Story Skeleton—Wuthering Heights

A window onto the moors: a plot summary of Wuthering Heights

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.

 

By Michelle Barker

 

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights promises not only to haunt readers long after they finish it, but it also has a complex narrative structure and mode of narration that are worthy of analysis. It has been described as both a Gothic novel and a love story. The gothic part becomes evident pretty quickly. The love story is more like a cautionary tale: what happens when love is thwarted and becomes selfish and all-consuming; what happens when people are treated badly; that passion has a dark side.

Brontë chooses the relentless desolation and isolation of the Yorkshire moors as her setting, which is where she grew up. Not only is the landscape thematic—a dark and dramatic setting for dark and dramatic people—it also creates a closed-room situation that allows her to keep a sharp focus on the characters populating the two estates: Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. You’d think the limited number of characters would make them easy to follow, but you’d be wrong. Everyone marries their cousin, and both first and last names play musical chairs.

But Brontë has done this for a reason. The generational aspect of the novel is important—how one is raised and what gets passed on form the thematic foundation of the book. The generations also form the two halves of the narrative structure. And the one character we never lose sight of is the one who has only a single name: Heathcliff. He is never given a family name, which becomes ironic considering his narrative goal which is to inherit the family’s fortune and estate.

Heathcliff is an anti-hero and is the chief protagonist in the novel. But because the story is narrated primarily by two other characters (Mr. Lockwood and Nelly Dean), the structural elements become a little… confusing. As well, both Catherine (the elder) and Cathy (the younger) play key roles—the latter eventually redeeming the behavior of the former and becoming a secondary protagonist. 

A logline for Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff’s story forms the backbone of the novel. When we examine his narrative goal and stakes in light of Hannah Sheppard’s pitch test, here is what we get:

When Heathcliff is adopted by the Earnshaws, he forms a passionate bond with Catherine. But when Hindley humiliates him and obstructs his love for Catherine, Heathcliff vows a revenge of disinheritance and ruin that spans generations. Ultimately, he must find a way to overcome his hatred and bitterness if he ever wants to attain peace in a reunion with Catherine after death. 

The narrative frame

The novel opens just before the climax. Mr. Lockwood is not a protagonist, but he kicks off the narration (and his presence actually provokes the climax). His meeting with the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights is what leads Nelly Dean, the true narrator, to tell her story.

It is 1801 when Mr. Lockwood comes to Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord, Heathcliff. Lockwood is the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, four miles away. While this meeting inspires some curiosity on Lockwood’s part, his kickstarting of the climax happens on a subsequent visit when he gets stuck at Wuthering Heights due to a snowstorm and must spend the night. He ends up staying in a small room where the name Catherine is written all over the walls. He finds Catherine’s diary and reads an entry. That night he has a nightmare in which he sees a girl trying to get in through the room’s window. She identifies herself as Catherine Linton.

Heathcliff’s reaction to this news—deep emotion and heartrending grief—is a turning point that eventually leads him into his final transformation. But in terms of the narrative frame, this moment is also what pushes Lockwood to ask the housekeeper Nelly Dean if she knows the story behind the inhabitants of Wuthering Height. 

Stasis

We shift back to 1767 when the Earnshaw family lived at Wuthering Heights: Catherine, her brother Hindley, and their parents. One day, Mr. Earnshaw goes to Liverpool and returns with a desperate looking young orphan they name Heathcliff. This is the early catalyst. Without this event, there would be no story, but we’re still a long way from the inciting incident where Heathcliff’s narrative goal crystallizes.

Mr. Earnshaw develops a particular fondness for Heathcliff and soon prefers him to his son Hindley. This sets up a rivalry that will endure throughout the novel. But for now, Hindley is sent away to school. While he’s gone, Heathcliff and Catherine develop an extremely close relationship that renders them soulmates. They’re both wild, partners in crime, always getting into trouble. This becomes a passion that never leaves Heathcliff and that he will make everyone pay for when it is thwarted (and, in a real sense, stolen from him).

Three years later, when Mr. Earnshaw dies, the estate of Wuthering Heights passes on to Hindley. Hindley returns with a wife, takes control of the house, and becomes tyrannical, determined to split up Heathcliff and Catherine as retribution for his father’s preference of Heathcliff as a son. This introduces both hatred and vengeance into the household, inheritances that are passed on as easily as wealth. But we are still in stasis mode here. 

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident begins when Heathcliff and Catherine are out on the moors and end up at Thrushcross Grange where they spy on the well-mannered and well-to-do children Edgar and Isabella Linton. When Catherine gets bitten by their dog, the parents insist she stay there to convalesce. They won’t let Heathcliff into the house because he looks too wild, so he returns to Wuthering Heights where he is severely neglected by Hindley.

