Animals and birds

There are numerous references to animals and birds in Wuthering Heights, both literal and metaphorical. Such images help to portray the extremes on which Gothic novels thrive.

Yorkshire moorland, image available through Creative CommonsFierce beasts

Many of the animals mentioned in the novel are fierce and threatening. At the outset of the novel Lockwood is attacked by the dogs of Wuthering Heights. When Catherine and Heathcliff spy on Thrushcross Grange, they are set upon by ‘Skulker’, a bull-dog with a:

huge, purple tongue hanging half a foot out of his mouth, and his pendent lips streaming with bloody slaver (Chapter 6)    

which only responds to being ‘throttled off’. The offspring of this beast is later used by Hareton to threaten Isabella:

'Hey, Throttler, lad!' whispered the little wretch, rousing a half-bred bull-dog from its lair in a corner. (Chapter 13)       

Heathcliff is allied with these defensive, violent and hardly socialised animals. Although he returns in Chapter 10 ostensibly a gentleman, Nelly notes that a ‘half- civilised ferocity lurked yet’. Catherine describes him as ‘an unreclaimed creature,’ and ‘a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’ and Ellen later witnesses Heathcliff howling like ‘a savage beast’ (Chapter 16).

When Isabella is teased by Catherine over her infatuation with Heathcliff, she scratches her tormentor and is likened to a ‘tigress' and ‘vixen’. Yet this is still no match for Heathcliff, who vows he will ‘wrench’ her ‘talons’ ‘off her fingers, if they ever menaced’ him. He later talks of crushing the entrails of the ‘worms’ in his power (Chapter 14). Heathcliff is the fiercest beast of them all.

Violence towards animals

The way in which animals are treated within the novel is often used as a metaphor for human relationships. Catherine warns Isabella that Heathcliff would ‘crush [her] like a sparrow’s egg’. His antipathy to her is clear when he stares at Isabella as ‘at a strange repulsive animal’. When Heathcliff casually hangs Isabella’s pet dog from a hook as they elope in Chapter 12, it serves as an expression of his power over her. Significantly, Hareton repeats this action later under Heathcliff’s influence.

Vulnerable animals

Certain characters are described in terms of weaker animals. Edgar is a ‘lamb’ or a ‘sucking leveret’. Heathcliff sees Isabella as a ‘centipede’. Cathy tells Linton not to be ‘an abject reptile’.

Certainly there is no place in the world of the Heights for a tame animal. Lockwood assumes that a civilised lady might have pet kittens: that the animals are dead rabbits, shot or trapped and ready for the pot, indicates his failure to understand the ‘kill or be killed’ world of the Heights. Even at the Grange, the first event we witness is the Linton children’s cruelty to ‘a heap of warm hair’ (Chapter 6).


In the world of the novel, birds tend to be suggestive of fragility and gentleness. Isabella is described as a canary. In his attraction to Cathy, Hareton ‘put out his hand and stroked a curl as gently as if it were a bird’ (Chapter 30). This simile places Hareton as being at one with his natural environment (in a way that Lockwood never is), which quality is shared with his aunt and surrogate father. For example, when Catherine is ill in her room she puts natural objects (birds’ feathers) into groups in an attempt to make sense of her world.

In Chapter 16, while Heathcliff waits outside as Catherine dies, Nelly sees:

a pair of ousels passing and repassing scarcely three feet from him, busy in building their nest          

This suggests that Heathcliff can blend into nature as if he were an animal himself, probably a reminder of happier days on the moors. At the end of the novel, harmony is evoked by the mention of ‘moths fluttering among the heath and harebells’ in an apparently peaceful scene.

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