The four elements

Elemental and primitive

Some of the most powerful imagery in Wuthering Heights comes from the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. This is hardly surprising in a novel that deals with elemental forces in a primitive setting, and these elements are used to create different moods and atmospheres throughout the novel.

These elements are linked to characters who display varying degrees of each of the four elements. On many occasions characters, or their moods, are described in terms of the elements.

The four elements of the body

Early medical opinion believed that the elements making up the physical environment were represented in a living body by what were called the ‘humours’: 

  • black bile, based on earth
  • yellow bile, a sort of fire in the body
  • phlegm, largely composed of water
  • blood, associated with the air. 

When equally balanced, these humours resulted in good health and the right temperament.

How these elements were proportioned in an individual’s body could affect his or her temperament. Too much of one element or another was a bad thing:

  • A ‘bilious’ person, with too much earth in his or her make-up, was likely to be melancholic or depressive, but this was also associated with being artistic and introverted
  • Someone with an excess of yellow bile would be described as ‘choleric’, with a fiery temper and a tendency to be controlling
  • A ‘phlegmatic’ person would be passive and easy-going – perhaps too much so
  • Blood controlled optimism and being extrovert; a ‘sanguine’ person was liable to be cheerful and the word has connotations of being calm and reasonable.

A lack of balance

The idea of balanced and unbalanced characters can be seen as a Gothic characteristic, as can the extremes which the elements create in both characters and locations.

Nelly provides a generally rational and calm perspective through which we observe the events of the novel, but amongst the major characters there isn’t a calm, intelligent, balanced figure (such as Van Helsing in Dracula) who can appropriately confront Heathcliff and sort things out. Although Edgar represents convention and legality, he is weak and desperate in relation to his wife and her beloved.

This changes only near the end of the novel. Just as spring and new growth take over from the harsher elements of winter, so we perceive how the strength and spirit of the Earnshaws is balanced by the restraint and culture of the Lintons, within the union of Hareton and Cathy.

Elemental imagery


Earth is often associated with graves and therefore death. Within Wuthering Heights, this is not necessarily a negative association, such as when it symbolises the final union of all three lovers buried side by side as they wished.

Both Heathcliff and Catherine gain vitality from their union with the earth, as on the moors. It provides for them both freedom and strength, seen in Catherine’s assertion that her love for Heathcliff ‘resembles the eternal rocks beneath’. The emotional toughness of Heathcliff is also portrayed via earthy images: his gratification is ‘flinty’ and he is twice compared to ‘an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone’.


Air is most often seen in the form of wind, bringing movement and life to still places. In Chapter 24, when Cathy compares her perfect day with Linton’s, she wants to be:

rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; .. close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; .. the whole world awake and wild with joy.

The airy movement of the natural environment indicates Cathy’s vitality and optimism. In contrast, Linton’s passivity is highlighted by his preference for:

lying from morning to evening on a bank of heath .. in an ecstasy of peace;

Top Withens, possible inspiration for Wuthering Heights location, image available through Creative CommonsThe very name of the novel and house it centres on is an adjective about the wind:

‘Wuthering' being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house;

Heathcliff connects the persistent attack of the wind to the emotional atmosphere of the Heights when he says of little Hareton:

Now, my bonny lad, you are MINE! And we'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!

When the wind brings storm, it highlights the violence and passion of the novel. For example, the destructive wind that batters the Heights after Heathcliff runs away in Chapter 9 can be seen to symbolise the violence done to his and Catherine’s relationship, his desire for retribution and perhaps to foretell the ruin that will be brought upon the house of Earnshaw.


Fire has a range of meanings within the novel. It can suggest light, life and warmth. In Chapter 7, for example, Nelly makes the house welcoming for Christmas, including ‘great fires’, and she puts the young Heathcliff by the fire to try to include him in the festivities.

Fire is also associated with emotions. Eyes are described as flashing and burning, whilst tempers ‘kindle’ and Catherine is described as having ‘a fiery disposition’. Heathcliff burns with feeling and has ‘fire in his eyes’, compared to the ‘ice’ in Edgar’s veins. It is perhaps significant that, as Heathcliff relinquishes his earthly life in anticipation of union with Catherine in Chapter 34, ‘The fire had smouldered to ashes’ in the grate of his room.


Water appears in streams, in the rain of storms which flood the land, and frozen in snow and frost. The rain can reflect mood: in Chapter 22, when:

the cold blue sky was half hidden by clouds - dark grey streamers, rapidly mounting from the west, and boding abundant rain

Cathy is ‘low-spirited’ and walks ‘sadly on’.

As Heathcliff nears his end, we hear:

'the murmur of the beck down Gimmerton' with 'its ripples and its gurgling over the pebbles' 

as if the stream's existence might run on beyond the grave, and this blurring of boundaries is also represented by the way in which Heathcliff's 'face and throat were washed with rain' after an all-night downpour, his 'window swinging open and the rain driving straight in.'

Aside from the actual elements, water metaphors demonstrate the force of people’s emotions. Catherine’s spirits are described as being ‘at high water-mark’, whilst violent language is depicted as pouring forth in a ‘torrent’ or ‘deluge’. Tears ‘rain down’ or leave someone with ‘a streaming face’, such as Hareton’s in Chapter 34.

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