Analysing a passage

The Question

Discuss the effects of Brontë's writing in the following passage, showing how far her concerns and methods are characteristic of the novel as a whole.

The passage

‘I know he has a bad nature,’ said Catherine: ‘he’s your son. But I’m glad I’ve a better, to forgive it; and I know he loves me, and for that reason I love him. Mr. Heathcliff you have nobody to love you; and, however miserable you make us, we shall still have the revenge of thinking that your cruelty arises from your greater misery. You are miserable, are you not? Lonely, like the devil, and envious like him? Nobody loves you—nobody will cry for you when you die! I wouldn’t be you!’

Catherine spoke with a kind of dreary triumph: she seemed to have made up her mind to enter into the spirit of her future family, and draw pleasure from the griefs of her enemies.

‘You shall be sorry to be yourself presently,’ said her father-in-law, ‘if you stand there another minute. Begone, witch, and get your things!’

She scornfully withdrew.

In her absence I began to beg for Zillah’s place at the Heights, offering to resign mine to her; but he would suffer it on no account. He bid me be silent; and then, for the first time, allowed himself a glance round the room and a look at the pictures. Having studied Mrs. Linton’s, he said—‘I shall have that home. Not because I need it, but—’

He turned abruptly to the fire, and continued, with what, for lack of a better word, I must call a smile—

‘I’ll tell you what I did yesterday! I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there: when I saw her face again—it is hers yet!—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up: not Linton’s side, damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead. And I bribed the sexton to pull it away when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too; I’ll have it made so: and then by the time Linton gets to us he’ll not know which is which!’

‘You were very wicked, Mr. Heathcliff!’ I exclaimed; ‘were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?’

‘I disturbed nobody, Nelly,’ he replied; ‘and I gave some ease to myself. I shall be a great deal more comfortable now; and you’ll have a better chance of keeping me underground, when I get there. Disturbed her? No! she has disturbed me, night and day, through eighteen years—incessantly—remorselessly—till yesternight; and yesternight I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper, with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.’

‘And if she had been dissolved into earth, or worse, what would you have dreamt of then?’ I said.

‘Of dissolving with her, and being more happy still!’ he answered. ‘Do you suppose I dread any change of that sort? I expected such a transformation on raising the lid—but I’m better pleased that it should not commence till I share it. Besides, unless I had received a distinct impression of her passionless features, that strange feeling would hardly have been removed. It began oddly. You know I was wild after she died; and eternally, from dawn to dawn, praying her to return to me her spirit! I have a strong faith in ghosts: I have a conviction that they can, and do, exist among us!

‘The day she was buried, there came a fall of snow. In the evening I went to the churchyard. It blew bleak as winter—all round was solitary. I didn’t fear that her fool of a husband would wander up the glen so late; and no one else had business to bring them there.

‘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.’

I got a spade from the tool-house, and began to delve with all my might—it scraped the coffin; I fell to work with my hands; the wood commenced cracking about the screws; I was on the point of attaining my object, when it seemed that I heard a sigh from some one above, close at the edge of the grave, and bending down. ‘If I can only get this off,’ I muttered, ‘I wish they may shovel in the earth over us both!’ and I wrenched at it more desperately still. There was another sigh, close at my ear. I appeared to feel the warm breath of it displacing the sleet-laden wind. I knew no living thing in flesh and blood was by; but, as certainly as you perceive the approach to some substantial body in the dark, though it cannot be discerned, so certainly I felt that Cathy was there: not under me, but on the earth.

‘A sudden sense of relief flowed from my heart through every limb. I relinquished my labour of agony, and turned consoled at once: unspeakably consoled. Her presence was with me: it remained while I re-filled the grave, and led me home. You may laugh, if you will; but I was sure I should see her there. I was sure she was with me, and I could not help talking to her.

‘Having reached the Heights, I rushed eagerly to the door. It was fastened; and, I remember, that accursed Earnshaw and my wife opposed my entrance. I remember stopping to kick the breath out of him, and then hurrying up-stairs, to my room and hers. I looked round impatiently—I felt her by me—I could almost see her, and yet I could not! I ought to have sweat blood then, from the anguish of my yearning—from the fervour of my supplications to have but one glimpse! I had not one. She showed herself, as she often was in life, a devil to me! And, since then, sometimes more and sometimes less, I’ve been the sport of that intolerable torture! Infernal! keeping my nerves at such a stretch that, if they had not resembled catgut, they would long ago have relaxed to the feebleness of Linton’s.

‘When I sat in the house with Hareton, it seemed that on going out I should meet her; when I walked on the moors I should meet her coming in. When I went from home I hastened to return; she must be somewhere at the Heights, I was certain! And when I slept in her chamber—I was beaten out of that. I couldn’t lie there; for the moment I closed my eyes, she was either outside the window, or sliding back the panels, or entering the room, or even resting her darling head on the same pillow as she did when a child; and I must open my lids to see. And so I opened and closed them a hundred times a night—to be always disappointed! It racked me! I’ve often groaned aloud, till that old rascal Joseph no doubt believed that my conscience was playing the fiend inside of me. 

