The power of character

Strong characterisation

Wuthering Heights does not have a complex or particularly original plot. This is not where the interest lies. Instead, Brontë’s powerful characterisation ensures that, without having studied or even read it, people who have heard of the novel are likely to mention Heathcliff and Catherine and their relationship, as opposed to any particular event in the story.

Brontë does not achieve characterisation through psychological analysis; her main narrator Nelly Dean would not be capable of this. (In fact, she makes mistakes when she tries to do this, as at the end of Chapter 4.) Rather, the author reveals character through depicting her protagonists’ words and actions and their outward appearances.

It is worth noting that a surprising number of the characters are seen to change over the course of the novel; in many books, only one or two might change.

Extreme characters?

Some critics have suggested that the male characters of Wuthering Heights are created as extremes, whereas the female ones are more subtly drawn. This may be because of Emily Brontë’s experience, or it could be because this is how men and women are.

Whether you accept the previous point or not, most readers would agree that the characters generally are ‘larger than life’. As Lockwood says in Chapter 7,

They do live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface change, and frivolous external things.

Gothic stereotypes

Lockwood’s comment may be seen to match with the idea of stereotypical Gothic characters. These would typically include:

  • The shy heroine who is put into dangerous situations
  • The brave hero
  • Faithful servants
  • The cruel villain, who is often the most interesting character.

However, none of the female characters really fits the description of ‘shy heroine.’ Perhaps Isabella comes closest but even she has more strength than expected. The strong women perhaps give the novel some of its enduring appeal. Indeed, in the world of Wuthering Heights, strength (of character and in physical terms) is seen as a positive attribute, whereas weakness is seen as difficult to justify.

There is no real hero, either. Heathcliff has the potential to be a Byronic hero but becomes something else entirely. Hareton has some suitable qualities, but these are not evident until so late that it is hard to see him as the hero of the whole novel.

In summary, it would seem that Brontë has adopted some Gothic characteristics for her characters, but has made them her own creations as well. Arguably, the characters are more complex and interesting than in many Gothic novels.

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