Death versus life

The proximity of death

Death is never far away in the world of Wuthering Heights, as was the case in Emily Brontë’s life. She lost several family members, and lived in a house overlooking a graveyard. (See Biographical context > Early years > Haworth and its setting; 1824-25: Schooling starts)

Graves are significant in the novel. We are told in detail where Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff are buried, and Heathcliff’s account of his attempt to open Catherine’s coffin (Chapter 29) is a truly Gothic moment:

Being alone, and conscious two yards of loose earth was the sole barrier between us, I said to myself, 'I'll have her in my arms again! If she be cold, I'll think it is this north wind that chills me, and if she be motionless, it is sleep.

In the harshness of the wintry moorland environment, Brontë portrays the ease with which a person can slip from one existence to the next. Indeed, Heathcliff’s own approach to death in Chapter 34 leaves Nelly unsure as to whether he is dead or alive:

Mr. Heathcliff was there - laid on his back. His eyes met mine so keen and fierce, I started; and then he seemed to smile. I could not think him dead: but his face and throat were washed with rain; the bed-clothes dripped, and he was perfectly still. (Chapter 34)

Brontë blurs the boundary between death and life, most obviously through the appearance of Catherine’s ghost in Chapter 3 and in the rumours of her and Heathcliff walking the moors in the final chapter. Heathcliff certainly believes that they can be reunited after death. In his final days he seems to be communicating directly with Catherine’s presence and is so drawn towards a world beyond the material that:

I have to remind myself to breathe - almost to remind my heart to beat! And it is like bending back a stiff spring: it is by compulsion that I do the slightest act not prompted by one thought; and by compulsion that I notice anything alive or dead, which is not associated with one universal idea. (Chapter 33)

The desire for life

In a sense, most of the characters in Wuthering Heights are on a quest for life – Lockwood’s aim of retreat and restraint is portrayed as life-denying. However, although Brontë’s creations want to live life to the full, they often fail:

  • Hindley’s efforts to bolster his self-esteem are waylaid by the ill-health of his wife and the incapacitating effects of alcohol
  • Isabella wants to become a somebody rather than a dependent nobody, yet ends friendless and homeless
  • Cathy yearns for freedom and vitality, but her bid for freedom ends (initially) in imprisonment
  • Although Edgar endures, his life is diminished by the death of his beloved Catherine, and he is most often seen in seclusion or ill
  • Even Catherine is destroyed (in body at least) by her impossible desire to ‘have it all’ – both a comfortable existence and the free life that Heathcliff would provide, both a faithful marriage and an untrammelled passion.

Catherine and Heathcliff do seem to achieve the fulfilment of life’s potential on the moors as youngsters, but it is curtailed by the obligations of adulthood. Only in Hareton do we see the pattern reversed, as he moves from constraint to freedom, via the cultivation his origins have denied him and a fulfilling love relationship.

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