Defense of Heathcliff

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Defense of Heathcliff

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Mar 21, 2009, 4:00pm

So will somebody defend Heathcliff for me? You can all probably tell from my posts that I am not a fan. Try and convince me that he is better than Mr. Rochester. Make that the goal, and I might like him a little by the time you are done.

Mar 21, 2009, 5:55pm

Now i'm going to have to re-read these books to get the characters fresh in my mind. I can only remember that I felt Mr. Rochester was not my favorite person. Maybe after reading them again I might be able to convince you or maybe you will convince me.

Mar 28, 2009, 11:29pm

My goodness! I thought this would get some of the Emily fans going. So you all admire Emily for her craft but not her lovable characters? Or has everyone not read the book in such a long time that you can't give me examples? (I have JE on a two or three year rotation, myself.)

Mar 30, 2009, 10:23pm

Heathcliff is such a puzzling figure, and I still do not know exactly what to make of him. I always tended to sympathize with him, but not all of his actions, as he was the product of abuse. The only love he ever felt was for Cathy, and she betrayed him by marrying Linton.
Hareton was also a product of abuse, who did not receive any love until later in his life, yet he was innately kind hearted.
So now I'm confused again and I forgot the question I was answering!

Mayo 6, 2009, 3:51pm

I recently read Wuthering Heights after being familiar with the story by having seen a film (not sure if I've read the book when I was younger). It was strange: in my mind I had this dramatic love story with both people dying - but when I saw the film and then read the book I was appalled.

Some sympathy I felt for Heathcliff in the beginning of the book, being an orphan and rejected by all but Cathy and her father. But that soon faded and I just can't understand anymore why anyone likes the couple (I also don't like Cathy) and where I got that idea about the famous love story. In the book there is too much evil for me - and it spreads to other characters as well. This need for vengeance and ruining other people's lives, even after death, I just can't understand that... I always like to look on love as a more positive force...

Mayo 6, 2009, 4:11pm

I could defend Heathcliff to some extent, but he isn't better than Mr. Rochester.

I don't think we're supposed to feel sympathy for either Heathcliff or Cathy. They are pathologically selfish. Cathy has self-awareness about it, however, and Heathcliff doesn't. She knew if she married him they'd eat each other alive.

I don't have sympathy for Linton, either. Come to think of it, I really don't sympathize with anyone in Wuthering Heights. The story's too big for that.

Mayo 6, 2009, 7:14pm

I felt for Heathcliff too, at first. In that scene where he and Cathy's brother fight, I thought "Oh poor, Heathcliff!" I also felt a little bad when he overheard Cathy enumerate her reasons why she couldn't marry him. That quickly faded. He is a violent dog, and I hate him.

I remember my mother telling me, "If you love Jane Eyre, then you will adore Wuthering Heights!"

Uhh, no!

I guess my feeling about the two novels are encapsulated in a quote from Mr. Rochester, "Have no fear, Richard, I would soon strike a woman as you."

Jun 24, 2009, 4:07pm

I'm not here to convince anyone that one is better than the other. They are both different characters from different times. My defense here is of Heathcliff. It is unmistakable that Heathcliff suffered from, at the very least, a personality disorder due to his early childhood abuse. You can say that he is unredeemable because Hareton is also abused and look how he turns out, but there are differences, even the smallest of which can cause the biggest difference. Hareton had the love of Nelly Dean during his first years, which was crucial. What do we know of Heathcliff? Perhaps he had love. Perhaps he did not. From his behavior, it would seem that if he did have love, it was very little. Indeed, his inability to feel much for anyone aside from Catherine shows us that he probably had some sort of attachment disorder or that he was able to dissociate himself from feelings of love to protect himself. His early years before Wuthering Heights may have given him one example of love, perhaps in a sister or young girl like Catherine. The simple fact is that we do not know.

When I read the book, I get so angry for Heathcliff. Who can help turning out as he did when emotionally and physically abused as he is? Being compared to a devil, cruel words so often flung at you, and then having the one person that loved you, the one person you thought would always be there, turn away and pronounce you not good enough is enough to embitter many a person.

