Horror, Violence, Cruelty & Sadism in Wuthering Heights

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      Over the entire novel Wuthering Heights, there broods a horror of great darkness. A serious and somber novel, there are many incidents of horror, violence and sadism which add to the dark atmosphere of the novel. Nature itself is wild and reflects the dark mood of the novel and its characters.

Lockwood's Nightmare

      The atmosphere of horror, terror and violence is set in the first chapter itself when Lockwood enters the grim forbidding surroundings of the Heights. The interior for all its fire and warmth is strangely brooding as the inmates hardly offer any welcome to Lockwood and are all sullen and grim. The incident of the dogs nearly tearing Lockwood apart, introduces the motif of violence and cruelty. This atmosphere of horror is further built up in the next chapter when Lockwood stays back at the Heights because of the sudden violent storm outside which prevents him from getting back to the Grange. Spending the night in what used to be Catherine's bedroom, he experiences two nightmares, the second more horrifying than the first. In the first dream Lockwood finds himself attacked by Joseph in church where they have just heard a sermon on sin and hell. The second dream is the chilling scene of the ghost-child Cathy appearing and Lockwood rubbing the child's wrist on the broken glass window which leads to it bleeding profusely and soaking through the bed-clothes. The blood, the violence of rubbing the wrist on the broken pane set the atmosphere of cruelty, violence and suffering which is to dominate the whole novel.

Orphaned Children

      The world of the novel is one of sadism, violence and cruelty. This is reinforced by the fact that there are no tender pictures of loving mothers caring for their children. The children of the novel are all without their mothers and their innocence is replaced by brutal rebelliousness. Catherine Earnshaw is not at eight when her mother dies. The younger Catherine's birth also causes her mother's death. Frances, Hareton’s mother dies within a year of his birth. Heathcliff is an orphan when he is picked up as a child from the streets of Liverpool. Linton Heathcliff loses his mother Isabella before he is thirteen.


      The children of the violent world of this novel are without the tender, loving protection of their mother. Instead, they are at the mercy of hostile adults. The ghastly theme of infanticide is implicit in Lockwood's dream of rubbing the wrist of the ghost-child Catherine on a broken window pane. Heathcliff is ill-treated as a child by everyone when he is brought to the Heights until Cathy befriends him. Hindley is particularly cruel to Heathcliff depriving him of education, restricting him to the servant's quarters and punishing and beating him often. Hindley in his drunken dissipation is even worse. He nearly kills his own son Hareton by throwing him down the stairs. Hareton would have died, had not Heathcliff instinctively caught him. Linton Heathcliff is tortured and controlled totally by his father Heathcliff and Heathcliff is delighted over his son's death. This violence and ill-treatment of children contribute to the atmosphere of horror and sadism.

Helpless Animals Killed

      In the novel, there is much sadism in the depiction of helpless animals being killed. Lockwood finds a heap of dead rabbits at the Heights. When Isabella elopes with Heathcliff, he hangs her little pet dog. Later, when Isabella is fleeing the Heights, she sees Hareton hanging a litter of puppies. Heathcliff's favorite sport is to torture to death cats whose claws and teeth have been pulled out. In her death-bed delirium, Cathy recalls how she and Heathcliff had seen a bird's nest full of skeletons. Violence on helpless animals has almost a symbolic significance in the novel.

Retribution and Revenge

      A large part of the narrative is occupied by retribution, brutality and degradation all of which enhance the atmosphere of darkness and horror. Joseph with his Calvinist beliefs and happiness at the prospect of eternal punishment for the sinner strikes a note of sadism. The story revolves round a series of retributions and revenge each more horrifying than the other. First Hindley, after Mr. Earnshaw's death, ill-treats and degrades Heathcliff forcing him to work on the farm, because Hindley had hated Heathcliff for supplanting him in his father's affections. This begets a hatred and desire for revenge so strong in Heathcliff that it completely warps his nature. When Heathcliff returns after a three years absence to the Heights his savage cruelty to Hindley and his deliberate ruining of him by lending him money to gamble and drink heighten the atmosphere of darkness and horror. Scenes of violence also follow. When Hindley makes a futile bid to murder Heathcliff, Heathcliff overpowers him and gives him a merciless trashing, stamping on his senseless body almost killing him.

      Heathcliff's revenge does not end here. He avenges himself on Edgar Linton who has married his beloved - Catherine by marrying Edgar's sister Isabella and treating her with unimaginable cruelty and violence. Isabella's description of Heathcliff as a fiend, a monster and a goblin hint at the horror of his treatment of her.

      Heathcliff's action of revenge even on the younger generation, further deepens the atmosphere of horror. He stops at nothing, bullying and frightening his own son into luring Catherine and Nelly into the Heights so that he can get his ailing son to marry Cathy and thus become the owner of the Grange too. He keeps them imprisoned, not allowing Cathy to visit her dying father. When Linton releases her, Heathcliff punishes his sick son so brutally that he wakes up in the middle of the night shrieking with horror.

      There are scenes of violence between Edgar and Heathcliff and Heathcliff and the younger Catherine too.

The Love of Catherine and Heathcliff

      The thwarted love of Heathcliff and Catherine hangs over the entire novel making it a gloomy one. It is the denial of Catherine's love which warps Heathcliff's nature completely putting him on a path of unremitting revenge. He is a lost and wretched soul without his love. Catherine recognizes Heathcliff's true nature and tells Isabella that Heathcliff is "an unreclaimed man, without cultivation, an avid wilderness of furze and whinstone, a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man". The scene before Catherine dies is one of great passion and intense agony and suffering. Heathcliff's wretched and heart-tearing agony at Catherine's betrayal-contribute greatly to the general atmosphere of darkness and horror.

Other Elements of Horror

      The brooding atmosphere of the novel is heightened too by the constant reference to graves and the unnatural acts of Heathcliff. He has the coffin of Catherine opened to have a glimpse at her face; he also bribes the sexton to remove the side panel of Cathy's coffin and arranges that the same be done to his coffin so that on his death, he will be buried next to Cathy and will not be separated from her. The last few days before his death, Heathcliff appears like a ghost or a vampire with his 'deep, black eyes' and 'ghastly paleness'. Heathcliff's death is horrifying too, with his eyes refusing to close and his mouth appearing to sneer at Nelly. The novel ends on a note of the supernatural with the reference to the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff roaming the moors.


      A strange, brooding atmosphere of gloom and violence prevailes the entire book. It is a story of super human passions and profound sufferings which haunt the reader. It is a story full of violence and death — most characters die young: Cathy at the age of nineteen; Hindley at twenty-seven; Frances at twenty-one; Isabella at thirty-two and Linton at seventeen. Edgar is thirty-nine when he dies and Heathcliff himself is only thirty-eight. The storms and the violent winds over the moors also add to the gloomy and dark atmosphere of the novel. However, it ends on a ray of hope as the young Cathy and Hareton marry and Heathcliff too, is reunited with his beloved Catherine in death.

University Questions

Charlotte Bronte held the view that there 'broods a horror of great darkness' over Wuthering Heights. Do you agree?
Write a note on the atmosphere of cruelty and suffering in Wuthering Heights.
Discuss the various elements of sadism and violence in Wuthering Heights.

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