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gothic elements in Wuthering Heights, the most famous and the only novel of Emily Bronte

Updated on May 24, 2011

gothic elements in Wuthering Heights

One of the forms of fiction seen in the Victorian Age is Gothic fiction which has begun in England with The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. The core element of Gothic fiction is thought to be violence which can be physical or psychological or both of them together. In addition to this cruelty, there is mysterious atmosphere generally created by the supernatural and ghosts in Gothic novels. Besides, the events in these novels usually come out in haunted houses with Gothic architecture or in castles. Definitely, darkness, death and decay, doubles and madness, secrets, and hereditary curses are the other inevitable elements which make contribution to the tension and horror in these works of fiction. The stock characters of Gothic fiction show wide variety from tyrants to villains, from bandits to maniacs and from persecuted maidens from madwoman. Additionally, there are characters such as Byronic heroes, femmes, fatales, and magicians. Certainly, the other unavoidable characters include vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, revenants, ghosts, perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew and the Devil himself. The most significant ideas related to Gothic fiction comprise Anti-Catholicism, romanticism of an ancient Medieval past, melodrama and parody (including self parody) (

            Indisputably, one of the authors of Gothic fiction in this era – Victorian Age – is Emily Bronte – known, also, as Ellis Bell – who is the writer of Wuthering Heights. She is raised in the wild isolation Yorkshire moors with her two sisters Charlotte Bronte and Agnes Bronte – who are writers as well and her brother. Therefore, she and her siblings create their imaginary worlds. Emily Bronte and Agnes Bronte create a separate world of Gondol, which composes of accounts of cities, geography, societies of histories and interwove myth. Besides, she reads Scott and Byron, the prominent authors of Gothic fiction (James 100).

            Indubitably, this isolation of her childhood affects her writing. Her only novel Wuthering Heights is stated to be violent due to this segregated childhood. What is more, the themes of her book are thwarted passion, revenge and final reconciliation, which show examples of violence (James 110).

            This paper aims to concentrate on Gothic elements in Wuthering Heightsbecause Emily Bronte realizes characterization through Gothic elements and in the novel, these elements function as a means to reveal the suppressed feelings of the major characters.


In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte uses Gothic elements in characterization to reveal to her readers the suppressed feelings of her characters and in the novel, one of these elements is violence – both physical violence, violent behaviours, and psychological violence, violent and humiliating words.

Through physical violence, the characters, especially Hindley Earnshaw – the son of Mr Earnshaw and the brother of Catherine Earnshaw – and Heathcliff – foster brother of Hindley – express many hidden feelings. Hancock mentions “Characters’ violent words and actions, even their reactions to the violence of others, all speak of their feelings” (qtd. in Lonoff and Hasseler 60). In the novel, for instance, Hindley’s hostility towards Heathcliff results from his jealousy, a suppressed feeling of him which he can only show through his manners. Nelly Dean – the housekeeper of the mansion of the Earnshaws, first, and the mansion of the Lintons, later, who is the only witness of the events in the novel – explains the reason of Hindley’s brutality: “The younger master [Hindley Earnshaw] had learnt to regard his father [Mr Earnshaw] as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his father’s affections and his privileges, and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries” (26). She, then, gives an example to Mr Lockwood, Heathcliff’s tenant:

I remember Mr Earnshaw once bought a couple of colts at the parish fair, and gave the lads each one. Heathcliff took the handsomest, but it soon fell lame… he said to Hindley -

‘… I shall tell your father [Mr Earnshaw] of the three thrashings you’ve given me this week, and show him my arm, which is black to the shoulder.’ Hindley put out his tongue and cuffed him over the ears… Hindley threw it [the iron weight used for weighing potatoes and hay], hitting him on the breast, and down he fell, but staggered up immediately, breathless and white… (27)

