Narrative Technique of The Novel Wuthering Heights

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      In Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte displays a remarkable narrative skill. To narrate her story she has chosen the method of the first person singular. The principal narrator is Ellen Dean, who was the housekeeper both at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. It is thus, more natural for a housekeeper to describe the events occurring in the house where she is employed than for the author himself. A story can be narrated by the omniscient author, or by a character belonging to it. The latter manner of narration is more natural than the former. For it is impossible for an author to know everything about his characters and their doings. The 'omniscient author' manner puts a strain on our credulity. A better method, therefore, is to entrust the narration to a character inside the story, and to tell the reader only as much as the character knows. By adopting this method the author shifts the responsibility of narration to a person who belongs to the world of the story. He reports and describes the world to which he himself belongs, and he tells the reader as much as he knows about that world.

The Omniscient Author

      There are several methods of narrating a story. The commonest is the narration of the story by the "omniscient" author, he describes the world, he has created, and narrates the story he has invented. He is expected to know everything about the world he has created. Hence he describes his characters and explains their motives and behavior. He takes us into their head and heart, and thus helps us to understand their psychology, their thoughts and feelings. The method of narration by the "omniscient" author is as old as the story itself. The stories existing in the old pieces of literature of the world are written mostly in this manner. It is the author who narrates those stories. There is, however, an objection raised against this technique of story-telling. It is said that this technique places the author in the position of God in relation to his world. Just as God is omniscient, so the author, too, becomes "omniscient" so far as his world is concerned. He has created a set of characters about whom he is expected to know everything. But human psychology is so complex and unfathomable that it is impossible for one man to know everything about a group of characters even though he himself has created them. As a matter of fact it is not possible to know everything about one person, much less about a group of persons. Perhaps we do not fully understand our own psychology, and it is only circumstances which reveal to us what exactly we are. Then how is it possible for a novelist to understand fully the motives and mental operations of his characters? It is obvious that the technique of the "omniscient" author imposes on the writer a duty which he cannot possibly fulfill. No man can become omniscient however clever and intelligent he may be.

The "First Person" Narrative

      There is however, another technique which is more convincing and probable. It is the technique of the "First Person Singular." According to this technique, the story is related not by the author himself, but by a character inside the narrative. The narrator relates only what he sees and observes, and the author is not responsible for what he says. He shifts his responsibility to the narrator inside the story who is an integral part of the world created by the novelist. Generally, the narrator in the "First Person Singular" technique is the hero of the story. For instance, the story of Dickens's novel, David Copperfield is related by the hero, David. But this is not always the case. There are novels in which the narrator is a minor character, for instance, in Wuthering Heights and The Way of All Flesh. There is, however, a difficulty involved in this method, and it is that the narrator must be present everywhere to describe and report scenes and actions to us. We wonder if it is possible for one man to be present at all scenes and situations. Perhaps it is not possible. To avoid this difficulty and the strain it puts on the reader's credibility a technique has been invented. It is known as "narrative at several removes." According to this technique, it is not necessary for the narrator inside the story to be present everywhere to describe and report. There may be things which he has not seen himself, but are reported to him by others. Those things, scenes, situations and actions can be described in the actual words of those who report them to the chief narrator in the story. Thus the principal narrator may not be present at a scene which has been described to him by another character inside the story, named B. What B says may be described in his own words, and not in the words of the chief narrator. Thus, the narrative may pass from the principal narrator to another character inside the story. Though the story on the whole is narrated by A, the principal narrator, a part of it is related by another character inside the story, named B. But B may have gathered his information from someone else, called C. So, B may relate a part of the story, which after some time may pass on to C, and so on. This is called the technique of "narrative at several removes". A modern novelist, Joseph Conrad, has very skilfully employed this technique in his novels.

Epistolary Method

      The two narrative methods described above are the "Omniscient Author" manner and the technique of "First Person Singular". There is yet a third method, which is called the "Epistolary" or "Documentary" style of story-telling. Nobody relates the story, only the characters write letters to one another. And as they do so, the story grows and develops. The novel of Richardson are written in this manner. They contain nothing but a long series of letters written by characters. It is those letters which gradually build up the story.

