Books and Relationships in Wuthering Heights
by Cynthia Payne

© 2006 Cynthia Payne

Originally Submitted for English 563: Literary Analysis
Professor Judith Pike

            Little is known about Emily Brontë’s life, but what we do know indicates that she was reclusive, for every time she ventured out into the world she quickly returned home to the moorland where her family resided.  She and her sisters, who never married or had children, spent their time reading and writing: “the Brontë sisters would each evening get out their writing desks . . . round and round the table, arm in arm, they would walk, discussing ideas for stories, criticizing each other’s work” (Bradbury 104).  Books became their focus, and it is that image of the book that is so prevalent in Wuthering Heights and bears scrutiny.  McKibben discusses the image of the book in terms of opposites evident in the narrative: “It is not surprising, then, that books which appear in the narrative are found in either one or the other of these camps and that, consequently, they operate in different ways and call forth attitudes which are fundamentally in opposition” (160).  Miller concurs: “Reading seems to be opposed to the wind on the moors, to death, and to sexual experience.  Yet all [that] the readers, in the novel and of the novel, can have as a means of access to these is a book” (365).  Rather than revisiting the theme of opposites, however, it is interesting to discuss the image of the book and its purpose in the novel in terms of similarities, as Brontë’s characters have varying relationships with books which are quite similar to the relationships those characters have with other characters.

            The first time we see the image of a book is through the eyes of Lockwood as he observes the younger Catherine “ensconcing herself in a chair, with a candle, and the long book open before her” (13). Lockwood’s relationship with books and the people around him, especially women, is through observation: it is never direct.  Lockwood finds himself in the older Catherine’s bedroom for the night in order to avoid the snowstorm and while perusing her “few mildewed books piled up in one corner” (15) he falls asleep and wakes to find “[his] candle wick reclining on one of the antique volumes, and perfuming the place with an odour of roasted calf-skin” (16).  How very careless of him for he could have burned down the entire house, but it is humorously indicative of his human relations because he’s a blunderer.  Farrell calls him, “the well-bred bourgeois dolt . . .” (182).  In the first paragraph of the novel, Lockwood, labeling himself a misanthrope, indicates that he came to the moorlands to remove himself “from the stir of society,” but immediately seeks out the company of his landlord (3).  Lockwood completely misjudges Heathcliff, calling him “a capital fellow” (3).  Clearly Heathcliff does not welcome Lockwood and is irritated by his presence, but Lockwood says that his “heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows” (3).  Lockwood is sometimes pathetically unable to read people and at other times simply disregards that which he knows to be true.  At the end of that first visit Lockwood admits, “he evidently wished no repetition of my intrusion . . .  It is astonishing how sociable I feel myself compared with him” (7).  Lockwood seems to see what is there and he completely ignores it for he goes back the very next day and realizing again that he is not welcome, he vows, “I will get in” (7).  Unwanted, he pushes himself on people just as he does with Catherine’s books for when he discovers that she has used the books for a diary, he reads on even though this is a violation of her privacy; however, once again he falls asleep.  He is unable to read, literally, for he falls asleep when he reads, or figuratively, because he either cannot read people or ignores what he does read in people.  Lockwood’s falling asleep is strangely and metaphorically similar to his relations with women.

            Lockwood describes a relationship that he had before coming to Thrushcross Grange indicating that the lady was “a most fascinating creature, a real goddess in my eyes” (5).  He was clearly interested in her and she eventually recognized it and returned his interest but he “shrank icily into [himself], like a snail . . . till, finally the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses, and overwhelmed with confusion at her supposed mistake, persuaded her mamma to decamp” (5).  He had a chance with the woman and muffed it by figuratively falling asleep and not dealing directly with the young lady.  In his nightmare Lockwood uses the books to protect himself from the ghost as he “hurriedly pile[s] the books up in a pyramid against it” further indicating his inability to deal directly with people, or in this case, Catherine’s ghost.  He uses the books to protect himself (21).  Eventually there is talk between Lockwood and Nelly that perhaps Lockwood would take an interest in the younger Catherine, but it never materializes because again, he metaphorically falls asleep.  Later Brontë references her narrator’s inability to read: “I am too weak to read” (71).  It seems that Lockwood has little or no appropriate relationship with books just as he has little or no relationship with people.  He only serves a purpose as one of the narrators, the other being Nelly Dean.