Other than the physical terror of Hindley, Heathcliff is, also, exposed to psychological violence many times. The foremost cause of this treatment is the fact that Heathcliff’s race and class is different from the other characters in the novel. Mandorossian expresses “Emily Bronte’s novel exposes racial identity as a site of crossing that function as a figuration for the characters’ violation of class boundary” and adds “Wuthering Heights stages a tale of interracial encounter in which race, always already internally hybridized, crosses with other categories such as class and gender” (qtd. in Lonoff and Hasseler 45). Actually, in the novel, Heathclif’s racial identity is not clearly defined (qtd. in Lonoff and Haseler 45). As a consequence, Heathcliff’ unclear ethnic identity becomes a source of humiliation – which is another suppressed feeling in the novel – for Hindley Earnshaw, the daughter of Mr Earnshaw – Catherine Earnshaw Linton –, Edgar Linton – the husband of Catherine Earnshaw Linton – and Nelly Dean. While narrating the fight between Hindley and Heathcliff, Nelly Dean tells Mr Lockwood that Hindley calls him “dog” and adds that she names him as “gipsy, beggarly interloper, imp of Satan” (27). Moreover, Catherine Earnshaw Linton looks down on Heathcliff as a result of the fact that he seems dirty and looks like a slave when she returns from the mansion of the Lintons, and utters “Why, how very black and cross you look! And how funny and grim!” and adds “What are you sulky for? It was only that you looked odd. If you wash your face, and brush your hair, it will be all right: but you are so dirty!” (37). Furthermore, Edgar Linton disgraces Heathcliff when he says to Catherine “The whole household need not witness the sight of your welcoming a runaway servant as a brother” (68). As a matter of fact, Heathcliff has just returned back as a gentleman owing to his love for Catherine and his envy of Edgar. However, the most astounding words of degradation are the phrases of Nelly Dean. Even though she sometimes thinks that Heathcliff is right, she is one of the people who debase Heathcliff. She admits that she hates Heathcliff and entitles him as a dirty boy (37). She asserts “You are incurable, Heathcliff, and Mr Hindley will to proceed to extremities, see if he won’t” when she learns that Catherine is at the Lintons because of the bite of their dog (35-36).

There is a point that should be always kept in mind. In Wuthering Heights, race and class is mingled. Hence, the examples which display the mortification that Heathcliff has to endure for some time – though they mostly refer to the ambiguous racial identity of Heathcliff – include the instances of class difference at the same time. In the novel, the most striking illustration of this fact is observed when she argues with Nelly about her choice of Edgar to marry. Catherine acknowledges “…; but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars?...” (58). In addition, so as to prove that she is correct to choose Edgar to marry, she adds “Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power” (58). Thus, Catherine prefers being a member of a higher class due to Heathcliff’s indefinite ethnic identity and lower status.

As a consequence of these facts, Heathcliff becomes a man with low self-esteem. Because of his low self-confidence, he, even, turns out to be dissatisfied with his outlook. When he sees Edgar Linton and realizes that Catherine will leave him in order to marry Edgar, he sighs and confirms “… I wish I had light hair and a fair skin, and was dressed and behaved as well, and had a chance of being as rich as he [Edgar Linton] will be!” (39). Additionally, when Nelly tries to inculcate him, Heathcliff is so miserable that he just points out “In other words, I must wish for Edgar Linton’s great blue eyes and even forehead” (40).

                        HEATHCLIFF AS A GOTHIC VILLAIN

            The second Gothic element in Wuthering Heightsis the Gothic villain. Gothic villain is a character who takes revenge on the ones who have treated him or her in a harsh way. Doubtlessly, Heathcliff is the Gothic villain of the novel because we know that he has been subject to both physical and psychological violence since he was brought to the mansion of the Earnshaws – Wuthering Heights. So as to define Heathcliff as a Gothic villain, Wiesenfarth acclaims “Heathcliff becomes the most famous ‘muscleman’ in English fiction” (64). Moreover, Wiesenfarth alleges “He [Heathcliff] belabours men and captivates women for his financial benefit and his pleasure in revenge” (64). Consequently, one should not be stunned when s/he notices that Heathcliff takes his revenge on everyone who has caused him to suffer for a long time.

