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The Significance of Narrators and Narrative Structure in the Works of the Brontës

Essay 2016 8 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


‘If I am to follow my story in true gossip’s fashion, I had better go on’ (Wuthering Heights). Consider the significance of narrators and narrative structure in the works of the Brontës.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was written between October 1845 and June 1846 and was first published in 1847 under the pen name Ellis Bell. The narrative structure in Wuthering Heights is striking. Interestingly, there is not only one narrator. The main narration, narrated by Nelly Dean, is embedded into Lockwood’s report of events. In addition, Lockwood finds a diary entry from Catherine in the beginning and quotes parts of it, and Nelly includes the contents of a letter written by Isabella, as well as several eyewitness accounts into her narrative. The following essay aims to identify the significance of Lockwood and Nelly as narrators in Wuthering Heights, and to work out their impacts on the reader. There will first be a general examination of the narrative style of Lockwood and Nelly respectively, and then the effect of these styles on the reader will be examined in more detail. An attempt will then be made to prove that Wuthering Heights is in fact a story about exclusion and deficient sympathy between human beings, and that the narrative voices serve to demonstrate and highlight these elements.

The first account the reader is presented with is by Mr Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange. His narrative takes the form of a diary entry, starting in 1801 and ending around September 1802. After getting to know the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and spending a night there – during which Lockwood encounters Catherine’s ghost and reads parts of her diary – he becomes interested in the story of the people that live and used to live at Wuthering Heights.

There are striking parallels between Lockwood’s physical and emotional approach to Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants. These cannot only be found during the dream scene with Catherine, but on every occasion that he enters the house. At the very beginning, hardly knowing anything about its inhabitants, Lockwood finds the gates of Wuthering Heights locked, has to climb a gate and ‘knock[s] vainly for admittance’ (9). In addition, the pathway leading up to the entrance is ‘bordered with straggling gooseberry bushes’. He then learns about the history of Wuthering Heights and, when he enters the place for the last time, he can make his way in easily. ‘I had neither to climb a gate, nor to knock – it yielded by my hand’ (324). He can see ‘every pebble on the path’ and finds ‘both doors and lattices […] open’ (324). He is received much more friendlily than the first time, hearing ‘a voice, as sweet as a silver bell’ (324) instead of ‘an undertone of peevish displeasure’ (4) while approaching the house. In Nelly Dean, he also has an ‘old friend’ (325) waiting for him. However, apart from Nelly, he still does not have any relationship to anyone at Wuthering Heights. In contrast to his physical approach to Wuthering Heights, he cannot approach it on an emotional level. This is shown by his inability to stay: After listening to the sequel of Nelly’s story, he ‘felt irresistibly impelled to escape them again’ (356) and leaves through the back door in the kitchen (356). In the same way that he cannot stay at Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, too, is not a real home to him. Despite being its master, there is no room for him on his arrival (cf. 323). Ultimately, Lockwood fails to understand the motives underlying the behaviour of the tenants of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Through Nelly’s story, he can get closer to the tenants and their home, but he never understands them fully, and therefore can’t stay. The reasons for this failure will be examined further.

From the very beginning, Lockwood is divided from the people of Wuthering Heights in several ways. From what the reader can gather from the content of Lockwood’s narration and its rather formal style, Lockwood is a gentleman from the city and not used to spending time with people from the countryside: ‘It is astonishing how sociable I feel myself compared with him.’ (p.8), and later ‘I began to feel unmistakably out of place in that pleasant family circle’ (p.15). He is unable to free himself from the boundaries imposed upon him by his superior social position. This becomes apparent through his manner of speech. His sentences are complex and are frequently divided by colons, semi-colons, and dashes, making his style appear more educated: ‘Mr Lockwood, your new tenant, sir – I do myself the honour of calling as soon as possible, after my arrival, to express the hope that I have not inconvenienced you by my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange’ (p.3). His way of talking is in remarkable contrast to the tenants of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff, for example, merely commands ‘with closed teeth’ ‘walk in!’ (p.3), and Joseph’s strong, local accent is even more striking. Lockwood’s use of numerous words of Latinate origin (“misanthropist” (3), “solitary” (3), “soliloquised (4) “interpose” (7), “manifested” (4), and others) highlight his rather formal and more educated style.

Lockwood’s narration is overall very factual and more descriptive than emotional. He devotes himself to giving very detailed accounts of the interior of Wuthering Heights and the appearances and behaviours of its tenants (e.g. p.5-6), but falls short on giving the reader a detailed description of his feelings or the emotions of the people surrounding him. The most intimate revelation of Lockwood’s emotions is given when he talks about a love affair he has had earlier, ‘while enjoying a month of fine weather at the sea-coast’ (6) and even here he concludes rather matter-of-factly: ‘By this curious turn of disposition I have gained the reputation of deliberate heartlessness, how undeserved, I alone can appreciate.’ (6).