            Nelly relates most of the novel to Lockwood, and there are very few clues as to Nelly’s relationship with books.  Lockwood indicates to her that she is a cut above the servants with which he has been associated, “you . . . are a striking evidence against that assertion . . . I am sure you have thought a great deal more than the generality of servant think . . . you have been compelled to cultivate your reflective faculties” (49).  Lockwood may be sincere although as already discussed; he is unreliable; however, Nelly does appear to be articulate and able to spin a tale.  She indicates that she has a relationship with books, “you could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also, unless it be that range of Greek and Latin, and that of French—and those I know one from the other” (49).  Brontë makes Nelly a bit of a mystery because Brontë never makes it clear where Nelly came from and how she happened to be Hindley’s foster sister.  We eventually learn that Nelly uses information to suit her own purposes because she blatantly lies to Catherine after Catherine confesses that “it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff” (63).  Nelly knows that Heathcliff heard Catherine say this and that he left the kitchen before Catherine said how much she loved him, but she tells Catherine, “that [Heathcliff] heard a good part of what she said . . . and told how I saw him quit the kitchen just as she complained of her brother’s conduct regarding him” (65).  Nelly lies about the timing of the exit so that Catherine doesn’t know that Heathcliff heard her comments about degradation and love.  Why Nelly manipulates information is the subject of another study.  This simply gives evidence that she is an unreliable narrator for we cannot be sure that she doesn’t lie to Lockwood or at the very least color the picture as she does again when Catherine is sick.

            When Catherine is ill, Nelly indicates that Edgar is in the library with his books, which infuriates Catherine: “among his books . . . and I dying” (94).  Nelly doesn’t bother to tell Catherine that Edgar never opens the books.  Catherine’s lament is that no one loves her when in actuality Edgar does love her and is in the library not engrossed in his books but pining over her.  Nelly is the puppetmaster, manipulating people and information, which affects the lives of those she serves.  Mathison argues that Nelly’s “ability to describe accurately, and yet disregard the facts in favor of explanation by a conventional formula, is a major feature of her character and her inadequacy as a counselor” (121).  Nelly indicates that, “the Grange had but one sensible soul in its walls, and that lodged in my body” (94).  She thinks rather highly of herself but interestingly Brontë never depicts Nelly directly reading a book.  We hear third hand through Cathy that when Nelly was sick, Cathy read to her, and there is one instance where Nelly grabs a book but only pretends to read it, “I got a book, and pretended to read” (180).  It seems that Nelly’s behind the scene relationship with books mirrors her behind the scene manipulation of the characters.  But Lockwood buys it as Farrell contends, “and it comes to a calamitous climax when Lockwood strangles the relationship storytelling has mediated by pressing a coin into Nelly’s hand.  He buys the story” (182).  We simply do not know how much of the story is accurate and whether we, too, should buy it.       

            When we are introduced to Catherine, we discover that she used her books for a diary, writing in the margins of every page: “scarcely one chapter had escaped a pen and ink commentary . . . covering every morsel of blank that the printer had left” (16). Steinitz, in her criticism theorizes that through the act of writing in the margins Catherine is “claiming the margins as her own . . . replicating her social marginality” (5).  There is no evidence that Catherine is aware of her social marginality until she spends time with the Lintons and it is more plausible that as McKibben states, Catherine’s writing in the margins “ represent[s] a misuse of the image, a subordination of the book to will.  If it cannot be made to be the servant of the will, it is banished, ignored, or even destroyed” (161).  McKibben’s theory is more consistent with the impetuous nature of Catherine who misuses books the way she misuses people as is evident when Lockwood begins to read her diary.

