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Of all the characters in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is arguably the most fierce and combative as well as the most complex. Branded as a demon even in childhood, Heathcliff develops into a sadistic, cruel, and almost cliché gothic villain in the second half of the novel (John Coper Powys). However, it would be an oversight to fail to examine the correlation of both the role of his horrible childhood and social exclusion as a demonized member of the working class, in leading to is own horrible brutality and violence.
Bronte’s presentation of Heathcliff is somewhat ambiguous, she initially creates a dense and dynamic character that can be interpreted differently to each individual. In many ways, Heathcliff is presented as a cliché gothic villain, fundamentally dark and twisted; evil incarnate. Even as a child, Heathcliff was branded an “imp of Satan”, and in adulthood, this connection to evil is much more prevalent. In the second half of the novel, Heathcliff fully develops into the cliché role of the villain so much so that he almost becomes a parody of stereotypical gothic villainy (Bronte 46). He is cruel and arguably sadistic in his actions, delighting at the thought of “turning [Isabella’s] blue eyes black” as he presents the act of beating her as poetically as painting a masterpiece on a white canvas “painting on its white the colors of the rainbow”, and showing an almost inhuman lack of compassion and love of cruelty (Bronte 126). Even the use of his language is inherently gothic; he speaks gruffly and curtly, without wasting words, and makes use of imperatives such as “speak” or “go and fetch…”, allowing him to seem incredibly intimidating and menacing. His dialogue is filled with, often unnecessary, references to violence, evil, and hell which further cements his role as a symbol of violence, evil, and brutality (Bronte 153). Even Cathy labels him a “fierce, pitiless, wolfish man” whose brutality will “seize and devour [Isabella] up” (Bronte 121, 126). This intensely powerful language presents Heathcliff as animalistic; the wild embodiment of evil unburdened by human conscience. In this sense, Heathcliff can be clearly seen as “a man’s shape animated by demon life” (C. Bronte, Preface).
How it works
In addition, Heathcliff is often presented as an almost supernatural figure; at times, he is drawn as a ghoul verbatim. In childhood, he is described “as dark almost as if [he] came from the devil” which instantly depicts Heathcliff as a supernatural figure (Bronte 42). Additionally, his lack of any real background adds an element of mystery and ambiguity to his character. Some have argued that due to her use of language in describing Heathcliff as “dark” Emily Bronte is demonstrating latent racism. To make this assumption would be a fairly unsubstantiated opinion to hold without considering that racism would have been so commonplace at the time period of the novel that it is more likely that Bronte consciously chose this element of his appearance to solidify his role as a mysterious outsider rather than projecting her own opinion. Due to the fact that he is thought to have dark skin Heathcliff will never be accepted by his adoptive family or the villagers of Gimmerton. That Heathcliff is given the name of an Earnshaw son who died in childhood confirms the impression of him being a superhuman changeling, an otherworldly being that takes the place of a human child (Arnold Kettle). Looking as different as he does makes it impossible for Heathcliff to ever truly fit in. His determination to gain control of both Wuthering Heights and the Grange is driven by his desire to become master despite being so much of an outsider economically, familiarly, and physically. His envy of Edgar’s light-skinned handsomeness is part of what fuels his anger about Catherine’s choice. Heathcliff is also described as moving or acting in a very “ghostly” or eerie fashion (Arthur Symons). He lurks in the shadows of buildings and waits quietly so as to almost seem like an apparition to the unassuming Nelly, who is “uncertain whether to regard him as a worldly visitor” (Bronte 109). This solidifies his depiction as supernatural, or something like a ghoul, yet the fact that Heathcliff is obviously human means he also embodies the gothic convention of being at the edge; teetering between natural and supernatural as his personality juxtaposes financial and moral realism.
However, in more ways than one, Heathcliff’s character is psychologically complex, far more psychologically complex than any of the typical gothic villain, and it would be an oversight to just label him a fundamentally evil or ghoulish being. It’s very unlikely that Bronte intended to depict Heathcliff as a trope for how abused children can become identical to their abusers and become cruel adults, but by looking at Heathcliff’s character through modern analysis, it is obvious that Heathcliff is far from the same type of quintessence of evil; rather, he is a victim of his own consciousness. Heathcliff is involuntarily pounded into a villainous abuser by the psychological trauma of his own childhood. After originally being found “starving and houseless” on the streets of Liverpool, Heathcliff is brought into a family that hates him and he is often spoken of in dehumanizing and contemptuous language such as being referred to as an “it”. In addition, “[Nelly and Hindley] plagued” him “shamefully”, treating her poorly and unremittingly tormenting him (Bronte 26, 43). Nelly, herself, admits to relentlessly demonizing him quite unfairly throughout his life, and comments that she “though Heathcliff less guilty then [her]”, giving a clear insight into her role in Heathcliff’s childhood mistreatment, and almost alluding to the role her actions played in shaping his character (Bronte 326). In this sense, it is wrong to brand Heathcliff merely a “man’s shape animated by demon life”; he is not intrinsically, essentially, evil and, in a rather un-gothic fashion, beholds a web of psychological pain and suffering in childhood which sculpted his own cruelty and evil ways (C. Bronte, Preface).
Heathcliff’s presentation can be seen not only as a supernatural, ethereal demon, but as a representation and demonization of the aspiring working classes; firmly grounded in the concrete realm of financial and status-based conflict. He is frequently called a “gipsy brat” by Hindley and even Cathy herself mockingly refers to the two of them as “of the lower orders” and tells Nelly that she could never marry Heathcliff as it would ruin her reputation (Bronte 42, 111). Clearly, a large amount of Heathcliff’s reputation stems from his class, or lack thereof, as opposed to any inherent evil or ghoulishness within him. When Edgar returns to see Cathy, he scoffs at the mere idea of Heathcliff being led “into the parlour” and suggests “the kitchen as a more suitable place for him” (Bronte 111). Not only does this convey Edgars personal contempt for Heathcliff’s lower status and provides an explicit contrast between the statuses of the two men, but it can also act as a microcosm for society at large. Heathcliff is seen as a symbol for the aspiring working class, and perhaps this, as opposed to his evil nature, is why he is so demonized. The upper classes resent the idea of social climbing and they would do anything to keep the class system intact and prevent “ploughboys” like Heathcliff from working their way up into the metaphorical “parlor” of society (Bronte 23). In addition, Heathcliff’s own evil scheme seems based firmly in finance and wealth-based revenge. He states that he is “resolved” to claim both houses as him own and to earn the “triumph of seeing [his] descendent fairly lord of their estates” (Bronte 246). Far from the intricate scheme of a gothic villain, the working of evil incarnate, Heathcliff’s actions seem to be more financially motivated, an attempt to conquer the class system and seek revenge upon his oppressors.
If any character were to be seen as evil then, of course, Heathcliff would be the first choice. He is undeniably brutal and vengeful, and it is a dangerous temptation, although a common one, to see him as the “rough diamond” favored by gothic clichés. Ultimately, while on the surface Heathcliff seems to almost be the cliché of gothic villainy, a more thoughtful analysis returns a far more psychologically complex conclusion. Far from being a devil, Heathcliff was merely an abused child, demonized and excluded throughout his life due to his race and working-class status, which he then unconsciously perpetuated as an adult in his abuse of others.
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