The Complicated and Controversial Character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights

The Complicated and Controversial Character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights


In Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights, the character of Heathcliff is a central and complex figure who elicits strong reactions from readers and characters alike. From his tumultuous and abusive relationship with Catherine Earnshaw to his vengeful actions towards the Linton family, Heathcliff’s actions and motivations are often disturbing and controversial. Yet, despite his questionable behavior, there is also a deep sadness and longing within Heathcliff that makes him a tragic and ultimately sympathetic character. In this blog post, we will explore the various facets of Heathcliff’s character and consider how he fits into the larger themes of the novel.

Heathcliff’s Early Life and Relationship with Catherine Earnshaw

Heathcliff’s early life is shrouded in mystery, with little known about his background or origins. He is first introduced as a poor, dirty, and hungry child who is taken in by Mr. Earnshaw and becomes a member of the Earnshaw family. Despite his humble beginnings, Heathcliff quickly becomes close with Catherine, Mr. Earnshaw’s daughter, and the two form a deep bond that lasts throughout their lives.

At first, their relationship seems to be a positive and loving one, with Catherine declaring that she and Heathcliff are “more ourselves when we get into the open air” and “nearer to heaven” (Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p. 21). However, as they grow older, their relationship becomes increasingly tumultuous and unhealthy. Catherine becomes more concerned with societal expectations and her own selfish desires, while Heathcliff becomes increasingly jealous and possessive. Eventually, Catherine marries Edgar Linton, a wealthy and well-bred young man, causing Heathcliff to become deeply resentful and vengeful.

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Heathcliff’s Vengeful Nature

One of the most disturbing aspects of Heathcliff’s character is his relentless pursuit of revenge against those who he feels have wronged him. After Catherine marries Edgar, Heathcliff becomes consumed with resentment and sets out to destroy those who have hurt him, including Edgar and the Linton family. He becomes cruel and manipulative, using his wealth and power to manipulate and torment those around him.

Heathcliff’s vengeful nature is perhaps most evident in his treatment of the Linton family. After Catherine’s death, he takes control of Thrushcross Grange, the Linton’s home, and mistreats the family, especially the younger Linton children, Hareton and Cathy. He becomes particularly abusive towards Hareton, treating him as a servant and denying him an education.

Heathcliff’s Tragic Love for Catherine

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is all-consuming and all-encompassing. He is willing to do anything to be with her, even if it means causing harm to those around him. In this way, Heathcliff’s love for Catherine becomes both a strength and a weakness, driving him to great heights of passion and emotion but also causing him to make destructive and self-destructive choices.

This tragic love is perhaps best exemplified in Heathcliff’s final days, when he becomes a shell of his former self and is consumed by his grief and longing for Catherine. As he lays on his deathbed, he declares that he and Catherine “are the same” and that he will finally be able to join her in the afterlife (Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p. 362).

The Role of Class and Society in Heathcliff’s Character

Throughout the novel, Heathcliff’s outsider status as a poor and unconventional member of society plays a significant role in shaping his character and his relationships with others. As a child, he is treated as an outcast by the other members of the Earnshaw family and is often belittled and mistreated because of his lower social class. This early mistreatment and exclusion likely contribute to Heathcliff’s feelings of resentment and desire for revenge later in the novel.

Additionally, Heathcliff’s outsider status also affects his relationships with others, particularly Catherine and Edgar. Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar, a man of a higher social class, is likely driven in part by societal expectations and a desire to improve her social standing. This decision ultimately causes Heathcliff great pain and fuels his vengeful actions towards the Linton family.

The Symbolism of Heathcliff’s Character

In addition to his complex and multifaceted character, Heathcliff also serves as a symbol within the larger themes of the novel. One interpretation of Heathcliff is that he represents the destructive power of unbridled passion and emotion. His intense love for Catherine and his relentless pursuit of revenge ultimately lead to the destruction of many lives, including his own.

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Another way to interpret Heathcliff’s character is as a symbol for the dangers of societal expectations and the consequences of trying to fit into a predetermined social structure. His outsider status and lower class status often lead to mistreatment and exclusion, and his decision to try and rise in social standing through wealth and manipulation ultimately leads to his own downfall.


To sum up, the character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is a complex and controversial figure whose actions and motivations are often disturbing and difficult to understand. From his tumultuous relationship with Catherine to his vengeful nature, Heathcliff is a character who elicits strong reactions from readers. However, despite his questionable behavior, there is also a deep sadness and longing within Heathcliff that makes him a tragic and ultimately sympathetic character. Through his complex character and symbolism, Heathcliff serves as a commentary on the dangers of unbridled passion and the consequences of societal expectations.

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