Plot Structure of The Novel Wuthering Heights

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      The structure of Wuthering Heights has come in for a lot of contradictory critical opinions. While some have found an "amazing unity of tone" in the structure, others have found the narrative mode and time manipulation in the novel extremely confusing in terms of structure. However, in certain respects, Wuthering Height possesses a unity of theme and structure which is quite unusual in the Victorian novel. Like Jane Austen, Emily Bronte achieves a structure which, in every part is the visible embodiment of the theme, by the exclusion from the novel of anything not necessary, anything that would dissipate concentration.

      When Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, many readers found it confused, difficult and obscure. The remote landscape, violent characters, the device of interpolated narrations and the switching back in time all made it a confusing novel to read. But for all the apparent incoherence of the plot, it is a remarkably well thought out story with Emily Bronte paying particular attention to the chronology of events.

The Plot

      The story is quite complicated and the incidents extend over a period of more than thirty years. The plot develops in mainly three stages. In the first stage of the story, Heathcliff is introduced into the Earnshaw family where a friendship and later love develops between Heathcliff and Catherine the daughter of Mr. Earnshaw. Parallel to this development is the hatred that grows between Hindley (Mr. Earnshaw's son) and Heathcliff. The first stage ends with Heathcliff's sudden disappearance from the Heights on discovering that Catherine has promised to marry Edgar Linton—the cultured, though weak gentleman from Thrushcross Grange. The second stage presents Catherine's marriage to Linton, Heathcliff's return to the Heights about three years after her marriage, his revenge on Hindley, his marriage to Isabella to avenge himself against the Lintons, and Catherine's illness ending in her death. To the third stage belongs the events after Catherine's death, the marriage of Linton Heathcliff and Catherine (the younger), Linton's death and finally ends with the death of Heathcliff and the engagement of Hareton and the second Catherine.

The Three Stages—Well-Linked

      The three stages of the plot are very well interconnected, so that we imperceptibly glide from the one into the other without any sense of gap or break after each stage. As the story passes from one to the other stage the scene of action also changes. The scene of action in the first stage of the story is almost exclusively the Heights. In the second stage of the action, the scene changes from the Heights to the Grange. In the third and the final stage events occur partly at the Heights and partly at the Grange.

Symmetry in the Two Families

      The critic C.P. Sanger in analyzing the structure of Wuthering Heights points to the remarkable symmetry in the pedigree of the two families — the Lintons and the Earnshaws — who dominate the story. Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw at Wuthering Heights and Mr. and Mrs. Linton at Thrushcross Grange have one son and one daughter each. Mr. Linton's son (Edgar Linton) marries Mr. Earnshaw daughter (Catherine), and their only child Catherine, marries successively her two cousins —Mr. Linton's grandson. (Linton Heathcliff) and Mr. Earnshaw's grandson (Hareton Earnshaw).

A Balance in the Pleasant and Unpleasant Happenings

      The pleasant and the unpleasant, the normal and the abnormal balance one another to give a structural symmetry to the plot. The novel continually moves towards a resolution of perfect tranquility. The center of the novel is of course, the story of Heathcliff and Catherine, but in the second stage, the love of the younger Catherine and Hareton serves as a commentary on the love of Heathcliff and Catherine. The marriage of Catherine and Hareton is a substitute for the marriage which never took place between Catherine and Heathcliff. Heathcliff's treatment of Hareton parallels Hindley's treatment of Heathcliff and it is Hareton, who is Heathcliff's spiritual heir and paves the way through his own happiness for the spiritual happiness of Heathcliff and Catherine.

The Narrative Technique

      The method adopted to arouse the reader's interest, and to give vividness and reality to the tale is one which has been used with great success by Joseph Conard. After Edgar Linton's death, Mr. Lockwood, the narrator, takes Thrushcross Grange on rent for a year. When he goes to meet Heathcliff, his landlord at Wuthering Heights, the reader shares Lockwood's perplexity about the strange trio—Catherine, Hareton and Heathcliff — and their relationship with one another. On his way back Lockwood catches a chill and becomes ill and to pass the time he asks Ellen Dean, the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange to tell him about the family at the Heights. Very naturally thus, the narrative is taken up by Nelly Dean who was first the housekeeper at Heights and the nurse of Hareton and later the housekeeper at the Grange and the nurse of Catherine. During the major part of the book Mr. Lockwood is telling us what Ellen Dean told him, but sometimes, also, what Ellen Dean told him that someone else—for instance, Isabella — had told her. Only a small
part, perhaps one-tenth of the book, consists of direct narrative by Lockwood from his own knowledge.

