Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) is a tale of tragedy and revenge. Heathcliff, one of the prime characters of the novel, lies at the centre of the tragedy and is the perpetrator of the revenge. His deeds leave no doubt that he is violent, abusive, and cruel. What intrigues me the most about Heathcliff in the novel is his constant association with darkness. This darkness is linked not just to his soul, but also his body.
The first time that we see Heathcliff, it’s through the eyes of Mr Lockwood, who describes him as “a dark skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman”. This description is given in chapter one. At this point in the novel the readers, like Mr Lockwood, do not know anything about Heathcliff – his history, and his associations with Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange – apart from the fact that he owns the two houses, and is a somewhat solitary and a little standoffish figure. What I find interesting then about this description, the very first physical description of Heathcliff, is the contrast drawn between his ‘gipsy aspect’ and ‘gentlemanly manners’. It appears by the usage of the words in such a manner that the two things coinciding is a rarity if not an impossibility, that a gipsy, by the virtue of being a gipsy, is incapable of being a ‘gentleman’, is incapable of being a part of the so-called civilised society. The term ‘gypsy/ gipsy/ gypsies/ gipsies’ is an exonym that is often used to refer to the Roma people: a community that has been historically marginalised. The contrast drawn between the ‘gipsy’ appearance and the ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour is almost unconscious on the part of the narrator and stems from a history of marginalisation, discrimination, and racism.
Shortly after this, Mrs Dean (or Nelly), the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange, starts telling Mr Lockwood (and through him the readers) the history of Heathcliff. She says “I know all about it: except where he was born, and who were his parents”. In a society such as the early nineteenth-century England where this story is set, where a person comes from and their lineage formed an integral part of their identity. Especially since this was also the time of colonial empires and imperial expansion, the ideas of a lineage and a place of origin were used to justify the power exercised by the colonisers, marking them as racially superior and the inherent leaders of the people, the bearers of the ‘white man’s burden’. Thus, when it is established that no one is aware of Heathcliff’s origins: his birthplace and his parentage, he is established as an outsider. This outsider is brought into the ‘civil society’ by Mr Earnshaw, a man who saw him in Liverpool and adopted him. When Mr Earnshaw first introduces Heathcliff to his family, he says “you must take it as a gift of God; though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil.”. The theological association of dark with the side of the devil and light with the side of God and its use in the justification of racism and imperialism is a historical phenomenon that was at its height when the novel was written. This also foreshadows the events of the novel when it increasingly becomes clear that if Heathcliff was to belong to any side of the two, it would be the side of evil.
(Side note: it’s also extremely interesting how Heathcliff is referred to as ‘it’ before he is christened by Mr Earnshaw and given a name. This adds to the dehumanisation that Heathcliff’s character is constantly subjected to)
Heathcliff’s actions in the novel cannot be justified: his obsession with Catherine Earnshaw is toxic; his marriage with Isabella Linton is abusive; his treatment of Catherine Linton is frightening; his manipulation of Hareton Earnshaw is sadistic; and his relationship with Linton Heathcliff, his own son, is problematic. What is significant, however, is that the readers are constantly reminded of Heathcliff’s dark appearance and his lack of lineage while talking about his vile actions. It becomes an allegory for an outsider, one who is maybe even a racial other, with no history and lineage, who arrives and orchestrates the ruin of perfectly civilised families that come from a respectable lineage. It is almost as if Mr Earnshaw’s comparison of Heathcliff’s darkness to the devil when he adopted him was a prediction for all that was to happen and that letting an outsider into their ‘civilised’ world was what set the course for the subsequent destruction.
It is also fascinating how at the end of the novel, Heathcliff’s lineage ends, while the Lintons’ and the Earnshaws’ survive. That both Heathcliff and his son die, leaving the last living members of the Linton and Earnshaw family – both of whom are soon to be married and therefore continue their lineage – with everything that was rightfully theirs belonging to them once again reasserts the fact that usurpers and outsiders like Heathcliff and his kin are never meant to be a part of this perfect society and if they must exist, they must remain at the periphery.
Heathcliff is a highly problematic character, there is no doubt about that. However, the constant association of his atrocities and abhorrent behaviour with his physical otherness highlights racist undertones and prejudices within the text and anyone who reads Wuthering Heights must be conscious of it. It is imperative that we as readers do not transpose Heathcliff’s depravity with his racial otherness; that we condemn him for his actions, not his origins.