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Wuthering Heights: A Psychoanalytical Perspective

Updated on December 9, 2014

Wuthering Heights is largely a tale of duality. The theme runs through the book as verbosely as the words on the pages: Two houses, and their respective inhabitants, make up the bulk of the setting and essential characters. The duality is representative of the brain's own internal struggle, between its reasonable side, the Superego, and its animalistic side, the Id. However, just as prominent in the brain we have the Ego—the median, so to speak, of the two. So does this median appear in the book: Her name is Catherine.

To call Catherine the Ego requires her to be a sort of compromise, specifically between a Superego and an Id. This premise in and of itself further demands that we assume there to be a Superego and Id for her to lay between. We find these concepts of the Superego and Id personified by, respectively, Edgar Linton and Heathcliff. The Superego is best described as the voice of reason: It is levelheaded, acts as a moral compass, and promotes strict observance of social customs. Linton demonstrates these characteristics throughout the book: He hails from Thrushcross Grange, a place proper enough that Catherine goes in, and a lady comes out (37). Even during a heated argument (84), Linton withholds his anger and, in a more or less tranquil tone, instructs his opponent to depart. His opponent, however, is Heathcliff—the Id. In keeping with the Id's propensity for impulse, and of course justifying Linton's verdict of Heathcliff as “moral poison,” Heathcliff flippantly and insultingly retorts.

Other times, it's not.
Other times, it's not.

Given our Id and Superego, then, we are left asking only for Catherine to be in the middle, as an Ego would be: In fact, she is torn between the two. Her inner conflict is plainly observable as she confides in Nelly her engagement to Linton, and, in the same breath, her love for Heathcliff (56-59). She is buried, not with the Lintons, nor with the Earnshaws, but rather in a spot which overlooks the moors (125), which, if we accept further that Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights also represent the Superego and Id, acts as an Ego in its own right, and is more compatible with Catherine as a character. Both Heathcliff (247) and Linton (125) are later buried next to her, one on either side, once again placing her in the middle of them.

A truly riveting character.
A truly riveting character.

Given our Id and Superego, then, we are left asking only for Catherine to be in the middle, as an Ego would be: In fact, she is torn between the two. Her inner conflict is plainly observable as she confides in Nelly her engagement to Linton, and, in the same breath, her love for Heathcliff (56-59). She is buried, not with the Lintons, nor with the Earnshaws, but rather in a spot which overlooks the moors (125), which, if we accept further that Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights also represent the Superego and Id, acts as an Ego in its own right, and is more compatible with Catherine as a character. Both Heathcliff (247) and Linton (125) are later buried next to her, one on either side, once again placing her in the middle of them.

Take a seat.
Take a seat.

These incongruous and conflicting thoughts result in uncomfortable tension for Catherine: Certainly, she is quite pained with the arrangement. To spare herself the tribulations of her cognitive dissonance, Catherine, in true Ego-like fashion, puts up several guards. She employs defense mechanisms quite casually during critical moments of her life (which, to no one's surprise, revolve around Linton and Heathcliff): When telling Nelly of her engagement, Catherine bids Nelly to speak rationally, projecting irrationality which is truly her own. Trying to justify her marriage to Linton, she idealizes him in order to give Nelly reasons why; really, this rationalization is for her own benefit (57). Following the argument between Heathcliff and Linton, Catherine distances herself from the things which cause her discomfort (87); she shifts the responsibility onto Isabella and Edgar, and even some onto Nelly, who does not feel as badly for Catherine as Catherine thinks she should, according to her version of reality (86): Withdrawal, blaming, self-victimization and distortion. She even becomes physically ill—conversion—and jumps to the conclusion that Edgar spends his time in the library because he doesn't care for her. To top it all off, she passive-aggressively demands that Nelly tell Edgar just how awful her condition is.

Artist's rendition
Artist's rendition

The Id is particularly strong in infants and children, being the only of the three present at birth. This is true in Catherine's case as well: As a child, she is, as Nelly describes, “much too fond of Heathcliff” (30), our Id. When she grows up, she does so in the presence of Linton, and it seems their time together is not strained. On the contrary, Isabella claims that Catherine and Edgar are “as fond of each other as any two people can be” (110). Three years of development, during which Catherine is primarily under the influence of Linton, the Superego, is defenestrated upon Heathcliff's return. Even in front of her husband, she scarcely conceals her affection for Heathcliff (69), and she acts as giddy and excited as a child—which, effectively, she is. She has regressed to a previous state of development, one in which she is drawn more strongly by the Id than the Superego, as a child would be.

Catherine's behaviour is commonly affected by her proximity to either Heathcliff or Linton, as she is pulled one way or another, Id on the right, Superego on the left. However, just as Linton pulls her left, she exercises her own gravity on Linton, drawing him to the right, toward the Id. In an act quite uncharacteristic of the Superego, which is first to obey established social customs and traditions, Linton buries Catherine in the corner of the kirkyard, and has himself buried next to her, instead of alongside their respective families. Similarly, Catherine pulls Heathcliff to the left, toward the Superego. In a fit of rage severe enough that Heathcliff is in serious danger of throttling Catherine the younger, his anger is quelled once he sees in her eyes something reminiscent of Catherine the older; he relaxes, draws back, and simply warns her against “putting [him] in a passion” (235), speaking with a levelheadedness atypical of the Id's more impulsive, chaotic nature.

In a way, the whole of Wuthering Heights could, sparing all the details, be described as a game of tug-o'-war, with Heathcliff and Linton as competitors, and Catherine as the rope. It is, truly, the struggle between the Superego and the Id, and the poor Ego, which, anchored to both sides, fails to fully satisfy either. In this case, the options are either to compromise, or to be compromised, and sometimes, the rope will snap before either side wins.

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