The main focus of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is the romance between Heathcliff and Catherine. The love between these two causes pain and suffering for anyone caught between them. Heathcliff’s motivations as a character are often unclear and left up for interpretation, especially after his beloved Catherine’s death. Towards the end of the novel, there is a scene that is used to great success to showcase Heathcliff’s mental state before his death. However, it does much more than that. Through closely examining Bronte’s word choice and the images she invokes when Heathcliff is talking about Catherine’s corpse, we can decipher what has been driving Heathcliff throughout the whole of the novel.
For context, this scene takes place after Heathcliff has been eating less and acting strangely for a period of time. When Nelly goes to talk to him about his behavior and his inevitable death Heathcliff gives the following monologue:
I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again—it is hers yet—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change, if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up—not Linton’s side, damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead—and I bribed the sexton to pull it away, when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too. I’ll have it made so, and then, by the time Linton gets to us, he’ll not know which is which” (Bronte 288).
While this is an extreme scene that may turn the stomach of some readers, it is a pivotal scene that gives us the clearest depiction of Heathcliff as a person that we get throughout the whole of Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff’s actions here are extreme, and Bronte uses this to conjure up some brilliant imagery. Her work here is not in what is said, but what is implied between the lines. When Heathcliff describes unearthing her coffin “…when I saw her face again—it is hers yet—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change, if the air blew on it” (288). In this one line Bronte gives us the entire visual story of the scene. The image she paints of Catherine’s decomposing corpse manages to be truly unsettling without being gory or vulgar. Her use of punctuation to paint a picture of Heathcliff’s grieved reaction to seeing Catherine again is simple, but incredibly effective. From those dashes alone it is clear he is thrown off by his feelings. Heathcliff continues to say “…I struck one side of the coffin loose…and I bribed the sexton to pull it away, when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too. I’ll have it made so, and then, by the time Linton gets to us, he’ll not know which is which” (288). The imagery is powerfully symbolic, conjuring up the image of two bodies decomposing, becoming one with the dirt around them and finally mixing together in the earth. In doing this, Heathcliff will accomplish in death what he never got to in life, becoming one with the woman he loves. These lines also give an impressive image of Heathcliff’s rivalry with Edgar for Catherine’s heart. Heathcliff’s desire to become one with Catherine before Edgar shows so much of his possessiveness and pettiness, as well as the strength of his love. As strong as the imagery in this passage is, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if not for Bronte’s brilliant use of diction.
The word choice here is central to understanding both Heathcliff’s current mental state as well as his motivations as a character. When he says, “I saw her face again” rather than saying “I saw her again” Bronte is giving us insight into just how fruitless he sees his endeavors have been thus far (288). Since Catherine’s death Heathcliff has made it his mission to claim everything related to her, from Wuthering Heights to Thrushcross Grange, even arranging for his son Linton to marry her daughter. He has worked hard to obtain all of this, and yet it has left him feeling hollow. He has surrounded himself with reminders of his beloved, but he still does not feel her presence. He begins to have a crisis shortly after Linton and the second Catherine’s marriage, stops eating, and is driven to dig up Catherine’s grave. However, even after unearthing her corpse, he is still not satisfied. “I thought…I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again—it is hers yet…” (288.) From this we can gather that as he gazes at her decomposing corpse, he doesn’t see the woman he loved, just her body. This comes as a surprise to him, as can be implied from the moment of pause in his dialogue. It seems he thought in doing this he would clear his mind, to put all he’s done in perspective. It was all for her, but while it does being him peace; it is not in the way he thought. As he looks at her body, he realizes that it is just another thing of hers, another reminder, and not the real woman. He knows that this is not what he truly desires, but he takes it anyway. He strikes a side of the coffin open so they can becomes one in the earth, as if to complete his capture of the earthly, physical her. However, Heathcliff believes that Catherine’s soul is the true her, and that it cannot be contained. With this in mind his actions up until now make sense. He has been trying to capture her soul by capturing the things associated with her, and when he tries to take her body back by force he comes face to face with the fact that she is gone. It becomes apparent to him that the only way for them to be reunited is in the afterlife. This is when he decides it is time to die.
This scene gives us a small, but effective glimpse into Heathcliff’s mind, allowing us to really see how his thought process works. Through carefully chosen wording and powerful imagery Bronte manages to clearly explain his motives without being too surface with it. Heathcliff is a man ruined by love. He is a man who has spent his whole life trying to love this woman, and only in disgracing her grave does his soul finally find peace. He is a complex human, and while his arc could have been completed without this glimpse into his psyche, it would not have been nearly as effective.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. England: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.