The Significance of Narrative Techniques in the Novel
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë employs a complicated narrative structure where characters’ stories are passed down a chain of narrators until they are finally recorded in a diary through an outsider’s perspective. This outsider is Lockwood, a character who, much like the readers, is meeting the mysterious inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange for the first time. An eager Lockwood begins to hear the first-hand account of what went on in these two houses from Nelly Dean, who may not be the most reliable narrator due to her allegiance towards some of the characters and hatred towards others. To make up for the holes in Nelly’s story, Brontë introduces other narrators, who relate parts of the narrative that Nelly was not a witness to. Brontë uses this complicated web of narrators to present multiple perspectives of each character so that readers are getting the most objective and believable version of the events that transpired at Wuthering Heights.
The perspective that Lockwood offers readers of the characters at Wuthering Heights is muddled and confused. He errs in his descriptions of the people he meets, calling Heathcliff “a capital fellow” and mistaking Cathy to be his daughter (1). Eventually, Lockwood notes that he “began to feel unmistakably out of place in [the] pleasant family circle” at Wuthering Heights (9).Yet, Lockwood’s inability to convey factual information does not alienate him from reader; rather, it makes him more relatable because Lockwood’s feelings of puzzlement and confusion mirror the readers’ own feelings at this point. By placing Lockwood and the readers in the same situation (both are being introduced to the characters at the same time), Brontë is establishing a narrator that readers can trust and rely on to tell them an honest story. Through Lockwood, Brontë is also influencing the emotions of the reader. When Lockwood begins to hear Nelly’s story, he does not want her to stop and pleads with Nelly to “sit still, another half hour” when she decides to take a break (44). By showing how eager Lockwood is to continue the story, Brontë is making the readers feel curious about what Nelly will say next, too.
After Lockwood becomes enraptured with Nelly’s tale, Nelly becomes the primary narrator of Wuthering Heights. Nelly is a witness to the majority of the events that she describes, which would make her seem reliable at first glance, but because Brontë relates Nelly’s story in the manner that she tells it to Lockwood, Nelly is able to choose which details to tell Lockwood and, therefore, the readers depending on what suits her own agenda. Nelly makes it very clear where her allegiances lie. Before beginning her story, she says that “Miss Cathy is [the last] of us— I mean, of the Lintons” (24). Because Nelly sides with the Lintons, she tries to skew her audiences’ perceptions of the characters so that they view the Lintons positively and anybody who opposes them negatively. This is where the other narrators that Brontë introduces throughout the novel come into play.
These other narrators add dimensionality to the characters of Wuthering Heights by providing readers with a perspective that is different from Nelly’s. This allows readers to formulate their own opinions of the characters based on more than just what Nelly has to say. By introducing Heathcliff as a narrator, readers are exposed to some of the negative qualities of the Lintons. Heathcliff describes peering through the window into Thrushcross Grange and seeing the Lintons “[quarreling] who should hold a heap of warm hair” and “seeking entertainment in yelling, and sobbing, and rolling on the ground” (35). This image that Heathcliff’s description evokes makes the Lintons seem snobby and superficial, qualities that Nelly would not have highlighted about Edgar and Isabella and that present a much richer picture of the Lintons.
In addition, other narrators are also necessary to provide a more objective perspective on Heathcliff and the Earnshaws. Towards the beginning of the novel, Nelly hints that she disagrees with how the Earnshaws treated Heathcliff upon his arrival to Wuthering Heights. After leaving Heathcliff to sleep on the stairs because Catherine and Hindley did not want to share a room with him, Nelly sarcastically states that she was banished from the household for her “cowardice and inhumanity” when, in fact, she saw the Earnshaw’s treatment of Heathcliff as such (27). Nelly’s sympathy for Heathcliff and disdain towards the Earnshaws, particularly Hindley, becomes more apparent after Heathcliff is made to labor like a servant. To balance Nelly’s mostly negative portrayal of the Earnshaws, Brontë introduces Isabella as a narrator. Through her narration, Isabella shows Hindley as, much like herself, a victim of Heathcliff’s cruel tricks. She highlights the fact that Hindley will do anything to get back what Heathcliff took from him by saying that “‘[Hindley] cannot resist going up [to Heathcliff’s room] with [a pistol] every night, and trying his door. If once [Hindley finds] it open, he’s done for!’” (103). This perspective of Hindley makes him out to be a character that readers can pity.
Isabella’s narration also serves another function: to provide Lockwood with information about events that Nelly did not witness. Heathcliff’s cruelty towards Isabella is a key point of the story that would have been left out had Brontë not chosen to include Isabella as a narrator. Much the same could be said of the other characters that have a minor narrative role in Wuthering Heights. Cathy and Zillah, for example, both give Lockwood and the readers a glimpse of what life was like at Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff in charge through their narrations. Additionally, Heathcliff’s description of how he dug up Catherine’s grave was a part of the story that only he could tell. When Heathcliff says, “‘I was sure I should see [Cathy] there, I was sure she was with me, and I could not help talking to her,’” he is describing feelings that none of the other characters could feel nor begin to understand (212). If readers are to fully understand how heavily the loss of Catherine is affecting Heathcliff, it was pertinent that this segment of the story be told in Heathcliff’s own words.
The fact that Nelly chose to relate the events that she was not to witness to using the exact words of the character whose experiences she was retelling rather than just summarizing what was said to her makes these secondhand stories instantly more reliable and credible. If Nelly had summarized other characters’ experiences, it would be difficult to tell if there was more to the story that Nelly was hiding to serve her own purpose. However, the use of exact wording erases all doubt that there is something missing from the story. Eventually, even Lockwood uses this tactic to demonstrate that he is a trustworthy narrator. After a few weeks at Wuthering Heights, he admits that he will continue the story in “[Nelly’s] own words, only a little condensed. She is, on the whole, a very fair narrator” (115). This statement makes it clear that he is presenting the events that occurred at Wuthering Heights in the same manner that they were told to him.
Brontë structured her narrative in a way that would make this dramatic story believable to her readers. By introducing Wuthering Heights from Lockwood’s point of view, Brontë thrusts her readers into this dramatic scene and ensures that they have no prior knowledge that can influence their interpretations of the events that are told to them. The only factor influencing the readers’ perception of the characters of Wuthering Heights are the facts presented to them through Nelly’s biased narration and the counterarguments about certain characters and events that are related in the voices of minor narrators. This narrative style was Brontë’s way of telling the most objective story possible but it also inspired debates about the characters—who was good and who was evil and why were many of the characters motivated to do what they did— that continue to this very day.
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