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Wuthering Heights: Is Heathcliff a Gypsy?

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2000 13 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur




1. Introduction

2. Gypsy Stereotypes With Reference to the Character Heathcliff
2.1. Heathcliff’s Arrival at Wuthering Heights
2.2. Gypsy Feature’s in Heathcliff’s Actions
2.2.1. Running Away
2.2.2. Gambling
2.2.3. Mysteriousness

3. The narration of the novel

4. Heathcliff’s Representation Through Nelly Dean

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Wuthering Heights” is Emily Bronte’s (1818-1848) only novel and was published in 1847. It became tremendously popular and is today looked upon as one the most important works of its period especially in terms of describing nature. It is also interesting, though, to examine the description of its characters, especially that of Heathcliff, whose descent and parentage is not unveiled in the story. The reader is tempted into thinking that he might be a Gypsy by heritage.

The Question, whether the main character of Emily Bronte’s novel “Wuthering Heights”, the foundling Heathcliff, is a Gypsy, must certainly be approached out of two different angles. The first thing to discuss is his mere appearance in the novel and the second thing is the examination of how Emily Bronte presents him.

The difference of these two ways of approaching the question is one of the very basic features of literature as it is understood in our culture: what does the reader perceive when perusing a text and what is the author’s intention for the reader’s perception. It is certainly difficult to trace down what the author’s intention really is and to separate that from one’s own understanding of a piece of literature but one may at least try to approach this task by looking at the story first and then examine the way of representation.

Thus, the first step in this paper will be to show which features classify Heathcliff as being a Gypsy in the fashion of the stereotypical Gypsy of 19th century literature and which features might oppose such a view. The second step will be to describe Emily Bronte’s way of representation.

2. Gypsy Stereotypes With Reference to the Character Heathcliff

The novel by Emily Bronte is certainly far from being considered to be a Gypsy-tale but its date of publishing locates it at a time when those were in fashion and therefore might have had an impression on this piece of literature. Numerous examples from “Wuthering Heights” strengthen this argument, as well in Heathcliff’s doing as in the reactions of the people surrounding him.

2.1. Heathcliff’s Arrival at Wuthering Heights

The introduction of who later turns out to be the main character of the novel is quite an unusual one. Mr. Earnshaw, then master at the manor “Wuthering Heights” decided one day to take a 120 mile walk to Liverpool and back. The reader is never told what his business there might have been. When he returned to his house, he brought with him a young boy, whom he carried within his coat. This is the first appearance of Heathcliff.

An author as precise as Emily Bronte would rarely have left the reader in the dark referring to the reason for Mr. Earnshaw's journey, if it was not for a purpose. The reader wonders why a man who owns a farmhouse would walk such a long way instead of saddling a horse or going by carriage. There might have been something he wanted to punish himself for and his walk served as penance. The bringing of a foundling, as he classified the boy, is even more puzzling. Connecting the two things, one might come to the conclusion that the boy is his unlawful son whom he wants to give shelter.

At first, this does not seem to be in accordance with the view of Heathcliff being a Gypsy, because in 19th century literature, one typical feature in connection with Gypsies was the stealing of a child from civilised people by Gypsies. In this case, things seem to be reversed: Mr. Earnshaw steals an apparently homeless child (“starving, and houseless,...,in the streets of Liverpool”[1] ) But bearing in mind the suspicion implied by explaining neither the reason for the journey nor the curious manner of travelling, the conclusion should be that Earnshaw got a presumably poor woman pregnant and thinks it to be his duty to provide a decent home for his own flesh and blood. This does certainly not already make the foundling to be of Gypsy heritage, for his mother could have been anything, even a prostitute, but a Gypsy. In any case, if Earnshaw was his father and his mother was a Gypsy this would certainly make him only a half-Gypsy.

The first description of Heathcliff’s outward appearance is another crucial thing to mention. Staying with the stereotype, Gypsies were supposed to be dark-haired, dark-skinned, dirty and wearing messy clothes. Emily Bronte describes Heathcliff like this.