The Methods: Used Individually or in Combination

      One of these three techniques, exclusive of the other two, may be employed in a novel, which may be written either in the manner of the "omniscient" author or in the "First Person Singular" or in the "epistolary" style. But a novelist may employ two or even all the three narrative methods in one and the same novel. Thus, Conrad in his novel, Lord Jim, employs all these three narrative methods. The story begins in the manner of the "omniscient" author and continues to be narrated by the author himself till the law-court scene, after which the narrative is passed on to a character inside the story, named, Marlowe. Towards the end certain documents are introduced and it is with their help that it concludes.

Emily Bronte's Complicated Narrative Method

      Emily Bronte has employed a complicated narrative method in Wuthering Heights. The story is related mostly by a character, Ellen Dean, a servant in the two families presented in the novel. She was an eyewitness of most of the incidents occurring in the novel, and she subsequently describes to Mr. Lockwood what she saw and heard. Obviously, the method employed in the novel is narration by character inside the story, commonly known as the "First Person Singular." But if we carefully analyse the story we will find that the narrator in the novel is not uniformly the same person. Though Emily Bronte has employed the narrative method of the "First person singular", yet the narration passes on from one character to the other.

      Two Narrators - Multiple Perspectives. Nelly the housekeeper is the principal narrator. But the story begins with the other narrator in the novel — Lockwood. The portion of the story narrated by Lockwood is however very small. It is Nelly who is the major narrator and as she relates her story to Lockwood — we realize Lockwood
is not only a narrator of some parts of the story, but also himself a listener, like ourselves. The narration of Wuthering Heights is thus, skillfully contrived in order to allow the reader to see multiple perspectives within a first person account. Apart from Lockwood and Nelly there are interpolated narratives of other characters inside the story - for instance, Catherine's diary which tells us of events immediately following the death of Earnshaw; Isabella's letter to Nelly fills the reader in on Heathcliff's cruelty to her after their marriage.

      The use of multiple perspectives within the first-person account is a complicated method and is similar to the one used by the modern novelist Conrad. Conrad employed the technique of narrative at several removes. For instance, 'A', the principal narrator, informs the reader of what he has learned from 'B', another character in the story, and 'B', on his own part has gathered that information from a third character 'C'. Emily Bronte employs the same narrative method.

Shifts in Narrative Perspective

      The novel begins with the narration of Mr. Lockwood. Lockwood's first journal entry in November 1801, shows no sense of being in the middle of a story and the reader does not realize that this is the case until the third chapter. Through Lockwood's eyes, we see the Heights and its strange inmates and are given conflicting views of Heathcliff as a "capital fellow", a gentleman and as an "unmannerly wretch".

      The first interpolated narrative is that of Catherine's diary which takes us back to 1777, just after the death of old Mr. Earnshaw. Here we see Heathcliff not as a proud, domineering man, but as an oppressed and ill-treated child.

      Taken together the introductory chapters have aroused our expectations and whetted our appetite more than any chronological telling of the tale would have done. We are as puzzled as Lock wood the narrator about the people at the Heights. We are curious to know how Heathcliff was transformed from the bullied and ill-treated boy into the harsh and dour owner of both the Heights and the Grange. We want to know who is the ghost child of Lockwood's nightmare and we want to know of the young widow Catherine.

      To know these details it is necessary to hear it from one who has observed it from the beginning. The narrative transition to Nelly's tale is thus, completely credible. Lock wood, tired and sick after his unfortunate experiences at the Heights, very naturally asks Nelly who has been the former housekeeper at the Heights to tell him and thus the reader, the whole story.

      With Nelly, then, the perspective of the tale shifts again. She takes us back to a time six years earlier than Catherine's diary, to the summer of 1771. Thus we approach the story in a reverse order - first, the events of 1801, then a brief glance at the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff in 1777 and now, with Nelly's narration, the beginning of it all.