The key for the development of personality is in the early years, and as Heathcliff's are a mystery, we really cannot in good faith compare him to Hareton, especially as Heathcliff, though abusing Hareton, also had an affinity for him, which no doubt made him less severe in his "emotional" abuse to Hareton. A child can sense love, anger, animosity, even hidden, and Heathcliff did show kindness to the boy. Heathcliff had enemies at all angles, simply because of where he came from and because he was not a legitimate son (whether he was a natural son can never truly be known, though Mr. Earnshaw does not contradict his wife.).

Whether or not he is a sociapath is unclear. He has many of the traits, but many of his traits are the complete opposite. The biggest contradiction is in his love for Catherine. Many people think it is just an obsession, but looking back over their entire relationship, I believe they truly did love one another, but they were both immature and damaged. They spent all the time they could with each other in those early years, and as Nelly points out, all they needed was each other. They found comfort only in each other.

Also, his feelings for Nelly and Hareton are not truly sociopathic. These are two characters, besides the father and Catherine, who showed any bit of love to him, and his anger, though many times directed at them, cannot endure completely against them.

Catherine and Heathcliff maintain that they share one soul. "I am Heathcliff," Catherine tells Nelly. While these two are together, they are content, functioning, human. While apart, they each suffer, starting from Catherine's introduction to "society" with the Linton's. One half of the soul cannot function without the other properly, and as long as the two halves remain seperate, they will wither and die. Catherine dies, unable in her incompleteness to handle what she's done or what results. Heathcliff's soul withers inside him. His death takes longer physically, because his goal, his revenge, keeps him going.

With the return of her ghost, it is as though the missing part of his soul is returning. Happiness returns to him, his need of revenge cools. He knows he has no place in this life or on this earth. His only place is with her. He is able to die because he wills it. Perhaps these were two souls always connected into one and without each other, they were broken people, each of them truly half of a person. No ordinary person could possibly have understood and the social norms of the day were unforgiving on them.

It is easier, for some reason, for me to forgive Heathcliff than for me to forgive those around him. Heathcliff is always seen as irredeemable, tainted, a devil. But no one thinks of those around him other than Cathy. Cathy could be understood only by Heathcliff. She never fit into society as much as she tried. She simply did not belong there, and Edgar was selfish to believe he had a right to marry her. Cathy's mother treated Heathcliff as though he was something wrong from the start. How does any child turn out when a mother figure treats one like that? And Hindley showed cruelty to Heathcliff that Heathcliff did now show to Hareton, because Hindley truly hated Heathcliff. Even Hindley treated Hareton worse than Heathcliff treated him.

From the very beginning, the world, save for the father and Cathy, was against Heathcliff. They gave him no chance. Even Nelly, though she put forth some effort, really did not show him love. The things she says to him, the ways she thinks of him, are truly horrible. His relationship with Catherine alone should have been enough for Nelly to see redeeming qualities in him, to see something else in him other than a monster, but she doesn't seem to be able to remark on these or try to talk to Heathcliff about these. Instead, she tries to reason to him in ways he cannot understand or relate to. To the house, to the neighborhood, he was a thing.

In my eyes, Heathcliff never had a chance. His situation was different in many ways from Hareton's. No one is ever blown by the same wind, though that is his goal with Hareton. I think he was looking for justification more than revenge. Perhaps he was the first to realize that no two people can ever turn out the same. Every situation is influenced by even the smallest differences. Heathcliff's had a lot more poison in the beginning and a deeper love and betrayal.

Jun 28, 2009, 4:18pm

Thank you!

Jun 28, 2009, 4:22pm

>8 reserak: reserak, that is a superb essay. Well done! I enjoyed reading it.

~ TT

Jul 14, 2009, 2:31am

Thanks. I quite enjoyed writing it.

Jul 14, 2009, 2:37am

That is a very rough essay. I'd like to expound on it at a later date, clarify, clean up, and deconstruct a bit more.

