Heathcliff’s Search for a Genuine and Permanent Identity As Seen in Wuthering Heights

By: Menucha Lowenstein 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, presents Heathcliff, a man in need of an identity in a novel that offers him many choices to choose from, specifically in the categories of society and family. Coming from a place of destitution and in need of a new identity, it would seem that the manor of Wuthering Heights offers the perfect opportunity for Heathcliff to create an identity of his own. Perhaps by borrowing from the models that he is exposed to in both social and familial arenas, Heathcliff will acquire a much needed new identity. Ultimately however, none of these roles, regardless of which category they belong in, proved to be stable identities for him.

Brontë takes great care in identifying Heathcliff via Nelly’s ­ a housekeeper and one of the novel’s narrator’s ­ description of the scraggly boy that arrives at the doorstep of Wuthering Heights. She writes: “a dirty ragged, black­haired child;…I was frightened, and Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors: she did fly up ­ asking how he [Mr. Earnshaw] could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house… (Brontë, 51). Heathcliff arrives to the Earnshaws with little known about his background or his identity; he is only referred to as a “gipsy” (ibid). As the novel continues however, Heathcliff’s name “gipsy” is changed to ‘servant’ (64). The

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progression from being called a ‘gipsy’ to a ‘servant’ shows an interesting perspective into the initial identity of Heathcliff (even before he was given the name“Heathcliff”).

Gipsies are known for their nomadic and mystical ways; serving no one, they beg and steal to survive. In contrast, servants dutifully serve their masters, taking care of what they are told to do. Calling Heathcliff a ‘gipsy’ and subsequently a ‘servant’ places him in a paradox as both have two very different identities. Though some may consider these labels of ‘gipsy’ an ‘servant’ to be an identity, they are not permanent in that they can be changed at a moment’s whim as seen in with the transition of ‘gipsy’ to ‘servant’. Additionally, these so­called identities are also not genuine because in their very nature these two groups do not not have jurisdiction over their lives; the gipsies live where they can survive and the servants live where they can work. Arriving at Wuthering Heights with no permanent nor genuine identity, Heathcliff hopes that his new setting will allow him to create his own.

One familial identity that Heathcliff makes an effort to be was the role of a husband. Though he tries to take care of his wife Isabella, he ultimately frightens and neglects her. Isabella writes to Nelly about her new husband asking,“Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? and if not, is he a devil?…I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have I married ­ that is, when you call to see me; and you must call, Ellen, very soon” (131). Isabella is panicky of the man ­ or as she calls him, the “devil” ­ that she married (ibid.). She beseeches Nelly (“Helen”) to explain who this frightening man is (ibid.) She begs Nelly to visit and console and help her, hoping the housekeeper who looked after her husband as a child would have some kind words of wisdom and consolation for his bewildered wife. When Nelly enters Wuthering Heights, she approaches

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Heathcliff to explain to him that as Isabella’s husband, he has a responsibility to look after her. Nelly explains to Heathcliff as follows:

“I hope you’ll consider that Mrs. Heathcliff is accustomed to be looked after, and waited on;…you must treat her kindly….you cannot doubt she has a capacity for strong attachments, or she wouldn’t have abandoned the elegance, and comfort, and friends of her former home, to fix contentedly, in such a wilderness as this, with you.” (142)

This quote shows Nelly’s pure desire to teach Heathcliff what he must do in order to show Isabella that he loves her; she must be tended to and and treated kindly. Nelly begs Heathcliff to recognize Isabella’s love and devotion to him as she left her pampered and comfortable life to live with his messy unstable one. Despite her urgency and generosity, Heathcliff chooses not to listen to Nelly and instead continues to pay little attention to Isabella. This amongst other obnoxious behaviour forces Isabella to run away. This is a prime example of Heathcliff’s inability to fully take on a new identity, in this case the role of a husband. Heathcliff does not let himself internalize the role of a husband despite the fact that he has the means and opportunity to do so.

In addition to family roles, Heathcliff pursues roles in other domains such as social identities. In one instance, Heathcliff is committed to make his son Linton the sole inheritor of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff intends to orchestrate real estate heist via Linton’s marriage to Catherine (Linton). He tells Nelly: “My design is as honest as possible… the two cousins may fall in love, and get married…she’ll [Catherine Linton] be provided for at once, as joint success with Linton” (192). According to Heathcliff, if Catherine

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Linton marries his son, she will be financially provided for as Linton will inherit all of his father’s acquired wealth. At first glance, it seems as if this statement satisfies Heathcliff’s desire for an identity of a landed gentry; he now possesses both the fortune and an heir to pass it on to. This sentiment is proven false however when the just several scenes later, he tells Nelly that his son “has nothing valuable…yet I shall have the merit of making it go as far as such poor stuff can go. His had firstrate qualities, and they are lost ­ rendered worse than unavailing…” (195). Heathcliff tells Nelly that his son “has nothing valuable” to offer to him even though Linton’s very existence serves as proof that Heathcliff is a member of the landed gentry as he now has an heir to inherit his wealth. This idea is not enough for Heathcliff however, and so instead he says the one thing that he does “merit” is guiding the “poor stuff” as far as “it” (Linton) can go (ibid). Referring to one’s son as “poor stuff” and “it” is not merely poor taste but it says something about how Heathcliff viewed his identity as a landowner (ibid.).

One’s name in this book’s historical setting was more than just a title, it was a legacy to pass on to the next generation along with the wealth from the previous one. Heathcliff, although having secured property and stature, does not complete the act of passing on one’s name in the literal sense. Though it was his goal is to ensure his name and fortune lives on through his only son, given the opportunity to do so, Heathcliff chooses not to call his son the name that he spent a lifetime building and instead calls him “Linton”. This is yet another example of Heathcliff not fully committing to an identity, this one being that of a member of the landed gentry.

Though he tries via different familial and social roles, by the novel’s end, Heathcliff is left with nothing but his name ­ ‘Heathcliff Heathcliff’ ­ with no familial or social title attached to it. Heathcliff’s lack of identity is not because he did not explore other options beyond the ones

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he came to Wuthering Heights with, but it is because he never internalized the various identities with which he experimented, rather he merely let them fall apart; he does not act as a caring husband to his wife Isabella nor does not try to stop her when she runs away; he does not care to act as a member of the landed gentry by calling Linton by his surname, Heathcliff.

In addition to being unable to fully encompass these familial and societal roles, Heathcliff also does not maintain the status of the deceased once he has died. At the novel’s end, a boy turns to Mr. Lockwood ­ the novel’s second narrator ­ and mentions that he saw a man walking with a woman in the moors just days after Heathcliff’s funeral. The boy tells Mr. Lockwood, “They’s Heathcliff, and a woman, yonder…” (287). This ghost form of Heathcliff demonstrates that not only is Heathcliff incapable of maintaining any identities in a living state but that he also cannot do so in a dead state. It is from this thought that it can be said that Heathcliff’s identity is one that is an anti­identity. Though he may strive to find an identity that he relates to, Heathcliff will never succeed in doing so, regardless if he tries a familial or social role. Being provided with opportunities multiple times and not fully taking advantage of them indicates that Heathcliff was meant to live without an identity and in a mystifying way, that is his one true permanent and genuine identity.

Works Cited
Brontë, Emily, and Linda H. Peterson. Wuthering Heights: Complete, Authoritative Text

with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.


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