Heaven, Hell and the Duality of Catherine Earnshaw

December 10, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

In her novel Wuthering Heights, author Emily Bront� attempts to express to the reader her views regarding happiness, personal satisfaction, and the attainment of each of these conditions. Through the use of certain literary techniques, Bront� makes clear her view that one creates and defines his or her own heaven or hell and must accept this identification, rather than conform to society’s or others’ standards of happiness. She establishes and expresses these opinions through the use of heaven and hell imagery and the manner in which each of these states relates to the main female character in the work, Catherine Earnshaw. More specifically, each of the main settings is assigned a heavenly or hellish identity according to more conventional criterion, identities that are later reinterpreted by Catherine while engaging in a struggle to find or create her own happiness.

The first location to which the reader is introduced is Wuthering Heights, home of the Earnshaw family. The estate a place continuously described using terms that emphasize and establish its hellish and chaotic nature. The images constructed include obvious allusions to hell and the devil, as well as more subtle descriptions involving fire, heat, darkness, and violent weather. The narrator, William Lockwood, gives the first descriptions of Wuthering Heights, which include observations of “grotesque carvings” lavished upon the threshold and a huge fireplace that “reflects splendidly both light and heat,” is home to an “immense fire,” and above which are “villanous old guns” (2, 8, 3). In later portrayals, the Earnshaw estate is further established as a miserable and confining hell for its inhabitants. Nelly Dean, a servant at the heights, reports “what an infernal house we had…nobody decent came near us” (65). In concordance with its tumultuous nature, the Heights are also subject to frequent bouts of destructive and brutal weather, as is described in a later scene:

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The storm came rattling over the heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building; a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen fire. We thought a bolt had fallen in the middle of us, and Joseph swung onto his knees, beseeching the Lord to…spare the righteous, though he smote the ungodly. I felt some sentiment that it must be a judgment on us also. (84)

These descriptions and occurrences enforce a traditional definition of the horrid and hellish nature of the Heights.

In contrast to Wuthering Heights, the Linton estate, Thrushcross Grange, is likened to heaven through the use of soft, light imagery. The initial description establishes this identity, and one of the characters depicts the Grange as:

A splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers (46).

Heathcliff, the source of these images, even goes so far as to exclaim “We should have thought ourselves in heaven!” (46). These descriptions enforce a nature that coincides with a conventional definition of celestial and desirable qualities: material beauty and affluence and imagery involving light, pure colors.

These heavenly and hellish characteristics are also manifested in the primary female character in the work: Catherine Earnshaw. Cathy assumes two contrasting identities that directly correlate with her presence at each residence. Accordingly, she maintains a passionate and fierce personality at Wuthering Heights and a more subdued, genteel one at Thrushcross Grange. At the Heights, Cathy is free from the constraints of society, and is thus able to express her true nature. Nelly describes Cathy as possessing a “fiery temper,” and details her behavior as such (88):

She put all of us past our patience fifty times and oftener in a day: from the hour she came down stairs till the hour she went to bed, we had not a minute’s security that she wouldn’t be in mischief. Her spirits were always at high-water mark, her tongue always going-singing, laughing, and plaguing everybody who would not do the same (40).

However, after being attacked by one of the Linton’s dogs while secretly visiting the Grange, Cathy is required to stay there for five weeks. It is during this time that she first comes under the influence of society and its standards, and consequently, she changes and adopts a double personality of sorts.

With the Lintons…she had no temptation to show her rough side in their company, and had the sense to be ashamed of being rude where she experienced such invariable courtesy…by her ingenuous cordiality; gained the admiration of Isabella, and the heart and sold of her brother-acquisitions that…led her to adopt a double character (66)

However, she is without these societal constraints at the Heights, and continues to engage in brutish behavior while residing there:

In the place where she heard Heathcliff termed a “vulgar young ruffian,” and “worse than a brute,” she took care not to act like him; but at home she had small inclination to practise politeness that would only be laughed at, and restrain an unruly nature when it would bring her neither credit nor praise (66).

As further evidence of her truly haughty and passionate nature, Cathy sometimes reverts back to this rough manner while in the presence of those for whom she has adopted this double personality, as is evidenced by the incident during one of Edgar’s visits in which she flies into a fit of rage. In this fit she proceeds to pinch and slap Nelly, abuse Hareton, and then actually goes so far as to slap Edgar himself in response to his objections to her actions (70-71).

Cathy expresses her knowledge of her inherently unruly and passionate nature in the confession to Nelly that “If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable” (80). She then elaborates, and goes on to detail a recent dream that she has had in response to Edgar’s marriage proposal to her:

…heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth ; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy…I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven” (80).