      We are constantly reminded that Mrs. Dean is narrating to Lockwood the history of the two families. In chapter 31 he again becomes the narrator as, now fully recovered from his sickness, he prepares to go away from Thrushcross Grange. When he finally departs to London, we are left in suspense, for without a listener, Nelly cannot go on with her tale. In the next chapter, Lockwood resumes the story with the date 1802. Nelly's narrative is again interpolated to tell him what has happened in the interim and the novel ends where it began with Lockwood the principal narrator returning to Thrushcross Grange after a visit to Wuthering Heights.

      As Nelly is a first person narrator, she can relate only what she sees and knows or what other characters tell her. Thus Hindley's absence and Heathcliff's three years absence are not enlarged upon. Incidents which are told to Nelly are given to the reader in the direct words of the teller: Heathcliff tells of his and Catherine's adventure at Thrushcross Grange - (chapter 6); Catherine tells Nelly her innermost thoughts and her love for Heathcliff (chapter 9); Isabella tells of her and Hindley's attempt to lock Heathcliff out of the Heights, Cathy describes her illicit visits to the Heights (chapter 24); Zillah tells of Cathy's life at Wuthering Heights after her marriage to Linton (chapter 30). Additionally, Isabella recounts in a letter to Nelly her experiences as Heathcliff's wife (chapter 13)

      These multiple narratives enable us to gain an overall view of the story and allow us, through observing a number of different subjective viewpoints, to look more objectively at the events and the characters.

Shifts in Chronological Time

      Another fascinating aspect of Emily Bronte's narrative skill is her handling of time. Her thirty-four chapters deal with the events of almost as many years and the pace of the novel varies accordingly. Sometimes a single incident occupies an entire chapter; sometimes the events of weeks or years or months are passed over in a brief sentence: Cathy stayed at Thrushcross Grange five weeks, till Christmas. By that time her ankle was thoroughly cured and her manners much improved." (Chapter 7). The present or 'now' of the novel is about a year from November 1801 to September 1802.) During this period the story passes through thirty-one years of chronological time.

      The story starts in media-res, or to be more precise, almost at the end. The first return to 1801 occurs at the end of chapter 7 after the disastrous Christmas celebration; the second interruption is at the end of chapter 9 when Heathcliff has disappeared, Catherine and Edgar have just been married and Nelly has gone to live at Thrushcross Grange. The third interruption (chapter 14) precedes the events leading upto the death of Catherine and the birth of the younger Catherine.

      These interruptions occurring at a moment of high tension and emotion help to relieve it.

      Another dramatic switch in time is the flashback in chapter 29, when Heathcliff tells Nelly what he did on the night of Catherine's funeral. It presents to us with another point of view as Isabella had recounted the same incident to Nelly in chapter 17. Thus Emily Bronte skilfully uses shifting perspectives of narrative and time to evoke and maintain interest and suspense in the novel.

Lockwood Role as the Narrator

      When the story begins the narrator is Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff's tenant, who has come to reside at the Thrushcross Grange. He pays a couple of visits to his landlord at his residence, called Wuthering Heights, and himself describes both the visits. He is not received as a welcome guest at the residence of his landlord, and it appears to him that, perhaps, nobody ever visits him. His landlord is a man of singular habits and temperament, and so are the other members of his family. The most singular of all is the servant, Joseph, who appears to be a natural enemy of all visitors to his master's house. On his first visit to Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood is besieged by a number of dogs, which bark and snarl at him showing to him their dangerous teeth. But that predicament is a source of amusement to his landlord. Lockwood's second visit to Wuthering Heights is still less successful. Soon after his visit to the Heights, it began to snow heavily, so that by the time he desired to return to the Grange the road leading to it was covered with a thick layer of snow and he could not return without a guide. No one at the Heights was willing to guide him back to the Grange, with the resulted that he had to spend the night at the Heights. But his sleep was constantly disturbed by horrible dreams. At last morning dawned, and with his landlord as his guide, he returned to the Grange. He fell seriously ill, and had to spend almost the whole of that winter in bed. All these incidents are related by Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff's tenant.

