'Wuthering Heights' Overview

A first American edition of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
A first American edition of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty Images

Set in the moorlands of northern England, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is part love story, part Gothic novel, and part class novel. The story centers on the dynamics of two generations of the residents of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, with Catherine Earnshaw's and Heathcliff's unconsummated love as a guiding force. Wuthering Heights is deemed one of the greatest love stories in fiction. 

Fast Facts: Wuthering Heights

  • Title: Wuthering Heights
  • Author: Emily Brontë
  • Publisher: Thomas Cautley Newby
  • Year Published: 1847
  • Genre: Gothic romance
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Love, hate, revenge and social class
  • Characters: Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Hindley Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, Isabella Linton, Lockwood, Nelly Dean, Hareton Earnshaw, Linton Heathcliff, Catherine Linton
  • Notable Adaptations: 1939 movie adaptation starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon; 1992 movie adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche; 1978 song “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush
  • Fun Fact: Wuthering Heights inspired notable power-ballad author Jim Steinman on several occasions. Hits such as “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” and “Total Eclipse of The Heart” drew from the tumultuous romance between Cathy and Heathcliff.

Plot Summary

The story is told through diary entries by a London-based gentleman named Lockwood, which relate the events as told by the former Wuthering Heights housekeeper, Nelly Dean. Spanning a period of 40 years, Wuthering Heights is divided in two parts: the first deals with the all-consuming (but not consummated) love between Catherine Earnshaw and the outcast Heathcliff, and her subsequent marriage to the delicate Edgar Linton; while the second part deals with Heathcliff as a stereotypical Gothic villain and his vengeful mistreatment of Catherine’s daughter (also named Catherine), his own son, and his former abuser’s son.

Major Characters

Catherine Earnshaw. The heroine of the novel, she is temperamental and strong-willed. She is torn between the raggedy Heathcliff, whom she loves to the point of self-identification, and the delicate Edgar Linton, who is her equal in social status. She dies during childbirth.

Heathcliff. The hero/villain of the novel, Heathcliff is an ethnically ambiguous character whom Mr. Earnshaw brought to Wuthering Heights after finding him on the streets of Liverpool. He develops an all-consuming love for Cathy, and is routinely degraded by Hindley, who is jealous of him. After Cathy marries Edgar Linton, Heathcliff swears revenge upon all those who wronged him.

Edgar Linton. A delicate and effeminate man, he is Catherine’s husband. He is usually mild-mannered, but Heathcliff routinely tests his politeness.

Isabella Linton. Edgar’s sister, she elopes with Heathcliff, who uses her to jumpstart his revenge plan. She eventually escapes from him and dies more than a decade later. 

Hindley Earnshaw. Catherine’s older brother, he takes over Wuthering Heights after their father dies. He always disliked Heathcliff and starts mistreating him after the death of his father, who openly favored Heathcliff. He becomes a drunkard and a gambler after his wife’s death, and, through gambling, he loses Wuthering Heights to Heathcliff.

Hareton Earnshaw. He is Hindley’s son, whom Heathcliff mistreats as part of his revenge against Hindley. Illiterate but kind, he falls for Catherine Linton, who, after some snubbing, eventually reciprocates his feelings.

Linton Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s sickly son, he is a spoiled and pampered child and youth.

Catherine Linton. Cathy and Edgar’s daughter, she inherits personality traits from both of her parents. She has a willful temperament just like Cathy, while she takes after her father in terms of kindness.

Nelly Dean. Cathy’s former servant and Catherine’s nursemaid, she narrates the events unfolding at Wuthering Heights to Lockwood, who records them in his diary. Since she is too close to the events, and often participated in them, she is an unreliable narrator.

Lockwood. An effete gentleman, he is the frame narrator of the story. He is also an unreliable narrator, being too far removed from the events.

Major Themes

Love. A meditation on the nature of love is at the center Wuthering Heights. The relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff, which is all-consuming and brings Cathy to fully identify with Heathcliff, guides the novel, while the other types of love are portrayed as either ephemeral (Cathy and Edgar) or self-serving (Heathcliff and Isabella). 

Hate. Heathcliff’s hate parallels, in fierceness, his love for Cathy. When he finds out he can’t have her, he starts a revenge plan to settle the score with all of those who wronged him, and morphs from a Byronic hero into a Gothic villain.

Class. Wuthering Heights is fully immersed in the class-related issues of the Victorian era. The novel's tragic turn comes because of the class differences between Cathy (middle class) and Heathcliff (an orphan, the ultimate outcast), as she is bound to marry an equal. 

Nature as a stand-in for characters. The moody nature and climate of the moorlands portrays and mirrors the inner turmoils of the characters, who, in turn, are associated with elements of nature themselves: Cathy is a thorn, Heathcliff is like the rocks, and the Lintons are honeysuckles.

Literary Style

Wuthering Heights is written as a series of diary entries by Lockwood, who writes down what he learns from Nelly Dean. He also inserts several narrations within the main narrations, made of as-told-tos and letters. The characters in the novel speak according to their social class.

About the Author

The fifth of six siblings, Emily Brontë wrote only one novel, Wuthering Heights, before dying at age 30. Very little is known about her, and biographical facts are sparse due to her reclusive nature. She and her siblings used to create stories about the fictional land of Angria, and then she and her sister, Anne, also started writing stories about the fictional island of Gondal.