Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: Themes, Language and Style

Themes/Motifs: Most of the themes in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights come in contrastive pairs like love/hate, life/death, oppression/liberation, loyalty/disloyalty. Others are not necessarily paired and they include revenge, cruelty to human and animal, the triumph of good over evil, religious hypocrisy, class conflict, marriage, child neglect and parental ir/responsibility, among others.

Love/hate: The love/hate theme runs through the plot of the novel. This is reflected in the relationship among the characters. For instance, Catherine and Hindley start off hating Heathcliff when he is newly brought to the house by Mr Earnshaw. In the course of the novel, Catherine develops love for Heathcliff and this love, though stormy and passionate, is to remain throughout life and, perhaps, after death. Hindley, on the other hand, sustains his hatred of Heathcliff throughout life. Mr Earnshaw loves Heathcliff, whereas Mrs Earnshaw does not.

The relationship between young Catherine and Hareton is characterised by love-hate ambivalence. Catherine initially despises Hareton for his illiteracy and crude manners, but after the death of Linton Heathcliff, she gradually warms up to him. At first, Hareton is not so inclined to reciprocate Catherine’s love gestures, having been previously hurt by her. But as the novel draws to an end, it is seen that they are going to be the best couple ever.

Isabella starts off being infatuated with Heathcliff. She proudly declares how much she loves him to Catherine and ignores all warnings and entreaties by Catherine and Nelly not to encourage a relationship with Heathcliff, let alone marrying him. Isabella turns out to hate Heathcliff after the marriage when she has really come to realise his true nature. She even runs away from him and lives apart from him until death.

Life/Death: The dialectics of life and death is an important theme and motif in Wuthering Heights. It gives the novel its existential and narrative rhythms. In the novel, one is born, lives to a certain age and then dies, perhaps after giving birth to or fathering another human being, who will repeat the process. This is what happens to Mr and Mrs Earnshaw, Hindley and Frances, Mr and Mrs Linton, Edgar and Catherine, Isabella and Heathcliff. The multiple deaths in the novel coupled with the sad depiction of the human condition reinforce the notion of the work as a tragedy.

Oppression/Liberation: The theme of oppression is juxtaposed with that of liberation in Wuthering Heights. Hindley oppresses Heathcliff until he is able to liberate himself. Heathcliff also oppresses Isabella until she runs away from him. Heathcliff’s oppression of young Catherine and Hareton only ends when the oppressor dies.  

Loyalty/Disloyalty: Hareton displays loyalty in the novel. Even though he is wronged by Heathcliff, he remains loyal to him to the end. In fact, he is the only person that mourns Heathcliff when he dies. Mrs Dean’s loyalty is constantly in doubt in the novel. This is because she is seen to engage in double standards and acts of disloyalty to her masters. She withholds information from Edgar about Heathcliff’s secret visits to the house when the former is not around. She also aids Heathcliff in arranging meetings with Catherine. In fact, it can be said that Nelly is responsible for some the tragic events in the novel since she does not warn her masters on time about them.

Revenge: Revenge is one of the major themes in Wuthering Heights. It is seen in the actions of Heathcliff when he returns to the Heights after being absent for three years. First, he schemes Hindley out of his ownership of the Heights by luring him into debts through gambling and drinking. He also turns the young and innocent Hareton into an uneducated ruffian. Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella, as well as the manipulated and forced marriage between young Linton and young Catherine, is an act of revenge, as the marriage is meant to give Heathcliff ownership of the Grange upon Edgar’s death. Hindley’s revenge against Heathcliff for robbing him of his father’s love is seen when Hindley reduces Heathcliff to a servant after Mr Earnshaw’s death.

Cruelty to Human and Animals: Heathcliff is depicted as a mean and cruel character in the novel. He is not only cruel to human beings like Hareton, young Linton, Isabella and young Catherine, but he is also cruel to Isabella’s pet which he tries to strangle on the night of his elopement with Isabella, only for it to be rescued by Nelly. Heathcliff later boasts about this cruel act which is against the tenets of Romanticism. Hindley is also cruel to Hareton.

