Wuthering Heights is so terrifying and powerful a novel that its final impress is one of tragedy. The concerted operation of its setting, characters and events releases an intensity that is undoubtedly tragic.
The novel has a bleak moorland setting; the title of the novel itself suggests this. Mist and cloud, frost, rain and storm, and gaunt thorns hold the scene. The Yorkshire moors are naturally harsh, sombre and wind-swept, but their valleys can be beautiful in summer. But it is their wildness that prevails in the book. And long stretches of loneliness emphasize the sense of mystery.
Heathcliff represents the basic elemental energies of Nature, including human nature. But in him we see the energy only in its destructive, demonic aspects. There is a tension between two kinds of reality – the raw inhuman reality of natural energies, and the restrictive reality of civilized manners, habits and codes.
The first kind of reality is manifested in the violent figures of Heathcliff and Catherine, children of rock, heath and storm, disrupting all around them with the monstrous appetite for an inhuman kind of passion, and finally disintegrated from within by their very energies. They represent, in terms of human character, a vision of the inhuman.
A gypsy-looking waif, Heathcliff as a child was dark almost as if “he came from the devil”. His eyes were as “the clouded windows of hell” from which a “fiend” looked out. Catherine describes him as “a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man”. Catherine, too, is as a girl, a “carefree, wild little savage”. She has furious tantrums, she lies, she bites, and her chosen toy is a whip. The ravenous love of Catherine and Heathcliff belongs to the realm of imagination. Catherine says that while her love for Edgar is like the foliage that changes with the seasons, her love for Heathcliff resembles like the eternal rocks beneath.
No wonder, Catherine’s marriage to Edgar dooms Heathcliff to be “hell-like in heart and misery”. And her marriage dooms her also, for she is of the same demonic substance as Heathcliff. A civilized marriage and domesticity are opposed to the demonic quality. The excess of this passion is, after her death, channelised into Heathcliff’s thirsting revenge and self-seeking wickedness.
There is something inhuman also in the cruelties perpetrated by the other occupants of Wuthering Heights. Hindley forces a knife between Ellen Dean’s teeth, and also throws his baby Hareton over the staircase. Hareton as a child hangs a litter of puppies from a chairback. Linton as a child gets sadistic pleasure in torturing cats.
But set over against the horrors of inhuman reality is the normal human reality that we find in Ellen Dean, the old family housekeeper, and Lockwood, a city visitor to the country. This human reality is given also in the romance of Cathy and Hareton in an atmosphere of book learning, gentle manners and domestic charities. They live in the Grange, because they do not belong to the world of exposed uninhibited passions represented by Wuthering Heights.
The tension between the two kings of reality – one wild and the other gentle – never seem to attain harmony. They exist, but they remain separate and irreconcilable.
Wuthering Heights, it seems, coveys no moral lesson. Perhaps at its deepest level, what Emily Bronte would have it conveyed is to be understood in Catherine’s feeling: not only are their lives inseparable but that she is one with Heathcliff. On this level Heathcliff does not function as an independent being at all. He is one with the deepest instinctive life. So that by betraying him in getting married to Edgar she repudiates that part of herself on which her fulfilment depends. Eventually, her thwarted passions cause her death within a year of her marriage.
Heathcliff too, had an obsessive love for Catherine who has been his life and soul since their childhood. His agony at her death is appalling. His outlook is completely unchristian and, as death nears, he has no desire for any heaven apart from reunion with her.
Despite a happy ending in the love-making and promise of marriage of the young Cathy and Hareton, the novel is unable to dispel the heavy and brooding atmosphere that, in its intensity and power, imparts to the story a distinctly tragic character.