Is Heathcliff Worth Sympathy?
Many aspects of Heathcliff’s personality are apparently “fiendish,” complementing his role as the ‘Byronic hero’ of the Wuthering Heights, a character who is dark, rebellious, and antisocial. However, the Byronic hero is also seen to be an enticingly romantic character, while Heathcliff displays a very different sort of persona. With his mistreatment as a child, his isolation, and his psychological deterioration after the death of Cathy, Heathcliff is a remarkably sympathetic character.
Bronte presents Heathcliff’s childhood as a harsh one, full of mistreatment which makes us feel sympathetic towards him since he is so vulnerable. We learn that Heathcliff is already an orphan, and knowing that “Mrs Earnshaw was ready to fling it [Heathcliff] out of doors” appeals to the Gothic theme of injustice. The objectification of Heathcliff through “it” cements him as an dispensable item to Mrs Earnshaw, a person who can be “flung” away just like a piece of rubbish. To further exemplify his mistreatment, Heathcliff is also subjected to great physical violence, but “stand[s] Hindley’s blows without winking,” which shows how Heathcliff does not retaliate to those that hurt him. Instead, he simply endures violence. However, some may argue that although Heathcliff experiences physical and psychological torment in his childhood, he is still a fiend because he is a “usurper of [Hindley’s] parents affections” and manipulates Hindley in a more intelligent way. Heathcliff tells Hindley to give him his horse or he shall “tell [his] father of the three thrashings [he’s] given [him] this week,” using his role as the victim to manipulate Hindley. This devious rebuttal, some might argue, makes Heathcliff just as bad as Hindley, perhaps cruel enough to be labelled a fiend. However, this argument may be refuted by the fact that Heathcliff is simply reacting to the situation he was given, and not initiating the fiendish behavior. Therefore, we sympathize with Heathcliff because he cannot really defend himself against the cruelty he experiences in his childhood, due to the fact that he is not part of the Earnshaw family. He’s simply a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child.”
The isolation of Heathcliff also begins in his childhood; however, this isolation carries over into his adult life to a great extent, evoking yet more sympathy from the reader. Heathcliff’s isolation begins from an intellectual perspective when he is denied an education by Hindley. This sense of denial later on evolves into physical isolation when Hindley shouts “Begone! You vagabond!” at the Christmas party. The word “vagabond” implies someone who travels and doesn’t really have a place in society; we can infer that Heathcliff’s isolation stems from such moments, as he is never truly settles in the Earnshaw family dynamic. This isolation is cemented when Heathcliff is “administered a rough remedy” away from everyone else; the euphemism illustrates how the violence Heathcliff endures is kept away from the others so that they cannot describe exactly what happening to him. An event such as this also demonstrates an unwillingness of the others to accept the brutality Heathcliff is experiencing and see him as one of them; instead, he is ignored and isolated. To a Victorian reader, the violence Heathcliff experiences may not be as striking as a reader today would find it due to the fact that violent tyrannical figures in Victorian households were not uncommon. In this respect, readers of Healthcliff’s time might have sympathized with him less. However, it is undeniable that the violence and isolation Heathcliff is subjected to are unjust and consistent, and evoke sympathy from most readers.
A prominent part of the novel instrumental in evoking sympathy for Heathcliff is the time that precedes Cathy’s imminent death. The scene is heavily laden with Gothic imagery of the macabre, especially when Cathy wrongfully blames her demise on Heathcliff and leaves him “writh[ing] in the torments of hell…” bringing forth imagery of fire and eternal damnation. Hell is seen as a place of spiritual torment and illustrates the pernicious effects of Cathy’s predicted death on her lover. Further sympathy is evoked when Cathy accuses him in the following manner: “You have killed me! And thriven on it…” unfairly blaming him as her “murderer.” Heathcliff is therefore led to assume that his fate, including the death of the woman he loves, is entirely his fault, even though the reader sees that this is not the case. To further exemplify this disparity, Cathy bombards him with questions like “Will you be happy when I am in the earth?” and makes him accountable for her fate. Some might argue that Heathcliff is in fact fiendish he responds to Cathy’s outburst with “You deserve this. You have killed yourself,” a statement which is incredibly blunt and cruel, lowering him to Cathy’s level and sacrificing an element of sympathy that the audience feels for him. However, most would argue that this outburst was simply a product of self-defense and circumstance. Heathcliff does not truly mean to spite Cathy and sink to her fiendish level.
Heathcliff, ultimately, evokes sympathy from the audience to a greater extent than any other character, as he is often trapped within unjust situations which leave him isolated and heartbroken. His role as the ‘Byronic Hero’ entails a central character flaw, however: his temper. Heathcliff is fiendish as a result of the treatment he is given by the other characters. Yet to say that he is “far from fiendish” is to ignore the way he treats other characters, like Isabella and young Hindley. As a consequence, we simultaneously feel sympathy for Heathcliff while recognizing his fiendish behavior.
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