In order to fully understand the story behind the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, it takes an emotional approach and a genuine interest in peoples’ lives, both of which the analytic Lockwood lacks. Heathcliff’s lifestyle and behaviour, for example, can only be understood by an attempt to sympathise with, and understand the sentiments underlying, his behaviour, namely his feeling of exclusion and his love for Catherine. Lockwood is not able to sympathize or to understand people who are different from him. He enters Wuthering Heights under the assumption of finding people of equal social status, or at least people with a lifestyle similar to his own. He thinks of the countryside as a ‘misanthropist’s Heaven’ (3) and of Heathcliff as a ‘capital fellow’, and when this assumption is proven false, he is not able to communicate any further. He views himself as beyond the people living at the Grange and at Wuthering Heights and does not have a genuine interest in them. On trying to get information from Nelly, he reflects that ‘she was not a gossip, I feared, unless about her own affairs and those could hardly interest me.’ (34), and while reading Catherine’s diary entries (which would offer him the unique chance to get a direct account of the story behind the people at Wuthering Heights), he is so little interested in her that he ‘sank back in bed and fell asleep’ (24). His lack of empathy, and his failure to understand that the tenants of Wuthering Heights do not have ‘normal relations with each other’ prevent him from getting a full understanding of his surroundings.[1]

Interestingly, Lockwood manages to escape from this closed-mindedness and to get closer to the people at Wuthering Heights in his dreams. Lockwood spends the night in Catherine’s old bedroom, the spatial centre of Wuthering Heights.[2] It is here that he encounters Catherine’s ghost and dreams of Jades. Being both physically and emotionally in the centre of Wuthering Heights during his sleep, Lockwood can interact with the supernatural, but he quickly dismisses his experience after waking as ‘merely, the branch of a firtree that touched my lattice’ (26). He returns to his analytical, almost stoic approach of rationalizing his surroundings, thus ‘rooting [his dreams] firmly in his waking world’.[3] Until the very end, he is not able to get closer to the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights or to understand the story of their life. In the same way that he fails in getting the young Catherine to be his wife, he fails to perceive anything other than what he wants to be true or what he can perceive with his rational thinking: ‘[I] wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’ (356).

Not only does Lockwood draw nearer the supernatural world in his dreams, he also becomes more like the persons whose story he is interested in. When Catherine’s ghost attacks him, he becomes “cruel” and attacks her physically, calling Catherine a “creature”. Just like Heathcliff, ‘Lockwood, too, can become violent […] when he thinks he is threatened’[4]. As opposed to the reader, Lockwood fails to perceive these similarities between himself and Heathcliff, and he therefore misses once again the chance to fully understand the occurrences at Wuthering Heights.

Nelly’s language is much simpler than Lockwood’s. Instead of giving detailed descriptions of people, she allows the characters to introduce themselves to the reader by quoting them directly. By doing so, Nelly appears to be a ‘perceiver far closer to a full understanding of the mysteries at Wuthering Heights’ than Lockwood.[5] Generally speaking, Nelly’s narration is more emotional than analytical. She gives the reader (and Lockwood) a very biased report of the people at Wuthering Heights, repeatedly describing her feelings towards them –‘I own I did not like her, after her infancy was past’, and ‘I detested him just then’ (118). She tells the story the way she perceived it and her filter has a strong influence on how the reader perceives the story.

As opposed to Linton, Nelly defines herself not so much by the way she speaks, but by what she says. She thinks highly of herself, and although she calls herself ‘an elderly woman and a servant merely’ (295), it is apparent that this is not how she really thinks of herself. She calls Mr Earnshaw her ‘foster brother’ (198) and ‘early playmate’ (115), and later refers to Cathy and Hareton as ‘my children’ (339), putting herself more into the position of a family member than a servant.

The reader perceives Nelly as an amiable character. This is mainly due to her positive depiction of herself. She frequently shows how all the people at Wuthering Heights seek her advice – Isabella in her letter, Heathcliff when he asks her to ‘make me decent’ (59), both Catherines on numerous occasions and Linton when he thinks about agreeing to Linton and Cathy’s marriage (cf. 270).[6] Nelly excuses her – in some instances potentially disputable – behaviour as though always trying to show that she is a good and loyal servant: ‘That sounds ill-natured – but she was so proud’ (71) and ‘I argued, and complained, and flatly refused him […] but he forced me to’ (162).

By being presented with a first-hand report of what the characters say, the reader is not completely dependant on Nelly’s account of events. While getting a filtered version of events, the reader still remains free to question Nelly’s behaviour as well as to understand the other characters from a point of view that differs from Nelly’s. Lockwood contributes to the reader’s doubts about Nelly’s story by pointing out that they might be faulty at points. On gazing at Cathy, he remarks ‘she does not seem so amiable […] as Mrs Dean would persuade me to believe. She’s a beauty, it is true, but not an angel’ (316).


[1] Allan R Brick, ‘Wuthering Heights: Narrators, Audience, and Message’, College English, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov. 1959), p. 81.

[2] Carol Jacobs, , ‘Wuthering Heights: At the Threshold of Interpretation’, boundary 2, Vol. 7, No. 3, Revisions of the Anglo-American Tradition: Part 2 (Spring 1979), p. 51.

[3] Jacobs, p. 51.

[4] Shapiro, Arnold, ‘“Wuthering Heights” as a Victorian novel’, Studies in the Novel, Vol. 1, No. 3 ( autumn 1969), p. 289.

[5] Brick, p. 84.

[6] Gideon Shunami, ‘The unreliable narrator in Wuthering Heights’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Mar. 1973), p. 453.


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Durham University
Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë



Titel: The Significance of Narrators and Narrative Structure in the Works of the Brontës