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Wuthering Heights | Themes

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Brontë's themes slowly build then converge, becoming intrinsically and logically intertwined midway through the novel. By the end, each logical argument contained within each theme unravels from the other themes and concludes.

Good versus Evil

An exploration of religious-based ideas of good and evil create the primary theme in Wuthering Heights, and the themes of judgment versus pity, love and obsession, and violence and revenge, which are also religiously rooted, support it. The four lesser themes indicate individual choices, which add up to either good or evil. Pity, humility, love and forgiveness—the opposite of revenge—add up to choosing good; judgment, pride, obsession, and violence add up to choosing evil. The first half of the novel explores the idea of natural inclinations toward one or the other—good or evil—through a repetition and juxtaposition of devil and angel imagery and biblical references as the narrator, Mrs. Dean, wonders if Heathcliff and Cathy are, or will turn out to be, good or evil. During this section, Brontë explores how an environment might influence characters toward good or evil. Ideas of freewill and personal choice to suffer begin in the middle of the narrative around the time when Hindley renounces God and spirals into villainy. Once Brontë's complex argument is in place and ideas of natural character tendencies, role of environment, and freewill are established, the second half of the novel shows individual characters, who lean toward the good—Catherine, Isabella, Hareton, Edgar, and Mrs. Dean—battling evil represented by Heathcliff. Then the theme culminates with Heathcliff's ultimate choice between good and evil. His choice locks him out of heaven and casts him into a hellish state, condemned to spiritually wander the moors with Cathy, who also rejected heaven and religion when she was alive.

Mrs. Dean's character is the representative of the good qualities of love, pity, humility, and forgiveness. Heathcliff and Cathy represent the evil choices of violence, revenge, pride, selfishness, judgment, and obsession. Joseph's character stands in the middle, representing religious hypocrisy, as he believes he is good, but having no qualities of love or the good established in the novel (pity, humility) serves to create an environment on the side of evil instead of good.

Judgment versus Pity

Brontë differentiates between biblical judgment, as reserved for the divine, and personal judgment between individuals, which is always accompanied with a choice between judgment and pity. Generally, a lack of pity leads to pain, injustice, and suffering for the person judged, making the thematic statement that to judge others is harmful to them, unjust, and not a right reserved for human beings. Repeatedly, the reader is provoked to feel pity over judgment for the characters, even Heathcliff and Hindley, and shown the disturbing results of an absence of pity, such as Linton's treatment of Catherine and his ensuing horrible death.

Commentary on class distinctions is woven into the judgment versus pity theme. The servants are always expected to feel sympathy for their masters. Masters are inclined to judge, and are usually portrayed to lack pity. When servants lack pity at times—Zillah toward Catherine and Mrs. Dean toward Cathy—the judged characters devolve into mean-spirited, selfish, or destructive behavior, demonstrating the ill of judgment and the benevolent power of pity.

Pride versus humility is a thematic extension of judgment versus pity: the prideful are judgmental and the humble are sympathetic, or in other words, capable of pity. However, the results are different in that judgment injures the judged individual, the individual acted upon, whereas pride brings sorrow to the prideful, the individual taking wrong action. Further, humility, manifested in serving and doing one's duty, brings reward to the humble, whereas pity is not linked to reward. The conclusion of the theme plays out in Catherine's story line; having completed her duty in caring for the dying, once she is humble enough to drop her pride toward Hareton, she is rewarded by having Thrushcross Grange and happiness restored to her with the added bonus of love.

Violence and Revenge

Through Hindley and Heathcliff's relationship, Brontë begins a complex argument about the effects of physical violence. Her first point is to show how abuse creates abusive, vengeful individuals when they do not forgive and turn violent to lessen their pain. Isabella represents the wise individual who understands the true nature of violence and its consequences. She delivers the message for the theme when she says violence wounds the person who chooses it. Next, through Linton's relationship with Heathcliff, Brontë shows how apathy is created by violence and the fear of violence, again, by a desire to avoid pain. Through Hareton and Linton, Brontë demonstrates how neglect and apathy can be violent. In this way, attributes, such as the ones Heathcliff hates—duty, compassion, charity, and kindness—become opposites of violence, actions with which to fight the evils of violence and revenge.

Love and Obsession

In the first half of Wuthering Heights, through Heathcliff and Cathy, Brontë suggests that to go against one's heart and soul is against love and equivalent to death, since Cathy dies for making the wrong choice. Then she shows how making love an obsession by choosing human love over Godly, heavenly love becomes love turned evil and idolatrous—with several references to Cathy and Heathcliff making each other an "idol." This is the core of the love and obsession theme; it requires the entirety of the novel to make its point. However, Brontë explores other facets of love throughout. Mr. Lockwood represents superficial attitudes toward love, beneath which lurks cowardice. Isabella represents delusional, false love, also idolatrous, which she escapes by seeing that what she thought was love was actually violence and hatred. Catherine and Hareton represent love's power to overcome pride and evil, laden with the idea that to love moderately leads to happiness.

Belonging

The setting of the two opposing households, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, combined with the symbolism of the moors between them and Cathy's wandering ghost highlights the devastating isolation individuals feel while searching and seeking a sense of belonging. Human beings, Brontë demonstrates through this theme, must align with their true destinies, whether they—figuratively speaking—encounter walls they must climb over, discover windows and doors barred and locked, or set out on a journey to explore. They innately know where they belong; visions, presentiments, and dreams will guide them, and the development of a good character will lead them to the persons and places in which they can at last feel a sense of peace and unity.

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