By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.
For those who wish to learn more about the background of The House of Dead Maids, I have written a number of web pages dealing with my research into the Brontë family and Wuthering Heights. You may reach all of those pages by clicking on this link.
Heathcliff is one of English literature's great enigmatic characters, a complete riddle despite his presence from the first page to almost the last of Wuthering Heights. Nelly Dean says it best when she boasts about her familiarity with his history: "I know all about it, except where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money, at first." (Brontë, 37)
Even so basic a question as Heathcliff's ethnic origin has no resolution. Various characters guess that he is a gypsy, a Lascar (a native of India), or even an American. Mr. Earnshaw has found him in Liverpool, an important English seaport, so he could have come from anywhere in the world. If we examine what seem to be Heathcliff's unusual ideas about religion (as indicated by his occasional comments and also as related by his proselyte, Cathy), we learn that he and Cathy do not discount Christianity as a religion; they merely seem to think that the Christian afterlife has nothing to do with them and their fate after death. This could be a hint that Heathcliff has learned his earliest notions of religion within the Hindu tradition, making old Mr. Linton's guess that he is a Lascar correct.
Heathcliff's character is a malformed mixture of nature and nurture (or the lack thereof). Whatever harsh treatment he has received in early childhood appears to have hardened his character even by the age of seven, and the treatment he receives at Wuthering Heights continues this damage. Readers of the book cannot help wondering whether better treatment would have spared him the development of traits such as avariciousness and implacable resentment that appear to give him even less pleasure than they give others. As little as she cared for Heathcliff, Charlotte Brontë fell prey to this speculation, as this letter to her publisher shows: "Carefully trained and kindly treated, the black gipsy-cub might possibly have been reared into a human being, but tyranny and ignorance made of him a mere demon." (Barker, 203)
Of course Heathcliff is a wicked person, as every critic has noted. But what sort of wicked person is he? David Holbrook calls Heathcliff sadistic, as do many others. (14-15) I disagree. Certainly Heathcliff is a brutal man capable of great cruelty to those he hates, but his treatment of Hareton demonstrates that he isn't truly sadistic.
Heathcliff certainly plans to mistreat Hareton. He is delighted that he will be able to take revenge on the dead Hindley for Hindley's mistreatment of him: "Now, my bonny lad, you are mine! And we'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it." (Brontë, 154) Nevertheless, Heathcliff is not nearly as cruel to Hareton as Hindley was to him. He raises the boy in ignorance but doesn't abuse him. Hareton maintains his sense of self-worth and enjoys his own pursuits, such as shooting; in fact, when he becomes injured, Heathcliff allows the young man the luxury of a lengthy convalescence by the fireside, something hard to imagine Hindley doing for the young Heathcliff. Moreover, Heathcliff praises Hareton to Nelly Dean, mentioning how much he wishes Hareton were his son, and when Hareton storms away from a humiliating encounter with Cathy II, Heathcliff asks him with genuine concern what is wrong. When Cathy II threatens to turn Hareton against Heathcliff, she has found her enemy's one vulnerable point: Heathcliff grows pale and exclaims, "...This time she has provoked me, when I could not bear it. ..." (Brontë, 253) He doesn't end up striking her on that occasion although he has beaten her in the past because to do so would upset Hareton, who is standing nearby.
But the true test of Heathcliff's depth of feeling for Hareton is the suspension of his grand decades-long plan for revenge. He identifies strongly with Hareton as Hareton struggles with his feelings for Cathy II, and when the young people find happiness in their love for one another, Heathcliff decides not to interfere. He himself calls this result "an absurd termination to my violent exertions," and he makes it clear to Nelly that he is not standing aside out of some suddenly discovered sense of morality. His decision is personal and emotional: "I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction." (Brontë, 254-255) Quite simply, he would rather see Hareton happy. While continuing to hate Cathy II as much as ever, he becomes increasingly indulgent of the pair, whereas a true sadist, who enjoys causing pain to others, would find almost hourly opportunities to cause them grief. At one point, he sends Hareton inside to spend time with Cathy II: "...He bid me be off to you; he wondered how I could want the company of any body else." (Brontë, 258)
Within the book, both Lockwood and Nelly Dean call Heathcliff reserved, and many critics have echoed this assessment. But Heathcliff is not naturally reserved. This is a trait he has tried to develop in response to his difficult life. Even before he arrives at Wuthering Heights, he has apparently learned to be silent and watchful, but throughout the course of the book, he makes many passionate and lengthy speeches, and he also talks to himself in unguarded moments. He continues to make a confidante of Nelly Dean years after she has left Wuthering Heights to serve his enemy, showing that he misses and desires some sort of outlet to express his hopes and fears. He even confesses to Nelly his plans for revenge and the shocking details of his grave-robbing attempts. These are not the choices of a naturally reserved man.