When Catherine returns five weeks later, she has been transformed into a refined young woman. She’s well dressed, clean, and polite—in huge contrast to Heathcliff whom Hindley has treated like a servant and who hasn’t washed in weeks. Catherine still cares for Heathcliff, but her treatment of him changes. She sees him through new eyes, evaluates him as inferior, wonders why he’s so dirty and rude.

Heathcliff internalizes this feeling of inferiority. He is the orphan, the one who doesn’t belong. Hindley’s poor treatment of him accomplishes his goal of damaging the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine. When the Lintons visit and Hindley orders Heathcliff to remain in the garret, out of sight, a fight ensues, and Heathcliff is further humiliated. This is when his narrative goal is formed, which he declares to Nelly: “I’m trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait, if I can only do it, at last.” 

Point of no return

Having spent so much time with the Lintons, Catherine develops a fondness for Edgar (or, in truth, for Edgar’s money and social position). She confides to Nelly that Edgar has proposed and she has accepted.

Unbeknownst to Catherine, Heathcliff is in the room. What Heathcliff hears her say is that it would degrade her to marry him the way he is now, having been ruined by Hindley. What he does not hear her say (because he sneaks out of the room in humiliation), is how much she loves Heathcliff, that she is Heathcliff. He runs away, and when Catherine realizes why, she searches the moors for him and becomes dangerously ill as a result.

That night—the night Heathcliff and Catherine are separated—a tree splits in a storm. Nerd alert: this is an interesting crossover with Jane Eyre, written by Emily Brontë’s sister Charlotte, wherein a tree splits in a storm when Jane and Mr. Rochester are separated. 

Rising Action

When Hindley’s wife dies of consumption after giving birth to a son (Hareton), Hindley goes off the rails, drinking and gambling, never to regain his footing. But that is not enough of a failure to satisfy Heathcliff. Indeed, it is just the beginning.

Catherine survives her illness and marries Edgar, and Nelly goes to live with them, leaving five-year-old Hareton to his fate with a negligent father.

Three years after Heathcliff disappears, he shows up again at Thrushcross Grange unrecognizable. He has money now, and an education—the very things he was lacking when Catherine had said it would degrade her to marry him. It’s clear that his bond with Catherine has survived. They pick up where they left off, much to Edgar’s concern. While Heathcliff goes to live at Wuthering Heights with Hindley and Hareton, he also spends a lot of time at the Grange with Catherine.

But it soon becomes apparent there’s another reason he’s staying at Wuthering Heights. When Nelly goes to visit, the child, Hareton, is violent and illiterate. He curses her. She assumes Hindley has raised the boy to be like this, but she discovers it’s Heathcliff who’s ruining him—and meanwhile also encouraging Hindley to gamble and mortgage away the Heights… to him.

Heathcliff has come back with a two-part plan, and he has now set it in motion. He is a man who was wronged and mistreated, and he’s returned to wreak that mistreatment on whomever he can. Hareton is not the only victim. Isabella Linton, who lives with Edgar and Catherine at the Grange, has fallen in love with Heathcliff. But Heathcliff couldn’t care less about her—because the second part of his plan is that he wants Catherine back.

When Edgar and Heathcliff have a falling out, Edgar insists that Catherine must choose between Heathcliff and him. Never one to take kindly to being told what to do, Catherine locks herself in her room and goes on a hunger strike. Meanwhile, Edgar warns Isabella that if she marries Heathcliff, he will cut her off financially and won’t have anything more to do with her.

In the mêlée of Catherine getting dangerously sick, Isabella runs off with Heathcliff. We then get her POV from a letter Nelly receives, letting us in on the state of things at Wuthering Heights. Hindley is a disaster. He’s a drunk and his gambling has ruined him financially. Basically, he has traded circumstances with Heathcliff. Hareton is being raised without any manners or the ability to read or write (another trade in circumstances with Heathcliff). The house is a mess. And Isabella deeply regrets her marriage. But her brother refuses to intervene, so she eventually runs away. 

Midpoint

At the midpoint of the novel, the focus shifts from the older characters (Catherine, Hindley, Edgar, and Isabella) to the younger ones (Hareton, Cathy, and Linton)—with the one constant being Heathcliff. The older characters wronged Heathcliff, and he in turn intends to avenge himself on the younger ones.

The arc of the first half of the novel ends in despair with the death of Catherine after she gives birth to a child named (you guessed it) Catherine (though everyone refers to her as Cathy). Before she dies, Heathcliff begs her to haunt him, but she doesn’t, and he becomes even more of a misery to be around.

