When Emily's novel was published in December 1847 it received mixed reviews particularly due to its coarseness and "the brutalizing influence of unchecked passion" (qtd. in Pike 347). And truly, passions seem to motivate the actions of many of the novel’s characters, be it love, revenge or conservatism. The early reviewers went so far as to advice against reading the novel: "If we did not know that this book has been read by thousands of young ladies in the country, we should esteem it our first duty to caution them against it simply on account of the coarseness of the style" (qtd. in Pike 348).
Wuthering Heights may be divided into two parts: first, Heathcliff and Catherine’s love story and, second, the story of the second generation, of the children – particularly little Cathy, Linton and Hareton. One might wonder what purpose the second part serves since it seems that the story should end with Catherine’s death. However, if a careful analysis of the issues of adultery and incest is to be attempted, the second part may prove to be crucial for an understanding of the possible meaning of Catherine’s death. Goetz concurs: "Obviously, for the purposes of a kinship study of the novel, Brontë treatment of her second generation can neither be dismissed nor considered an aberration" (360). The importance of the second part of the novel will be discussed late in this chapter.
The novel opens with Mr. Lockwood, who recently rented Thrushcross Grange, visiting Heathcliff’s main abode Wuthering Heights where he receives surprisingly cold welcome. Despite his efforts at friendliness, he soon learns that all the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights express no civilities. The most perplexing, however, turn out to be the familial relationships. First, Mr. Lockwood believes that the young woman is Mr. Heathcliff’s wife, which he himself later rejects due to a high disparity between their ages, then he believes that this young woman is married to the young man sitting by the table, which also proves to be wrong. Mr. Lockwood’s final attempt at guessing the relationships of those dining with him must inevitably, due to the complicated nature of the relations, end in a third error – he mistakenly suggests that Hareton might be Heathcliff’s son5. Everything becomes even more complicated as the reader proceeds throughout the novel. The whole novel actually presents a history of two families and, with some minor exceptions, most character belong to one of the two families. Furthermore, families emphasize their connections by using only a limited number of names and devising various plays with their names. These include two Catherines, transformation of a family name into a first name in Linton Heathcliff and most of the male characters´ first names starting with an H in Heathcliff, Hindley and Hareton.
The fact that there are very few outsiders also increases the risk of intermarriage. Due to this, the law of incest limits the choice of a partner – he or she must come from the opposite family. As Daniela Garofalo observes, in such isolate regions "a love for life" (822) is more likely as there are very few choices. In the novel "Emily Bronte has created a world of her own, which seems to be beyond a distinct moral order" (Bhattacharyya 81), a place outside Victorian social context. Here we have a secluded region, with only two families, so it is no wonder that people would develop quite a different way of doing things and would have a different understanding of what it means to behave morally. Reed points out that "Brontë explores unconventional, unofficial variations of ʿcivilizationʾ mixed with ʿsavageryʾ. Indeed she seems in this dialogue to be ʿon holidayʾ from one-sided, official Victorian values […]" (212).
The history of the central character is very obscure and what little we actually know about the character may be illustrated by the housekeeper’s, Nelly Dean, answer when Mr. Lockwood asks about Heathcliff’s history: "It’s a cuckoo’s, sir-I know all about it: except where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money, at first" (WH 40). The circumstance of his introduction into the novel raises some doubts as to Mr. Earnshaw’s character. Although Nelly offers a lot of details about Mr. Earnshaw’s journey to Liverpool – the distance, the fact that he went on foot, his saying goodbye to his family and the gifts he promised to bring them, she offers no details as to the purposed of this journey. She might not have known as she was still but a child at that time or perhaps her morality, for she seems keep her sense of Victorian morality, prevented her to disclose an illegitimate affair Mr. Earnshaw may have had. Another point which would support this theory is illustrated by Mr. Earnshaw’s inadequate explanation as to where and why he brought the child to his home: "[…] seeing it starving, and houseless…not a soul knew to whom it belonged…he thought it better to take it home with him at once" (WH 42). In mid-nineteenth century Liverpool streets there must have been many such children and certainly a man with children of his own would not just kidnap one from the streets because he felt sorry for it. Mrs. Earnshaw confirms this when immediately starts scolding her husband for this terrible idea and she "was ready to fling it out of doors" (WH 42). Mr. Earnshaw may not seem like the type of man who would commit an adulterous act but it would be in keeping with the general violent disposition of the Earnshaw family which will be discussed later.
The child is given the name Heathcliff, which was the name of Mr. Earnshaw’s son who died in childhood. Both of Mr. Earnshaw’s legitimate children, Catherine and Hindley, hate this child but while Hindley never actually ceases to hate Heathcliff and abuses him since he started living with them (which might be interpreted as two brothers competing for the affection of their father), Catherine accepts him quickly. And while Hindley sees "Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent’s affections and his privileges" (WH 44), Catherine "was much too fond of Heathcliff. The greatest punishment we could invent for her was to keep her separate from him" (WH 48). A truly sibling relationships develops between them which only gains force as, after Mr. Earnshaw’s death, Hindley’s hatred towards Heathcliff shows its real force by relegating him to servants area and making him labor hard. He also prevents Heathcliff from receiving the education Catherine does but she secretly teaches him everything she learns. Catherine and Heathcliff also promise each other "to grow up as rude as savages" (WH 53) which emphasizes the defiance of Victorian social order presented in the novel.
