The central conflict in the novel “Wuthering Heights” written by Emily Bronte is Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s internal conflicts affect how all of the other characters interrelate. Heathcliff throughout the book never does anything honorable or dignified. Heathcliff creates whirlwinds of problems by just being present, sometimes, by not even doing a thing. Heathcliff’s problems not only the affect the Earnshaw’s but also their neighbors Edgar & Isabella Linton.
Heathcliff comes to live with the Earnshaw’s, which also includes their children Catherine and Hindley. As Graham Holderness states, “The ‘gipsy brat’ old Mr. Earnshaw brings home with him has neither name nor status, property nor possessions. He emerges from the darkness, which is the outside of the tightly-knit family system: an outsider who tests the family by introducing an alien element into a jealousy-guarded system of parental and filial relations, of inheritance and possession.” (Holderness 30) Heathcliff wonders weather he is good enough for the Earnshaw’s, if he will be able to be a part of the “tight-knit family system” that they had created. Heathcliff feels that he is unworthy of the affection that he so desperately needs. This creates conflict with the other members of the Earnshaw family.
Heathcliff’s most important need is the need to be loved. Catherine is the only person who can do this for him. (Holderness 30) Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is addictive. Debra Goodlett quotes Stanton Peele author of “Love and Addiction” which says that “An Addiction exists when a person’s attachment to a sensation, an object, or another person is such as to lessen his appreciation of and ability to deal with other things in his environment, or in himself, so that he has become increasingly dependent on that experience as his only source of gratification” (Goodlett 120)
Heathcliff’s sole source of self-esteem and power comes from Catherine. (Berg 59) Catherine provides Heathcliff with love, support, a sense of right and wrong, and a feeling of self-esteem. Heathcliff is addicted to the emotions that Catherine provides for him, that he is unable to provide for himself.
Catherine cannot, at first, decide whom to marry. Catherine wonders if she should marry the man she loves or the man that can provide her with material security. Catherine tells Nelly that “I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven: and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now” (Bronte 120) Catherine also states that “Whatever our souls are made of, his Heathcliff’s} and mine are the same, and Linton’s Edgar} is as different as moonbeam from lightening, or frost from fire.” (Bronte 121) Catherine wants to be with Heathcliff even though she knows all about him. But Catherine’s need for psychological security and material comforts out weighs her desire to be with Heathcliff. (Goodlett 124)
Catherine marries Edgar Linton and moves to Thrushcross Grange and is separated from Heathcliff. Heathcliff begins to lead Hindley to destruction, and courts Isabella in order to hurt Edgar. When he finds out that Catherine married Edgar in his absence.
During Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella his obsessive and destructive addiction to Catherine is evident. (Benvenuto 90) Isabella asks Nelly “Is Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?” (Tytler 104) Isabella comes to realize that Heathcliff believes that his soul mate is Catherine. Heathcliff believes that he cannot live without her.
Edgar asks Catherine, “Will you give up Heathcliff hereafter, or will you give up me? It is impossible for you to be my friend and his at the same time: and I absolutely require to know which you choose.” (Goodlett 125) Catherine is unable to choose between the psychological security offered by Edgar and the “passionate intensity in the addiction” with Heathcliff. She becomes ill due to Edgar’s ultimatum. Catherine becomes ill at the threat of losing Heathcliff. (Goodlett 125)
Catherine’s death is exceptionally hard on Heathcliff. He says, “And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as I am living! You said I killed—you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murders, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! Only be not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! I cannot live without my soul!”
Hindley thinks of Heathcliff as a rival for Mr. Earnshaw’s affections. Hindley fights with Heathcliff over his own insecurity of losing his position in the family. Hindley’s treatment of Heathcliff is horrible. Heathcliff is “the recipient of violence: violence which his arrival has provoked in that defensive, exclusive family unit.” (Holderness 30) When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley is left as the master of Wuthering Heights. “He Hindley} drove him from their company to the servants, deprived him of the instructions of the curate, and insisted that he should labor out of doors instead.” (Bronte 87) Hindley seeks his revenge on Heathcliff when Heathcliff cannot do anything to stop him. Mr. Earnshaw is gone and can no longer protect Heathcliff.
Heathcliff doesn’t think that he is as good as Edgar Linton because he didn’t come from money, like Edgar did. Heathcliff thinks that Edgar is more desirable because of his “birth, money and status”. (Berg 61) Heathcliff dislikes Edgar for what he is and what he has. Heathcliff wants to get revenge on Edgar, as a way of getting over his insecurity but he realizes that it would make no difference. “But, Nelly, if I knocked him down twenty times, that wouldn’t make him less handsome, or me more so. 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 will be!” (Bronte 97) Heathcliff can’t change what Edgar is.
Heathcliff creates a carefully laid plan to implement revenge on anyone who did not allow him to be with Catherine and anyway that made him feel insecure about him. Heathcliff wants to revenge himself on Hindley and the Linton’s. He has two methods to his madness. One is by oppressing and exploiting their children. The other method is by expropriating their lands and possessions and seizing them himself.
Heathcliff treats Hindley’s son Hareton like he was treated as a child. Hareton turns out the opposite of what Heathcliff intended though, “where Heathcliff meant to sow hatred, he has raised love.” (Trickett 91) Cathy and Hareton fixed the mistakes made by Catherine and Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s carefully laid plan (Holderness 31) rebounds on him. (Trickett 91)
Heathcliff is the central problem of Wuthering Heights. He starts out trying to receive love and ends up creating love. He seems to change along the way throughout all of his internal and external conflicts.
Benvenuto, Richard. Emily Bronte. Boston, Mass: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Berg, Maggie. Wuthering Heights: The Writing in the Margin. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
*“Making the Territory Heathcliff, Edgar and Homosocial Desire”
Bronte, Emily Wuthering Heights. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975.
Leone, Bruno, ed. Wuthering Heights: Literary Companion Series. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1999
*“Love and Addiction in Wuthering Heights” by Barbara Gates
*“Heathcliff is both Tyrant and Victim” by Graham Holderness
*“The theme of Haunting” by Rachel Trickett
*“Heathcliff’s Monomania” by Graeme Tytler