Study Guide

Wuthering Heights Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Emily Brontë

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Oak-Paneled Bed

This piece of furniture is the symbolic center of Wuthering Heights – both the novel and the house – and provides the setting for two of the novel's most dramatic events. Residing in Catherine's childhood bedroom, the bed is described by Lockwood in the following terms:

a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top, resembling coach windows. . . . In fact, it formed a little closet, and the ledge of the window, which it enclosed, served as a table. (3.5)

The "ghost story" is set into action the tormented night Lockwood spends in the oak-paneled bed. Before his nightmares, Lockwood sees it as a place where he can feel "secure against the vigilance of Heathcliff and everyone else" (3.6). In this sense, it symbolizes a place of protection, security, and retreat. As Lockwood soon finds out, though, the oak-paneled bed was also a retreat for young Catherine, whose books became impromptu journals as she hid from Hindley some twenty-five years before. Lockwood experiences a haunting series of nightmares in the bed, suggesting that he has violated a hallowed place. Because the space was Catherine's, it is sacred to Heathcliff, who is furious when he finds Lockwood sleeping in his "sanctum."

The supernatural powers that surround the bed become more intense when Heathcliff dies there, transforming the bed into a kind of symbol of a coffin where Heathcliff is finally "reunited" with his love. Where Lockwood tried to keep the bed's window closed, Heathcliff is found dead with the window wide open, almost as though his spirit has escaped. So for both Lockwood and Heathcliff, in very different ways, the bed is a protective boundary and haunted space.

Windows, Doors, Thresholds, and Other Boundaries

From the very first pages of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood is anxious to cross the threshold and enter the house, while Heathcliff seems intent on keeping him out. "Even the gate over which [Heathcliff] leant manifested no sympathizing movement […]" (1.6). Lockwood personifies the gate, implying that, like Heathcliff, it does not want to let him in. Even Lockwood's name reflects his failure to gain access. (But since he is not one to pick up on hints, he charges in anyway.)

In his first descriptions of the house, Lockwood observes its unwelcoming architecture: "Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, the corners defended with large, jutting stones" (1.12). Constructed in 1500, this home is clearly designed to be impenetrable. The window in the oak-paneled bed is a critical boundary in the novel, symbolizing a space of violation and violence. Even though Catherine's name is scratched on its surface, the window does not provide entry for her wailing ghost – thanks in large part to Lockwood's lack of sympathy. The bloodshed from Catherine's wrist "rubbed [. . .] to and fro" on the pane suggests that there is profound violence involved in crossing thresholds. Later in the novel, the young Cathy escapes Heathcliff from the same window:

She dare not try the doors, lest the dogs should raise an alarm; she visited the empty chambers, and examined their windows; and luckily, lighting on her mother's, she got easily out of its lattice, and onto the ground by means of the fir tree, close by. (28.66)

Remember that same fir-bough scratching on the window as Lockwood emerged from his nightmare?

There are numerous incidents in which the two houses are referred to as prisons and their inhabitants as prisoners. When domestic harmony finally returns to Wuthering Heights at the novel's end, Lockwood finds that the whole prison vibe is gone:

"I had neither to climb the gate, nor to knock it yielded to my hand [. . . ]. Both doors and lattices were open [. . .] what inmates there were had stationed themselves not far from one of the windows. I could see them and hear them talk before I entered, and looked and listened in consequence, being moved thereto by a mingled sense of curiosity and envy that grew as I lingered. (32.26)

Obviously, Lockwood is still a major snoop; the problems caused by his past boundary violations do not hinder him from imposing himself yet again.

Throughout the novel, characters gaze and spy through windows, open windows, or break them. Not surprisingly, the large drawing room window of Thrushcross Grange appears ample and cheery compared to windows at Wuthering Heights. Rather than being "narrow" and "deeply set," it provides accessible views out onto the garden and green valley and, conversely, into the home's interior.

When Catherine and Heathcliff venture out to spy on Edgar and Isabella, the drawing room window provides a view onto a different world – one that eventually welcomes Catherine but rejects Heathcliff. Thrown out of Thrushcross Grange (as he will be many more times), Heathcliff is left to make his observations through the glass partition: "I resumed my station as a spy, because, if Catherine had wished to return, I intended shattering their great glass panes to a million fragments unless they let her out" (6.39). The many symbolic meanings of windows extend even to Heathcliff's appearance, as Nelly describes his eyes as "a couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly" (7.42). Again, windows prevent rather than provide access.