 Lockwood, secreted in Catherine’s bedroom for the night because of a snowstorm, opens her mildewed books and reads about Joseph chastising Catherine and Heathcliff for playing when they should be reading.  Catherine has no use for this: “I could not bear the employment.  I took the dingy volume by the scroop, and hurled it into the dog-kennel, vowing I hated a good book” (17). Not only does she use books as her own personal diary writing in the margins, but also she tears the back off a volume that Joseph assigns her to read.  McKibben agrees, “In a gesture which at once is an affirmation of the uselessness of the book and a revolt against ill-treatment, Catherine tosses away Th’ Helmut o’ Salvation. (161).  If Catherine valued books in the slightest, she would have found another way to revolt against Joseph and her abuse is eventually directed at Nelly.

Catherine physically abuses Nelly in the same way she abused the book: “She, supposing Edgar could not see her, snatched the cloth from my hand, and pinched me, with a prolonged wrench, very spitefully on the arm” (55).  Minutes later, “She stamped her foot, wavered a moment, and then, irresistibly impelled by the naughty spirit within her, slapped me on the cheek a stinging blow that filled both eyes with water” (56).  Catherine’s violence, whether directed at books or people, is ignited by her desire to have her own way and to subordinate others to her will (McKibben 161).  She doesn’t have control over her temper, which is Brontë’s statement about the value of education, that one who is learned can handle the stresses of life in a more intelligent and dignified manner than acting out with violence, as we will see in Catherine’s daughter.  Even Hindley regards her intelligence negatively, “and you are a confounded simpleton” (69).  She is simple in that she is ruled by her passions without forethought or regard for others and because of her lack of intellect, she affects Heathcliff’s education as well.  

            Catherine’s attitude affects Heathcliff negatively; however, Catherine is only interested in her own satisfaction: “The curate might set as many chapters as he pleased for Catherine to get by heart, and Joseph might thrash Heathcliff till his arm ached; they forgot everything the minute they were together again” (37).  Playing with Heathcliff on the moors is Catherine’s priority, and she doesn’t give a thought to Heathcliff’s education.  His lowly state, partly due to his lack of education, is what makes Catherine decide that she cannot marry him, so in essence she is at least partially responsible for the fact that she deems him beneath her.  However, she blames Hindley for Heathcliff’s low state, “…and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of [marrying Edgar] . . . It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff” (63).  Catherine recognizes the value of education now that she wants to marry, but eschewed it in favor of what she deemed more amusing pursuits and now realizes that she cannot have the man she truly loves.  Once she has ruined Heathcliff’s life she moves on to misuse Edgar in that she will marry him even though she doesn’t love him.  Her careless attitude toward books is carried through till the end of her life when she is ill and  “[a] book lay spread on the sill before her, and the scarcely perceptible wind fluttered its leaves at intervals” (122).  Catherine ignored the book before her just as she ignored the needs of her husband and Heathcliff.  The latter’s attitude toward books follows that of Catherine’s and is the cause of his lowly state but he doesn’t recognize this as the greatest wrong committed against him.

