Wuthering Heights as a five-act tragedy

The influence of King Lear

We know that Emily Brontë was reading Shakespeare’s King Lear as she was writing Wuthering Heights and certainly much of the novel fits with the traditional form of a tragedy. (See Literary Context > Other literary traditions in Wuthering Heights > tragedy for more detail.)

It would be difficult, and ultimately rather pointless, to identify exactly where the five acts of a Shakespearean tragedy might divide in Wuthering Heights. However, the broad pattern seems to fit well:

  • Act One (sometimes called the Introduction) would cover the arrival and childhood of Heathcliff
  • Act Two (the Rising Action or Complication) would include Heathcliff’s ill-treatment by Hindley, Catherine’s attraction to Edgar and Heathcliff’s disappearance
  • Act Three (the Climax) would cover Heathcliff’s return and as far as Catherine’s death
  • Act Four (the Falling Action) would outline Heathcliff’s revenge and the growing significance of Cathy
  • Act Five (the Denouement or Conclusion) would cover the death of Heathcliff and the hopeful ending provided by Cathy and Hareton.

A tragic end?

If the novel is a tragedy and Heathcliff is united with Catherine in death, then the tragic hero has not been punished. This reading of the novel troubled many Victorian readers, including Emily’s sister Charlotte. However, Heathcliff has undoubtedly endured the living tragedy of eighteen years tormented by the loss of the woman he lived for.

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