Isabella Linton/Heathcliff dies as well, but not before giving birth to a sickly baby (who turns into a sickly child) named Linton Heathcliff. Linton lives for a time with Edgar and Nelly, but then Heathcliff arrives at Thrushcross Grange to claim him as his son and to raise (i.e. ruin) him.

Nelly and Edgar do everything they can to keep young Cathy away from Wuthering Heights, but one day when she is thirteen, she wanders away on her pony and ends up there, only to discover she has two cousins: Linton and Hareton. As Cathy can be considered a secondary protagonist, this is the inciting incident of her storyline (and her “meet-cute” moment).

By then, Hareton is eighteen, strong, good-looking, and completely illiterate, which Cathy ridicules him for. Linton is younger than Cathy and is whiny and needy, but at least he’s not an imbecile. There is an interesting generational parallel here. While Cathy ridicules Hareton, there is a subtext of attraction between them that mirrors the attraction between Catherine and Heathcliff. Cathy should never marry Linton—just like Catherine should never have married Edgar.

But in keeping with Heathcliff’s plan to ruin everyone and inherit everything, Cathy and Linton must marry. This is the final obstacle in the achievement of his goal. Hindley dies, having mortgaged all his property to Heathcliff, but he is still not the legal heir. He counts on Linton dying young—which is certain to happen, given how sickly he is. To that end, he does everything possible to get Linton and Cathy together.

When Cathy next comes to visit at Wuthering Heights, Hareton has learned to read his own name. He’s quite proud of this, but she still belittles him. Hareton reacts with anger, and we can’t help but feel sorry for him. The message—that so much of what we become is the result of how we’ve been treated (or mistreated)—was a pretty revolutionary insight at the time. 

All is lost—for both Heathcliff and Cathy

When Cathy and Nelly come to Wuthering Heights while Cathy’s father Edgar is on his deathbed, Heathcliff locks them up until Cathy agrees to marry Linton. Linton manages to get Cathy out so she can see her father before he dies. But they do marry, thus denying Hareton his relationship with Cathy.

Linton dies soon after, as expected, and it seems Heathcliff has achieved his goal at last: he is the master of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Everyone around him is either dead or desperately unhappy. So is he overwhelmed with the joy of his victory? Not quite. Too often, what we want is not what we need.

The story could end here, but it doesn’t, because it turns out Heathcliff achieving his goal of revenge is precisely what stands in the way of his ultimate goal, which is to be reunited in some manner with his true love, Catherine. Her ghost will still not come to him. For this to happen, he must let go of his bitterness and hatred. In short, he must allow the second generation to achieve what the first could not and let the love between Cathy and Hareton flourish. 

Climax—and the return of Lockwood’s narration

When Lockwood returns, there are great changes and Nelly fills him (and us) in. Nelly now lives at Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff has died. And Cathy and Hareton are in love and plan to be married. This shift is key in the redemption of the ending and the reversal of what happened between Catherine and Heathcliff.

Nelly explains how it came about. After Linton dies, Cathy begins to feel bad for having teased Hareton and helps him learn how to read. She apologizes to him, and he forgives her. Their affection for each other grows into a force powerful enough to offset Heathcliff’s bitterness. Thus, Cathy achieves her narrative goal.

Some critics claim it is Heathcliff’s death that allows Cathy and Hareton’s love to flourish. While it may be true that Cathy and Hareton could not have gotten engaged if Heathcliff was alive, it’s their initial love that finally releases Heathcliff. It’s only after their love blooms that Catherine’s spirit comes to Heathcliff, thus suggesting that his vengeance and hatred have blocked it all along. It is implied that Heathcliff comes to realize this after Lockwood (in the beginning) tells him about his ghostly vision in Catherine’s bedroom. 

Denouement

In the resolution of the novel, Heathcliff spends several sleepless nights wandering the moors and finally dies—in a state of ecstasy—in the tiny room where Lockwood once spent the night.

Cathy and Hareton plan to be married; Catherine and Heathcliff are together after death. Love proves itself more powerful than hatred. A mostly tragic story ends with redemption. 

The tapestry of narration

The novel’s structure is complicated by the layers of narration which give us two timelines. The present moment story is mostly narrated by Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s new tenant at Thrushcross Grange. It takes place in 1801-1802 and neatly bookends the novel. The past that spans the thirty or so years previous makes up the bulk of the story and is largely narrated by Nelly Dean, the housekeeper (though technically it is Lockwood who records it in his diary). There are occasional dips into the present to remind us that this is a told story, and there are dips from present into past to fill in the blanks that Lockwood couldn’t possibly have discovered himself. The result is a tapestry of narration that is an accomplishment in itself.