Doubles and Opposites

What's with all of the doubles and opposites in the novel? Wuthering Heights versus Thrushcross Grange, civilization versus nature, Edgar Linton versus Heathcliff are just some of the oppositions. The family tree is very symmetrical, but the families blend and the opposition between the houses becomes less clearly distinct. Among the novel's many doubles, Catherine and Heathcliff are the most important. Their love is based on being spiritual twins. Recall Catherine's confession to Nelly Dean that she can't marry Heathcliff because, as she explains, "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 lightning, or frost from fire" (9.92). She concludes with one of the most memorable lines in the novel: "Nelly, I am Heathcliff" (9.101).

Heathcliff is not Catherine's only double – there's also her daughter, the other Catherine, better known as Cathy. All of these names can get really confusing, leading you to wonder – couldn't they come up with any new names?! There are many Lintons and Earnshaws, even several characters with the name Heathcliff, though only one goes exclusively by Heathcliff (like Prince or Madonna). There are two Hareton Earnshaws, though one from way back in 1500.

Heathcliff has another double too: Hareton Earnshaw. Both were placed into a servile position and deprived of an education by the ruthless master of the house. Just how vengeful Heathcliff is comes out with Hareton, because rather than feeling compassion that the young man has no sympathetic father figure, Heathcliff repeats the same crummy treatment on Hareton that he received from Hareton's father, Hindley.

Among the many examples of repetition in the plot, the scenes with the two Catherines and their respective suitors, Edgar Linton and Linton Heathcliff, reveal that mother and daughter are both feisty and self-indulgent. Let's briefly look at the repetition in two scenes.

In the first, Catherine boxes Edgar Linton on the ear. When he tries to leave Wuthering Heights, she becomes a master manipulator, shouting, "No . . . not yet, Edgar Linton – sit down; you shall not leave me in that temper. I should be miserable all night, and I won't be miserable for you!"(8.77). Moments later, Edgar proposes marriage and Catherine accepts.

Roughly twenty years later, Cathy pushes Linton Heathcliff after a fight about their parents. Though Cathy apologizes, she also blames him, just like her mother blamed Edgar. She does not want to leave Wuthering Heights carrying the blame for the scene: "Don't let me go home thinking I've done you harm!" (23.49). Daughter, like mother, cannot control her temper and yet does not want to bear any of the responsibility.

Ghosts

We're not exactly talking about Gryffindor Tower's Nearly Headless Nick here, but there are definitely some haunting figures in Wuthering Heights. It is important to note, though, that Brontë's ghosts are ambiguous entities and may have logical, rather than supernatural, explanations.

Take Catherine's ghost at the beginning. This paranormal figure with the icy hand who claims to have been "a waif for twenty years," (111.55) could just be a figment of Lockwood's nightmares. Still, when Heathcliff demands an explanation for the commotion in the oak-paneled bed (which he clearly thinks involves Catherine's ghost), Lockwood answers that Wuthering Heights is "swarming with ghosts and goblins!" (3.67). As readers, we accept his interpretation because Lockwood is our narrator, but his characterizations can also be wildly inaccurate, reflecting his own biases and assumptions, as with his description of Catherine's ghost as a "little fiend" who may have been seeking entry into the window in order to strangle him. As he further describes her, "And that minx, Catherine Linton, or Earnshaw, or however she was called – she must have been a changeling – wicked little soul!" (3.69).

In many ways the ghosts in Wuthering Heights symbolize a lack of closure for the lovers. Heathcliff wants to believe in ghosts and the afterlife because that means Catherine will still be around. When Catherine dies, he begs to be haunted: "I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad!" (16.25). Brontë's ghosts are not your average Gothic novel device, as they seem to have much more to do with romance than evil. The superstitious Joseph may be the only one to see the ghosts as sinister.

At the end of the novel, Nelly Dean tells Lockwood that the "country folks would swear on their Bible [the ghost of Heathcliff] walks," and they report having seen him "near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house" (34.99). These reports could go either way. That the villagers see the ghosts too could mean that they are not just figments of Lockwood's imagination. On the other hand, the villagers may just be demonstrating the same kind of superstitious fear as Joseph. Even drama-loving Nelly is skeptical about the existence of ghosts. When a neighborhood boy reports "They's Heathcliff and a woman, yonder, under t' Nab [...] un' Aw darnut pass'em" (34.101), Nelly tells Lockwood that she did not see the ghosts herself and that "He probably raised the phantoms from thinking, as he traversed the moors alone, on the nonsense he had heard his parents and companions repeat […]" (34.103).

So what's the verdict on the ghosts? Brontë leaves it up in the air, but the hauntings and uncanny happenings are part of what make the novel so riveting.