 The Triumph of Good over Evil: Good and evil are among the paired contrastive thematic concerns in the Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff and Hindley represent the evil forces in the novel, while young Catherine and Hareton represent the forces of good. In the end, good triumphs over evil.

Religious Hypocrisy: The theme of religious hypocrisy is exemplified in Joseph, one of the longest serving servants at the Heights, who is depicted as a religious fanatic but who cannot rise above hate and prejudice even though he preaches same to others. Nelly describes him as ‘the wearisomest, self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses on his neighbours’.  

Class Conflict: Both the Romantic and Victorian eras held fixed notions about the social status of individual in society. One either belonged to the upper class or the lower class; a noble or a peasant. But at the time the novel was written there was a chance for the individual to move up the social ladder of society as the upper middle class was emerging. By this time also, the rules that determine an individual’s social status were becoming fluid such that there were more and more people who lay claims to belonging to the gentry, aristocracy and noble class structures of society.

In the novel, Heathcliff starts out as a peasant/commoner but he manages to become gentry, one with wealth and property. Heathcliff’s low social status causes a lot of conflicts in the novel. It is the reason he is hated by the Lintons and despised by Hindley. It is the reason that Catherine refuses to marry him.

In his quest to become a gentleman, own wealth and property, Heathcliff hurts a lot of people, including Catherine whom he really loves.

Marriage: Marriage in the novel is not only for procreation; marriage, most importantly, is a means for social advancement. In marrying for social advancement, love is often sacrificed, as can be observed with Catherine. Marriage is also fate or destiny.

Child Neglect and Parental Ir/responsibility: Hareton is neglected by Hindley to the point of almost dropping him to death. But the child is accidentally saved by Heathcliff. Heathcliff neglects little Linton till he dies. He deliberately refuses to call a doctor to treat Linton because he does not want to waste money on him. Mr and Mrs Linton, Edgar and Mr Earnshaw, are seen as responsible parents.

Language and Style: Wuthering Heights is written in late modern English (1700-1900). Late modern English can be easily understood by contemporary readers. One of the major differences between late modern English and early modern English (1500-1700) is the loss of the pronominal like thou, thy, thee, which of course are not found in Wuthering Heights, especially in the speech of the frame narrators. In other words, late modern English is different from the language used in Shakespeare’s works, which exemplifies early modern English. Traces of early modern English are noted in the dialect that Joseph speaks, as well as in the diary entries of Catherine that Mr Lockwood reads in the haunted room at the Heights. This is used to infer the remnants of the past in the new age.

Use of Middle or Mean Style: The middle or mean style is beneath high or grand style. The middle style is used for entertainment purposes. Nelly narrates the story with the aim of not only informing Mr Lockwood of the history of the Heights and the people in it, but most importantly, she wants to entertain him. This explains why Mr Lockwood is taken by the story and does not want it to end even when Nelly says she has to go to bed as it is late. Notice how Nelly begins the story in chapter 4.

Before I came to live here, she commenced – waiting no further invitation to her story – I was almost always at Wuthering Heights; because my mother had nursed Mr Hindley Earnshaw, that was Hareton’s father, and I got used to playing with the children: I ran errands too, and helped to make hay, and hung about the farm ready for anything that anybody would set me to. One fine summer morning – it was the beginning of harvest, I remember – Mr Earnshaw, the old master, came down stairs, dressed for a journey; and after he had told Joseph what was to be done during the day, he turned to Hindley, and Cathy, and me – for I sat eating my porridge with them – and he said, speaking to the son, ‘Now, my bonny man, I’m going to Liverpool today, what shall I bring you . . .

A scrutiny of the extract above, as well as the dominant expressions in the main text of the novel, indicates that the novel is written mostly in demotic style, hypotactic style and periodic sentences.