“I had a look at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk: indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s; yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish nobody could understand.”2

The only missing feature is the dark skin but there is a hint at the lack of education, Gypsies were supposed to have had, expressed by the fact that nobody could understand what the child was saying, even though it looked as if it should have been old enough in order to be able to talk.

The same passage also reveals the first explicit classification of Heathcliff to be a Gypsy through the words of Earnshaws wife, who, naturally, was shocked at the sight of what her husband had brought with him:

“...she did fly up, asking how he could fashion to bring that Gypsy brat into the house...”[3]

This is certainly no more than the reaction of a stunned person at something she is disgusted with but it would also not be correct to overlook this utterance completely, since the first appearance of a character is definitely supposed to leave a certain impression on the reader.

Another thing with the foundling is the name he was given. “Heathcliff” seems to be a name connected with nature, which would be well in accordance with what was considered to be a typical Gypsy name, because names like that have often been used in Gypsy tales of the 19th Century, e.g. “Silver Sand”, “Hill Gypsies” in The Raiders by S.R. Crocket (1850’s); “Sapengro” (meaning snake-catcher) and “Flaming Tinman” in Lavengro by George Borrow (1851); “Wilderspin” in Aylwin by Theodore Watts-Dunton (1898).

There is another quality to the name Heathcliff, because one can easily detect an allusion to the word “heathen”, another hint at his illegitimate birth. The second syllable “cliff” might be an early hint at the foundling eventually becoming the downfall of the Earnshaws later in the story but also to his rough manners and his ferocity.

2.2. Gypsy Features in Heathcliff’s Actions

Up to now, all the arguments have only considered what the people at the manor thought of Heathcliff and what that might imply in the reader’s mind. Heathcliff’s actions are also apt to make one assume him to have a Gypsy-heritage in him, following the stereotype presented in contemporary Gypsy-literature.

2.2.1. Running Away

The first thing which reveals a typical Gypsy trait is Heathcliff’s running away. The idea is that if Gypsies are basically constantly moving and therefor in a sense homeless since the term “home” does not only refer to a place that provides shelter but a place that is inherent with a persons identity, a place someone belongs to. Heathcliff did not consider Wuthering Heights as his home and therefor tried to escape it. This can be seen as an analogy to the nature of Gypsies.

The first time he ran away from the manor was when he and Catherine visited the grounds of Thrushcross Grange, another manor in their neighbourhood (p 53-54). More significant, though, is the second occasion when Heathcliff ran away from Wuthering Heights and Catherine in order to eventually return as a rich man (p 82-83). This marked the turning point in the story: Heathcliff, disappointed by Catherine’s change of mind, decided to stop submitting to Hindley Earnshaw, new master of the house, and ran away .

Other occasions strengthening this argument are his sleeping out of doors after his return to Wuthering Heights as a rich man (he could have afforded to pay for a room in the nearby town but did not do so, p 153) and staying outdoors previously to his death (p 270/271).

2.2.2. Gambling

Gambling and fortune-telling has been considered to be a typical Gypsy-feature in English literature of the 19th century, with fortune-telling being the skill chiefly connected to women. This trait also plays a part in Emily Bronte’s novel. Heathcliff is said to have deprived Hindley Earnshaw, his former oppressor, of his manor “Wuthering Heights” through gambling. Obviously he had the better skills (p 163/164). This could be another Gypsy-feature presented in the novel.

At this point, the reader can imagine that this could also have been the skill that had earned him the fortune he was said to have owned when he returned after his absence. The reader will never know for sure and another thought presented in the novel is that Heathcliff had been in military service, which would definitely contradict the theory that he is a Gypsy.

2.2.3. Mysteriousness

The last thing to mention is a certain degree of mysteriousness surrounding the character of Heathcliff throughout the novel. This is significant since this is also often cited in 19th century literature when it comes to descriptions of Gypsies.

