Childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff
Table of Contents
The first glimpse we get of Catherine (Cathy) and Heathcliff childhood is through Lockwood, where he reads Cathy’s diary in her own coffin-like bed, on his ill-fated second visit to his landlord in 1801. The diary is written in the margins of her books, and Lockwood’s antiquarian instincts are aroused as he begins to ‘decipher her faded hieroglyphics.’ Under Hindley’s tyrannical regime at the Heights, Cathy and Heathcliff took their first step in planned rebellion by refusing to read Joseph’s religious tracts. ‘The Helmet of Salvation’ and ‘The Broad Way of Destruction’, the only Sabbath fare provided by this Calvinistic fanatic. Cathy was delighted by Heathcliff’s plan to escape from their subsequent imprisonment in the back kitchen and have a ‘scamper on the moors,’ thus making Joseph think that ‘owd Nick’ had indeed fetched them away as he had prophesied. Having fallen asleep, Lockwood wakes up screaming after his second nightmare, in which his own cruelty suggests that he has fallen under the spell of the past and present occupants of the Heights. His comments to Heathcliff on what we later learn must have been the spirit of Cathy, pining for admission to the Heights, are characteristically tactless. He calls her a ‘little fiend’, a ‘changeling’, and a ‘wicked little soul’, adding that she told him she had been walking the earth these twenty years, ‘a just punishment for her mortal transgressions I’ve no doubt.
The full significance of these comments, and of Heathcliff’s fury with Lockwood and subsequent action, throwing open the window and passionately appealing to Cathy to return once more, cannot be weighed until Lockwood has heard Nelly’s account of these previous twenty years. (It is no wonder that several Victorian reviewers were confused by the different levels of narrative established in the novel’s complex organization). Already, however, Lockwood and, possibly, the Victorian reader who identifies with him, have re-enacted the judgement passed on Cathy in her childhood by Joseph.
The Relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff
Nelly Dean’s oral narrative to the now ailing Lockwood, back at Thrushcross Grange, portrays a flesh and blood Cathy, demanding a whip of her father when he leaves for Liverpool and developing a strong bond with the little alien. Heathcliff, whom he brings back. Cathy teaches Heathcliff what she herself has learnt, and they delight in spending whole days together on the moors. Heathcliff’s account of their capture at Thrushcross Grange highlights the contrast between their clear-sighted impressions of Edgar and Isabella Linton, fighting over a little dog, and the civilized ideal of order the Grange and what Nelly calls those good children’ would appear to represent. From Heathcliff’s point of view, Cathy’s stay at the Grange, where she nurses an injured leg represents a tragic fall into knowledge of the world and the imprisonment of a free spirit. Nelly’s comment that Cathy’s manners were ‘much improved by the time she returned to the Heights quietly indicates the gulf which yawns between her commonsensical view of the matter and that of the rebellious Heathcliff.
From this point in Nelly’s story, Cathy is torn between the attractions of Edgar Linton and the apparent material heaven of the Grange, and her love for Heathcliff, her fellow sufferer in the ‘infernal house’ which is now ruled by the drunken Hindley Earnshaw. In a world of mutually exclusive moral choices, reflected in the narrative method, Cathy refuses to be limited or imprisoned, demanding a freedom which is symbolically represented by her beloved moors. We see here that both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have as their central theme the yearning for spiritual freedom and wholeness in a hostile and dualistic world, Emily Bronte’s treatment of the theme is far more radical than that of her sister.
Cathy has accepted Edgar’s offer of marriage, yet she knows, in her soul and her heart, that she is wrong. Trying to explain this to Nelly, she recounts a dream one of those which have gone through her ‘like wine through water’, and altered the colour of her mind. (She could almost be describing the text itself here, for the third chapter of dreams has a pervasive effect on the narrative which follows, like wine in water, altering its colour.) In spite of Nelly’s protests, Cathy tells her that she once dreamt she was ‘in heaven’, which did not seem to be her ‘home’: ‘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.’ Again, one is reminded of Chapter 3, and Cathy’s and Heathcliff’s plan to escape their judges and galore for a scamper on the moors. Cathy believes that she has no more business to marry Edgar than she has to be in heaven, yet it would ‘degrade’ her to marry Heathcliff now that Hindley has brought him so low. It is at this point that Heathcliff creeps away, having listened without being seen by Cathy. He therefore misses her next words-‘He shall never know how I love him…because he’s more myself than I am- and her statement that she will never be separated from Heathcliff, even after her marriage to Edgar.
Cathy’s famous description of her love for Linton being ‘like the foliage in the woods’ and her love for Heathcliff resembling ‘the eternal rocks beneath’, and he dramatic outburst-Nelly, I am Heathcliff- draw this snappish, commonplace response from Nelly: ‘If I can make any sense of your nonsense, Miss….it only goes to convince me that you are ignorant of the duties you undertake in marrying, or else that you are a wicked, unprincipled girl. Consider the difference in emotional and imaginative range between Cathy and Nelly at this point. Like Lockwood and Joseph in their different ways, Nelly judges where she does not begin to understand, applying the standards of a received moral code based on ideas of right and wrong, heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, which are radically challenged by the very nature of the love between Cathy and Heathcliff, nurtured in a hostile environment, and by the lack of a control- ling authorial presence in the novel.
Catherine’s Marriage with Edgar and its After-effects
Cathy marries the infatuated Edgar three years later, taking Nelly with her to the Grange and leaving Hareton to his fate at the hands of his father at the Heights. It is her daughter Catherine who is eventually to return to the Heights and complete the task of teaching Hareton his letters, abandoned by Nelly when she left for the Grange. The restoration of peace and order a the Heights, a kind of exorcism in the eyes of Nelly, Lockwood, and Joseph, is itself achieved through Catherine’s rebellion against Heathcliff, the former prisoner of Hindley and now the vengeful galore of the second generation of Earnshaws and Lintons.
The Spiritual Reunion of Catherine and Heathcliff
Another kind of restoration is also achieved in the spiritual reunion of Cathy and Heathcliff in death. When Heathcliff seems to smile at Nelly, as he lies dead in the coffin bed, he has escaped from his idea of hell-separation from Cathy. For Nelly, who wonders whether the ‘goblin’ Heathcliff is a ‘ghoul’ or a ‘vampire’, and advises him that he is unfit for the orthodox heaven of the Bible on the day before he dies, his ‘queer end’ is an event of pure Gothic horror, whereas the impending marriage of the young couple and their plans to return to the Grange, are anticipated with pleasure. Joseph grins at Heathcliff’s corpse in mockery, saying that the devil has harried off his soul, and offering prayers of thanks that the lawful master and the ancient stock are restored to their rights. Several of the novel’s first reviewers assumed that Heathcliff was certain of dam- nation, and that the restoration of Hareton to the birthright was to be celebrated. Yet these views, also shared by Nelly and Lockwood, are put into the mouth of the Pharisaical Joseph in the last pages of Emily Bronte’s novel; and, seen in relation to Heathcliff’s tragic grandeur, Hareton’s taming seems an act of emasculation.