Study Guide

Wuthering Heights Themes

  • Revenge

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Wuthering Heights Video

    Even though the novel is a great (if twisted) romance, Brontë doesn't follow the strict guidelines of the genre: the revenge plot is just as powerful—if not more so—than the love that pulls Catherine and Heathcliff together. Without revenge as such a predominant theme, Wuthering Heights would just be another thwarted love story.

    When Heathcliff can't have the woman he loves, he turns his attention to getting revenge on his childhood tormenter, Hindley. The fact that Hindley already drinks like a fish and gambles to excess makes Heathcliff's vengeance all the easier.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. How do the revenge plot and the romance plot intersect? How do they add to or distract from one another?
    2. Why does Heathcliff spend more time on revenge than on trying to win Catherine back?
    3. To what degree do any of the other characters recognize or acknowledge that Heathcliff is plotting revenge against them?

    Chew on This

    Though Heathcliff is driven by a desire for vengeance, he is certainly not the only character who spends energy on it.

  • Family

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Talk about dysfunctional. Does anyone really like each other in this book? Instead of bringing comfort and peace, families in Wuthering Heights are a source of violence, alienation, jealousy, and greed.

    The whole mess starts when Mr. Earnshaw tries to expand the family by bringing another child, Heathcliff, to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff's new siblings won't share their beds, and they welcome him by making faces and spitting at him.

    Still, themes of family run throughout. Almost every character is either an Earnshaw or a Linton, or in some cases both. And because Heathcliff is never accepted into either family, he gets revenge by taking everything that they own.

    Questions About Family

    1. Brontë repeats many characters' names. What is the effect of this? Why two Catherines, two Hareton Earnshaws, and so forth?
    2. What is the effect of making the entire story about only two families?
    3. Does anyone in the novel have any sense of family loyalty?
    4. What is Mr. Earnshaw's motivation in bringing Heathcliff into the family?

    Chew on This

    Brontë emphasizes the Gothic and perverse by making her lovers related to one another. She brings them together not in spite of being related but because of it.

  • Love

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    It's tough to really call Wuthering Heights a romance, since the two lovers spend so much time making each other miserable. Still, we know Catherine and Heathcliff experience some sort of transcendent romantic and sexy connection... even though Catherine is so derisive of Heathcliff's social standing that early on in the story she questions his capacity to love at all.

    Heathcliff and Catherine's fanatical, impassioned affection connects to the nostalgia of their childhood and reaches beyond the grave into the afterlife, so there's definitely a love connection going on. All of the other examples of love—or, more precisely, marriage—are diminished in comparison, except perhaps that of Cathy Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw.

    Questions About Love

    1. Catherine confesses to Nelly that she loves Edgar but that she is also marrying him to elevate herself socially. Does she really love Edgar? Is Edgar a lovable character?
    2. Why does Isabella marry Heathcliff?
    3. How does the relationship of Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw compare to that of Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Heathcliff?

    Chew on This

    In the various relationships, Brontë explores the dimensions of romantic, platonic, and erotic love, but mystical love seems to transcend all of them.

  • The Supernatural

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    From beginning to end, there's no avoiding the supernatural in Wuthering Heights. There are probably more ghosts than there are humans in this neck of the moors.

    When the ghost of Catherine Linton attempts to come into Wuthering Heights through the window, Lockwood's fascination is piqued. The moors, the people, and Wuthering Heights itself are all infused with supernatural elements—we have much more than your conventional haunted house. As a child, Heathcliff is teased by others for being a dark and unnatural representative of the supernatural (e.g., an "imp of Satan"). And late in the novel, Nelly wonders whether he is a ghoul or a vampire.

    The supernatural vibe extends far beyond Heathcliff to the moors and surrounding village, all of which seems to be touched by something sinister. And the book ends with the suggestion that Heathcliff and Catherine will haunt the moors together for ever after.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Are we meant to believe that ghosts truly exist in the novel?
    2. How many ways are there to interpret the ending of the novel?
    3. What does Lockwood's dream of a ghostly Catherine tell us about his character?

    Chew on This

    With Wuthering Heights, Brontë complicates the Gothic novel genre, making Heathcliff much more than a one-dimensional villain.