Cathy intrinsically knows that she does not belong at the Grange, functioning under a personality and identity that are not really her own. She realizes that this environment, despite its status as a socially acceptable and desirable place, is not her home. Regardless of this knowledge, she accepts Edgars proposal and moves to the Grange. By choosing this option, Cathy conforms to society’s standards and does the socially correct thing. She believes that marrying a gentleman and living on a large and prosperous estate will bring her happiness-that she will finally achieve a heavenly and peaceful existence.

However, even though she has matrimonially joined Edgar and thus taken on a more heavenly identity, she never truly acquiesces to this condition. She is unable to fully accept this celestial existence and residence, and this rejection is evidenced by the condition that she is frequently ill while at the Grange. Furthermore, the fact that she does not really belong in this civilized, heavenly environment is manifested during one of these illnesses, in which she gives her fever to Mr. and Mrs. Linton, which causes their subsequent death. Despite efforts to the contrary, Cathy is simply unable to find true happiness at the Grange. Her misery is again implied by her seasons of “gloom and silence,” a “depression of spirits” to which she was never subject before (91,92). The truth is that she simply cannot deny her real disposition and resign herself to such a quiet and mundane life. Heathcliff also possesses the knowledge that she does not belong at the Grange, a comprehension that is evident in his remark that he has “no doubt that she’s in hell among” the inhabitants and environment of the Grange (153). Cathy soon realizes that she will never achieve true happiness through the avenues that society has sanctified as acceptable and typical.

Despite all of the conditions implying her dissatisfaction and incompatibility with the Grange, Cathy is able to deny her true identity until Heathcliff returns from his disappearance following her and Edgar’s engagement. Heathcliff has always brought out those hellish characteristics that she possesses, and his reappearance once again lights that internal fire of passion. The expression of these fiery characteristics is part of how Cathy and Heathcliff define their ideal existence. At the Grange, Catherine must suppress this aspect if her personality, and thus, deny herself the contentment that she craves. Her unhappiness at the Linton residence is further substantiated by the joy she experiences upon Heathcliff’s return:

Catherine flew upstairs, breathless and wild, too excited to show gladness…”I’m afraid the joy is too great to be real!”…[her] flushed cheeks betrayed signs of warm talking…the lady glowed (95).

This passage highlights the fact that Cathy’s heaven is defined by her interactions with Heathcliff and the passionate and tumultuous relationship that they possess. After his reappearance, the Grange is thrown into turmoil due to Cathy’s ecstatic reaction and Edgar’s jealousy and resentment of Heathcliff. She attempts to play both parts by exhibiting to each man the aspect of her personality that he expects and desires, but eventually it is too much.

Her inability to reconcile these two parts of herself climaxes in the scene shortly after Heathcliff’s return, in which Cathy is asked to choose between Edgar and Heathcliff and thus, between these two conflicting parts of herself. This demand causes an emotional breakdown and sends her into a delirium. Cathy’s true desires become apparent, and the wish to revert back to her fiery and more passionate self is clearly depicted in her delirium:

“I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free…and laughing at injuries…Why am I so changed?” (126)

This side of her personality, which is represented by Wuthering Heights and her experiences there, is also demonstrated in this state of disorientation:

“I thought I was at home…I thought I was lying in my chamber at Wuthering Heights…Oh, if I were but in my own bed in the old house!…and that wind sounding in the firs by the lattice. Do let me feel it…do let me have one breath!” (124)

At the conclusion of her fever and delirium, Catherine emerges as a shattered and broken woman; she never fully recovers. She spends the remainder of her time on earth simply wishing for death. This desire is a result of the trauma that she incurred due to her efforts to choose between the two conflicting sides of her individuality and her inability to do so. She expresses this in her statement to Nelly:

“the thing that irks me most is this shattered prison…I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there; not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it, and in it.” (160)

It is only during her final moments on earth that she obtains the happiness and peace for which she was so desperately searching. She finally achieves a union with Heathcliff-perhaps the only circumstance that could have brought her complete contentment-as her final moments of consciousness are shared with him. Catherine declares that she will take him with her to the afterlife, as he is her soul. According to Nelly, she finally attains her “blessed release,” and dies quietly during the night, her lips “wearing the expression of a smile” (164). Ironically, it is only in death that she is able to truly express the serene and heavenly qualities that she so fervently attempted to display at the Grange; “no angel in heaven could be more beautiful than she appeared…[an] untroubled image of Divine rest” (164).


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