Nelly Dean As An Unreliable Narrator In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a book of two families from 18th century England. Living in a completely isolated mansion, the families are forced to interact almost completely with each other, often intermarrying and moving between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The reader gets most of the story from Lockwood, the tenant of a nearby house, through the maid, Nelly Dean. After he asks her about Heathcliff, his rather weird landlord living in a closely located manor, Nelly retells the story of her time working for the Earnshaws, former tenants of Wuthering Heights. However, throughout the story, it becomes clear she may not be a very reliable narrator. Through Nelly’s telling of the story in a gossip fashion, her relationships with curtain characters, her large role in the family, and the opinions the other characters have of her all make her reliability come into question. Her lack of willingness to accept responsibility for her actions lead her to make obvious lies in her story.
Nelly is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator, but Lockwood’s poor judgment plays right into her lies, but when meeting Catherine Heathcliff, even Lockwood begins to recognize Nelly’s lies. As soon as he meets her he notices discrepancies in her personality compared to what Nelly told him. For a character as easily persuaded as Lockwood is to begin to notice problems with her story, shows that nelly can’t be trusted at all.
Nelly knows most of these characters personally, which leads her to have biased opinions of them. Her relations with certain characters like Heathcliff, who she grew up with, may lead her to sway stories more into a more positive reflection of her. Her very personal relationships with Heathcliff and Catherine lead readers to believe that she may be swaying things in her favor, for example, the speech Catherine gave regarding why she must marry Edgar seemed to strangely favor Heathcliff even though she didn’t want to marry him. If it was bad to marry him to me it would be just as bad for her to say she loves him.
Another thing off about Nelly is her interest in telling an entertaining story rather than a true story. At one point Nelly even admits to this saying she’s telling the stories in a true gossip fashion. With her saying these readers begin to doubt her stories. Stories like the time Heathcliff supposedly threw a knife at his wife lose authenticity as they may just be gossip. And if she is willing to tell the fluffed up version she is no doubt willing to lie about the story to make it most beneficial to her.
Nelly is much more intertwined with the families than she makes Lockwood believe. She tries to portray herself as just a witness, not a perpetrator. However, we soon see, that she is much more than just an observer. She was part of the household from birth and even played with the master’s children growing up, cementing her as part of the family. Mr. Earnshaw, showed her just as much care as his kids, bringing her gifts from the city every time he went. This action shows his love for her equally to his kids; although her gift is much less expensive than the ones he buys for his children, it nevertheless shows her immense inclusion in the family. With that type of relationship with her bosses, she can never be a normal servant or an unbiased witness. Going further she talks of not taking orders and violence from her masters. Resisting the violence is understandable, but for a servant to ignore orders from her master’s shows just how unconventional their relationship was. As Nelly is so involved with the family, any sort of story regarding the family would affect her life equally as it affected the family’s life and be sculpted by her influence. All this being said, it is clear that Nelly was much more than an observer in these stories, as she undoubtedly was part of the family. Her involvement disqualifies her as just an” observer” and raises many questions to the accuracy of her stories.
Her pushing her importance in family up while also saying that she was just a bystander are conflicting ideas. She can’t be part of the family but not part of the family drama, to me, it seems like she is attempting to make the story make her be more than she is while also deflecting the blame away from her, which is a very dishonest thing for her to do. And that leads me to believe she is not at all reliable and cannot be trusted.
Her reliability also comes into question with her actions in the stories themselves. While she attempts to show herself in the story as that of a mere observer eye, she seems to play a role in the actions of the stories by putting making her opinion known as well. At one point she admits to hating Heathcliff just as much as Hindley did. Her discontent towards Heathcliff leads her to be a participant of his abuse. For example, at one point she prevents Heathcliff from alerting his parents of abuse committed by Hidley when he hit Heathcliff with an iron weight. If Heathcliff were to have alerted them of this it may have ended the abuse hence putting a stop to many of the problems the abused caused later in the book. This would have made it harder for him to be degraded to the point that Catherine refused to marry him, and hence preventing his lust for revenge on the Lintons and the Earnshaws. With this small action, Nelly put all those actions into play. With more similar actions throughout the book, Nelly contributes further to the problems all around her. When Catherine confides to Nelly her thoughts on marriage, Nelly realizes they are being overheard. Another example of her involvement is when Catherine is confiding in her about marriage, and she senses Heathcliff’s presence. Instead of stopping Catherine from continuing her hurtful speech about Heathcliff she allows it to continue furthering the problems seen later in the book. With her also being responsible for the things happening in the book to me her narration loses much of its truth as you can never trust someone to honestly incriminate themselves like that. She is likely twisting the truth to remove blame off her shoulders. Also the ignorance she seems to have about her role in the problems of the book makes her even less of a trustworthy narrator.
Another thing that calls her reliability into question is the response she has when those around her start to blame her for the problems of the book. When Catherine Linton becomes immensely ill, Nelly decides not to inform Edgar. When Edgar inevitably learns of this, he is undoubtedly furious; calling her heartless for her obvious purpose attempts to keep him out of the loop. Catherine almost nearly dies because of her actions; had she notified Edgar quicker, the damage of the sickness would have been much less severe. When Nelly tells Edgar of her meetings with Heathcliff behind his back, she calls Nelly a traitor as she trusted her with this information and Nelly still told Edgar. Catherine, who for most of the book trusted Nelly, realizes the ways Nelly has been doing her wrong behind her back. Even Nelly realizes at one point that she may have been in the wrong: realizing she was at just as much fault for the problems as Heathcliff. A more factual statement was not said by Nelly in the entire book. Nelly continues to try to downplay her role to Lockwood, she says that her responsibility ‘Was not the case, in reality, I am aware; but it was, in my imagination’. Her failure to realize what she has done and the people so close to her pushing her away due to her actions continue to show she is not to be trusted if she can’t even be trustworthy with her family who’s to say her narration will be at all trustworthy. Not to mention the characters blaming her shows she is much more than just a bystander.
Nelly Dean is most definitely an unreliable narrator, she makes this very clear throughout the novel through many dishonest actions. She told the story in gossip fashion, she may have been biased due to her relationships with certain characters, she was responsible for some of the things done to Heathcliff which may have led her to change stories to lift blame off of her, and she lied about the role she played in the family. Most of all the characters around her start to realize she is a problem and start to blame for things. Overall Nelly’s account is not to be trusted due to her obvious lies and conflicting relationships, not to mention her the fact that she refuses to take responsibility for her actions, and for that reason, she is most definitely an unreliable narrator.
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