The most basic theme of Wuthering Heights is that one must be true to oneself or suffer dire consequences. In marrying Edgar Linton, Catherine (Cathy) Earnshaw denies her true desires and consequently violates her love of the untamed, disinherited, uneducated Heathcliff; she later dies of a broken spirit. Furthermore, she seems to damage the lives of all the other Characters in the novel. But although Cathy dies midway through the narrative, she remains a mighty presence throughout, not only reproaching those who would belie their true natures, but also driving Heathcliff’s ambitions. Viewed from a broader perspective, Cathy’s dilemma and its resolution (she chooses to wed the financially secure, well-bred Edgar, thereby motivating the bitter Heathcliff to seek higher social status) suggest a complex theme. Cathy’s martyrdom to the dual, contradictory cause of social stability and social progress epitomizes the plight of middle-class women in Western culture. In the nineteenth century, middle-class women were held responsible for both the achievements of the men close to them and the well-being of their children, yet were denied the power to make decisions in response to the rapidly changing social conditions that influenced their ability to fulfill these duties.
As important as Cathy’s role is, many critics view Wuthering Heights as Heathcliff’s story. Outliving Cathy by another generation, Heathcliff overwhelms all other Characters, sometimes physically but more often by force of his indomitable personality. From the moment he arrives at Wuthering Heights, a foreign-looking, dirty little orphan whom Mr. Earnshaw brings home from the city, he throws the family into contention. But Cathy and Heathcliff soon become loyal companions and champions of one another, and the two indulge in their love of the wild landscape by spending as much time as possible alone together on the moors. Their relationship becomes so strong and reciprocal that, at a major turning point in the novel, Cathy declares, “I am Heathcliff.” Nonetheless, she chooses Edgar for her husband.
Heathcliff’s mysterious origins and exaggerated passions suggest that he, like Cathy, is meant to play a role larger than that of the jilted, disenfranchised lover. The hold that Heathcliff eventually gains over the inhabitants of both the Heights and Thrushcross Grange marks him as the representative of a new social class. As such, his character, too, suggests the theme of society in transition demanding the sacrifice of individuality.
Most of the other Characters play minor roles. Lockwood is the somewhat spoiled city boy who opens the narrative. Having come to the country for seclusion, his naive perceptions of his hosts provide some of the scarce comic relief in the novel. Ellen (Nelly) Dean-whom Bronte probably modeled after Tabitha Ackroyd-is the housekeeper and nurse at the Heights and later at the Grange. Nelly narrates most of the story, recalling events from memory. Her mixed emotions about Cathy and Heathcliff, whom she has known since they were children, highlight the contradictions inherent in the novel.
Hindley Earnshaw, Cathy’s brother, serves primarily to motivate Heathcliff’s lifelong desire for revenge. Hindley’s spoiled and drunken character may have been influenced by Bronte’s own brother, Branwell. Edgar Linton, heir of Thrushcross Grange, becomes Cathy’s husband and the father of their daughter Catherine. Edgar develops from a shallow boy to a kind, loving husband and father, but his passion for Cathy cannot match Heathcliff’s. Isabella Linton, Edgar’s sister and later Heathcliff’s wife, is little more than a stereotypical, foolish adolescent whose unrealistic notions of romantic love lead her into a disastrous relationship with Heathcliff.
The three Characters whose lives become enmeshed in the second half of the novel are Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley’s son), Catherine Linton (Cathy and Edgar’s daughter), and Linton Heathcliff (Heathcliff and Isabella’s son). With Heathcliff as diabolical director, these younger Characters act out a weakened, distorted version of the triangle presented in the first half of the novel. Both through her portrayals of these Characters and through her less passionate writing style in the novel’s second half, Bronte expresses one of the novel’s Themes: social stability cannot tolerate extreme passion, yet without such passion, the world is a much less exciting place.