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Wuthering Heights | Symbols

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Brontë uses symbols as clues to help readers grasp the constructs of her extended metaphors, and, by doing so, interpret the meanings of her symbols. However, with the exception of the hair symbol, Brontë puts her symbols to dual purpose, using them to serve also as instruments of pathetic fallacy, which is a literary device that uses inanimate or natural objects to reflect human moods and emotions.

Ghosts

Ghosts symbolize lost souls, memory, and the past in Wuthering Heights, and Brontë uses this symbol to support the themes of love and obsession and good versus evil. Cathy's ghost lingers in Heathcliff's memory, supporting love and obsession, and then it actively and vengefully pursues Heathcliff in the end, supporting good versus evil.

When alive, Heathcliff and Cathy curse each other, creating spiritual anguish, turning their love into obsession, so they will not be parted in death, nor lose each other to the traditional heaven they both reject. When Heathcliff sees Cathy before she dies, and she is angry he will continue to live when she is gone, he asks her, "Are you possessed with a devil?" and after her death, he cries out, "May she wake in torment ... I pray one prayer ... Cathy Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living ... I cannot live without my soul!" In Cathy and Heathcliff's willful desire to haunt and be haunted, the symbolism of ghosts cannot be extricated from ideas of good and evil in the novel; by rejecting heaven, both characters become lost souls roaming the earth.

Most of the main characters declare a belief in ghosts: Mrs. Dean, Joseph, Heathcliff, Mr. Lockwood, and Cathy. The children of the main characters—Hareton, Catherine, Linton—never speak of ghosts. The differentiation in viewpoints leaves doubt of the reality of Cathy's ghost, and it reinforces the idea of Cathy's ghost symbolizing memories and the past, for youth has no memory of anguish and loss to haunt the present. Yet, the present is haunted by the past in a sense, unknown to the youth but openly exposed for the reader, who knows more about the past than they do and can see how it operates in the present. Through the structure of the novel, Brontë places the reader alongside the ghost of Cathy, looking in from the outside, aware of the past as she haunts the present.

Weather, Wind, and Trees

Brontë uses weather to produce tone, reflect the plot, and mirror characters' emotions. The author's use of pathetic fallacy as a literary device is greatest in her symbolism of the weather, wind, and trees, though it is used in other symbols as well. Typically, storms and rain symbolize angry, violent, or passionate emotions, and breezes and calm weather reflect peace, hope, and goodness. The use of pathetic fallacy is so pervasive, the novel can be opened at almost any point in the narrative and the weather will reflect perfectly the events and characters' emotions of that particular chapter.

Wind and trees symbolize how the emotions of one character shape or disfigure the growth of another character, as much as how the emotional and physical environment plays a role in shaping or contorting a character's disposition. Heathcliff is used as the mouthpiece to deliver the meaning of the symbolism of wind and trees in Chapter 17 when he says to Hareton: "Now my bonny lad, you are mine! And we'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it."

The Moors

A moors are barren strips of land unsuitable for planting. They are used to symbolize the idea of being between—between life and death and between good and evil with Wuthering Heights acting as the physical manifestation of evil and Thrushcross Grange representing good, and the moors between them. That being established, for Heathcliff and Cathy, the moors are a place of freedom from their unhappy home life and from the difference in their social circumstances, which keep them separate at other times. Ultimately, Heathcliff and Cathy's love of roaming the moors reflects their rejection of heaven and choice of roaming the between, neither on earth nor in heaven.

Dogs

Dogs are used symbolically and as pathetic fallacy—to a lesser degree than weather—to reflect plot, create tone, and mirror characters' emotions. Dogs represent instincts, often protective or violent ones, juxtaposed with training and obedience, such as with Hareton, who is turned into a loyal watchdog first by Heathcliff and then by Catherine. Interactions with dogs also mark vital transitions either of plot or of a character's perceptions—as when the unfriendly dog at the book's opening shows Mr. Lockwood that he is in unfamiliar territory.

The core of the dog symbolism in Wuthering Heights is expressed by Isabella when she calls Cathy a "dog in the manger," alluding to an ancient fable about a dog who guards hay, useless and inedible to the dog, from a horse or oxen. The message in the fable comments on the type of person who would rather see someone die than give them something of no value to the person withholding it, exactly as Heathcliff does to multiple characters, and as Cathy does to Heathcliff. Heathcliff's revenge is a driving force, and acting as a "dog in the manger" is how he implements his revenge; and Hindley's original crime against Heathcliff—taking away his opportunity to be educated and have a better life—is also like being a "dog in the manger." In this sense, dogs symbolize individuals treating other individuals as less valuable and less worthy of happiness and fulfillment and more like possessions to own, control, and abuse.

Hair

Blond hair, or light hair, symbolizes Thrushcross Grange, the Linton family, indulged privilege, good and angels, weakness, gentleness, education, and the matching dispositions of Edgar and Isabella, and then later, Catherine and Linton.

Black hair, or dark hair, symbolizes Wuthering Heights, the Earnshaw family, privilege thwarted or taken down in status, evil and devils, strength, passion, rejection of education, and the matching dispositions of Heathcliff and Cathy.

The symbol is made complete at the end of the novel in Chapter 32 when Mr. Lockwood, observing Catherine and Hareton, sees Catherine's blond hair dangling and mingling with Hareton's dark hair, representing love overcoming good and evil and a restored peace and unity.

Questions for Symbols

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