The first obvious hint at something mysterious connected with Heathcliff is his catching Hindley’s baby:

“Heathcliff arrived underneath just at the critical moment; by a natural impulse, he arrested his descent, and setting him on his feet, looked up to discover the author of the accident.”[4]

The curious thing is that he saved Hindley’s son from death, even though was oppressed badly by him. The “natural impulse” may certainly be interpreted as being merely accidental but this does not work well with a piece of fiction.

I have already mentioned Heathcliff’s return to Wuthering Heights as a rich man and the fact that it is never revealed where and how he had earned his fortunes. This and the myth about his origin and parentage add to the mysteriousness of his character just as his digging out Catherine’s body after her death (p 241). Even his introduction to the novel, being brought in as a child found by a rich man while being on a 120 mile walk, is a complete mystery.

The most strikingly mysterious thing is Heathcliff’s own death, though. He underwent a sudden change the day before he deceased:

“ ‘But he looked so different from his usual look that I stopped a moment to stare at him.’

‘How?’ he inquired.

‘Why, almost bright and cheerful. No, almos t nothing—very much excited, and wild and glad !’ she replied.”[5]

For the first time in the book, the main character is described as cheerful but in a way that suggests a type of cheerfulness apart from the usual understanding, especially considering that this happens a day previous to his death. When he has finally died, the description of his appearance is as follows:

“Mr. Heathcliff was there – laid on his back. His eyes met mine so keen and fierce, I started; and then he seemed to smile. I could not think him dead: but his face and throat were washed with rain; the bedclothes dripped, and he was perfectly still. The lattice, flapping to and fro, had grazed one hand that rested on the sill; no blood trickled from the broken skin, and when I put my fingers to it, I could doubt no more: he was dead and stark.”[6]

This account of his looks when he had died add perfectly to the picture of a mysterious person. There seems to be something supernatural to Heathcliff and even as a dead man he still left a lively impression on the one who found him dead, his former nurse Nelly Dean. He did not bleed and even more striking: his eyes met hers, not the other way around, which would have been more appropriate.

All of this contributes to an overall picture of a very special character. In terms of his features presented in the novel, it is quite clear that Heathcliff appears as somebody with Gypsy heritage if one follows the stereotypical view of Gypsies represented in English literature of that time. This does certainly not mean that Emily Bronte saw Gypsies in that way, herself.

3. The Narration of the Novel

There is a difference between what is told in the novel about Heathcliff and what the author thinks about him. This difference becomes obvious by considering that Nelly Dean, nurse of Heathcliff (among others), tells the story of the foundling to a man who rented Thrush-cross Grange, one Mr. Lockwood, himself the narrator of what builds the frame to the nurse’s tale. One must not mistake her view to be that of Emily Bronte.

Mistaking Nelly Dean’s view to be that of Emily Bronte would lead to an assumption like this: coming from a religious background and being quite well educated, she must have been disgusted with the impiety and ferocity of the character Heathcliff and therefor presented him to be someone with Gypsy heritage, which was synonymous with being an outsider and a potential criminal at those times. There is hardly any moralising detectable in her novel, though. It also does not make much sense to establish a character like Nelly Dean for no other reason than portraying the author’s view of the world.

It is more likely, that there is a reason behind the selection of a first person narrative voice which is not the author herself. First of all, the narrator is not omniscient. Nelly Dean tells only what she either witnessed herself or was told to her by others. This makes the story her own from a moral point of view and furthermore causes detachment from Emily Bronte’s viewpoint. This becomes detectable in the passages when Mr. Lockwood represents the narrative voice. On one occasion, he comments on Mrs. Dean’s freewillingly telling Heathcliff’s story to him:

“Before I came to live here, she commenced – waiting for no further invitation to her story—I was always at Wuthering Heights;...”[7]

This is a slight reproach for not waiting to be asked to tell the story but just having a go. Every once in a while, the author must have thought it necessary to insert a passage of the other (that is Mr. Lockwood’s) narrative voice. Mr Lockwood is the narrator who obviously is supposed to moderate what the nurse tells. He seems to be there to repeatedly remind the reader that this is the tale of Nelly Dean and not necessarily the absolute truth, which would be the case if there would be an omniscient narrator.