  • Suffering

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Just about everyone in Wuthering Heights suffers physical and emotional trauma, and many of them even die from it. Heathcliff avoids physical illness, but his love for Catherine causes an extraordinary amount of suffering. (He seems to enjoy the suffering, to be fair.)

    No one really wants to take responsibility for the misery that results from his or her own foolish decisions—including silly Isabella, who marries Heathcliff knowing he doesn't love her. No suffering surpasses that of Heathcliff and Catherine, and they blame each other. One of the last things Heathcliff says to Catherine, as she lies dying in his arms:

    "Misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it—and in breaking it, you have broken mine." (15.37)

    He does have a point there.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why does Brontë make everyone in love suffer?
    2. Who suffers more, Catherine or Heathcliff—or someone else altogether?
    3. Who are the sympathetic characters in the novel?
    4. Why do so many people become ill?

    Chew on This

    Suffering is central to Catherine and Heathcliff's expression of love. Without being miserable, their characters would not be as provocative to each other or to the reader.

  • Society and Class

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Even though Wuthering Heights' two families live out in the middle of nowhere, they still abide by the totally claustrophobic constraints of class. The Lintons and the Earnshaws are both members of the middle class—between the working class and the elite. But marriage to Edgar Linton is still the means through which Catherine becomes the "greatest woman of the neighbourhood" (9.59) while, as she tells Nelly,

    "Did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise and place him out of my brother's power." (9.99)

    Being an orphan with no family ties and no land, Heathcliff is the lowest on the totem pole. The fact that Hindley denies Heathcliff an education implies that he's trying to force him to become a servant. So it makes sense that Heathcliff's revenge is tied directly to the novel's class issues.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How do property, education, and family name all contribute to social class?
    2. How does Heathcliff's presence throw a wrench in the class structure at play in the two houses?
    3. What role do servants play in the novel?
    4. What becomes of Hareton's class status at the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Heathcliff threatens Hindley's status as heir to the Earnshaw fortune, but it is ultimately Hindley's own behavior that loses him his family home.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Heathcliff is made to feel like an outsider by his own adoptive family, which fuels his desire for revenge. Wuthering Heights never makes it clear where he is originally from, although Mr. Earnshaw says he picked him up in the streets of Liverpool... a port town where immigrants entered England. A ton is made of Heathcliff's appearance; the contrast between his swarthy, brooding looks and Edgar Linton's creamy, soft skin is dramatic.

    So Heathcliff is a double outsider: not only is he not related to anyone at Wuthering Heights, but he is also marked as racially different. He is described dozens of times as a "dark-skinned gipsy" (1.15). Nelly basically sums up the regional biases of the Yorkshire inhabitants when she says, "We don't in general take to foreigners here, Mr. Lockwood, unless they take to us first" (6.7). But Heathcliff's foreign appearance might partially explain why Catherine thinks he's so hot.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. Is there any connection between foreigners and ghosts?
    2. How does Heathcliff's racial identity affect his destiny?
    3. What does Brontë suggest by having Heathcliff named after a dead child?
    4. What do characters mean by calling Heathcliff a "gipsy"? What does that epithet imply?

    Chew on This

    Heathcliff is as much a threat for being foreign as he is for upsetting the family hierarchy as Mr. Earnshaw's new favorite.

  • Betrayal

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Considering that Catherine bails on Heathcliff by marrying Edgar Linton, Heathcliff goes pretty easy on her. Heathcliff does disappear for three years, but when he finally accuses her of betrayal, he frames it as disloyalty to herself.

    And Wuthering Heights offers all sorts of smaller examples of treachery, like when Isabella runs off with Heathcliff and Edgar disowns her, or when young Cathy violates Edgar's prohibition against leaving the grounds of Thrushcross Grange. Betrayal, like revenge, drives much of the plot.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Why don't Catherine and Heathcliff just elope?
    2. Does Nelly have a sense of loyalty?
    3. Does Catherine believe she's being disloyal to Heathcliff when she marries Edgar Linton?
    4. Is Heathcliff disloyal for marrying Isabella?

    Chew on This

    Even though she goes against the yearnings of her own soul by marrying Edgar, Catherine does not see the marriage as a betrayal of her love for Heathcliff.