Jul 14, 2009, 11:46am

I often wonder what exactly Emily thought of Heathcliff.

Jul 17, 2009, 3:08pm

That would be nice to know. I wonder if she knew someone like him, someone that everyone thought was irredeemable but who she saw redeeming qualities in even though many of his actions are inexcusable.

Ago 22, 2009, 11:54am

That's a wonderful essay reserak, I really enjoyed reading it too.

I've always had sympathy for Heathcliff and Cathy because I felt the world was against them. Heathcliff for the reasons you say reserak, and Cathy for trying to live up to her station in life, marrying Linton because that is what is expected of her and the proper thing to do. And the love between Cathy and Heathcliff was so tortuous, because of class distinctions and their own passionate personalities that seemed in part, out of their control. I guess I'm just a romantic at heart.

Sep 20, 2009, 8:24pm

I'm not sure my empathy for either Catherine or Heathcliff means that I "like" them in a conventional sense. I think they are marvelous characters, unsullied by any authorial desire to render them palatable. But I do agree with much of reserak's detailed analysis - and feel especially strongly about the book's unflinching portrayal of what can happen to two people whose affections are outlawed by their community. Is Heathcliff innately vile and evil? Does Catherine have much of a choice when it comes to marrying Linton? - in listing off all of the reasons she can't marry Heathcliff, she merely recognizes and parrots the views of the people she lives amidst.

If anything, Wuthering Heights insists on depicting the complex social forces that produce these characters - the natural affection or hatred, the impact of abuse or gentile life, the consequences of unions and renunciations... Sometimes it seems as if Jane Eyre can remain morally undeformed by all that she witnesses and endures, which is why I often have a hard time believing in her, though I nevertheless admire her. It has been a while since I re-read JE, so perhaps my memory is not quite right on that point...

Ago 13, 2010, 3:07pm

That is a very interesting remark, cocoafiend, I sometimes wondered too how it's possible that Jane Eyre got such strong moral guidelines within her when she doesn't really have anyone to have learned them from - her uncle dies when she is still really young. Are we to conclude that it's innate in her case? Or is it religion that teaches her?

It would also be interesting to compare her with Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, who also has a moral compass that never fails. I'd love to hear opinions on this matter!

Ago 13, 2010, 3:42pm

So, I've been on the Twilight kick and found Edward Cullen's defense of Heathcliff quite interesting. Those of you who have read it may recall that the heroine Bella is constantly reading Wuthering Heights. This was either in the 2nd or 3rd of the series. Bella found that her love Edward had marked the passage where Heathcliff is raging against his rival for Cathy and to summarize-- he wanted to kill him and drink his blood but wouldn't touch him for love of her. It's a tough sell when Heathcliff has the sympathy of a vampire.

Ago 13, 2010, 3:44pm

Perhaps they learned just from watching others and deemed that behaviour immoral. In Jane Eyre's case, Mr. Brocklehurst and some of the teachers at Lowood school as well as her aunt and cousins would have been enough of a bad example for Jane to realize she didn't like nor want to be treated that way, so she would not treat people that way. She also was heavily influenced by the gentle kindness of her friend Helen Burns and her teacher Miss Temple.

So I can think of influences for Jane Eyre pretty readily, but it really escapes me what or who influenced Fanny Price. I can see it being more innate on her part. But it's been longer since I read Mansfield Park. Who were the influences in young Fanny's life? Perhaps she learned by bad example too?

Ago 13, 2010, 4:13pm

I think Jane was also influenced by her religious training, no doubt about it. On a recent reread I was struck by the way that Bronte differentiates between the disgusting religious hypocrisy of Brocklehurst and what she believes is true religion. In the foreword Bronte writes that conventionality is not morality and it is possible to rip the mask from the Pharisee without lifting an impious hand to the crown of thorns.

I'm really not sympathetic toward Heathcliff. Yes, he was abused. But he still had choices. He was a victim, but he wasn't just a victim.