Nature, Weather, and the Moors

The wild and desolate moors are set against the drama unfolding in the two houses. But as much as there is a nature versus culture theme going on here, Wuthering Heights (the house) is very much associated with nature, and so it can't really be put in neat opposition to it. As Lockwood explains at the novel's opening, "Wuthering" is "a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather"(1.12). Translation: bring a jacket.

But the moors mean different things to different people. To Lockwood, the moors serve as a confusing expanse that's almost impossible to navigate on his own. The moors confuse him, especially when it snows. He sees them as "one billowy white, ocean" (4.101) full of pits, depressions, rises, and deep swamps. The boggy parts of the moors can mean death for some people. When Heathcliff imprisons Nelly and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, he spreads a rumor in Gimmerton that the two had "sunk in the Blackhorse marsh" and that he had rescued them (28.2).

But as much as the moors represent threat and menace, they are also full of mystery and mysticism. They are a source of comfort and a respite from the prison-like atmosphere of Wuthering Heights. To Catherine and Heathcliff, the moors exist as a supernatural, liberating, and boundaryless region. For them, the ultimate freedom is associated with wandering on the moors. They often describe their love and their own individual identities through metaphors of nature. Catherine's dying wish to be released on to the moors reinforces Heathcliff's analogy of Catherine as an oak contained by the strictures of Thrushcross Grange:

[Catherine:] "I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy […] I'm sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. Open the window again wide […]." (12.46)

Both Catherine and Heathcliff have an intense identification with the unruliness and brutality of nature. Catherine justifies her marriage to Edgar Linton using comparisons to the natural world:

"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." (9.101)

Heathcliff's appearance draws endless comparisons to nature. It is "bleak, hilly, coal country" to Linton's "fertile valley" (8.53). Brontë does not set up a neat opposition between nature and civilization, though. First of all, life at the Heights is not exactly civilized; second, the very name of the house reflects its surroundings.

Like her mother, Cathy yearns to escape the confines of the house and play on the moors. Hareton slowly earns her trust by giving her a guided tour of some of the natural features of the surrounding countryside. "He opened the mysteries of the Fairy cave, and twenty other queer places […]" (8.85).

Dogs

There are dogs all over this novel, and they actually play a pretty big role in propelling the plot. Like the Lintons and Earnshaws, the dogs are all related. Dogs figure in several major scenes and tend to be symbolically linked to Heathcliff. For example, when Lockwood tries to enter Wuthering Heights at the beginning of the novel, he finds not only several locked gates but also a pack of dogs preventing entry. "[T]wo hairy monsters" (3.101) with the names Gnasher and Wolf attack Lockwood, their lack of hospitality seeming to reflect that of their master. But Lockwood doesn't get the hint.

When Catherine and Heathcliff take their pivotal journey down to Thrushcross Grange, they share a glimpse of the sniveling Linton children fighting over a dog (6.37). When Catherine is bit by Skulker, one of the Lintons' dogs, she is compelled to stay at the Grange to recuperate, which changes her relationship to Heathcliff forever. Finally, let's not forget Heathcliff's treatment of Isabella's springer, Fanny. As they elope from Thrushcross Grange, Heathcliff uses a handkerchief to hang the dog by his neck on a bridle hook – definitely some foreshadowing of the treatment his new bride will receive.

Houses

Well, we know by the book's title that houses are pretty important here. Heathcliff's entire revenge plot is tied up in gaining ownership of the two houses. Even though Wuthering Heights is a love story, it's the houses that Heathcliff is determined to get possession of; his plan is not to win Catherine back or steal her away from Edgar Linton.

Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are in many ways set in opposition to each another. (See "Doubles and Opposites," above) The Heights lacks hospitality and domestic comforts: chairs lurk, meats hang from the ceiling, and the kitchen, like unwelcome guests, is "forced to retreat altogether" (1.14). "Wuthering," as Lockwood tells us, is "descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather" (1.12). Thrushcross Grange, on the other hand, represents refinement, class, cultivation, and propriety. It's the house Catherine aspires to socially, the house that will make her a "lady." The Heights sits exposed on a stormy hilltop, but the Grange is calm and protected down in the valley.

With all the crazy intermixing that goes on in the novel, though, these neat thematic oppositions start to get confused. When the novel opens we learn that Heathcliff owns both houses. But when Lockwood notices that the inscription over the doors reads "Hareton Earnshaw," we know that the family has lost the house; the laws of inheritance have been violated. (Remember, even though Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw, he was never named Heathcliff Earnshaw). Figuring out how this happened becomes one of our goals as a reader.

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