Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Catherine and Heathcliff’s passion for one another seems to be the center of Wuthering Heights, given that it is stronger and more lasting than any other emotion displayed in the novel, and that it is the source of most of the major conflicts that structure the novel’s plot. As she tells Catherine and Heathcliff’s story, Nelly criticizes both of them harshly, condemning their passion as immoral, but this passion is obviously one of the most compelling and memorable aspects of the book.
It is not easy to decide whether Brontë intends the reader to condemn these lovers as blameworthy or to idealize them as romantic heroes whose love transcends social norms and conventional morality. The book is actually structured around two parallel love stories, the first half of the novel centering on the love between Catherine and Heathcliff, while the less dramatic second half features the developing love between young Catherine and Hareton. In contrast to the first, the latter tale ends happily, restoring peace and order to Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
The differences between the two love stories contribute to the reader’s understanding of why each ends the way it does. The most important feature of young Catherine and Hareton’s love story is that it involves growth and change. Early in the novel Hareton seems irredeemably brutal, savage, and illiterate, but over time he becomes a loyal friend to young Catherine and learns to read. When young Catherine first meets Hareton he seems completely alien to her world, yet her attitude also evolves from contempt to love.
Catherine and Heathcliff’s love, on the other hand, is rooted in their childhood and is marked by the refusal to change. In choosing to marry Edgar, Catherine seeks a more genteel life, but she refuses to adapt to her role as wife, either by sacrificing Heathcliff or embracing Edgar. In Chapter XII she suggests to Nelly that the years since she was twelve years old and her father died have been like a blank to her, and she longs to return to the moors of her childhood. Heathcliff, for his part, possesses a seemingly superhuman ability to maintain the same attitude and to nurse the same grudges over many years. Moreover, Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is based on their shared perception that they are identical. Catherine declares, famously, “I am Heathcliff,” while Heathcliff, upon Catherine’s death, wails that he cannot live without his “soul,” meaning Catherine. Their love denies difference, and is strangely asexual. The two do not kiss in dark corners or arrange secret trysts, as adulterers do.
Given that Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is based upon their refusal to change over time or embrace difference in others, it is fitting that the disastrous problems of their generation are overcome not by some climactic reversal, but simply by the inexorable passage of time, and the rise of a new and distinct generation. Ultimately, Wuthering Heights presents a vision of life as a process of change, and celebrates this process over and against the romantic intensity of its principal characters.
As members of the gentry, the Earnshaws and the Lintons occupy a somewhat precarious place within the hierarchy of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British society. At the top of British society was the royalty, followed by the aristocracy, then by the gentry, and then by the lower classes, who made up the vast majority of the population. Although the gentry, or upper middle class, possessed servants and often large estates, they held a nonetheless fragile social position. The social status of aristocrats was a formal and settled matter, because aristocrats had official titles.
Members of the gentry, however, held no titles, and their status was thus subject to change. A man might see himself as a gentleman but find, to his embarrassment, that his neighbors did not share this view. A discussion of whether or not a man was really a gentleman would consider such questions as how much land he owned, how many tenants and servants he had, how he spoke, whether he kept horses and a carriage, and whether his money came from land or “trade”—gentlemen scorned banking and commercial activities.
Considerations of class status often crucially inform the characters’ motivations in Wuthering Heights. Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar so that she will be “the greatest woman of the neighborhood” is only the most obvious example. The Lintons are relatively firm in their gentry status but nonetheless take great pains to prove this status through their behaviors. The Earnshaws, on the other hand, rest on much shakier ground socially. They do not have a carriage, they have less land, and their house, as Lockwood remarks with great puzzlement, resembles that of a “homely, northern farmer” and not that of a gentleman. The shifting nature of social status is demonstrated most strikingly in Heathcliff’s trajectory from homeless waif to young gentleman-by-adoption to common laborer to gentleman again (although the status-conscious Lockwood remarks that Heathcliff is only a gentleman in “dress and manners”).
Revenge is a central focus of Heathcliff’s life and, in fact, drives most of the decisions he makes later in the novel. Though Heathcliff gains some bitter satisfaction through causing pain for others, he does not achieve any personal happiness. Instead, his single-minded pursuit of revenge leaves him empty and exhausted. After being tormented by Hindley as a child, Heathcliff becomes obsessed with the idea of getting revenge. By taking advantage of Hindley’s debt, Heathcliff gains control of Wuthering Heights and becomes the master of the house, a great irony considering he was once forced to work there as a de facto servant.
Heathcliff seeks further revenge on Hindley by raising Hareton, who should have grown up to be a gentleman and a landowner, like a common servant, forcing on the boy the same indignity Hindley had once heaped on Heathcliff. Heathcliff is fully aware of his cruelty. As he explains to Nelly, he understands and desire Hareton’s suffering: “I know what he suffers now, for instance, exactly—it is merely a beginning of what he shall suffer, though.” Moreover, Heathcliff has the perverse pleasure of knowing Hareton loves and respects him no matter how badly he treats him.
Heathcliff eventually achieves his entire plan of revenge, including marrying Cathy and Linton so that he also gains control of the Grange. However, Heathcliff’s death, alone and desperate for his lost love, represents the futility of his struggle. Though he achieved his desired revenge on those, living and dead, who had wronged him, he remains unfulfilled in his true desire—to be reunited with Cathy, which can only be achieved in death.
Social class is presented as an ambivalent theme in the novel. On one hand, Brontë seems to argue that social class is an arbitrary distinction that prevents people from being happy. On the other, she shows disruptions to social class as negative forces that have to be eliminated in order for peace and order to be restored. As a young child, the fact that Heathcliff is treated differently simply because of his family background seems to be clearly unfair. Nelly tries to console him by suggesting that he imagine the background he might have: “I would frame high notions of my birth and the thoughts of what I was should give me courage and dignity to support the oppressions of a little farmer.” This consolation is particularly poignant coming from a servant who also has to reconcile herself with her own class position even though she is essential to everyone’s lives.
However, while Brontë seems to be sympathetic to Heathcliff’s frustration with the class system, she also implies that he goes too far when he tries to disrupt it and insert himself. Nelly pointedly calls Hareton “the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock” and later refers to him as someone who “should be the first gentleman of the neighborhood.” When Heathcliff dies, Joseph thanks God that “the lawful master and the ancient stock were restored to their rights.” Interestingly, it is servants who express the strongest support for proper inheritance and tradition. Peace and happiness are restored to both houses only when Heathcliff and his son have passed away, and Hareton and Cathy are united as the inheritors of the Linton and Earnshaw legacies. Heathcliff achieves his vision of lying next to Cathy for eternity, but he has to be wiped out of the class system if anyone can lead happy and peaceful lives.