The antihero of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff's story begins when Mr. Earnshaw returns from a trip to Liverpool and introduces the homeless boy he found on the street to his children, Hindley and Cathy. Mr. Earnshaw names the boy Heathcliff after a son who died, and he favors the orphan over his own son, Hindley, who comes to loathe Heathcliff, while Heathcliff and Cathy become inseparable. When old Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley, now master of Wuthering Heights, forces Heathcliff to become a servant, enduring humiliation, physical violence, and degradation. Heathcliff and Cathy are in love, but when Cathy chooses to marry Edgar Linton, a wealthy neighbor, Heathcliff runs away, only to return three years later as a handsome, wealthy gentleman. However, while he appears more gentrified on the surface, Heathcliff is secretly plotting revenge on the Earnshaw and Linton families. When Cathy dies in childbirth, all that Heathcliff seems to have left is his thirst for revenge, an obsession that shapes his character throughout much of the rest of the novel. Treated cruelly by Hindley then devastated by Cathy's death, Heathcliff becomes a master of cruelty himself, treating others as pawns in his game of vengeance and creating pain and terror wherever he goes. When Heathcliff recognizes the growing love between Hareton and Catherine, his resolution to exact his revenge finally falters. Hopelessly haunted by his love for Cathy, he gives up his final plan for revenge and embraces death in order to reunite with her.
Heathcliff's best childhood friend and true love, Cathy is also often peevish and selfish. She goes mad from events that result from her decision to go against her heart and soul and choose Edgar Linton over Heathcliff. She dies very young while giving birth to her only daughter, Catherine, and her memory and ghost haunt Heathcliff for the rest of his life, as he seeks revenge for all the wrongs inflicted upon him in their childhood.
Catherine is a kind, sweet, even-tempered child and young woman, unlike her mother, Cathy. She lives a sheltered childhood with her father, Edgar, at Thrushcross Grange. However, when she meets her cousin Hareton, she despises him for being an uneducated servant. She falls in love instead with her sickly, bookish cousin, Linton, who betrays her when his father, Heathcliff, threatens him. Linton and Catherine marry, and Catherine is forced to care for him as Linton dies soon after. With her inheritance stolen from her by Heathcliff, Catherine remains at Wuthering Heights until intense loneliness causes her to seek her cousin Hareton's companionship. While teaching him to read and write, the two cousins fall in love. Upon Heathcliff's death, rightful ownership of Wuthering Heights and Thruschcross Grange are restored to Hareton and Catherine.
Mrs. Dean is the main narrator of Wuthering Heights as she tells the long, involved history of Heathcliff to Mr. Lockwood. Mrs. Dean grows up with Cathy, Hindley, and Heathcliff, as a foster-sister and servant. Her foster-sister status dissolves and changes solely to the role of servant, but she remains a caring, important, confidant to Cathy throughout her marriage to Edgar, and she helps raise Hareton and, later, Catherine from birth. More than just a servant, she plays the role of mother, protector, judge, and conscience to all the major characters in the novel.
Edgar is a snobbish boy who grows up to be a kind-spirited gentleman as an adult and, later, master of Thrushcross Grange. He marries Cathy and remains devoted to her. However, due to a physical fight with Heathcliff after a fit of jealousy, he aids in Cathy's demise. Fearful of Heathcliff after Cathy's death, Edgar seeks to protect his daughter, Catherine, from their cruel neighbor's attempts to exact revenge and take ownership of Thrushcross Grange. Edgar fails to do so, and he dies unable to prevent Heathcliff from carrying out his plan for revenge.
Hareton's mother dies at birth, and his father is eaten alive by grief. As a result, Hareton falls into Heathcliff's clutches and is unknowingly turned against his father and all the trappings of upper class society. He lives a simple life, completely unaware he is brutish and should have been raised as a gentleman. Meeting Catherine arouses a desire to be such a man, but her mockery of his attempts at self-improvement drive him further away from the norms of society and educational pursuits. He gives up and acts as if he despises Catherine. When fate, or Heathcliff's revenge, forces him and Catherine to live at Wuthering Heights together, Hareton gives in when she asks to reconcile with him. The girl he has always loved and admired teaches him to read and write, and they fall in love. When Heathcliff dies, Wuthering Heights is restored to Hareton, its rightful owner.
Hindley is the true villain of Wuthering Heights. His jealousy and malice drive him to physical violence and degradation of Heathcliff, which spawns Heathcliff and Cathy's thwarted love and spurs Heathcliff's destructive plans for revenge. Hindley aids in his self-destruction by renouncing God when his wife dies and becoming a careless alcoholic and abusive father. He loses Wuthering Heights, his son Hareton's love, and his son's inheritance to Heathcliff.