Revenge versus forgiveness


Many major works of fiction examine the dichotomy between revenge and forgiveness. The former derives from human instinct and a ‘pagan’ code that justifies revenge for perceived wrongs, in order to satisfy the honour of the original victim. The latter is motivated by the Christian teaching that requires forgiveness for an enemy, depending instead on the judgement of God to ensure ultimate justice. Within the novel, Brontë explores the outworking of vengeance, principally through her amoral anti-hero, yet seems to conclude that revenge is ultimately unsatisfactory. Resolution is only achieved with forgiveness and reconciliation.

Heathcliff’s quest

In reaction to his brutal degradation by Hindley, Heathcliff obviously seeks revenge on his abuser:

I'm trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don't care how long I wait, if I can only do it, at last. I hope he will not die before I do! (Chapter 7)

This he achieves by physical and verbal provocation and, more effectively, the acquisition of the wealth and land that first allowed Hindley to wield power.

However, Heathcliff’s desire for vengeance seems to expand beyond his original goal and encompasses anyone who gets in the way. It can be seen as his revenge on life and the way he has been treated. It is telling that the above quotation concludes:

I only wish I knew the best way! Let me alone, and I'll plan it out: while I'm thinking of that, I don't feel pain. (editor’s italics)

Undoubtedly the greatest pain that Heathcliff experiences is that of Catherine leaving him in the way that she does. Her ‘punishment’ however falls upon her husband and daughter, and until near the end of the novel, Heathcliff seems to gain a visceral pleasure from degrading his perceived foes.

When Nelly speaks up for conventional morality:

‘For shame, Heathcliff!’ said I. ‘It is for God to punish wicked people; we should learn to forgive.’ (Chapter 7)

it carries less weight than the force of Heathcliff’s enjoyment of revenge:

‘No, God won't have the satisfaction that I shall,’ he returned.

Brontë does not dress up her anti-hero’s motivation. When, near the end of the novel, Heathcliff fails to strike Cathy, it is simply because vengeance no longer brings him pleasure:

'It is a poor conclusion, is it not,' [Heathcliff] observed … My old enemies have not beaten me - now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives - I could do it; and none could hinder me - But where is the use? ...  I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing. (Chapter 33)

Vengefulness in others

Hindley takes revenge on Heathcliff, perceiving Heathcliff to have replaced him in his father’s affections. Naturally destructive, this turns into self-destruction when Heathcliff thwarts him. After her elopement Isabella too wants revenge on Heathcliff, even when he is sunk in grief for Catherine:

I couldn't miss this chance of sticking in a dart; his weakness was the only time when I could taste the delight of paying wrong for wrong. (Chapter 17)

Again the Christian code of forgiveness is not seen as a viable alternative. Although Nelly reminds Isabella of the Bible’s teaching about God’s ultimate justice, as well as the demands of common compassion:

One might suppose you had never opened a Bible in your life. If God afflict your enemies, surely that ought to suffice you. It is both mean and presumptuous to add your torture to his! (Chapter 17)

Isabella finds Jesus’ injunction to love enemies Matthew 5:44) and repay evil with good (Matthew 5:39) untenable. All she can accommodate is an Old Testament legalism (Leviticus 24:19-20):

On only one condition can I hope to forgive him. It is, if I may take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, for every wrench of agony, return a wrench … But it is utterly impossible I can ever be revenged, and therefore I cannot forgive him. (Chapter 17)

As a victim, Isabella needs to restore some sense of natural justice in order to achieve closure on her relationship with her tormentor, but acknowledges that this is unattainable through human means. In a similar situation years later, Cathy too becomes vengeful when Heathcliff has trapped her, though she will not take action on this.


Within the world of Wuthering Heights, forgiveness is rather more difficult to find. Cathy shows it to the undeserving Linton, and Nelly’s orthodox Christian views remind her to be tolerant to various characters.

The most obvious and important forgiveness is that between Cathy and Hareton, who learn to overcome their arguments and angry words. Brontë appears to demonstrate that only this is able to provide a promisingly stable relationship. However, even this is slightly undermined by the ambiguity of the novel’s final sentence.

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