Mar 14, 2013, 9:45pm

I just found this group in LibraryThing and joined because I really enjoy the Bronte sisters. This is a particularly interesting thread; thanks all. I find Cathy and Heathcliff much more sympathetic in films, probably because the screenwriters are trying to make them sympathetic. I have a very hard time liking Cathy in the book, as she seems histrionic and verbally cruel to Heathcliff. I don't think Heathcliff had any choice but to love her, though. He had no one else and she was loving to him before Linton appeared. Circumstances of caste and scant opportunities set him up and his temperment didn't help. Well, color me surprised -- I sympathize with Heathcliff (didn't know that till now)!

Mar 15, 2013, 8:12am

#13 I wonder the same about Charlotte and Rochester. To my mind, Rochester and Heathcliffe are two of the most unlikeable characters in the whole of English fiction and I would love to be sure whether their authors saw them that way or had some lingering affection for them. I suppose Rochester can be at least partially excused by the expectations for men in the times in which he lived - that and the fact that he appears (as far as we know) to have had at least a nodding acquaintance with personal hygeine, unlike Heathcliffe - but I can't imagine any woman these days finding either character the slightest bit attractive, either in real life or between the pages of a novel; at least, I'd be rather worried for any woman who did.

Not that that stops Jane from being a great book (I have reservations about Wuthering Heights). I guess, to me, it comes down to the difference between sympathy and excusal - while I can sympathise a lot with Heathcliffe as a child, I believe that no matter what problems there may have been in our upbringing, there comes a time when we all have to take responsibility for our own lives and actions and stop blaming the past - to a certain extent I suppose Rochester does this but Heathcliffe just carries on sulking right through to the final page and I lived for far too long with a serial sulker to ever be able to find that appealing.

Mar 21, 2013, 11:21pm

It's been a long time since I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights but I recall finding both Rochester and Heathcliff to be sympathetic characters - creatures of their circumstances, really. Not victims, though. I never saw them as victims. But, surely, it is not just victims who evoke our sympathies? And, yes, of course, both were, eventually, grown men who made some poor choices. I always think that how an author reveals his/her character's behaviors/choices/decisions is more interesting than the actual behaviors/choices/decisions themselves. In other words, do they seem plausible (and not simply predictable), given the lead-up and the subsequent fall-out? And, for me, both characters passed this test very well. But, oh, of course, now, I will have to go pull out these books and give them a once-over at least to remind myself what I loved most about both stories.

Mar 25, 2013, 9:08pm

I just found this group and am joining in late. Hope someone is still awake at the party.

#22 - To my mind, Rochester and Heathcliffe are two of the most unlikeable characters in the whole of English fiction and I would love to be sure whether their authors saw them that way or had some lingering affection for them. I suppose Rochester can be at least partially excused by the expectations for men in the times in which he lived - that and the fact that he appears (as far as we know) to have had at least a nodding acquaintance with personal hygeine, unlike Heathcliffe - but I can't imagine any woman these days finding either character the slightest bit attractive, either in real life or between the pages of a novel; at least, I'd be rather worried for any woman who did.

Booksloth - I agree on your opinion of Heathcliff and Rochester as two of the most unlikeable characters in fiction (male, anyway), although I find Heathcliff fascinating, I just plain despise Rochester. Yes, Heathcliff is a very bad person, but he's interesting. I find him much more interesting than Catherine, who I just want to slap.

I have to disagree with you however on Rochester vs Heathcliff hygiene. Yesterday I read an essay by the esteemed Victorian lit critic and professor John Sutherland where he talked about Heathcliff's superior oral hygiene when he returned after his 3 year absence. Do we know that Rochester had better hygiene? He was off having sex with hookers in Paris after all.

But yes, I worry for these women who find these characters heroic or attractive. Sutherland has another essay titles "Can Jane Eyre Be Happy" where he outlines Rochester's actual crimes and concludes that 10 years after the end of Jane Eyre, Rochester would have murdered Jane and married the next cute thing who worshiped him. It's in a book by the same name, and worth looking up.