‘Now, since I’ve seen her, I’m pacified—a little. It was a strange way of killing: not by inches, but by fractions of hairbreadths, to beguile me with the spectre of a hope through eighteen years!’

Specimen analysis

Before you begin writing, you should read the passage at least twice:

  • In the first reading, you should try to gain a sense of what is happening in the passage and recall its context in the novel
  • On the second reading, you should begin to underline or otherwise mark significant words and phrases and begin to jot down some of the headings under which you will organise your answer, always referring back to the question
  • By this time you should be ready to plan your answer
  • You may now wish to read the passage once more to make sure that you have not missed anything important.
  1. This passage occurs in Chapter 29. Edgar’s funeral has just taken place, and Nelly and Cathy are in the library of Thrushcross Grange when Heathcliff suddenly turns up. He wants to take Cathy back to Wuthering Heights as a companion for Linton. We have almost reached the point at which the novel begins with Lockwood’s arrival.

    Here the passage is set in context, explaining what leads up to this incident and what follows.
  2. Cathy’s speech at the start of this passage shows her strength and her lack of fear. After Heathcliff’s return, few characters stand up to him. She picks up on several key words here. Firstly, there is the idea that Linton has a ‘bad nature’ because he is Heathcliff’s son; the way in which characteristics are inherited is important in the novel. But, she continues, faults can be overcome by love and forgiveness. Much of the love shown so far has been flawed in some way (obsessive, or convenient, for example) and there has been little sense of forgiveness. Thus, Cathy is being prepared by Brontë for the ending of the novel when she will bring such qualities to provide a satisfactory ending.

    This is a good example to use to show Cathy’s strength of character. Also, some themes of the novel are referred to here, showing an understanding of Brontë’s purposes in the novel as a whole.
  3. Cathy’s assessment of Heathcliff brings no response. He, and the reader, know that it is true. Revenge has brought him neither happiness nor friendship. Interestingly, Cathy describes him as lonely ‘like the devil’; Heathcliff has often been described as devilish throughout the novel, but here it is not a sign of power or cruelty but of how isolated he has become.

    Though some critics have found the novel too focused on evil and violence, passages like this show the morality that underpins it. Heathcliff (like Macbeth?) finds that gaining power and bullying the weaker characters does not bring happiness or ultimate success. Here the analysis comments on both language and character.
  4. Heathcliff’s response is to threaten Cathy; he has nothing else to offer. There is an irony in him calling Cathy a ‘witch’.

    Heathcliff is the ‘devil’, the supernatural force, and his language becomes focused on such ideas, even though it is hardly accurate here.
  5. Nelly is only a servant and her pleas are dismissed. Here Brontë is explaining why her narrator will not be at Wuthering Heights to continue the story there.

    Awareness of the narrative approach is shown in this comment.

  6. Heathcliff’s account of his activities with Catherine’s coffin is one of the most obviously Gothic episodes in the novel. He does not see death as a barrier, and the physical boundary of the coffin top is removed to show this. Heathcliff wants to stay with Catherine; the fact that she is dead seems almost irrelevant to him. His request to the sexton over his own burial is later carried out ‘to the scandal of the whole neighbourhood’ (Chapter 34).

    As well as picking up the Gothic elements of the novel, this analysis refers to the important symbolic use of barriers in the novel.
  7. Nelly is as shocked at Heathcliff’s revelations as most Victorians would have been, but Heathcliff sees nothing wrong. He talks of Catherine haunting him for eighteen years which links to other comments he has made, including those to Lockwood in Chapter 3.

    Here the comment gives some social context and also links different parts of the novel, showing an understanding of the whole.
  8. Heathcliff’s account of his attempt to dig Catherine up on the evening of her burial is perhaps even more macabre. The reader’s reaction to this may be repulsion, but we also appreciate the strength of Heathcliff’s love for Catherine and perhaps sympathise with the torment he has been in for eighteen years. Such a mixture of feelings is typical of Gothic literature. The language here is also Gothic in nature: ‘wild… ghosts… bleak… grave… blood… torture… infernal, etc.’

    Emily Brontë’s use of language is analysed here, in connection with the development of character and further reference to Gothic features.
  9. Heathcliff’s claim to be aware of Catherine’s presence can be taken literally or be seen as his mind playing tricks. This ambiguity is deliberate and actually adds to the atmosphere. Mention of Catherine’s chamber again links to Lockwood’s experiences in Chapter 3 which gave rise to the story being told in the first place.

    Ambiguity is another Gothic characteristic. Again, an understanding of the novel as a whole is shown.
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