Although little is known about the inner life of Emily Bronte, who died two years after the publication of her novel Wuthering Heights, it seems evident the work was born more of her mind than her experiences. There doesn’t seem to have been any real-life Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Irish forebears or Yorkshire neighbors. The work Bronte left behind is sparse, the one novel and several impressive but baffling poems.
But the drab life of this genteel English spinster who wrote Wuthering Heights doesn’t lessen the work; to the contrary, it makes the work even more remarkable. To realize the fiery, beautiful Catherine and the brooding, handsome Heathcliff were born entirely of the imagination means their traits were a thing of design; their characteristics were built with a purpose in mind, and each of their idiosyncrasies were a thing of choice. The only thing left to do then is decide what those choices meant and how they supported Bronte’s purposes.
Wuthering Heights did not sell well upon its initial publication and had she lived longer, Emily Bronte’s options for a subsequent novel would have been limited. Her contemporaries found the rugged sensibilities of Bronte’s characters difficult, lacking the idealistic appeal of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Therefore, it could be deduced Emily did not write for mass appeal. The Dictionary of Literary Biography states Bronte’s later poems seemed to be grappling with metaphysical questions raised by her novel.
If this is true, and Wuthering Heights was at least in part a novel where the author wished to explore ideas, a discussion of the work should in turn explore those same questions. However, the purposes of the book are not readily apparent, and like the characters within there is a certain amount of ambiguity.
Despite Cathy’s selfish nature and Heathcliff’s cruelty, they are not unattractive; both characters in some ways seem superior to others in the story. The Lintons are spoiled and weak, but the suffering of Isabella and Edgar’s devotion to his wife and daughter inspire the sympathies of readers. Like Heathcliff, its principal character, a story harsh as the moors where it takes place has managed to find a warm place in the hearts and minds of readers for generations.
In spite of its apparent dysfunction, the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff is often regarded as the romantic ideal. It resonates as a tale of deep and eternal love. Cathy’s statement, “I am Heathcliff”, speaks of a unity which other lovers have sought to emulate. Heathcliff’s plan to join with Cathy in death by the removal of coinciding sides of their coffins (Signet, 274) seems a romantic gesture in spite of the obvious grotesque element. But the novel is fraught with ambiguities such as this.
Early in the story Mr. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff to live with the family as a sibling, although no apparent relationship or other reason is given. He was to be raised as Cathy’s brother, yet incest is never considered outright when their ensuing relationship is discussed. Heathcliff’s origin is unknown, and although he appears to be a gypsy child he later returns having made a fortune. But no source of that fortune is ever pinned down.
In a similar fashion, other characters add to the list of ambiguities. After his father’s death, Hindley returns home with an unannounced wife of unknown origin (Signet, 48) who has an unexplained fear of dying. The servant Joseph appears deeply religious and devout, but is one of the most cynical characters in the story. Later Hareton has lived a life of neglect and abuse, from Heathcliff and later from Catherine, but he still seems to maintain affection for Heathcliff and easily forgives Catherine when she changes her mind. Each of these hypocrisies is accepted as normal within the context of the story.
But these little hypocracies are similar to those we face in real life and may be one of the keys to Wuthering Heights’ overall success as a piece of literature. While Emily’s sister Charlotte had more immediate success with the more straightforward themes of Jane Eyre, through the years Wuthering Heights has received more attention and study. It might then be assumed that the book's ambiguities touch something deeper, and possibly closer to the heart.