The Device of the Two Narrators

      The narrators also present a symmetrical structure. Nelly Dean gives a subjective insider's view of the families which she has served while Lockwood gives the objective detached account of an outsider. Thus it ensures that we witness the drama in all the fresh reality in which it would have shown itself to spectators; and at the same time, we witness it as it really was, undistorted by the emotions of those persons who were involved in it.

      The long story stretching over three generations and with manipulation of time, has been given a structural unity by Emily's device of using two narrators. In a style similar to Conrad's, Emily Bronte presents the novel through the eyes of two characters who are not directly involved in the central action. Through Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, first at the Heights and then at the Grange we get a subjective, insider's view of the events and characters. Through Lockwood, who comes as the tenant to the Grange we get an objective outsider's view of the situation. This method ensures a unity. It also presents the drama in all the fresh reality in which it would have shown itself to its spectators, at the same time since these spectators are detached and normal, we witness it as it really was, undistorted by the emotions of those involved in it.

The Exact Chronology

      The device of the two narrators and the shift in time could easily lead to a confusing scheme but Emily Bronte has followed a very precise chronology of events and dates. Emily Bronte states only two dates directly, the story opens with the date 1801; Chapter 32 opens with the date 1802. Apart from these two dates, only one other date is given directly. In the last sentence of Chapter 8, Ellen Dean says, "I will be content to pass on to the next summer — the summer of 1778, that is twenty-three years ago." The first sentence of the next Chapter tells that Hareton was born in June. This is how it can be established that Hareton was born in June 1778. Similarly, other dates can also be worked out, though it is a tedious process (The chronology of events is given at the end of this section.)

The Precise Topography

      Emily Bronte is very precise in delineating the topography, too. On going from Thrushcross Grange to the village of Gimmerton a highway branches off to the moor on the left. There is a stone pillar there. Thrushcross Grange lies to the south west, Gimmerton, to the east, and Wuthering Heights to the north. The distance from Thrushcross Grange to Wuthering Heights is four miles, and Penistone Crags is a mile and a half farther on. It was half an hour from Gimmerton to Thrushcross Grange.

The Story begins in Media-res

      As in Lord Jim, Emily Bronte begins her story in the middle. The story opens with Mr. Lockwood's first visit to the Heights at the climax of Heathcliff's revenge, when Linton is already dead and the young Catherine is a widow, as yet hostile to Hareton and Heathcliff is obviously the master of both the properties of the Heights and the Grange. Lockwood stays back at the Heights because of a storm and is haunted by Catherine's spirit at the window. Such an opening undoubtedly arouses the reader's interest and introduces us to the scene and characters in a novel way. We are at once made aware of the contrast between the calm, harmony of the Grange and the violent, stormy discord of the Heights a contrast which forms a central aspect of the story.

The Flash Back

      Having introduced the story in the middle Emily Bronte takes us back twenty years through the narrator Nelly Dean thus, preserving the reader's interest and attention. The flashback neatly ends when Nelly Dean reaches the point in the plot to which we are introduced in the first chapter. There is again a second break in the narrative when Mr. Lockwood leaves the Grange. The story is picked up by Lockwood when he returns six months later. When he left all was discord and disharmony. He returns to tell the tale of the triumph of calm, orderly love and the restoration of harmony as the two houses are joined in matrimony through Hareton and Catherine. Hareton taking up residence in the Grange is symbolic of the calm harmony which triumphs over the turbulent storm of the Heights. Thus, the artistic scheme of the novel has the same rigid symmetry as the intellectual framework of the novel.

