Heathcliff and Cathy’s Relationship as a Symbol of Breaking Normal Moral and Social Codes

June 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the words of Professor Fred Botting, within the Gothic, “transgression is important not only as an interrogation of received rules and values, but in the identification, reconstitution or transformation of limits.” Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights focuses on the transgression of social and moral boundaries not only as a response to the stereotypes of its early Victorian context, but also as a wider metaphor for human nature and emotion. Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship is the central to the novel because of the implications it has for the characters’ contemporaries, the next generation, and the narrative as a whole. Arguably, it is the almost supernatural nature of this core relationship that taints the rest of the novel, in both narrative and theme, with anguish, and denies all the characters a ‘normal’ life. Heathcliff and Cathy redefine the reader’s perception of love, demonstrating a passion that transcends status and defies God. The devouring intensity of this passion leads both characters to abandon morality and compassion, and inflict agony on those around them. Bronte’s Heathcliff epitomizes otherness; the essence of his character is the violation of social norms. From his arrival, Heathcliff disrupts the established structures of Wuthering Heights. Nelly suggests that “from the very beginning, [Heathcliff] bred bad feeling in the house,” suggesting the tension his otherness created within the otherwise traditional family of a gentleman farmer. The tenet of patriarchy – inheritance – comes under attack from Heathcliff’s very existence. Nelly describes Heathcliff as “the poor fatherless child, as [Earnshaw] called him,” hinting at the possibility that Heathcliff is in fact Earnshaw’s illegitimate son. Nelly’s ambiguously pointed statement could suggest that Earnshaw calls Heathcliff this in order to hide that fact that he is not fatherless, but rather, he is Earnshaw’s son. However, the potential unreliability of Nelly’s narration introduces a further element of uncertainty to the reader regarding Heathcliff’s origins. This uncertainty heightens Bronte’s portrayal of him as strange and complex antihero. One can argue that Heathcliff’s position as Earnshaw’s favorite, which arises either from the transgression of Earnshaw’s infidelity or from the equally liminal position as an abandoned and ethnically different orphan, triggers the cycle of jealousy and abuse that runs throughout the novel. It is Hindley’s view of Heathcliff as “a usurper of his parent’s affections and his privileges” that makes Hindley “bitter”, a bitterness which will go on to make both Heathcliff and Cathy’s lives unlivable. Not only is Heathcliff’s genealogy unclear, but also he is arguably symbolic of xenophobic stereotypes of the time, with one reading seeing him as Romani. Isabella Linton supports this interpretation with her comment “he’s exactly like the son of the fortune-teller that stole my tame pheasant.” Bronte’s portrayal of the prejudiced and destructive attitudes to Roma people, a nomadic minority originating in India that has been persecuted for centuries across the globe, can be seen in the reference to the ‘fortune-teller’, a typical but culturally inaccurate depiction of the ‘gypsy’, and from Isabella’s dehumanizing line “Frightful thing! Put him in the cellar, papa.” Heathcliff’s ethnic otherness is quite possibly used to expose the racial tensions within white-dominated Victorian society – the slave-trade was not long abolished when Bronte was writing – but it is also a metaphor for his deeper isolation and separateness from the Caucasian world of etiquette, cultivation and morality. Heathcliff is one character in a long line of ‘Gothic wanderers’, characters like Stoker’s Dracula that exist on the edges of society, looking in. Nelly muses on Heathcliff, “Is he a ghoul or a vampire?” Rather than reading Heathcliff as a supernatural being one could argue that the pleasure he takes in the suffering of others and his eventual disconnection with mortal life altogether is the product of the brutal marginalization he experienced during the critical phase of infant development, suggesting perhaps that if one is treated like a demon, they will become one.   The love between Cathy and Heathcliff overwhelms and contravenes the boundaries of society and morality. Cathy’s recount of her dream vividly elucidates the uncertainness of her relationship. “I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.” For Cathy, the heaven of her dream symbolizes marriage to Edgar Linton, a choice that in a way represents Cathy’s “repentance” of her sins and an acceptance of hierarchical, patriarchic and Christian values. Were Cathy to fully commit to marrying Linton, this would mean renouncing her transgressive and wild love for Heathcliff, choosing the life of high-society in favor of destitution. The dream suggests that a life of Christian virtue, mortally with Linton and immortally in heaven, will not fulfill Cathy and her expulsion by the angels, reminiscent of Satan’s fall from grace in Paradise Lost, in fact brings her tears of “joy.” The connection between Cathy and Heathcliff defies the philosophical and theological notion of the soul. Cathy