            Brontë makes clear her position on education when she describes Heathcliff’s decline; just as his rejection of books is gradual, so too is his alienation from Catherine and finally his outright animosity toward books.  Heathcliff  “had by that time, lost the benefit of his early education: continual hard work . . . had extinguished any curiosity he once possessed in pursuit of knowledge, and any love for books or learning” (53).  Hindley took away Heathcliff’s education, which should be the premise for Heathcliff’s desire for revenge against Hindley, but it is not; rather, it is borne after the applesauce incident and Hindley’s subsequent beating of Heathcliff.  Clearly, the cessation of his education is a more damaging occurrence but Heathcliff vows revenge after a minor skirmish over bad manners.  Brontë further describes Heathcliff’s decline: “Then personal appearance sympathized with mental deterioration; he acquired a slouching gait, and ignoble look; his naturally reserved disposition was exaggerated into an almost idiotic excess of unsociable moroseness…” (53).  In order for Heathcliff to become “unsociable” and “morose,” he had to have understood the value of what was taken from him. “He struggled long to keep up an equality with Catherine in her studies, and yielded with poignant though silent regret” (53).  This is the true tragedy of Heathcliff’s life--that he lost the chance to rise above his station, and he carries his animosity toward books and Hindley throughout the novel, telling young Catherine (hereafter called Cathy for the sake of clarity), “Put your trash away, and find something to do” (25).  His blatant hatred of books, however, belies his recognition of their power for he bestows the same injustice on Hareton by taking away his education after Hindley dies.   McKibben concurs, “Heathcliff’s rejection of the book was a cause of his gradual estrangement from Catherine . . . and it is . . . seen as the reason for his physical deterioration as well” (165).  Catherine, now having spent time with the Lintons, sees Heathcliff’s lack of education and insults him for it: “What do you talk about?  You might be dumb or a baby for anything you say to amuse me, or for anything you do, either . . . It’s no company at all, when people know nothing and say nothing” (55).  It’s rather ironic as Hindley has indicated that Catherine is a simpleton but Catherine sees the difference between Edgar and Heathcliff and while she is wildly attracted to Heathcliff, she still deems him unworthy of her and she prefers the social status of the Lintons.  She continues her misuse of people by marrying Edgar when she doesn’t love him.  The contrast between Heathcliff and Edgar is stark and Catherine is attracted to social position; however, appearances can be deceiving.

            Catherine sees in Edgar a contrast between the two men in her life: “The contrast resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly, coal country, for a beautiful fertile valley; and his voice and greeting were as opposite as his aspect” (55).  Catherine sees the attractiveness of Edgar’s refinement but still wants Heathcliff even though she thinks him intellectually incapable of understanding love, “He does not know what being in love is” (63).  But Edgar’s refinement does not come from education or a love of books.  When Catherine and Heathcliff first encroach upon Thrushcross Grange and Catherine is forced through injury to spend five weeks there, Mrs. Linton “commenced her plan of reform by trying to raise [Catherine’s] self-respect with fine clothes and flattery . . . which she took to readily: so that, instead of a wild, hatless little savage  . . . there alighted . . . a very dignified person” (41).  The improvement of Catherine was all in appearance and manners; nothing deeper involving a change of character occurred. The outward appearance is improved and that is what Catherine sees in Edgar, his outward appearance of refinement and his social standing.  Edgar, like Catherine and Heathcliff, has no relationship with books.

It is significant that the first time Brontë depicts Edgar in relationship to books is when Catherine becomes ill and Nelly indicates that “Mr. Linton, on his part, spent his time in the library, and did not inquire concerning his wife’s occupations” (93). However, she further indicates that “[he] shut himself up among books that he never opened” (94) which McKibben calls a misuse of the book, “The book becomes an excuse for weakness . . . ” (163).   Edgar’s relationship with books isn’t a relationship at all which mirrors his relationship with Catherine, as both merely appear to be something that they are not.  Edgar doesn’t read his books or love them and his marriage to Catherine isn’t a marriage of love.   He does understand the value of education because he tends to Cathy’s education.

Nelly describes Edgar’s devotion to Cathy’s studies: “he took her education entirely on himself, and made it an amusement . . . curiosity and a quick intellect urged her into an apt scholar; she learnt rapidly and eagerly, and did honour to his teaching” (146).  It is interesting that Brontë never depicts Edgar reading and that he never opened a book at least while Catherine was failing but delights in giving that enjoyment to his daughter.  Brontë’s description of Cathy is so positive: “She was the most winning thing that ever brought sunshine into a desolate house . . . her spirit was high, though not rough, and qualified by a heart sensitive and lively to excess in its affections” (146).  Cathy is the first ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy novel and also the first character that truly loves books.  It seems unlikely that Brontë was not purposeful in her decision to make Cathy, a book lover, and the salvation of her thus far dark and tragic tome.  Cathy uses books as capital, to bribe Michael to saddle Minnie; however, Farrell defines the book in relation to Cathy as “extensions of her being.  Her characteristic use of a book is to make a gift of it . . .” (197).  Just as Cathy is passionate about books, so too she is passionate about life, adventure and those whom she loves, and she proves to be a worthy opponent to Heathcliff.  However, in meeting Heathcliff and her cousins, there is a part of her education that is found lacking.