Some readers have gone so far as to call these comments mistakes on the part of the author: awkward attempts to convey information to the reader rather than natural-sounding dialogue. But these outbursts and confidences regularly mark Heathcliff's interactions with others, whereas other characters, such as Edgar, never utter such convenient revelations. Witness Heathcliff's explosion of emotion when he finds Lockwood in Cathy's old bedroom: "What can you mean by talking in this way to me! ... How—how dare you, under my roof?—God! he's mad to speak so!" (Brontë, 32) This speech is not a ploy to convey information to the reader; it is merely the impassioned outburst of an impulsive character, and it is consistent with Heathcliff's passionate nature, despite his attempts at reserve.
By contrast, it is Edgar Linton who is truly reserved. Even during highly dramatic moments, he doesn't let down his guard. His speeches are invariably appropriate to the situation and express no private emotion, such as his statement when he has learned of Cathy's shocking illness as a result of his confrontation with Heathcliff: "The next time you bring a tale to me, you shall quit my service, Ellen Dean. ..." (Brontë, 110) The depth of Edgar's feelings come through only in his expressions, and even these he tries to hide: "He leant on the back of a chair, and covered his face." (Brontë, 99) Edgar has lived his entire life in public, as it were, the son of an important man who keeps a houseful of servants. He has learned from childhood the reserve of a gentleman. Heathcliff summons his strength of will and instinctive suspicion to help him develop this same reserve, but with Heathcliff, it is never innate.
But if Heathcliff lacks the manners of the upper class, he has his own clear ideas about what it means to be master of the house. He makes a distinction between servants and gentry. Joseph is an early enemy of the young Heathcliff, repeatedly thrashing him "till his arm ached," and the young Heathcliff speaks rapturously at one point of flinging the old servant "off the highest gable." (Brontë, 46, 48) But when Heathcliff returns and gains control of Wuthering Heights, Joseph keeps his old room, his status, and all his favorite habits, and Heathcliff defers to Joseph's experience in discussing matters about the farm. Heathcliff spends months executing a careful revenge on Hindley and years on his revenge of Edgar Linton, but he is a better master to Joseph than Hindley was.
Although Heathcliff is shockingly unconventional in many ways (witness his bargain with the sexton to modify Cathy's coffin), he feels compelled to follow certain customs relating to his mastery of the two houses. For instance, he is more careful with Wuthering Heights when it becomes his property than Hindley was when it was his, even though Hindley had the benefit of an old respected name and a young heir to leave it to. Heathcliff runs the whole place on a very tight budget, wasting nothing and making the property pay; Nelly Dean comments that "he has, nobody knows what money, and every year it increases. ... " (Brontë, 36) It comes as something of a surprise that the mysterious gypsy foundling who has gone away to wander the world and come back either lucky enough or skilled enough at gambling to win Wuthering Heights away from its rightful owner would turn out to be such a devoted farmer. Heathcliff seems to get no joy from the work but takes it on as a duty that he expects of himself, and this sense of duty seems odd, particularly after Cathy's death. We might expect him to leave at once—perhaps after gaining Wuthering Heights and then burning it down in revenge. What keeps him on the property, exacting such careful work from himself decade after decade? It cannot be only the desire for revenge against Edgar; Heathcliff does not even lay eyes on Cathy II until she is thirteen.
