'Wuthering Heights' Themes, Symbols, Literary Devices

A Novel About Love, Hate, Class, and Revenge

While love seems to be the prevailing theme of Wuthering Heights, the novel is much more than a romantic love story. Intertwined with the (non-consummated) passion of Heathcliff and Cathy are hatred, revenge, and social class, the ever-prevailing issue in Victorian literature.

Love

A meditation on the nature of love permeates the entirety of Wuthering Heights. Of course, the most important relationship is the one between Cathy and Heathcliff, which is all-consuming and brings Cathy to fully identify with Heathcliff, to the point that she says “I am Heathcliff.” Their love is everything but simple, though. They betray one another and themselves in order to marry a person for whom they feel a tamer—but convenient—kind of love. Interestingly, despite its intensity, the love between Cathy and Heathcliff is never consummated. Even when Heathcliff and Cathy are reunited in their afterlife, they do not rest peacefully. Instead, they haunt the moorland as ghosts.

The love that develops between young Catherine and Hindley’s son, Hareton, is a paler and gentler version of the love between Cathy and Heathcliff, and it’s poised for a happy ending.

Hate and Revenge

Heathcliff hates as fiercely as he used to love Cathy, and most of his actions are motivated by a desire of vengeance. Throughout the novel, he resorts to exact some form of retribution from all those who, in his mind, had wronged him: Hindley (and his progeny) for mistreating him, and the Lintons (Edgar and Isabella) for taking Cathy away from him.

Oddly, despite his all-consuming love for Cathy, he is not particularly nice towards her daughter, Catherine. Instead, while assuming the role of the stereotypical villain, he kidnaps her, forces her to marry his sickly son, and generally mistreats her. 

Social Class

Wuthering Heights is fully immersed in the class-related issues of the Victorian era, which were not just a matter of affluence. The characters show that birth, the source of income, and family connections played a relevant role in determining someone’s place in society, and people usually accepted that place.

Wuthering Heights portrays a class-structured society. The Lintons were part of the professional middle class, and the Earnshaws were a little below the Lintons. Nelly Dean was lower-middle class, as she worked non-manual labor (servants were superior to manual laborers). Heathcliff, an orphan, used to occupy the lowest rung in society in the Wuthering Heights universe, but when Mr. Earnshaw openly favored him, he went against societal norms.

Class is also why Cathy decides to marry Edgar and not Heathcliff. When Heathcliff returns to the heath a well-dressed, moneyed, and educated man, he still remains an outcast from society. Class also explains Heathcliff’s attitude towards Hindley’s son, Hareton. He debases Hareton the way Hindley had debased him, thereby enacting a reverse class-motivated revenge. 

Literary Device: Multiple Narrators Within a Frame Story

Wuthering Heights is mainly told by two narrators, Lockwood and his own narrator, Nelly, who tells him about the events that took place in Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. However, other narrators are interspersed throughout the novel. For example, when Lockwood finds Cathy’s diary, we are able to read important details about her childhood spent with Heathcliff in the moors. In addition, Isabella’s letter to Nelly shows us firsthand the abuse she suffered at the hands of Heathcliff. All of the voices in the novel create a choral narrative by offering multiple points of view of the lives of the inhabitants of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights.

It's worth noting that no storyteller is fully objective. Although Lockwood might appear removed, once he meets the masters of Wuthering Heights, he becomes involved with them and loses his objectivity. Likewise, Nelly Dean, while at first appearing to be an outsider, is actually a flawed narrator, at least morally. She often picks sides between characters and changes allegiances—sometimes she works with Cathy, other times she betrays her. 

Literary Device: Doubles and Opposites

Brontë arranges several elements of her novel into pairs that both differ and have similarities with one another. For example, Catherine and Heathcliff perceive themselves as being identical. Cathy and her daughter, Catherine, look much alike, but their personalities differ. When it comes to love, Cathy is split between her socially appropriate marriage to Edgar and her bond with Heathcliff.

Similarly, the estates Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange represent opposing forces and values, yet the two houses are bonded through marriage and tragedy in both generations. Even Nelly and Lockwood, the two narrators, embody this dualism. Background-wise, they could not be more different, yet, with Nelly being too involved in the events and Lockwood being too far removed, they are both unreliable narrators. 

Literary Device: Using Nature to Describe a Character

Nature plays an important role in Wuthering Heights as both an empathetic participant in the setting of the novel—a moorland is prone to winds and storms—, and as a way to describe the characters’ personalities. Cathy and Heathcliff are usually associated with images of wilderness, while the Lintons are associated with pictures of cultivated land. Cathy likens Heathcliff’s soul to the arid wilderness of the moors, while Nelly describes the Lintons as honeysuckles, cultivated and fragile. When Heathcliff speaks about Edgar’s love for Cathy, he says, “He might as well plant an oak in a flower-pot and expect it to thrive, as imagine he can restore her to vigor in the soil of his shallow cares!” 

Symbols: The Ragged Wuthering Heights vs. the Pristine Thrushcross Grange

As an estate, Wuthering Heights is a farmhouse in the moorlands ruled by the cruel and ruthless Hindley. It symbolizes the wildness of both Cathy and Heathcliff. By contrast, Thrushcross Grange, all adorned in crimson, represents cultural and societal norms. When Cathy is bitten by the guard dogs of Thrushcross Grange and she’s brought into the Lintons’ orbit, the two realities begin to clash. The “chaos” of Wuthering Heights wreaks havoc in the Lintons’ peaceful and seemingly idyllic existence, as Cathy’s marriage to Edgar precipitates Heathcliff’s vengeful actions.