      Lockwood as an uninvolved outsider, is able to give us an objective view of the story. He is a good representative of the reader, for on his first visit to the Heights, he shares the reader's ignorance, interest and curiosity about the inmates of Wuthering Heights. He is as much a stranger as we are in the rough, wild, place. As a townsman, he brings with him certain superficial expectations and habits of polite society and stands as an ironical contrast to the characters and events he describes.

      Lockwood's Share in the Narration. The novel opens with Lockwood as the narrator and he remains the narrator in the first three chapters. Nelly's story begins in Chapter 4 and apart from brief interruptions and comments by Lockwood; it continues till Chapter 30. In Chapter 31 and the first half of Chapter 32, Lockwood again becomes the narrator. Nelly takes over from the second half of Chapter 32 till almost the end, Lockwood takes over the role of the narrator again in the concluding few paragraphs.

      His Experiences in the First Few Chapters. Lockwood's experience in the first three chapters are very important in introducing us to the main characters and in arousing our curiosity regarding the strange and mysterious inhabitants of the Heights. It is through Lockwood that we have the first glimpse of Wuthering Heights. It is his impressions of Heathcliff as gentleman which are given to us first. Later in chapter two, Lockwood sees Heathcliff as a man of a genuinely bad nature. From Lockwood we gather that Catherine is seventeen, a widow, and though beautiful is haughty and rude while Hareton is described as a clown and a boor. The third chapter has Lockwood's account of his two terrible dreams — the appearance of the ghost-child Catherine. All these create an atmosphere of mystery and fear and make both Lockwood and the redder more inquisitive about these happenings.

      Lockwood — A Contrast to Nelly. Lockwood functions in the novel as the intermediary through whom the eyewitness account of events and circumstances given by Nelly is conveyed to us. Thus Lockwood gives the objective point of view of a detached and impartial observer and listener as against Nelly's subjective and personal impressions of the events and characters. Lokwood's presence in the story helps it to acquire an even greater reliability and authenticity. As a character, however, he is not very impressive and seems vain in thinking that he could have developed an affair with Cathy. Nevertheless, his is the last word in the novel and it is through Lockwood that we feel much of the tension of the novel.

Ellen Dean as the Narrator

      After that, the narrative passes on to Ellen Dean, the housekeeper at the Grange. The peculiar behavior of Heathcliff and the other inmates of the Heights rouses Mr. Lockwood's curiosity to know more about them. Besides, he is fascinated by the beauty of Heathcliff's widowed daughter-in-law, Catherine and he desires to know more about her. Hence, he asks Ellen Dean, who was a servant at the Heights before she came to the Grange, to tell him all that she knows about Heathcliff and the other persons residing at the Grange.

      Nelly Dean is the principal narrator of the story. An observer-narrator, her is an eye-witness account of events as she has been a housekeeper at both the Heights and the Grange having served the Earnshaws as well as the Lintons.

      Her Suitability as a Narrator. Nelly Dean is an excellent choice for narrator. Hindley, Catherine, Isabella and Linton of the elder generation die much earlier than the end of the story, and so its narration cannot be entrusted to them. Heathcliff the major character would have been inappropriate as narrator and he too dies before the novel actually ends. The characters of the younger generation have no knowledge of the events before their birth. Thus, Ellen Dean is eminently suitable as a narrator, having seen all the characters at close quarters.

      Her Value as a Narrator. Ellen's value as a narrator lies in the fact that she has known the characters and the events, has been an active participant in the action of the story, but is yet sufficiently distanced from them emotionally to be an impartial and unbiased observer narrator. She is the confidante of several members of the family — Cathy confides in her the difference in her love for Heathcliff and her love for Edgar; Isabella confides in her about her wretched and miserable life with Heathcliff; even the stem and reserved Heathcliff speaks freely to Nelly about his thoughts and feelings telling her of his love for Cathy the change that comes over him in the end thus presenting to the reader his innermost thoughts — thus, she is able to present the various situations and developments in the novel from various points of view lending more reliability to her narrative.