We find Heathcliff again demanding unpleasant duties of himself once he becomes father-in-law to Cathy II. Up to this point, he has been a perfect monster to her: he has labored over grotesque love letters to lure her into a relationship with his son, he has held her at Wuthering Heights by force, and he has even attacked and struck her. When Edgar dies, we find him being no less hateful to Cathy II, but he seems conscious of a certain set of appropriate behaviors nonetheless: Cathy II sits at his dinner table, for instance, despite the fact that he can hardly bear the sight of her, and she does no difficult work (indeed, she does very little work at all). Does Heathcliff keep Cathy II and Hareton at his table because he considers them trophies of a sort? Does he fear incurring the bad opinion of the neighborhood should word get out that he has set a gentleman's daughter to hard labor? Would he feel that his claim on the properties might be jeopardized if neighbors heard of real mistreatment of these two?
Perhaps—Heathcliff has learned to be careful in childhood and to weigh the evidence before deciding on a course of action. Nevertheless, he does not hesitate to swear at Cathy II even in front of his new tenant, a gentleman, and he threatens her with physical violence, too. If he is keeping Cathy II at his dinner table for the sake of appearances, we would expect him to soften his behavior toward her before company.
Heathcliff discusses this problem with Nelly, mentioning the suffering he goes through in the presence of his "children":
Those two, who have left the room, are the only objects which retain a distinct material appearance to me; and that appearance causes me pain, amounting to agony. About her I won't speak; and I don't desire to think; but I earnestly wish she were invisible—her presence invokes only maddening sensations. He moves me differently; and yet if I could do it without seeming insane, I'd never see him again! (Brontë, 255)
Yet why would Heathcliff care about seeming insane? Again, could this jeopardize his ownership of the property? Nelly Dean seems to think that he simply does not wish to coddle himself: "He had an aversion to yielding so completely to his feelings ..." (Brontë, 257) Whatever the answer to this riddle, Heathcliff is so concerned about it that he modifies his habits and chooses to stay away himself, leaving Hareton and Cathy II in possession of his dinner table.
Heathcliff has another odd and very particular trait: he is startled by laughter. Even Zillah, the housekeeper, has learned to be careful; she speaks at one point of laughing heartily, but only because she and Hareton are alone, "as I durst not laugh when the master is by ..." (Brontë, 234) And Cathy II nearly comes to grief because she has provoked Hareton into laughing at the dinner table:
Mr. Heathcliff started; his eye rapidly surveyed our faces. Catherine met it with her accustomed look of nervousness, and yet defiance, which he abhorred.
"It is well you are out of my reach"; he exclaimed. "What fiend possesses you to stare back at me, continually, with those infernal eyes? Down with them! and don't remind me of your existence again. I thought I had cured you of laughing!" (Brontë, 251)
Heathcliff's wife, Isabella, has learned this weakness of her husband's and uses it against him in their last conversation. "I stared full at him, and laughed scornfully," she tells Nelly Dean. (Brontë, 149) Heathcliff's famous self-control gives way as a result, and he ends up trying to kill her with a dinner knife, but she makes her escape, and she is still laughing when she arrives at Thrushcross Grange some time later.
Perhaps Heathcliff's sensitivity over being laughed at dates from the fateful visit he and Cathy have made to Thrushcross Grange, when he gets sent away as a "gypsy" servant and she gets taken inside to eat cake with the young Lintons and spend a luxurious few weeks as their guest. One of the last things Cathy and Heathcliff do is laugh together, and it is this laugh that betrays their presence to the Lintons. But when Cathy comes back, one the first things she does is laugh—not with but at Heathcliff:
"Why, how very black and cross you look! and how—how funny and grim! But that's because I'm used to Edgar and Isabella Linton. Well, Heathcliff, have you forgotten me?"
She had some reason to put the question, for shame and pride threw double gloom over his countenance, and kept him immovable.
"Shake hands, Heathcliff," said Mr. Earnshaw, condescendingly; "once in a way, that is permitted."
"I shall not," replied the boy, finding his tongue at last, "I shall not stand to be laughed at, I shall not bear it!" (Brontë, 51-52)
And indeed, he does not bear being laughed at from that moment on, especially if women are doing the laughing.
Barker, Juliet. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. New
York: Overlook Press, 1998.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights: An Authoritative Text with Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed. Edited by William M. Sale, Jr. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1972.
Holbrook, David. Wuthering Heights: A Drama of Being. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
"Musings on Heathcliff" copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.