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Heathcliff's Character In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights
This paper focuses on Heathcliff's character in Emily Bronte's only novel. 'Wuthering Heights' with reference to views expressed by some critics. Heathcliff is generally considered a villainous character and most critics have therefore focused on his negative personality traits. This paper therefore focuses on both sides of his characters, and then chooses one side to agree with.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS: HEATHCLIFF
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 and is considered one of the best pieces of fiction ever produced by English authors. The story revolves around a villainous character Heathcliff who is the adopted son of Mr. Earnshaw but falls victim of hatred and anger of the real heir Hindley Earnsahw. If we delve deeper into the psyche of Heathcliff and the circumstances in which he grew up, we would be forced to sympathize with the man and some would even feel sorry for him. But in the reviews and various discussions on the book, we would hardly ever find any sympathy for this character; instead most people are of the view that Heathcliff symbolized jealousy, animosity and almost everything negative. It is but very important to understand that for the sake of objectivity, we must study both sides of the character. Another important thing that we notice in most critic's views is that no one seeks to understand that Heathcliff was not a devilish character from the beginning but turned into one only after he was deprived of his fair share of respect and love. The man who was deeply in love with Earnshaw's daughter Catherine was not allowed to marry her because of his social status and this is what completely destroyed his life.
It is important thus to take into account what critics have said about the character of Heathcliff in this novel. It would come as a surprise that most of them have focused intensely on the negative attributes of the man. For example, Joyce Carol Oates in her article 'The magnanimity of Wuthering Heights' studies this character in depth and explains why she feels that the man lacked any sense of virtue or morality. "Even the elder Catherine, who recognizes her kinship with him, calls him a cruel, wolfish man; and she, of all the persons who know him, understands that he is beyond redemption -- precisely because he is not a character in a romantic novel, or, indeed, answerable to any "fabulous notions" at all. (If he weakens at the novel's end, it is only physically. His forthright judgment on his actions is: "... As to repenting of my injustices, I've done no injustice, and I repent of nothing -- I'm too happy, and yet I'm not happy enough.")
Notice the last quoted lone from the novel and we can see why Oates maintains that Heathcliff could not be sympathized with. It is clear that Heathcliff did not see himself as a villain, and rather felt like a victim. We need to understand that Heathcliff is only reflecting basic human nature and thus suffers from the same victimization syndrome that almost all of us encounter at some time in our lives. Only Heathcliff is an extreme case and thus Oates feels he is not worthy of our sympathy or understanding.
Oates further chooses specific quotes from the novel to make us understand why Heathcliff doesn't deserve our pity. She is of the view that Heathcliff was well aware of his action but never felt any pity for his victims and the interesting part is that Heathcliff did not want others to sympathize with him too or at least that's what the critic maintains. "But then Heathcliff observes, in an aside, that he, too, is caught up in this relentless "moral teething," and seems incapable of feeling pity for his victims or for himself. "The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails!" he says. "... And I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain." He observes elsewhere that the mere sight of cowering, weak, fearful persons awakens the desire in him to hurt; and an evening's "slow vivisection" of his own son and his child-bride Catherine would amuse him."
T.L. Stone agrees with Oates and presents a rather interesting theory in this connection. He is of the view that Heathcliff was probably created with the vision of a vampire in mind. This may appear strange at first, but Stone presents some fascinating facts in connection with his theory and maintains that the concept of vampires was very common in the 17th and 18th century England. Therefore the critic feels that there is a strong possibility that Emily Bronte created Heathcliff's character on the same lines. He chooses one important quote from the novel and takes it from there. He discusses the possibility and refers to the definition of a vampire as given by John Heinrich Zophius in his 1733 dissertation called Dissertatio de Vampiris Serviensibu.
Stone writes, "Is he a ghoul or a vampire?" So muses Nelly Dean on the day before Heathcliff's death. This quotation of Nelly's is the single direct reference to vampirism that Emily Bronte offers in Wuthering Heights, but other hints about vampirism may be scattered about the text. Heathcliff does not seem to share many of the qualities described by Zophius, but Heathcliff may provide footprints for the characteristics in Twitchell's description. In any regard, who can guess what was in Bronte's mind? Maybe she had a more subtle approach to the topic, giving an almost imperceptible nod to vampirism in Wuthering Heights (other, that is, than in Nelly's statement), or maybe it was far more pronounced."
It is true that vampires was a fascinating new subject for authors in those days but we need to understand that Emily has precisely focused on the psyche of her character. She is not concerned with vague theories or notions, because if she found such concepts fascinating, she would not have given any reasons behind the cruel behavior of Heathcliff. But in Wuthering Heights, Bronte has presented a thoroughly modern psychological drama and thus has little to do with strange notions of the time.
Valerie Mamicheva also agrees with the above two critics and feels that Heathcliff was certainly a negative character but she takes a different approach to the discussion. She is of the view that we must hold Catherine responsible for turning Heathcliff into a villain because it was her stupidity and blunders that took the two away from each other. No matter how much we hate Hindley and would want to blame him for the misfortunes of Heathcliff, it is important to understand Catherine played the major role in turning this man's life upside down. Therefore the critic in her article on the book, she feels that despite numerous flaws of Heathcliff's personality and character, it is strange that no one seems to blame Catherine for making his life miserable. She chooses specific quotes form the novel, which shows the intensity of Heathcliff's pain, and I pray one prayer - I repeat it till my tongue stiffens - Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living, you said I killed you - haunt me, then!
This shows that though the two were deeply in love with each other Heathcliff was still more sincere and devoted that Catherine because while he did want to marry his beloved, Catherine was more interested in social status. But this critic agrees with the other two critics as far as the analysis of Heathcliff's behavior is concerned. She too feels that Heathcliff was a villain, only he cannot be held solely responsible for the destruction of his enemies.
John Sutherland (1996) also maintains that Heathcliff was a negative character and adds one more dimension to this study by delving deeper into the question, 'was Heathcliff a murderer too'. Though he is unable to prove anything, still author has brought forth an important question, which would give most critics one more reason to hate Heathcliff.
Now that we have seen that most critics think about Heathcliff's character, it is important to mention here that few critics did disagree with the negative views expressed by the majority. For example the author of Monarch Notes (1963) explicitly maintains that Heathcliff is a character that deserves our understanding and pity.
He writes, "Yet Emily Bronte so manages her dark hero as to make him, at least to a certain extent, a sympathetic figure. Early in the book, for instance, just when the reader has nearly made up his mind that Heathcliff is a cruel and insensitive brute, unaware of even the elementary obligation which one human being owes to another - when, in short, he has gone so far as to drive Lockwood out into the storm alone - there comes one of the overwhelmingly lyric moments in the novel as Heathcliff leans far out of the window and implores the spirit of Cathy to come in.…[continue]
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