a bad mood, having had an argument with Heathcliff and taking it out on Nelly. She loses her temper, smacking Nelly in the face, shaking the baby Hareton and cuffing Edgar. Shocked at all this Edgar tried to leave at this point but Cathy made up to him and they became avowed lovers. Edgar returns to Thrushcross Grange.
*Chapter 9 (the one that concerns us this evening)
That night Hindley comes home drunk and dangles his little son Hareton over the bannister and drops him, being distracted by Heathcliff’s arrival. Heathcliff, `by a natural impulse’ catches the baby as he was falling. The angry Nelly grabs the baby and nurses him in the kitchen. Cathy (who had been in her own room during the fracas) enters the kitchen to join Nelly while she was lulling the baby to sleep with a song. At this point in time Nelly (who is narrating the event herself) states that she thought Heathcliff had walked through to the barn. But she realised later, however, that he had only gone as far as the other side of the settle and flung himself on a bench by the wall which was removed from the fire. Cathy told Nelly, in secret, that Edgar Linton had asked her to marry him. After some discussion about it Cathy wants to know if Nelly thinks it is the right thing to do. Nelly reckons that of she loves Edgar, and he her, all would seem to be smooth and easy.
“Where is the obstacle?” Nelly asks her.
“Here and here!” replied Catherine, striking one hand on her forehead, and the other on her breast: “in which ever place the soul lives. In my soul and in my heart, I’m convinced I’m wrong’.
Cathy then explained, through recounting a dream, that she could not marry Heathcliff now that he had become so degraded by Hindley. She goes on to say to Nelly –
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightening, or frost from fire”.
At this point Nelly became aware of Heathcliff’s presence and she turned her head –
“and saw him rise from the bench, and steal out noiselessly. He had listened till he heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry him”.
At this point Heathcliff got up and slipped out into the stormy night and disappeared. Cathy was prevented from seeing him because she was sitting on the floor and her view was blocked by the high back of the settle which Nelly was sitting on.Cathy and Nelly continue to discuss the pros and cons of Cathy’s proposed marriage to Edgar Linton and she makes it clear how deeply she loves Heathcliff . Cathy speaks the famous lines, which Heathcliff never heard –
` “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. 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 as I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my on being. So don’t talk of our separation again; it is impractical; and -” She paused, and hid her face in the folds of my gown, but I jerked it forcibly away. I was out of patience with her folly!’
Joseph enters and when supper had been prepared they all wondered where Heathcliff had gone. Nelly told Cathy that Heathcliff had heard a good part of what they had been talking about earlier. Cathy is in a state and is fearful of what Heathcliff might do, having overheard the earlier conversation she had had with Nelly. She searches for him during the night and gets soaked in the stormy weather. Next day she is taken ill with a fever and Heathcliff doesn’t return for several years.