suggests that hers and Heathcliff’s souls are made of a different material from Linton’s, thus defying the idea that all humans have the same kind of soul, each a sliver of God. Instead, Cathy is controversially suggesting that her and Heathcliff have souls originating from somewhere else, perhaps from hell: “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.” Part of what makes Wuthering Heights so powerful in its subversion of traditional principles is the ambiguity and lack of clarity regarding Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship. As exemplified with the passage about the souls, Cathy never really explains what it is that makes her and Heathcliff so similar and so in love, and yet their connection is almost omnipotent. Arguably one element of their bond is the galvanizing force of suffering, which defined both of their identities from childhood, as Cathy expresses: “My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning.” The reference here to “the beginning” is perhaps biblical, invoking the story of Adam and Eve, from which came original sin. The presence and oppressive power of original sin can be felt throughout Wuthering Heights in that no characters are freed from misfortune or misery, despite their initial innocence. One could see Cathy and Heathcliff’s love as children as a blurred allegory for the story of Adam and Eve, since it is the children’s mutual curiosity in contravention of rules of class, age, ethnicity, and perhaps rules against incest that leads to the love which will destroy them both. The strange and anti-feminist concept of Eve being made from Adam, his rib to be precise, is evoked by Cathy’s line “If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be.” The merging of Bronte’s two characters, through language and emotion although not in physical reality, transcends the very idea of identity: Cathy’s vital line “I am Heathcliff!” suggests that her identity is his, that they are the same, and since we know that is untrue physically, are they perhaps the same spiritually? Are they both forces of nature, of a different substance altogether to the civilized characters of the Victorian world? Where Cathy describes Heathcliff as “an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone,” Nelly similarly describes Cathy’s younger self as “a wild, wicked slip.” The lexical field of wildness used for both characters throughout the novel enforces the idea that they are untamable, and will, like the storms that buffet the Heights, break the boundaries in their paths. Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship even blurs the line between life and death. Whilst Wuthering Heights does not center on the supernatural, Bronte does invoke the ghost as a device to explore the intensity of human emotion and for the “reconstitution” and “transformation of limits.” Heathcliff’s love for Cathy is so potent that when she is dead, he is desperate for her to return from the next world, in any incarnation: “I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Here, Bronte warps the traditional view of the afterlife; Heathcliff whilst still living is in hell, an “abyss” quite possibly more terrible than the netherworld itself. The suggestion that there is love of a strength that turns life into hell is almost hubristic, and by Heathcliff’s death it is clear he is not afraid of Satan and would happily die a sinner despite Joseph’s perpetual proselytizing. Heathcliff’s own inverse hubris – inverse since rather than being greater than a god he boasts of being more terrible than Lucifer – can be explicated in his line to Catherine: “To you, I’ve made myself worse than the devil.” The nighttime walking of Heathcliff and Cathy as revenants symbolizes their eternal and otherworldly love, which was never truly satisfied in the mortal realm but will live on with no care for rules regarding life and death. Interestingly, the intergenerational nature of the Gothic is upheld when Nelly says of the amorous Catherine and Hareton “together, they would brave Satan and all his legions,” a line reminiscent of the devil-flaunting love that burned in Heathcliff. But as the cycle of abuse and revenge ended with Heathcliff’s death, and despite his vicious actions Catherine and Hareton fell in love, it is fitting that the pair, sinned against but not sinners, will fight Satan whereas Heathcliff and Cathy fought God. In a way, Bronte’s ending brings an end to the breaching of boundaries. It was the destructive love of Cathy and Heathcliff that exulted in otherness, defied religion, overpowered death, and was as wild as the moors. When Lockwood leaves the Heights for the last time, he watches the young lovers as they “halted to take a last look at the moon—or, more correctly, at each other by her light.” It is Edgar Linton’s soul that Cathy likens to a “moonbeam,” and one could suggest that it is his gentle soul that shines upon the lovers in this last scene. They plan to live at the Grange, rejecting Cathy and Heathcliff’s hell on Earth for a symbol of heaven. When Cathy and Heathcliff are finally united in the grave, the reader can begin to envisage a future of peace in which moral and social codes are safe from their transgressive passion, as suggested at the novel’s close when Lockwood “wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

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