It is not right, though, to suspect the whole story to be untrue because the frame, represented by Lockwood’s narration, goes well in accordance with what the nurse reports (Heathcliff is an unpleasant fellow in both perspectives and the other characters also do not differ in either one off the narrative voices). Besides, it would not make any sense to mistrust the contents of a work of fiction, because that would make it useless to read a literary work at all. Within itself, a work of fiction has to be considered to have its own reality. However, different levels of narration imply different levels of reality. In this case, the frame-story to some degree alters the reader’s position towards that of Nelly Dean. again and again, he is reminded that the narrator does not know everything. One comes to the conclusion that the author speaks through Mr. Lockwood, however, this is only an assumption.

4. Heathcliff ‘s Representation Through Nelly Dean

What the reader learns about Heathcliff is almost always told by Nelly Dean. All the details that I stated in 2) and that make him appear to have Gypsy heritage are her words. This leads to the assumption that she wants him to appear to be a Gypsy or at least a Half-Gypsy. Since those were disregarded by the rest of society and basically seen as being evil, it might be the solution she wants to imply for Heathcliff’s wild character.

This argument is strengthened by the nature of the nurse. First of all, she is a pious person which is implied by the account she gives of the servant Joseph:

“He was, and is yet most likely, the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake promises to himself and fling curses on his neighbours.”[8]

She does not detest him for his cursing in the first place but for the fact that he misuses the bible for his own purposes. This suggests that she thinks that to be his greatest fault and therefor makes her appear as a religious person even more so since religion had a far stronger influence on society in the 19th century than it does today and Nelly dean used to be responsible for children.

Knowing this, one might come to the conclusion that the nurse detests the impious and evil person Heathcliff. Since there were many stereotypes about Gypsies around at that time, it would be easy to declare that whatever makes Heathcliff appear to be Gypsy-like is Nelly Dean’s implication. The idea is that the evil man is even more evil when there seems to be some Gypsy heritage within him. This would also mean that he actually is not supposed to be a Gypsy in the author’s and therefor also in the reader’s eyes but only in the eyes of Nelly Dean.

There is something else, though, which makes that conclusion appear to be doubted. The nurse is said to be far more sophisticated than one would expect her to be:

“‘Excepting a few provincialisms of slight consequence, you have no marks of the manners, which I am habituated to consider as peculiar to your class. I am sure you have thought a great deal more than the generality of servants think...’...‘You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also:..”[9]

It is Mr. Lockwood, who assumes her to be well educated, the one who is likely to be portraying the author’s voice, a fact which makes that account even more significant. Thus, Nelly Dean’s own speech about her perusing of books alone can not be considered to be doubtful.

A well-educated person should not use stereotypes in order to characterise a person. This leads to the assumption that the nurse’s account must not be mistrusted completely. However, it remains unclear, whether Heathcliff shall appear to be a Gypsy only in the nurse’s view or also in the author’s view. It is more likely to keep a dividing line between the two, though. In Nelly Dean’s eyes, there seems to be no doubt about Heathcliff’s Gypsy heritage but the moderating figure, Mr. Lockwood, might be there in order to remind the reader that this could all be due to stereotyping and that one cannot decide for sure. The account of Nelly Dean’s mental capacities could well have the sole purpose to puzzle the reader even further because there is no doubt that there is a lot of mystery in Wuthering Heights.

Reducing the terminology of representation to “Who tells what for what purpose?” leaves two variations for Emily Bronte’s novel:

1. Nelly Dean presents a lot of Gypsy features in Heathcliff’s character in order to make him appear to be a Gypsy and thus automatically a bad person.

