The Complex Dilemma of Heathcliff: A Tortured Hero or a Dastard Villain?
When Emily Bronte penned down Wuthering Heights, she gave life to one of the most riveting characters in the history of classic literature. The major themes that entrance the readers are love, religion, duality, isolation, and tragedy. It shows the dark, destructive side of love.
Before we dive into a deeper understanding of Heathcliff, let’s summarize the plot of Wuthering Heights in a few sentences. The novel revolves around Heathcliff’s love and later revenge on those who wronged him. An orphan taken along by Mr. Earnshaw, Heathcliff arrives at Wuthering Heights to be introduced to Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw, the daughter and son of Mr. Earnshaw. Hindley is predisposed to loathe the presence of Heathcliff and soon after the oldest Earnshaw dies, Hindley abuses Heathcliff regularly. Heathcliff meanwhile falls in love with Catherine but she refuses to marry him instead, tying the knot with Edgar Linton. When the misery dawns on Heathcliff he venomously swears to ruin the lives of Hindley, Catherine, and her children (Hareton and young Catherine). In the end, he destroys several lives and builds a fortune large enough to buy both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, the estate of Edgar Linton.
Admiring it from afar the novel looks like a classic good-guy-ruined-by-evil book but Bronte dives brilliantly into Heathcliff’s estranged and mangled soul, making this novel a gripping, enthralling read.
Physical Appearance of Heathcliff
Right from the beginning of the book Heathcliff is given the look of a typical tortured hero. His appearance is described as one resembling a gypsy- dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin. Later in his life, he goes on to become a well-groomed gentleman. Nelly Dean, Catherine’s housekeeper, describes him as an “American castaway”.
Nelly also describes Heathcliff as “lazy” and gives hints towards his stature resembling that of a soldier but no other hints of this are further laid out in the later chapters.
Love and Vengeance of Heathcliff
“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
The love that Heathcliff and Catherine shared has been known as wild, youthful love in the first half of the book. Much like Hindley, Catherine despises Heathcliff in the beginning but as the novel proceeds, she finds that she likes his company and soon they both fall in love.
It’s after Catherine declaring that marrying Heathcliff would “degrade her” in eyes of the society that this love paves a way to malevolence, jealousy, anger, and a deep-seated desire for vengeance. As readers, we keep expecting Heathcliff to explore his hidden virtues as romantic heroes normally do. Heathcliff, however, never strays from his cruel persona. Despite of this cruelty though, one cannot help but sympathize with his tragic past and doomed love. This further complicates his case and keeps the readers hooked to understanding him and his motivations.
“He shall never know I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same.”
While Lockwood’s portrayal of Heathcliff describes him as gloomy and formidable, we can’t help but believe in Catherine’s version of Heathcliff. While he might have loved obsessively, there’s no denying that he loved truly.
Bottom-line: Who is Heathcliff- A villain or a tortured hero?
“Treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends; they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies.”
The brutality of Heathcliff cannot be denied. Bronte’s skillful writing makes it quite apparent that he’s turned bitter and resentful towards life and people. His abuse of Isabella Linton who he marries as a part of his ploy for retribution highlights his sadistic side more than once in the novel. He taunts and torments Isabella just to see how many times she would come back to him. Critics argue that Bronte takes her readers along for a similar ride, testing to see how much violence they can justify in order to treat Heathcliff as a romantic hero.
While Gothic themes and dark love provide melancholy to the reader, it is also argued that Heathcliff became the man he is portrayed as at the hands of injustice by the society and betrayal by those he loved. This reflection of the environment shaping a man has been in debate for years. Nevertheless, Heathcliff’s undying, even if admittedly insane love has become synonymous to lovers around the world.
Let’s also count the element of wariness amongst the readers. The narration has been purposely written obscurely to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Added to that the closing scenes of Lockwood visiting the graves of Heathcliff and Catherine intensify the ominous vibe of the plot.
As to Heathcliff being a hero or a villain…he’s a bit of both according to us. Now it’s up to you to decide which side you’re on.
Author: Alefiya is currently a business student as well as a professional Content Writer and Copywriter. Her poetries have been published in several anthologies, one of them being "The Song of Peace", a noble initiative by The League of Poets. When she's not writing fearlessly unique pieces, she devotes her days to intensive reading. She can be reached at her Instagram @alefiya21 to discuss books, philosophy and whatever our souls are made of!