Language and Identity in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights : A study of environmental metaphors and characterization

Emily Brontë' s Wuthering Heights is a novel that depends heavily on descriptive writing in order to illustrate details of her character's inner thoughts and being. Language functions as a social and sexual mediator in this book, and performs many additional functions. Language is the tool that undoes Catherine Linton, language is what Hareton is lacking, and through Nelly, language is how we hear the tale of Wuthering Heights itself. Identity through writing is the goal of most writings, and in Wuthering Heights Brontë succeeds admirably. The majority of the metaphors that are employed in Wuthering Heights are environmental, pertaining to the surrounding countryside or its non-human inhabitants. This essay will discuss the language Brontë has used in order to give further meaning to her main characters, and will focus especially on metaphors taken from the natural world of Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff is probably the most deeply despised character in the book, by both readers and characters alike. From the very start of the novel, when Lockwood (the narrator at the moment) first encounters Heathcliff we find strong opinions about his character, both shown and hidden. Lockwood thinks he is reading Heathcliff properly when he says "His reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling - to manifestations of mutual kindliness" (p. 5). We as readers however, know that this is not necessarily true. Lockwood is an unreliable narrator who will tell the reader what he feels about someone in the same way that he would describe their appearance. Simply because he phrases it in a similar way to that of an omniscient narrator, Lockwood taints Heathcliff's first meeting with his audience. It is a mediating presence that Lockwood brings, for Brontë needs to make us partly sympathetic to this character in order to understand the profound change he goes through. By the time Catherine Earnshaw/Linton is dying, and Heathcliff is spending every possible moment outside her house, Nelly says ""His visits were a continual nightmare to me; and, I suspected, to my master also. His abode at the Heights was an oppression past explaining. I felt that God had forsaken the stray sheep there to its own wicked wanderings, and an evil beast prowled between it and the fold, waiting his time to spring and destroy."(p. 106). A wicked image to be sure, and not far off from the truth. Nelly is perceptive in sensing danger that may befall either her or her masters, and even though she is safe from the menace, she knows that someone will be hurt. We see then how Heathcliff undergoes an immense change in the eyes of the reader by the middle of the book. He has betrayed the feeble trust we had in him as a child, and is now a seemingly evil creature. Brontë skips Heathcliff's adolescence, and so the reader remembers him as a child, innocent and incapable of such trickery as he is now a part of. This rather sudden personality change serves to heighten our distaste for the miscreant, and allows Brontë to kill Catherine Earnshaw/Linton without an attendant loss in interest from the reader, for we must know how Heathcliff will react, be punished and so on. The debate in literary circles around Heathcliff seems to center on whether he is truly evil, a demon of some sort or possessed by Satan. He is however, modified by his relation to Catherine who both tempers and enrages him. However, his evil can be seen as a jealous tribute to Catherine rather than simply a spiteful nature. Catherine thinks that this is so, evidenced by her description of Heathcliff as compared to Edgar Linton "Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire."(p. 80). Catherine believes that her and Heathcliff's souls are made up of the same constituents, yet her future life belies this. She is destined for a life of womanly marriage and a sorrowful death, he to the life of a rough traveller at first and bitter tyranny at last. She is a gentler soul than he, and her affection for him stems from the time that she was able to roam free over the moors with him, when their relation was without, for the most part, sexual or social pressures. The fact that Catherine refers to Linton as being as a "moonbeam" and "frost" shows a fair amount about her regard for him. He is more distant and cool than Heathcliff, who is "lightning" and "fire". The cold/hot duality of these characters is interesting, giving further proof of the elemental nature of their identity. Linton as the sedate and genteel husband, Heathcliff as the stormy and fiery lover. Catherine at times does tire of Heathcliff, and desires more intellectual stimulation. Once, annoyed at Heathcliff, she describes the contrast between Linton and Heathcliff: "The contrast resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly, coal country for a beautiful fertile valley..."(p.69). Here, the environmental metaphor works again, contrasting craggy lifeless country with a pastoral valley full of life. Heathcliff is, for Catherine, devoid of the intellectualism she seeks.

Catherine Earnshaw/Linton is temperateness in comparison to Heathcliff's overwhelming anger and jealousy. She truly loves Heathcliff, but marries Edgar Linton after Heathcliff goes away. She talks of her love for them both with Nelly "My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff!"(p.82). Once again Edgar is likened to cold and winter, with images of autumnal trees shedding their leaves, mutable as all life is. Her love for him is changeable, and perhaps this is a more ideal love for a marriage than one that is "of little visible delight, but necessary". It would seem that Catherine's love for Heathcliff is more of a camaraderie, a childhood love that no amount of change can dissuade. It is "eternal" and evidently has supported her in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Indeed, she identifies so strongly with Heathcliff she make the pronouncement "I am Heathcliff". This is hyperbole, because obviously she is not him, but it is my contention that these sentiments are simply a part of her longing for her childhood with Heathcliff. In describing Catherine's relationship with the Lintons, Nelly says "It was not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn."(p.91). This is a beautiful example of Brontë's environmental metaphor, describing a tangled tortuous plant in relation to a beautiful, fragrant wildflower. Indeed, when Catherine first visits Thrushcross Grange for her "finishing lessons" in womanhood, she is quite "thorny" in her disposition. In contrast, the Linton children have been reared as well-behaved and altogether more benign individuals. The image of a wildflower entwining and "embracing" the wild "thorn" is one of the more powerful metaphors employed in giving Catherine her unique identity as a wild spirit and a woman who will undergo a metamorphosis in the coming pages.

In conclusion, the descriptive environmental metaphors that Brontë uses in order to establish identity in her varied characterizations serve to establish a strong connection between these characters and the wild natural setting of the novel. The images of well-known natural phenomena and plant life give the reader a reference point which makes identification of characteristics of the players more far-reaching and profound. We as readers would not have had the sense of familiarity with these persons had Brontë used images from a different setting such as a city or other landscape. The fact that the title itself identifies with a natural characteristic of the land (wuthering meaning blustery and wind-swept) gives the reader a well-defined point from which all of the other natural metaphors arise. In the end, the bluster of the Heights claims back those that it gave rise to, and Lockwood closes the novel, saying

" I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor- the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton's only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff's still bare. I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

The middle stone- Catherine's is almost wholly reclaimed by the heath, Edgar's "harmonizes" with the surroundings, and Heathcliff's is bare. Notwithstanding the order in which they were buried, Heathcliff is at the last the least attached to this place, having been imported from the city as a child. The two others, natives of the Heights, seem at peace, and one can hardly imagine "unquiet slumbers" for them; Heathcliff's grave is less convincing, and it could be imagined that he is still stalking the heath, mournfully crying Catherine's name, forever searching for his childhood love, and reminding the present day occupants of the horrors that took place at Wuthering Heights.



Book: Brontë, Emily Wuthering Heights

Penguin Books, London 1995


Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Check out Gangster Politics Montreal.