            In order to take his revenge, Heathcliff’s first victims are Hindley Earnshaw and Hareton Earnshaw – Hindley’s son. Heathcliff hits Hindley Earnshaw and brutalizes Hareton Earnshaw (Wiesenfarth 65). Indeed, Isabella’s letter – the letter of Heathcliff’s wife – to Nelly Dean exhibits clearly what happened to Hindley. In this letter, Isabella tells her first day at Wuthering Heights and she depicts Hindley: “… After a short suspense, it [the door] was opened by a tall, gaunt man, without neckerchief, and otherwise extremely slovenly; his features were lost in masses of shaggy hair that hung on his shoulders and his eyes, too, were like a ghostly Catherine’s, with all their beauty annihilated” (100). However, one fact should be borne in mind: before causing this unfortunate end for Hindley, Heathcliff has taken the control of Wuthering Heights by making use of Hindley’s habit of gambling (71). Without a doubt, having taken the control, Heathcliff is the boss and Heathcliff is poor and a big nothing, which is the first of Heathcliff’s revenge. To illustrate, while telling the night when she went to Wuthering Heights to take Hareton, about the situation of Heathcliff, Nelly Dean reports Mr Lockwood

“The guest was now the master o Wuthering Heights: he held firm possession, and proved to the attorney – who, in his turn, proved it to Mr Linton – that Earnshaw had mortgaged every yard of land owned, for cash to supply his mania for gaming; and he, Heathcliff, was the mortgagee” (137)

            However, Heathcliff hates so much that he does Hareton – Hindley’s son – what Hindley did him in his childhood. As an illustration, when Mr Lockwood first gets to know Hindley, he portrays him like that

“I began to doubt whether he [Hareton] were a servant or not; his dress and speech were both rude; entirely devoid of the superiority observable in Mr and Mrs Heathcliff; his thick brown curls were rough and uncultivated, his whiskers encroached bearishly over his cheek, and his hands were embrowned like those of common labourer…” (7)

Moreover, about Hareton’s state after the death of his father Hindley, Nelly Dean informs

“… Hareton, who should now be the first gentleman in the neighbourhood, was reduced to a state of complete dependence on his father’s inveterate enemy; and lives in his own house as a servant, deprived of the advantage of wages, and quite unable to right himself…” (137)

Furthermore, Heathcliff himself acquaints Nelly with Hareton’s position in a very proud way.

“I’ve a pleasure in him. He has satisfied my expectations. If he were a born fool I should not enjoy it half so much. But he’s no fool; and I can sympathise with all his feelings, having felt them myself. I know he suffers now, for instance, exactly: it is merely a beginning of what he shall suffer, though. And he’ll never be able to emerge from his bathos of coarseness and ignorance… I’ve taught him to scorn everything extra-animal as silly and weak” (159)

Essentially, Linton confirms the words of his father Heathcliff. He says to Cathy, the daughter of Catherine and Edgar Linton “He does not know his letters. Could you believe in the existence of such a colossal dunce?” (160).

            In actual fact, Heathcliff’s revenge does not finish with what he has done to Hindley and Hareton. He continues to commit his violence so as o take his revenge on Lintons – his wife Isabella, his son Linton, and the daughter of Edgar Linton – Young Cathy.  Wiesenfarth alleges “He [Heathcliff] thinks nothing of beating Catherine Linton, throwing knife at his wife Isabelle, terrorizing his son Linton” to demonstrate Heathcliff’s violence and desire to take revenge (65). He treats his wife so brutally that she eventually escapes Wuthering Heights. She comes to Thrushcross Grange and tells Nelly Heeathcliff’s treatment

… After he hit Hindley and thought that he is dead, and due to his belief in my help Hindley, he shook me till my teeth rattle and pitched me beside Joseph… (130)

… After he went to the grave of Catherine and came home, we quarrelled… He snatched a dinner knife from the table and flung it at my head. It struck beneath my ear… (132)