2. Emily Bronte lets Nelly Dean tell a lot of stereotypes in order to detach herself from stereotyping and at the same time leave room for discussing whether Heathcliff was or was not a Gypsy.

5. Conclusion

The implication of some mysterious nature in connection with Heathcliff’s character is beyond doubt and central to Emily Bronte’s novel. The date of publishing automatically locates the work at a time when Gypsy tales were much in fashion. This suggests that a character whose parentage and origin is unknown might well be a Gypsy.

The representation of that figure can well be seen as a representation of a Gypsy who became settled in the course of action, out of whatever reason. His original nature shines through now and then, when he roams through the wilderness or displays his wildness, which back then were understood to be typical Gypsy features.

I would consider this to be likely to be the author’s intention, because she could also have created a figure which is without parents and homeless but elude the typical Gypsy stereotypes of the 19th century. An example for this type of literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). He does not have any of the features of the stereotypical Gypsy except for the ragged clothes and his untidiness. Heathcliff with his dark eyes, his gambling skills, his evil nature and love for roaming around must have been suspected to be of Gypsy origin to the contemporary reader.

It remains in question, though, whether Emily Bronte wants to create a bad image of Gypsies or just used her narrator, Nelly Dean, in order to create the figure, so that she could detach herself from stereotyping.

It is interesting, that Heathcliff seems to be a Half-Gypsy. This could locate the moral of the story about his origin next to tales like Lavengro, in which the half-Gypsies are considered to be the “bad Gypsies”. The “Flaming Tinman” would be Heathcliff’s simile in that story. This would certainly still contribute to the suspicion of Nelly Dean’s stereo-typing.

If Emily Bronte is also guilty of that is, to my mind, doubtful. The presumably Half-Gypsy Heathcliff is the villain of the novel but the author eludes a clear evaluation of his character through the establishment of another narrative voice. She might not have been fond of Gypsies but she probably did not detest them, as well, because it would then have been easy for her to discredit them more strongly.

Although, it is obvious, that the fashion of Gypsy tales 19th century English literature has had an impact on the novel Wuthering Heights. Whether Heathcliff is an orphan or the illegitimate son of the old Earnshaw, the suspicion that he is of Gypsy heritage is ever-present. Emily Bronte creates her character in a manner that strongly suggest his being at least Half-Gypsy, which would be the greater disgrace for the Earnshaws (considering the social values of that time), since it would mean that the old master had had some unlawful relationship with a Gypsy woman.

In terms of representation of Gypsies in the literature of that time, this would be a rather unique example. The sublime suggestions do not stand in accordance with the condemnation of Gypsies that can be found in works like The White Gypsy by Annette Lyster or A Gypsy Against Her Will by Emma Leslie, which simply moralise about the “bad” style of living Gypsies were supposed to have had. It also does not feature any romanticising sympathy for them which can be detected in Mathew Arnold’s poem The Scholar Gypsy or in Lavengro by George Burrow. Emily Bronte abstains from both sentiments towards Gypsies and seems to merely use the mysticism of the existing stereotype in order to create tension in her novel. In this sense, I tend to assume that Heathcliff is a Gypsy by heritage but beyond the simple moralising which is part of typical Gypsy literature of the 19th century.


Bronte, Emily:

Wuthering Heights.

London, 1994

Twain, Marc:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Boston, 1974.

Thomas Ayck:

Mark Twain.

5. Aufl. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1993

Handapparat of the Hauptseminar “The Representation of Gypsies in

19th Century English Literature”, Universität Hannover, SoSe 2000.


[1] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London,1994. p. 45

[2] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London, 1994. p 45

[3] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London,1994. p 45

[4] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London, 1994. p 75

[5] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London, 1994. p 270

[6] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London, 1994. p 277

[7] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London, 1994. p 44

[8] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London, 1994. p 49

[9] Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London, 1994. p 65


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Wuthering Heights Heathcliff Gypsy



Titel: Wuthering Heights: Is Heathcliff a Gypsy?