Mayo 13, 2013, 6:51pm

24 I have not read "Can Jane Eyre Be Happy." I would have had to get it through inter-library loan and I did not want to go to that trouble. However, Rochester would never murder Jane. He recoils from murder when telling Jane about why he could not keep Bertha at Ferndean he says, "Probably those damp walls would soon have eased me of her charge: but to each villain his own vice; and mine is not a tendency to indirect assassination, even of what I most hate." (chapt. 27) If there is one character he would want to murder it is Bertha. Not only does he not murder her, but he even tries to save her from the fire. This action on his part was not necessary. If he can allow Bertha to go on living, he can certainly put up with Jane. If somehow those two stopped loving each other, he wouldn't kill her out of deference to the past.

Mr. Rochester is a liar. But he is a man of duty. Maybe he wasn't faithful to Bertha, but he took care of her even when it was against his own interests to do so. This is not someone who kills to remove a burden or for any other reason.

Also Mr. Rochester and Jane will stay faithful. Mr. Rochester was unfaithful when he got involved with the "next cute thing" but Jane and Rochester's relationship has a base in the mind. This is much more substantial than a pretty face. Mr. Rochester has already learned that he tires of "cute things" fairly quickly.

Jun 1, 2013, 12:07pm

I agree with you, Elizabeth. I think that is a fundamental difference between Rochester and Heathcliff. Yes they are both shaped by circumstances, but Rochester at least tries to do the right thing (for example in keeping Bertha alive when he could have easily let her die) where I don’t feel Heathcliff shows any such tendency.

While I sympathize with Heathcliff when he is a child, he is inexcusable as an adult – as Booksloth says, at one point we have to take responsibility for our lives. Heathcliff just keeps stuck in the past, and worse, he carries it over to the present and the future in his dealings with Cathy’s daughter. When I read that part of the book (finally, after having seen a film adaptation and heard so much about the appeal of Heathcliff), I simply cannot understand anymore that anyone (who has read the book) would find Heathcliff appealing. He is just plain evil by that time and any sympathy I felt for him was long worn away.

Editado: Mar 4, 2014, 5:44pm

I feel Healthcliff is a true sociopath. Sociopaths are not necessarily evil to everyone around them, one will not know the true manipulative nature of a skilled sociopath until it's too late. They thrive off successfully tricking others into believing they are good people. They want people to think they are the ultimate friend/lover/confidant, etc. Once someone sees them for who they really are, however, they have no use for that person anymore. This is why he valued Katherine so much. He could do one absurd and cruel thing after another and still she clung to him and had hope for him. Many confuse the good they do as glimpses of hope, a sign that this person is not all bad, that this person can change but everything sociopaths do, good or bad, is done to satisfy themselves in the end. They appear to be very passionate, complex people. In reality they are just people who have taken their manipulative and deceptive qualities to such a level that an ordinary person would not go because they do not have a moral compass to hold them back. They keep those around them in total confusion as a smoke screen. I was married to one for 15 years. This book shook me to my core when I read it I saw so many similarities. I do not feel that sociopaths are born this way. I think it develops over time, and Heathcliff's circumstances definitely contributed to his moral demise. Emily Bronte is a complete genius with human character.

Mar 4, 2014, 5:49pm

Ack! I was married to one for 9 years. He kept me constantly baffled. It took me years to realize the good guy I thought I married never really existed. I need to do a reread of Wuthering Heights.

Mar 5, 2014, 10:28am

Yes varielle, you definitely need to reread it! :) Right now I am watching the PBS movie made in 2009 on youtube, it's pretty good. That was what led me to this forum. It's just amazing she had so much insight to these types of people at such a young age.

Mar 5, 2014, 12:33pm

There was a recent 'Intelligence Squared' debate on Jane Austen vs Emily Bronte that was fun to listen to. They've just added the video online, which is worth a watch because they had actors reading scenes that sounded terrific.

The debate makes a strong case for both authors, but, particularly, Wuthering Heights and its characters. And, while it's not a new debate, the arguments put forward were more in light to present times, so fresher and more interesting.