            In addition to his wife, Heathcliff acts towards his son Linton and Young Cathy in a cruel way due to his yearning for revenge. In reality, he wants them to marry because in this way he will also be able to take control of Thrushcross Grange. The most remarkable case of this fact is examined when Heathcliff tries to lock up Young Cathy to force her marry Linton though Nelly has said that Edgar Linton is about to die beforehand. In order to let Mr Lockwood know something about Linton’s psychology she utters what Linton has said

“… I am a worthless, cowardly wretch: I can’t be scorned enough! But I am too mean for your anger – hate my father, spare me for contempt” (193)

“Oh! I can’t bear it! Catherine, Catherine, I’m a traitor too, and I dare not tell you! But leave me and I shall be killed! Dear Catherine, my life is in your hands: and you have said you loved me – and if you did, it wouldn’t harm you. You’ll not go, then? Kind, sweet, good Catherine! And perhaps you will consent – and he’ll let me die with you!”(193)

Then, she continues to articulate how Heathcliff behaves towards his son. She avows “Linton appeared as if he could not venture to stir, or raise his head…” (194). She keeps on talking “‘But first – get up, Linton! Get up!’ he [Heathcliff] shouted ‘Don’t grovel on the ground, there – up this moment!’” (195). Interestingly, he knows how ailing and frail his son is.

            When it comes to Young Cathy, it is noticed that Heathcliff does not act towards her as ruthlessly as he behaves towards his son. The most incredible demonstration of his violence is on the day when he tries to lock Cathy in a room in Wuthering Heights to force her to marry Linton immediately because of Linton’s incurable illness. Nelly Dean recounts the struggle between Heathcliff and Young Cathy and what Heathcliff does to prevent her from leaving Wuthering Heights.

He [Heathcliff] drew in his breath, struck the table, and swore to himself, “By hell! I hate them.”

Heathcliff had the key in his hand that remained on the table. He looked up, seized with a sort of surprise at her boldness; or, possibly, remained by her [Cathy’s] voice and glance, of the person from whom she inherited it. She snatched at the instrument, and half succeeded in getting it out of his loosened fingers: but her action recalled him to the present; he recovered it speedily.

[Heathcliff warns her but she does not pay attention to his warning.] Regardless of this warning, she captured his closed hand and its contents again. “We will go!” she repeated, exerting her utmost efforts to cause the iron muscles to relax; and finding that her nails made no impression, she applied her teeth pretty sharply. Heathcliff glanced at me [Nelly] a glance that kept me from interfering a moment. Catherine was too intent on his fingers to notice his face. He opened them suddenly, and resigned the object of dispute; but, ere she had well secured it, he seized her with the liberated hand, and, pulling her on his knee, administered with the other a shower of terrific slaps on both sides of the head, each sufficient to have fulfilled his threat, had she been able to fall (196)


                        FEMALE GOTHIC

            In Wuthering Heights, in addition to the violence of male characters, there are many examples of women’s violence although they are the ones to be acted on. Therefore, it can be said that another and last element of Gothic fiction in the novel is female Gothic.

            In the book, we do not encounter women, who commit brutality actively, due to the fact that in Wuthering Heights, marriage is like a state of combat but women cannot be on the battlefield in this struggle. Hence, they reveal their violence only through their words (qtd. in Lonoff and Hasseler 64). The paramount cases of this fact are the experiences of Isabella and Young Cathy. Both of them hate Heathcliff, and, substantially, Heathcliff acts towards both of them in a really pitiless manner, yet they only exhibit their hatred through their utterances.

