Emily's single great novel is a work of passion, fury and despair

The structure of Wuthering Heights is complex: the narrator is Lockwood, Heathcliff's shadowy tenant at Thrushcross Grange. He learns the history of the Earnshaws and the Lintons from Ellen (Nelly) Dean, who has been a servant at both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, and whose account fills most of the book. Within that story, the characters come to life and speak with their own individual voices.

Ellen's account begins with the father of Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw returning home with an orphan child, whom he names Heathcliff and who becomes his favourite. Heathcliff and Catherine develop a passionate love, while mutual hatred grows between Heathcliff and Hindley. After Mr Earnshaw's death, Hindley humiliates Heathcliff, who endures everything on account of his love, until he overhears Catherine tell Ellen that it would degrade her to marry him. Catherine has met Edgar and Isabella, the children of the Linton family at Thrushcross Grange, and Edgar has proposed to her. She accepts, and Heathcliff vanishes.

Three years later, Heathcliff returns as abruptly as he left. The petulant adolescent has changed into a master schemer whose twin passions, love and desire for revenge, are thinly masked by wealth and an air of gentility. He lodges with Hindley, who is now widowed with a young son, Hareton. He encourages Hindley's drunkenness and gambling, and wins from him the deeds to Wuthering Heights. He renews his association with Catherine, to the dismay of her effete husband Edgar, but then elopes with Isabella, whom he maltreats. Catherine becomes pregnant, and a sudden irruption by Heathcliff induces her labour: she dies giving birth to Cathy. Isabella escapes to London, where she has a son, giving him her maiden name of Linton.

Step by step, Heathcliff takes control of the younger generation. After Hindley's death, he brutalises Hareton in revenge for his own treatment. Isabella, too, dies, and he seizes their son, Linton, whom Edgar had sought to care for. Finally, he decoys Cathy to Wuthering Heights where he forces her to marry Linton. In this way, he gains control of both houses, and obliterates both family names. Edgar and Linton die in turn. Cathy develops an affection for Hareton, and the possibility emerges of eventual happiness and redemption. The fulfilment of Heathcliff's plan should have been the destruction of them both, but his vindictiveness has worn him out, and his only desire is to be reunited with Catherine beyond the grave. He wastes away, and the novel ends with village gossip of their ghosts being seen together on the moors.

Two crucial features of the book are its Gothic qualities, and the lack of moral comment from its author. The presence of ghosts and visions, the prevalence of storms and darkness (echoing the characters' turbulent emotions) and - at the core - Heathcliff's diabolical nature, combine with the melodramatic plot to create a violent nightmare into which the reader is sucked. The wild, stormy landscape, and Wuthering Heights itself, with its air of faded grandeur and atmosphere of spiritual gloom owe much to the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century. What is exceptional for the period is the absence of explicit condemnation by Emily of Heathcliff's conduct, or any suggestion that evil might bring its own punishment. The novel is morally ambiguous, the author leaving us to draw our own conclusions. This led to criticism by many early readers, but is an important aspect of its contemporary appeal.

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