      Nelly, as a Moral Judge of Characters. She is not only an observer-narrator but also a kind of moral judge. She offers her own comments on the various characters. Her view is the sensible and common-sense point of view and in this sense she is both narrator and chorus. She judges rightly Heathcliff's vindictive nature, even as a boy but at the same time recognizes that Hindley's treatment of Heathcliff was such as to make a fiend of a saint. Her opinion of Catherine's exaggerated temper tantrums also shows her commonsensical approach.

      Nelly: An Active Participant in the Story. Nelly is not merely the narrator or chorus. She is also a character who has quite a significant influence on the events in the novel. It is she who carries Heathcliff's secret letter to Catherine after his return to the Heights. It is she who informs Heathcliff of Edgar's next absence from the house so that Heathcliff may meet Cathy. She is thus responsible for betraying her master Edgar's trust and helping the relationship of Catherine and Heathcliff which ultimately leads to marital discord and Cathy's death. Nelly also tries to warn Isabella to stay away from Heathcliff and later arranges for the carriage when Isabella needs to escape. Similarly, she has a major part in the Catherine - Linton affair. She fails to report to Edgar that young Cathy has been corresponding with Linton and eventually is tricked into getting Cathy into the Heights where they are both held prisoners by Heathcliff. These events seem to portray Nelly as a betrayer, but by and large, she is a very faithful and trustworthy servant, concerned about the welfare of her masters and her lapses are more due to the force of circumstances rather than due to a failure of integrity.

Ellen Dean's Narration in Three Sittings

      Ellen Dean finishes her narrative in three sittings. The first part of her narrative finishes with the marriage of the first Catherine, with Linton. She resumes her story after an interval and comes to the point where Edgar Linton's wife, Catherine, falls seriously ill and Heathcliff extracts a promise from Ellen that she would arrange his visit to the ailing Catherine. In the final sitting, she brings the narrative to the point where Heathcliff's son Linton dies and his wife, the second Catherine, goes to live at the Heights. That is, the story is brought back to the point from "here it begins".

Final Stage of the Novel

      Mr. Lockwood recovers from his long illness and decides to leave the locality. Before leaving for London he goes to the Heights to meet his landlord and settle his account. He describes in Chapter 31 how Catherine, Hareton and the other members of the family are living. He goes to London and returns to the Grange after a few months only to find that Ellen Dean has returned to the Heights. He goes to the Heights, meets Ellen Dean and learns from her how Heathcliff had died. Thus, the final part of the story is related to Mr. Lockwood by the principal narrator, Ellen Dean.

Emily Bronte's Style Similar to Conrad

      It has been said above that Conrad in his novels employs the technique of narrative at several removes. Emily Bronte anticipates Conrad by employing the same technique in her novel Wuthering Heights. Though Ellen Dean describes and reports what she actually saw and heard, there are scenes in the novel where she is not present. Those scenes are described to her by other characters, and the description is given in their actual words. Thus, in Chapter 17 Isabella Heathcliff informs Ellen Dean of the events that occurred at the Heights, where she was brought by her husband after her marriage. Likewise, in Chapter 30 Zillah, Heathcliff's housekeeper informs Ellen Dean of certain events that occurred at the heights after her master had brought the second Catherine to live there. Certain parts of the story are developed through letters also. For instance, Isabella after her marriage sends a long letter to Ellen Dean informing her of the events that occurred after her wedding.


      Thus, Emily Bronte employs a complicated narrative method in Wuthering Heights . Her principal narrative method is the "First Person Singular", that is narration by a character inside the story. Ellen Dean is such a narrator. But she also employs the technique of "at several removes", and: thus, anticipates Conrad. Lastly, she also employs the “documentary" method and introduces letters to develop the story.

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