Demotic Style: Demotic style describes the ordinary, conversational and everyday speech of characters in a work of art. This is revealed in the conversations between Nelly and Mr Lockwood, Heathcliff and Catherine, young Catherine and Hareton, Joseph’s dialect, et cetera. Note the following dialogue between Mr Lockwood and Nelly:

  • And who is that Earnshaw, Hareton Earnshaw, who lives with Mr Heathcliff? Are they relations?
  • No; he is the late Mrs Linton’s nephew.
  • The young lady’s cousin, then?’
  • Yes; and her husband was her cousin also: one on the mother’s, the other on the father’s side: Heathcliff married Mr Linton’s sister.

Hypotactic Style: Hypotactic style is denoted by the use of subordinating conjunctions in an expression. A good example is the first quote in which Nelly begins her frame narration:

Before I came to live here, she commenced – waiting no further invitation to her story – I was almost always at Wuthering Heights; because my mother had nursed Mr Hindley Earnshaw . . .

‘Before’ and ‘because’ are examples of subordinating conjunction in the above expressions. The opposite of hypotactic style is paratactic style which is denoted by the use of coordinating junctions.

Periodic Sentence: The periodic sentence is used to create a formal or oratorical effect in writing. In periodic sentence, the parts or components of the sentence are put together in such a way that the close of its syntactic structure remains suspended until the end of the sentence.

Again, the quote that refers to Nelly’s story is a good example of periodic sentence as the closure of the sentence is suspended. Example:

One fine summer morning – it was the beginning of harvest, I remember – Mr Earnshaw, the old master, came down stairs, dressed for a journey; and after he had told Joseph what was to be done during the day, he turned to Hindley, and Cathy, and me – for I sat eating my porridge with them – and he said, speaking to the son, ‘Now, my bonny man, I’m going to Liverpool today, what shall I bring you?

The opposite of periodic sentence is non-periodic sentence, which is also known as the loose sentence.

Yorkshire Dialect: It is important to note that characters in the novel use language according to their social stations. The Yorkshire dialect is mostly associated with Joseph, an old servant of the Earnshaws at the Heights. The language represents the vestiges of the past that still lurk in the present. The language is also fitting to the old nature of the Heights itself with its history dating back to the 1500s. Joseph is barely educated, old and of low social station which explains his use of the dialect and resistance to change both of attitude and behaviour. An example of the Yorkshire dialect is noted in chapter 20 when Joseph serves little Linton with milk-porridge and Linton says that he cannot eat it:

  • ‘Cannot ate it? . . . But Maister Hareton nivir ate nowt else, when he wer a little ‘un; und what wer gooid enough fur him’s gooid enough fur yah, Aw’s rather think!
  • ‘I shan’t eat it!’ answered Linton snappishly. ‘Take it away.’
  • Joseph snatched up the food indignantly, and brought it to us.
  • ‘Is there owt ails th’ victuals?’ he asked, thrusting the tray under Heathcliff’s nose.
  • ‘What should ail them?’ he said.
  • ‘Wah!’ answered Joseph, ‘yon dainty chap says he cannot ate ‘em. But Aw guess it’s raight! His mother were just soa – we wer a’most too mucky tuh sow t’ corn for makking her bread.’

The other aspects of style in the novel include the use of symbols, the use of contrast, the use of irony, foreshadowing and the use of frame narrative. The symbols in the novel include the moors, the Heights and the Grange, characters as symbols, ghosts and pets/dogs, among others. The contrast in the novel exists at the level of themes/motifs, setting and characterisation. The irony in the novel cuts across verbal, dramatic and situational irony. Most of Catherine’s statements, when she is sick after the quarrel with Edgar over Heathcliff, foreshadow not only her death but also other future events in the novel. Most of Heathcliff’s statements to Nelly after he had an accident involving his gun constitute foreshadowing.   


  1. For how many years is Heathcliff absent from Wuthering Heights?
  2. How many years does Hindley spend at the university?
  3. Hindley’s wife is by name —————–
  4. Do you think that Mr Earnshaw made a mistake by bringing Heathcliff into the house? Give reason for your answer.
  5. What do the moors represent in Wuthering Heights?

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2 thoughts on “Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: Themes, Language and Style

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