Heathcliff Is Not the Villain, Money Is
How wealth and inheritance wreaks havoc in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights
Kate Bush really mis-sold Wuthering Heights in her whimsy 1970s song of the same name. I still love the song and listen to it regularly, but by the time I read the Emily Brontë novel, I couldn’t help but feel the song focused too much on the fleeting romance between Cathy and Heathcliff when that isn’t really what the book was about.
The novel was sitting on my bookshelf for years; I had always planned to read it but never found the right time. But on a rainy February night with nothing urgent on the reading list, I thought I’d give it a go. The Yorkshire moors' moody atmosphere and the whirlwind romance are massive pull factors that still have me entering half-conscious fantasies every time it rains. Even in the urban greyscale of South London, broodily wandering with the wind against my face brought me straight back to Haworth.
However, I started to think about our collective perception of Wuthering Heights. We lean on Kate Bush’s portrayal of the novel, which is fair enough (her song is 4 minutes long, whereas Bronte’s novel took me a week to finish). But as a result, we tend to focus excessively on the romantic aspect.
“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” is the adorable quote that still floats around social media as we dream of our soulmates. Unfortunately, we, therefore, forget that Cathy and Heathcliff are fundamentally unlikeable characters.
All Romantic Men Are Not Created Equal
Heathcliff is the clear villain in this story but is often fawned over like Mr Darcy in the sense of his broodiness, aloofness, and generally antisocial demeanour. But I don’t remember Mr Darcy raising a child to be illiterate to hide the fact that his inheritance had been stolen, holding his dead lover’s daughter hostage until she marries his son (her cousin), or excavating said lover’s coffin as he slowly loses his mind. Heathcliff is definitely his own character who we should not so easily compare to other male love interests.
While he might be the villain, there is definitely a more sinister monster looming throughout the novel: wealth and property. This would be a very different story if Heathcliff, Cathy, Earnshaw, and the Lintons did not have money and assets under their belts.
Heathcliff and Cathy would have married if wealth were not such an overriding issue. Every reader knows that they are essentially soulmates, but Cathy chooses to marry Edgar Linton as he will provide her with a much more comfortable life and a better name for her and her children.
Cathy never pretends that love can be her priority; financial security comes first. We may resent her hard-headedness, but when your wellbeing is unconditionally in the hands of your nearest male chaperone, we can understand her concerns.
Money Problems and Troubles with Women
Heathcliff’s anger at the world is fully justified, having experienced ostracisation and abuse due to his darker skin and his adoption into the Earnshaw family. Many film adaptations of Wuthering Heights have suffered due to the erasure of Heathcliff’s race. It makes out that his actions are purely due to infatuation over Cathy and people simply not liking him, rather than a deliberate exclusion based on his race. However, money and property are the flawed systems that Heathcliff exploits to exact revenge on those who wronged him.
The patriarchal flow of wealth immediately put Cathy, and her daughter in a vulnerable position as their wealth would never fully belong to them. In the early 19th century, marriage would often leave women economically powerless, handing any of their wealth and assets to their husbands if it didn’t already belong to their fathers. When Heathcliff targeted Cathy Linton after her father’s death, the forced marriage to Linton Heathcliff practically trapped her in the Wuthering Heights house. Heathcliff may have been taking his need for revenge too far, but it was the financial system that was already in place that enabled his malice.
In Wuthering Heights, a patriarchal economic system not only tore soulmates apart but incentivised the abuse and neglect of boys so that they wouldn’t be aware of their exploitation. Needless to say, it inherently abused girls as their financial situation would always be precarious and relying on their most immediate male provider.
Of course, historically, this wouldn’t have been the exact case for all women and the inability to work stifled middle-class women in particular. In contrast, working-class women often worked and spent their earnings on their family before, during, and after industrialisation. However, Wuthering Heights demonstrates the danger of this system to women and how easy it was to target and exploit women's precarious position in early 19th century Britain.