The Antithesis and Contrast Between the Two Houses

      The contrast between the two houses — Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange is central to the theme of the novel. Wuthering Heights is symbolic of the storm and discord — its inmates —Hindley, Heathcliff and Catherine are all children of the storm. On the other hand Thrushcross Grange is symbolic of the calm, gentle, orderly life—its inmates—Edgar Linton, Isabella are children of the calm. There are two inter-marriages: Heathcliff of the Heights marries Isabella of the Grange; while Cathy of the Heights marries Edgar of the Grange. Later Catherine the daughter of Edgar and Catherine, marries Hareton, the son of Hindley and Frances thus, bringing the two families and houses into harmony.

      Another structural device used in Wuthering Heights is antithesis and contrast. There is a constant opposition between the Heights and the Grange. There is the physical contrast—the windy Heights on the moor contrasted with the sheltered, leafy valley of the Grange. This physical contrast reveals the antithetical characters who inhabit the two houses. The Heights stands for the characters of storm — the Earnshaws with dark eyes and complexion and the Grange represents the characters of calm — the Lintons with fair complexion and blue eyes. Life at the Grange and the Heights is constantly contrasted and Catherine's analysis of her love for Heathcliff and Linton dramatically portrays this contrast. She sees her love for Linton as the "foliage in the woods" as against her love for Heathcliff which is like the "eternal rocks beneath"

      Isabella and Heathcliff are the next pair of contrasts. All these contrasts are worked out through verbal antithesis. There is also schematic contrast whereby heredity is used both symbolically and realistically to delineate the characters of the second generation. The second Catherine has the "Earnshaws' handsome dark eyes, but the Lintons' fair skin". Similarly, she has the capacity for intense attachments like her mother but she could be soft and mild as a dove and her love was deep and tender not fierce. Linton Heathcliff inherits the softness and the weakness of the Lintons, yet he also has the sadism of Heathcliff. Hareton is a complex case. He has the eyes of Catherine but like Heathcliff, he has a childhood deprived of loving care and education. He is the son of Hindley but has filial love for Heathcliff who had destroyed his father and also his own life.

Irrelevant Details Eliminated

      The structural concentration and unity arise out of the fact that there is minimum of plot digressions: "we are not told why old Earnshaw has to go to Liverpool: the only important function of that marathon walk is to bring Heathcliff to Wuthering Heights. Cathy by some means gets messages to Edgar where a conventional novelist would have expertise on the means used. The correspondence here is essential, it is getting Edgar to the Heights that matters. On the other hand, the clandestine correspondence between the second Catherine and Linton, via the milk boy is carefully described, for here it is an important mesh in the net that Heathcliff is weaving to catch Catherine and revenge himself on the Lintons."

Geographical Concentration

      The novel is circumscribed within a narrow well-defined geographical area and this gives it a structural unity. It is a world limited by Wuthering Heights to the north and Thrushcross Grange to the south-west with the chapel, churchyard and Gimmerton brook between them. The story never ventures beyond this geographical area. We never follow any of the characters and their activities outside this area. We do not see Hindley's life outside the Heights, he just reappears on his father's death with a wife whom, we do not know where he has found. Heathcliff disappears for three years and there is no mention of where or how he had been. We pick up his life once again, only when he returns to the Heights. There is no description of where Heathcliff and Isabella marry and all we hear of it from Isabella is that her heart "returned to Thrushcross Grange in twenty-four, hours after I left it." Isabella's later flight from the Heights and disappearance is also not dwelt on. As a critic comments "The events in the novel stem from the moment that old Mr. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff into the world, carried under his coat from the streets of Liverpool; the central conflict steins from the moment when the first Catherine and Heathcliff peep in through the parlor window at the Grange. The novel is resolved with the second Catherine and Hareton going to live at Thrushcross Grange, leaving the Heights 'to the use of such ghosts as choose to inhabit if. There is no sense of geographical or social world outside this — it never occurs for example, to Edgar Linton that his daughter might find a husband other than Linton Heathcliff."