When Edgar discovers that Cathy has been in the company of Heathcliff, he explains to her his disdain for Heathcliff, and Cathy “appear[s] so deeply impressed and shocked at this new view of human nature—excluded from all her studies and all her ideas till now . . .” (172).  This is a new world for her and she must use all her intellect to navigate the murky waters, but Brontë gives Cathy pluckiness and an ability to adapt to different situations borne obviously from her appetite for knowledge.  In his article, “The Consequences of Book–Larnin, Oral and Chirographic Cultures in Wuthering Heights,” Andrew C. Hansen argues the disparity between the oral and written culture.  He sees Heathcliff as oral, which is subservient to the written culture, Heathcliff manages in his orality rather well in that he wins Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, but Brontë gives him a worthy opponent in Cathy.  She represents the chirographic, but has the innate ability to adapt to orality as well, “Cathy survives in her new culture . . . she does have a strong rhetorical side to her that quickly adapts itself to Wuthering Heights” (Hansen 75).  She spars with Heathcliff orally and physically and manages to survive and eventually win back both properties and convert Hareton to literacy and a love of books but she has to manage Linton first.

Linton has little or no relationship with books although his mother, Isabella, wanted Edgar to take him in after her death because, “his father, she would fain convince herself, had no desire to assume the burden of his maintenance or education” (148).  It was at least important to Isabella that Linton be educated and although Isabella is a minor character, Brontë depicts, “Isabella, absorbed in her meditations, or a book” (82).  However, Linton has little relationship with books just as he has little relationship with people.  He is an insipid, whiny child who baits Cathy simply to improve his lot with Heathcliff.  Farrell describes Linton, “his narcissism has the effect of a debilitating disease; Linton becomes unwell whenever he experiences the stress of human contact.  He must ‘recover’ from Cathy’s embrace” (193).  Nelly indicates that the letters he writes to Cathy contain “touches, here and there which I thought were borrowed from a more experienced source” (174).  Heathcliff was probably assisting in the ruse.  Later Linton complains to Cathy, “[y]ou should have come, instead of writing.  It tired me dreadfully, writing those long letters” (182).  Linton is literate but has little use for or interest in it as he clearly didn’t want to write the letters and was surely coerced by Heathcliff.  Hansen remarks that Linton’s relations with people are passive, and so too is his relationship with books as he asks Cathy to read to him (71).  We never see him actually reading a book.  While he is literate, it is not through his own volition as is the case with Hareton.