One day, Catherine and Heathcliff wander, during their game, to Thrushcross Grange, the seat of the Linton family. The children observe the inside of the house and they are instantly amazed by the rooms equipped with luxury furniture. Having been heard by the Linton children, they attempt to run away but a dog sent after them bites into Catherine’s leg. She is then carried into the Linton’s house where Edgar Linton recognizes her and she receives treatment for her injuries. However, the Lintons refuse to let Heathcliff stay and force him to leave their estate. Outside, he observes how they treat Catherine and comes to a painful realization that "she was a young lady, and they made a distinction between her treatment and mine" (WH 59). Although Catherine and Heathcliff behave to each other like a sister and brother, others perceive a clear difference between them, evidenced by Mr. Lintons words: "Where did she pick up this companion? I declare he is that strange acquisition my late neighbour made" (WH 58).
Catherine stays at Thrushcross Grange for five weeks and she returns changed: "[…] instead of a wild, hatless little savage jumping into the house […] there lighted from a handsome black pony a very dignified person" (WH 60). Her passions became suppressed and she seems to be guided by the same Victorian morality as the Lintons. She realizes she is a member of an old and respectable family. However, her feelings towards Heathcliff seem unchanged as she demands to see him and when he arrives "she flew to embrace him and she bestowed seven or eight kisses on his cheek within the second" (WH 61) but she adds: "Why, how very black and cross you look!" (WH 62). And this contradiction seems to guide her motives for the rest of the novel. She clearly exemplifies how actions of an individual may be affected by various and often opposing factors. Now she becomes a lady, a full member of her class and also makes a step from childhood into adulthood which results in her losing some of her passions. Reed argues, however, that this change also brings some disadvantages:
"But civilized adulthood will also exact a price. Even though her yeoman family's ideal of cultivation resembles that of the gentry […] Cathy will not so easily renounce her earlier freedom or the influence of a relatively uncivilized home" (213).
Catherine continues meeting with the Lintons, especially young master Edgar, and during one of his visits he proposes and she agrees to marry him. Her main motivation is the elevation to a higher social status: "And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood" (WH 92). Upon further questioning by Nelly, however, Catherine admits she wants to marry Edgar due to her sense of doing what is right for her family but she loves Heathcliff:
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; so he shall never know how I love him…Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same … and Linton’s is as different as frost from fire. (WH 95)
Nelly listens to this with surprise as Catherine does not seem to comprehend what will happen to her when she becomes Mrs. Linton. Nelly then attempts to list everything Catherine will have to give but when she mentions that Catherine will have to give up Heathcliff, Catherine answers with the passion Nelly thought Catherine already lost: "Who is to separate us, pray? Not as long as I live […] I could consent to forsake Heathcliff. Oh, that’s not what I intend-that’s not what I mean" (WH 96). Catherine continues and emphasizes the significant difference between her fondness for Linton and her passionate love for Heathcliff: "My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods […] My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath […] Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, but as my own being" (WH 97). It appears that "she seriously hopes, I think, to maintain a relationship with both men, however unconventional that may appear" (Reed 219). And when Catherine adds that she will help Heathcliff with Edgar’s money and deliver him from her brother’s influence and expresses her conviction that "Edgar must shake off his antipathies and tolerate him, at least. He will, when he learns my true feeling towards him" (WH 97) Nelly’s horror is complete as she does not know whether to think that Catherine is a fool or "[…] ignorant of the duties you undertake in marrying" (WH 98).
In this crucial part of the novel Catherine shares with Nelly her inner struggle. However, this struggle only has one solution and that is to marry Edgar as marrying Heathcliff is out of the question due to their sibling relationship. At this point, the truth of Mr. Earnshaw’s illegitimate son bears little significance here. Heathcliff grew up in the Earnshaw family so he is a de facto brother which may also be supported by the fact that he received the same name as Mr. Earnshaw’s son who died in infancy. Goetz believes that "Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar is critical as she resists the temptation of incest and becomes part of the system" (366). The system dictates her behavior which is something she has difficulty complying with. She seems to be convinced that Edgar will succumb to her wish that he must be friends with Heathcliff and that this triangle could actually function. Stoneman suggests that Catherine’s step into the Victorian system of morality (and out of childhood into adulthood) may not be complete as she fails to comprehend the ramifications of such step: "Catherine's behaviour here provokes epithets like 'preposterous' because she does not recognize that the code appropriate for children who shared a bed is inappropriate for a married woman and a male friend" (526). Nevertheless, if we accept the supposition that there are only two families in this region and people marry only members of the other family, Catherine, and later Isabella, actually have no choice – they must marry Edgar and Heathcliff respectively.
When Heathcliff overhears what Catherine thinks of him and, particularly due to her decision to marry Edgar, he disappears for a period for three years. During this time, Catherine and Edgar’s marriage seem to work as there is no force which would make Catherine forget about her marital duties and tempt her to renew her thoughts of her true love. These thoughts re-emerge, however, when Heathcliff returns which results in Catherine demanding, once again, that he and Edgar tolerate each other which would satisfy both sides of herself. Until this point, Edgar has been very passive, he preferred to sit in the library and let his wife to her occupations. Now, however, he needs her to decide between him and Heathcliff which for her presents an impossible problem as for her they are not opposite, for her they complement one another, despite the fact that such arrangement would defy traditional understanding of marriage. Reed argues that
In asserting her fundamental need for Heathcliff, Cathy claims her right to a brother or friend who is (unlike her blood brother) as devoted to her own interest as to his, and to an admirer whose intense and fiery passion equals hers, in short, to a sibling, companion, and lover all in one man. His potential for many roles answers an array of her most elemental wants. (220)
What this means for her is that society dictates that she marry the superior (richer) man but she wants a companion, someone who is capable of satisfying all her wishes. This is, however, impossible both because of their alleged sibling relationship and his inferior social status. Therefore, faced with an impossible choice, Catherine opts to die rather than betray her heart.