Symmetry and Parallelism

      The striking attribute of the structure is the symmetry of the pedigree of the two families, according to Charles Percy Sanger. Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw at Wuthering Heights and Mr. and Mrs. Linton at Thrushcross Grange each have one son and one daughter. Mr. Linton's son Edgar marries Mr. Earnshaw's daughter Catherine. The only child of Edgar and Catherine, also named Catherine subsequently marries successively her two cousins—Linton who is the grandson of the original Mr. and Mrs. Linton, and Hareton who is the grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw. The older Catherine lived at the Heights and goes to the Grange after her marriage to Linton and second Catherine lived at the Grange and moved to Heights as a consequence to her marriage to Linton Heathcliff and then again returns to the Grange after her second marriage to Hareton. This symmetry and parallelism is a striking feature of the story which deals with three generations.

The Symbolic Pattern - Unity of Theme and Structure

      Motifs and images are constantly repeated to give a symbolic pattern which unites the theme and structure. To take one instance: Nelly discovers Isabella's elopement when she discovers Isabella's dog Fanny, suspended by a handkerchief and nearly at its last gasp. It marks the beginning of Isabella's disillusionment as she comes to discover Heathcliff's true nature. Thematically the incident echoes back to the image used by Catherine who tells Isabella: "I’d as soon put that little canary into the park on a winter's day, as recommend you to bestow your heart on him". Isabella's world is the cozy and artificial world of the cage-bird or the lapdog, but she blinds herself disastrously to the fierce, wolfish, wild nature of Heathcliff. The theme is ironically repeated in the dog-image that Heathcliff uses to describe Isabella, the first time we see them after the marriage "I've sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention in my experiments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing back". Later, Linton, their son, is seen by Nelly as a frightened and fawning dog before his father. The theme is reinforced in Isabella's last glimpse of Wuthering Heights when she sees Hareton — Heathcliff's spiritual son: "Who was hanging a litter of puppies from a chair back in the doorway''. These symbols act as structural unifiers — one action reminding us of another—at the same time as they define and universalize oppositions between characters and their behavior.

The Structural Unity of the Two Relationships in the Novel

      There is a precise balance between the pleasant and the unpleasant, the normal and the abnormal in the novel. In the first part of the novel, Heathcliff comes as the destructive element, destroying the calm and order of the world of the Earnshaws and Lintons. At the end of the novel, at the height of Heathcliff's revenge, there is a turn - a change in Heathcliff which leads to the re-establishment of the cosmic harmony. With Heathcliff's death and the marriage of Hareton and Catherine, the novel comes full circle and the calm of the Grange reigns once again as the young couple leave the Heights and make their residence at the Grange. The relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff and the second Catherine and Hareton have both, points of similarity and dissimilarity. The second relationship can be viewed as the projection of the first relationship into the sphere of ordinary behavior. The fierce love and passion of the Heathcliff-Catherine relationship is resolved in the harmony and gentle caring love of Hareton and the younger Catherine who through their marriage symbolize the unity at last, of the families of the Earnshaws and the Lintons.

The Confusion in the Structure

      Much of the confusion in the structure is attributed to the problem of dates as well as the device of multiple narrators. Since the story moves backward and forward in time, it leaves a confused impression, especially since Emily Bronte does not specifically mention the dates directly. The narrative perspective changes from Lockwood to Nelly, quite a few times and there is the interpolated narration of Isabella as well as Zillah. There is also a confusion in names of the second generation. The daughter of Edgar and Catherine is also named Catherine while the son of Heathcliff and Isabella is named Linton (the family name of Edgar). All these go to make the novel a confusing one, on the first reading.


      It is true that the structure of the plot of Wuthering Heights seems to suffer from a certain awkwardness and confusion. But a careful study reveals the artistic and intellectual symmetry of the book and the kill of Emily Bronte in successfully using the device of the two narrators.

      However, the defects outlined above disappear on a careful reading. In fact, the device of the two narrators adds to the coherence of the story spread over three generations. Secondly, a careful study of the novel reveals a logical precision in the dating of all events in the novel. The device of antithesis and parallelism, of thematic unity and symbolic pattern in fact make the structure of Wuthering Heights "extremely definite" and coherent.

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