It is consistent with Brontë’s vision that Cathy and Hareton would bond over books and she makes a strong statement through Hareton in that his desire to be literate is more powerful than Heathcliff’s denigration of him.  Farrell contends that, “[t]he action of reading is Hareton’s route to self-construction and social bonding” (196).  Eagleton comments that, “the antinomies of passion and civility will be harmonised by the genetic fusion of both strains in the offspring of Catherine and Hareton effecting an equable interchange of Nature and culture, biology and education” (20).  Brontë gives Hareton an innate desire for an education even after being humiliated by Cathy and Linton when Hareton cannot read the inscription over his door, which is, ironically, his own name.  McKibben discusses the tension between the two, “[in] a climactic gesture Hareton, the slave of the psychology of the Heights repeating its distinctive misuse of the image, throws the books into the fire” (166).  While this is exactly what Heathcliff did to Cathy’s books, and both he and Hareton do it out of anger, the latter’s anger is disguised passion.  The difference between Heathcliff and Hareton is clear when Nelly says about Hareton, “I read in his countenance what anguish it was to offer that sacrifice to spleen.  I fancied that as they consumed, he recalled the pleasure they had already imparted, and the triumph and ever increasing pleasure he had anticipated from them” (231).   Heathcliff never developed a desire for books but Hareton, inspired by Cathy, does.  He’s smitten with Cathy and treats the books as roughly as she treats him, but upon her change of heart, he exhibits a deep desire to be literate.  He wants an education as much as he wants her.  He begins to treat the books and Cathy with love.  Hansen remarks, “The amount of narration Brontë has Nelly spend on Hareton’s first trying to read on his own and Cathy’s rhetorical and persuasive techniques that urge him into learning to read underscore the significance of the event” (76).  Despite Cathy’s continued rejection of Hareton, his desire to learn isn’t dampened.  After being soundly scolded by Cathy for touching her curls, Hareton asks Zillah to request that Cathy read to him, “’I could like to hear her!  Dunnot say I wanted it, but ask of yourseln’” (226).  He had to have wanted it badly to put aside his pride and make the request even though indirectly made through Zillah.   Nelly describes the change in Hareton, “his . . . intelligent nature shook off rapidly the clouds of ignorance and degradation . . . his brightening mind brightened his features, and added spirit and nobility to their aspect . . . I could hardly fancy it was the same individual” (246).  Here is a man who could not read his own name and is completely changed by the beginning of an education.  Farrell is concise in his analysis of Cathy and Hareton, “the act of reading becomes not a retreat but a liberation . . . [they] become readers whose motivations turn texts into resources for interchange . . . [as] opposed to all the characters whose failures at solidarity are conveyed in their deformities as readers” (196).  This appears to be at least one of Brontë’s primary messages.

J. Hillis Miller contends that we, the reader, err in assuming, “that the meaning is going to be single, unified, and logically coherent” (368).  That is abundantly clear in reading the plethora of criticism generated by Emily’s solitary novel; however, Emily’s life was centered on books, reading them, and writing one.  In that solitary work she made books a central character capable of destroying one relationship and creating another.  Brontë believes that regardless of the conditions of one’s birth or the circumstances surrounding his or her upbringing, the book can raise one’s mind, appearance, and position as it did Hareton.  The knowledge ascertained through books can also see one through tremendous adversity as it did Cathy.  Susan Gubar discusses the importance of books to the Brontë family: “it was the habit . . . to approach reality through the mediating agency of books, to read one’s relatives, and to feel related to one’s reading” (379).  Emily wanted that for us, the reader, to feel related to her creation, to feel related to her.  Farrell agrees, “The parallel aspiration of the reader [is] to enter the ‘penetralium’ of the text and reach the actual author’s consciousness . . . the burden of the real reader’s hermeneutics is always to declare, ‘I am Emily’” (202).  The penetralia of Wuthering Heights is the image and the power of the book.  

Works Cited

Bradbury, Malcolm. The Atlas of Literature. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998.

Dunn, Richard J., ed. Wuthering Heights. New York: London, 2003.

Eagleton, Terry. “Wuthering Heights.” Wuthering Heights. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. Boston:

            1992. 399-414.

Farrell, John P. “Reading the Text of Community in Wuthering Heights.” ELH 56.1 (Spring,

1989): 173-208.

Gubar, Susan. “Looking Oppositely: Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell.” Dunn 379-94.

Hansen, Andrew C. “The Consequences of Book-Larnin”: Oral and Chirographic Cultures in

Wuthering Heights.” Language and Literature 28 (2002): 59-86.

Mathison, John K. “Nelly Dean and the Power of Wuthering Heights.” Nineteenth-Century

Fiction 11.2 (September 1956): 106-29.

McKibben, Robert C. “The Image of the Book in Wuthering Heights.” Nineteenth Century

Fiction 15.2 (September 1960): 159-69.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Wuthering Heights: Repetition and the ‘Uncanny.’” Dunn 361-379.

Steinitz, Rebecca. “Diaries and Displacement in Wuthering Heights.” Studies in the Novel.

            32.4 (Winter 2000): 407-20.

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