Mr. Lockwood, the initial narrator, is more of a plot construct than anything, and as such is the least dynamic of the characters. He’s sort of a stand-in for the reader, functioning more as a listener than an active force. He enters the story on the same footing we do, as a stranger to Wuthering Heights, unsure of what he’s seeing. His visits allow us before and after pictures of the Heights—namely, before and after forgiveness and the redemptive power of love, the only things capable of triumphing over Heathcliff’s enduring hatred and desire for vengeance. It is only thanks to the triumph of love that Heathcliff is finally released from hatred and able to die and be with his true love, Catherine.

Nelly Dean is the chief narrator, having been the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights when Catherine and her brother Hindley were young and Heathcliff first arrived. The narration occasionally passes to other characters and takes other forms: entries from Catherine’s diary, a letter from Isabella Linton, briefly Heathcliff himself, and another servant at the Heights named Zillah.

It’s Nelly who fills in the history for Mr. Lockwood after he’s been to Wuthering Heights a few times and is confounded by its gloomy atmosphere and hostile inhabitants. It was common in Gothic novels to employ a narrator like Nelly who is not directly involved in the story. The idea is that the subjective and unreliable narration would contribute to the eerie atmosphere and create more mystery and ambiguity. On that level, it succeeds. We can never be entirely certain that what she’s telling Lockwood is true. Nelly is judgmental and has her own strong opinions that color how she tells the story and what she chooses to relate. She also harbors some bitterness toward Heathcliff. She wants to be allowed to stay at Wuthering Heights when Cathy marries Linton, but Heathcliff won’t allow it.

Nelly paints Heathcliff as an almost cartoonish villain. And there is no denying he’s a hard man—violent, abusive, and mean. But when we see the way Cathy ridicules Hareton for faults he cannot help, given his upbringing, we are reminded that Heathcliff was legitimately wronged in this story. It’s also worth remembering that Heathcliff is capable of love. Most of what he’s done as an adult has come from an attempt to better himself and make himself worthy in Catherine’s eyes. 

Elements of the Gothic novel

When it comes to the typical elements in a Gothic novel, Wuthering Heights checks most of the boxes:

  • a menacing setting—the Yorkshire moors
  • romance—Heathcliff’s passion for Catherine
  • elements of the supernatural—Catherine’s hauntings
  • intense emotions—everyone seems to suffer from this
  • an anti-hero—Heathcliff
  • female victims—pretty much every female character in the novel becomes one
  • visions and nightmares—Lockwood has one, then Heathcliff has more later
  • madness—Hindley can be said to suffer from it after his wife dies
  • gloomy weather—this seems present for most of the year. 

The only thing missing are prophecies and curses, but then again, there’s Joseph, the cantankerous servant who’s always either quoting scripture or cursing someone. He speaks in such a heavy Yorkshire dialect it’s almost impossible to understand him, though that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s hard to imagine a character more miserable than Heathcliff, but Joseph wins that award. 

Things happen in twos

Duality is an interesting feature of Wuthering Heights. There are two estates, two generations of characters, two timelines, two main narrators—and one Heathcliff. What’s interesting about this is that Heathcliff contains two opposing potentials: he’s smart and attractive and capable of great love. But after being humiliated and wronged, he is also capable of turning his intelligence toward vengeance and hatred. He is both protagonist and antagonist. Given a different set of circumstances, he would have become a completely different person.

The Catherine/Cathy parallel allows for a redemptive turn in the story. What went wrong in the first generation gets corrected in the second. 

What makes this novel a classic

Some readers contend it’s the frankness that Brontë used to create characters who all possess a dark side that makes this novel a classic. It may also be one of the first novels to demonstrate the devastating cyclical nature of abuse: the claustrophobic imprisonment of family, the power of nurture over nature, and how nurture (or its lack) can have such a terrible effect—and ultimately that it can be redeemed. Indeed, the novel’s portrayal of domestic abuse made it controversial when it was first published.

But I would contend it’s Brontë’s layers of narration and the essential unreliability of her narrators that make this book so interesting and re-readable. Heathcliff is an anti-hero—not the first one in literature, but pretty much an archetype by now. Every character gives the reader a reason not to like them, and yet we are still willing to follow them to the end. 

In conclusion

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a great novel to analyze for its complex narrative structure and its anti-hero. The echoing of plot points in this generational diptych lifts the novel out of tragedy and allows for a certain amount of redemption. In the character of Heathcliff, Brontë proves that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable for readers to follow them; they just have to be interesting.


Michelle Barker, senior editor and award-winning novelist

Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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