Who tells the story

The way in which the story of Wuthering Heights is told by Emily Brontë is part of the novel’s appeal and success. Although the main storyline is fairly straightforward and there is no subplot, the use of multiple narrators and non-chronological storytelling give the story an extra power and interest. 

Multiple narrators

The framing device of the novel is Lockwood’s narration. Within that, Nelly Dean tells most of the story, but there are contributions from several others: both Catherines, Isabella, Heathcliff and Zillah. This works a bit like a set of Russian dolls- as we open up another layer we discover further detail, and often some closer personal experience. 

This technique also maintains a sense of mystery. No-one knows everything and so the reader must wait to find out answers to questions, or to fill in gaps in understanding. 

Nelly Dean

As the main storyteller, Nelly clearly has a very good memory - though we accept this as a convention of the novel. She is both an observer and a character involved in the action, so she speaks with authority (but also with some degree of bias). We never doubt her accuracy, though occasionally she confesses that she made a mistake. Perhaps most importantly, her down to earth attitude helps us to accept the extreme characters and actions that she describes, by setting them within a believable context. Because she has a clear purpose in telling Lockwood the story, she is able to skim over some periods of time whilst giving great detail in others.

An unreliable narrator

This is the term used in literary criticism for a first-person narrator who cannot be relied on always to be telling the whole truth. There may be different reasons for this. In Lockwood’s case, he does not deliberately mislead through mischief, but he jumps to conclusions and misinterprets situations. This is partly because:

  • he is slightly arrogant about his social position
  • he is not good at understanding people
  • he finds himself in a society which he does not understand. 

All this makes the reader feel superior to him, and this, together with the distancing effect of layers of narration, helps them to accept the more extreme and the less credible events of the novel. Lockwood’s misinterpretation alerts the reader to the fact that they too need to keep their wits about them in case they make the same mistake. This helps to engage readers with the characters as they concentrate on their behaviour.

Non-chronological narration

Like the use of multiple narrators, the technique of altering the chronology of events creates mystery and makes the reader wait for answers, just as Lockwood waits for the next part of Nelly’s story. 

Brontë is able to start the story at a point which raises questions about who people are and how they are related. The opening chapters also provide dramatic moments as Lockwood dreams and is then shouted at by Heathcliff. The chronological starting point would be Heathcliff’s arrival into the Earnshaw household as a child, which is less dramatic. 

It is worth considering what effect it has on the reader that we see the angry, violent Heathcliff first, before we see the victimised, helpless young child. Meeting characters at different key points in their lives toys with our feelings and reactions, so that we find it hard to decide on which characters engage our sympathy and which do not. This is surely a major part of the power of the novel, and it makes the characters more multi-layered, as in real life.

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