            Isabella Linton Heathcliff is the first female character who is exposed to brutality of Heathcliff. From the very first day of their life at Wuthering Heights, Isabella faces the real personality. In her letter to Nelly Dean, she points out that Heathcliff does not respect her and even he does not want her in his room, she has to stay in another room (99). Additionally, when she flees from Wuthering Heights and comes to Thrushcross Grange, she asserts that though he knows that she is pregnant, Heathcliff has tried, even, to kill her because of the fact that he thinks she helps Hindley (130). Unfortunately, despite her hatred and anger for Heathcliff and despite of the fact that Heathcliff has attempt to kill her, the only thing that poor Isabella can do is to shout at him in order to humiliate him and confirm her feelings. She cries out: “If poor Catherine had trusted you, assumed the ridiculous, contemptible, degrading title of Mrs Heathcliff, she would soon have presented a similar picture! She could not have borne your abominable behaviour quietly: her detestation and disgust must have found voice” (132).  Similar to her reaction towards Heathcliff, her thoughts about him are also full of disgust. What is more, she is so regretful to marry him that in her letter to Nelly, she, even, asks to Nelly “s Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?... but I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married…” (99).

            When it comes to Young Cathy, the daughter-in-law of Heathcliff, even though at first she is deceived by Heathcliff’s gentle treatment, later on she hates him owing to the fact she is beaten by him and kept in Wuthering Heights despite her persistent resistance. However, she can not do anything to stop Heathcliff as in Isabella’s case. For instance, when Heathcliff endeavours to lock her in a room in Wuthering Heights, in spite of her challenge to flight, she can do nothing and ultimately accepts to stay there (195). Nevertheless, even if she stays there, she again speaks of Heathcliff with hatred and exhibits her thoughts via her utterances. When Heathcliff says to her

“And you, you worthless – There you are, at your idle tricks again? The rest of them (the servants) do earn their bread – you live on my charity! Put your trash away, and find something to do. You shall pay me for the plague of having you eternally in my sight do you hear, damnable jade?” (21)

As an answer to his words, and as a sign of her loathing, she declares “I’ll put my trash away, because you can make me, if I refuse. But I’ll not do anything, though you should swear your tongue out, except what I please!” (21).

            The last female Gothic character is Catherine Linton Earnshaw. However, her female differs from that of Isabella’s and Young Cathy’s. Actually, she is not a character who is subject to violence of male character. In fact, she is supposed to be a character of female Gothic as a consequence of her inner conflict (qtd. in Lonoff and Hasseler 70). It is known that she loves Heathcliff but she chooses Edgar to marry. However, her love for Heathcliff is so passionate that even after she has accepted Edgar’s proposal, while she is talking to Nelly about her choice, she first admits that she is wrong “In my soul, in my heart, I am convinced that I am wrong” (56). Then, she confesses her feelings

“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles then eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable…” (59)


            In conclusion, in her only novel Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, who is one of the authors in Victorian Age, uses Gothic elements – the elements that generally refer to violence and horror – in such a way that these elements function as a means to reveal the suppressed feelings of her major characters.

            In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte mainly prefers using the Gothic element violence. Through either physical or psychological violence, her male characters make their hidden feelings known. For instance, Hindley’s hostile treatment towards Heathcliff and his mortifying expression are signs of his jealousy whereas Heathcliff’s aggression points to his desire for revenge.

            Astonishingly, in Wuthering Heights, Bronte’s female characters are the ones who are exposed to cruelty. In other words, her female characters are usually passive. For example, even though Isabella confesses that Heathcliff has been about to kill her, she just cries out her feelings and her hatred. Similarly, though Heathcliff beats her and prevents her from going home, Young Cathy has to stay at Wuthering Heights. She also just shouts at him and express her emotions via her utterances.


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    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      2 years ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      You made me feel like reading the novel again. I'm surprised it was Bronte's only novel.

    • profile image

      Rini Adhikary 

      4 years ago

      Wuthering Heights is one of the nice novel that i ever read and it is the gothic elements in it makes the novel unique. Really tooooo good

    • profile image

      Pranabjyoti Gogoi 

      4 years ago

      my favourite novel ever..

    • profile image

      Rubina shereef 

      6 years ago

      Wuthering Heights is one of the nice novel that i ever read and it is the gothic elements in it makes the novel unique.

    • Carmen H profile image

      Carmen Beth 

      7 years ago

      Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite novels, but I never thought it had connections with Gothic elements.


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