Forget most of the romantic nonsense you have heard about Heathcliff. Sure he's in love with Catherine, and you can't question his loyalty, but he has a serious mean streak. Brontë is at her best when she is describing him, and his looks garner a lot of attention from her and the other characters. Numerous polls have voted him literature's most romantic hero, which says a lot about the kind of men we like – tortured, brooding, and obsessive. Heathcliff is the embodiment of what is known by literary types as the Byronic hero – a dark, outsider antihero (kind of like Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre or Edward Cullen from Twilight). He is swarthy, lonerish, and little demonic, but definitely sexy.
Heathcliff enters the Earnshaw home as a poor orphan and is immediately stigmatized by questions of parentage. He is characterized as devilish and cruelly referred to as "it" in the Earnshaw household. His language is "gibberish" and his dark otherness provokes the labels "gipsy," "wicked boy," "villain," and "imp of Satan." This poor treatment is not much of an improvement on his "starving and houseless" childhood, and he quickly becomes a product of all of the abuse and neglect. Racially different, he can and will never be accepted by his adoptive family or the villagers of Gimmerton. That Heathcliff should be given the name of an Earnshaw son who died in childhood confirms the impression of his being a fairy changeling – an otherworldly being that takes the place of a human child. Plus, he is never given the last name Earnshaw.
Heathcliff's arrival is seen as a direct threat to just about everyone, but mostly to Hindley. As Nelly Dean tells it, "from the very beginning, [Heathcliff] bred bad feeling in the house" (5.55). Her choice of words is suggestive, since there is so much preoccupation with his racial background (breeding). Coming from Liverpool (a port town with many immigrants), Heathcliff very likely is of mixed race. Some critics have suggested that he is black or Arabic. Could he be Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate child? This would explain his father's strange insistence on including him in the household.
Victorian England was fascinated by gypsies, and they appear in novels like Jane Austen's Emma and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, among others. Gypsies, who were thought to have come from Egypt (which is where the "gyp" part of the word comes from), were objects of discrimination, partly because their traveling lifestyle made them people without a nation or land (like Heathcliff), and partly because they just looked so different from the typical Anglo Saxon. In nineteenth-century novels, gypsies often steal children. They are never the hero (or anti-hero) of the novel. So Brontë really mixes up our expectations here.
Though the mystery of Heathcliff's background is never solved, there is endless speculation and fascination about his appearance. Mr. Earnshaw introduces him to his new family by saying that he is "as dark almost as if it came from the devil" (4.45), and he is called a "gipsy" by several different characters.
Looking as different as he does makes it impossible for Heathcliff ever truly to fit in. His determination to gain control of both Wuthering Heights and the Grange is driven by his desire to become master in spite of being so much an outsider – economically, familially, and physically. His envy of Edgar's light-skinned handsomeness is part of what fuels his anger about Catherine's choice.
During a three-year absence, Heathcliff is physically transformed. No longer a beaten-down street kid, he has become, as Nelly puts it:
. . . a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom my master [Edgar] seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton's; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued […] (10.53)
By the time Lockwood meets him, Heathcliff is still dark and swarthy, of course, but now embodies the social status that he has gained over the last 25 years. Lockwood notes:
Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire [. . .] (1.15)
At this point in Heathcliff's story he contains oppositions: his ethnic background presents a strange contrast with his master-of-the-house look. Though he acquires the property, he can never change his appearance and what it implies socially. (For more discussion of Heathcliff's race, check out "Themes.")
Heathcliff can be a real beast, which comes across through his numerous threats, violent acts, and symbolic association with that unruly pack of dogs (Throttler, Skulker – what names!). In some ways he is the supreme depraved Gothic villain, but his emotional complexity and the depth of his motivations and reactions make him much more than that.
Heathcliff often falls back on violence as a means of expression, both of love and hate. Having been beaten on by Hindley for most of his childhood, Heathcliff is the classic victim turned perpetrator. His rage is tied to the revenge he so passionately seeks, but he also undertakes small "extracurricular" acts of violence, like hanging Isabella Linton's dog. Whether he is capable of sympathy for anyone but Catherine is highly questionable. As Nelly recounts:
[Heathcliff] seized, and thrust [Isabella] from the room; and returned muttering – "I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain." (14.39-41)
That pretty much sums up his attitude – and he's talking about his wife! He treats his son, Linton, no better. Linton's sickly demeanor is a contrast to his father's strong and healthy physique, and Heathcliff has no tolerance for the little bugger.
Though Heathcliff expresses and often enacts violence against just about everyone in the two houses, he would never hurt Catherine. However, his love for her is violent in the sense that it is extremely passionate and stirs a brutal defensiveness. Importantly, by the end of the novel Heathcliff admits to Nelly that he no longer has any interest in violence. It's not so much that he is sated as that he is just over it. As he tells her:
"It is a poor conclusion, is it not . . . An absurd termination to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished! My old enemies have beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don't care for striking. I can't take the trouble to raise my hand!" (33.59)
As readers painfully recall, Heathcliff leaves his beloved Cathy after overhearing her say it would degrade her to marry him. That moment really hurts, because if anything is obvious, it's that Catherine is Heathcliff's soul mate and his only ally against the brute Hindley. In a sense, their love remains immature, since they were only ever "together" as young children. The moments of joy that haunt Heathcliff for the rest of his life occur over just a few pages. Many of them take place as an escape from violence, as in this memory recounted in Catherine's makeshift journal:
"Hindley is a detestable substitute – his conduct to Heathcliff is atrocious – H. and I are going to rebel – we took our initiatory step this evening." (3.13)
And soon after:
"We made ourselves as snug as our means allowed in the arch of the dresser. I had just fastened our pinafores together, and hung them up for a curtain, when in comes Joseph, on an errand from the stables. He tears down my handiwork, boxes my ears, and croaks…" (3.19)
Without her, Heathcliff quickly turns from mythic hero into well-schooled brute.
Heathcliff and Cathy are haunted by each other; each sees the other as inseparable from his or her being. As Catherine tells Nelly Dean:
"Nelly, I am Heathcliff – He's always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but as my own being – so, don't talk of our separation again: it is impracticable." (9.101)
This confession is one of the novel's most famous lines, because it so poignantly expresses the nature of Heathcliff and Catherine's love: it is beyond the physical, transcending all else. Heathcliff tells Nelly:
"I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day . . . my own features mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her." (33.62)
Heathcliff and Cathy see themselves as one and the same, which is interesting considering how big of a deal everyone else makes about Heathcliff's "otherness": his swarthy complexion and low social standing. Cathy doesn't care about any of these differences; her love renders them meaningless.
But this closeness also leads to one of the biggest problems in the novel. Because Catherine considers Heathcliff to be a part of her, she does not see her marriage to Edgar as a separation from Heathcliff. For Heathcliff, though, soul mates should be together. Her death only increases his obsession, and he goes so far to have the sexton dig up her grave so he can catch one last glimpse of her.
While he can be a horrible brute, it's easy to pity Heathcliff. After all, he finds his perfect love and she marries a stiff like Edgar Linton. Does Brontë intend for us to like Heathcliff as much as we do? It's hard to tell. Emily's sister Charlotte wrote that "Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition" (Charlotte Brontë, "Editor's Preface to the New Edition of Wuthering Heights").