Emily Bronte’s novel is an important work in the 19th century, particularity when describing the nature of people. One of the Characters, Heathcliff, is very interesting because his decent and parentage is never truly defined. Because of this uncertainty, the reader is lead to believe Heathcliff may have a Gypsy heritage. Gypsies were thought to be dark-haired, dark-skinned, dirty, messy and uneducated.
Gypsies were often objects of discrimination usually because they look different from the typical whites and because of their traveling lifestyle made them people without a nation or land. Heathcliff’s gypsy ways are commonly attributed to the Irish Travelers. Heathcliff’s representation is based on this native Irish gypsy group. It was a group Bronte was familiar with the history of and she was a well read individual despite her seclusion growing up.
This novel was written in a period when the theme of gypsy’s and gypsy-tales were in fashion and may have had some influence on the characterization in this novel. Heathcliff ended up in Liverpool from seeking refuge from the Great Famine of Ireland. The English look at the Irish as animals, this explains the hatred from the family toward Heathcliff. The Irish were represented as the Africans of Europe. This is an ironic representation of the combination of the Irish and the Africans because after Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is enslaved and out casted from the family. The first description of Heathcliff’s outward appearance almost exactly mimics the stereotype:
“I had a peep 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.” (36-37).
When Heathcliff looked like he was old enough to be able to talk, no one could understand what he was saying; a hint at the lack of education. The language he spoke was gibberish and his dissimilarity provoked names such as “gypsy”, “wicked boy”, “villain,” and “imp of Satan.” He quickly succumbs to the abuse and neglect he endures in his new home. Mrs. Earnshaw first suggests the Heathcliff be classified as a Gypsy with her shocking exclamation toward the “thing” her husband brought home “…asking how he could fashion to bring that Gypsy brat into the house…” (37). He is immediately disliked by both siblings Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw.
Heathcliff’s actions follow the stereotype of Gypsies in literature and suggest he was of a Gypsy heritage. Heathcliff runs away a couple of times in the novel. Gypsies do not create a stationary home to live in. The group constantly moves and never defines an exact place to belong to. Wuthering Heights was not a home to Heathcliff and he tried to escape it by running away. The first time Heathcliff ran away, he ran to the grounds of Thrushcross Grange with Catherine.
The second time Heathcliff ran away, he disappeared away from Wuthering Heights when his love, Catherine, decides to marry Edgar Linton. By running away, he also ran away from the servitude he was forced into by Hindley. Heathcliff runs away from Wuthering Heights and undergoes a transformation into a gentleman.
When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after three years, he is completely transformed, as Nelly puts it:
“He had grown a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom my master [Edgar] seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton's; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued…” (96).
He returns looking like a man with power and with an objective of revenge. Much of his drive to control Wuthering Heights and the Grange is driven by his desire to hold power and control even though he is an outsider through his traits physically and economically. After being putdown by Hindley for the majority of his childhood, Heathcliff is now the victim turned malefactor. Once he returns the roles of the characters in the book have changed. Heathcliff plays on Hindley’s gambling addiction and lends him money.
Now Hindley is in debt to Heathcliff and through exchange, Heathcliff wins Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff used to be savage and a slave and now, Heathcliff owns Hindley and this makes Hindley seem more savage. Heathcliff gains control of Wuthering Heights through gambling with Hindley, the previous owner of Wuthering Heights. The Gypsies of the time period where thought to be skilled in gambling and fortune-telling.
His envy of Edgar’s handsomeness partly fuels his anger toward Edgar and Catherine’s choice to marry him. Heathcliff wants revenge on Edgar for stealing away Catherine. So he takes advantage of Isabella, Edgar’s sister, and marries her. “[Heathcliff] seized, and thrust [Isabella] from the room; and returned muttering – "I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain." (151). Immediately, it is a loveless marriage between Heathcliff and Isabella. He is so malicious to take revenge, which he engages in acts of violence, for example hanging Isabella’s dog.
Heathcliff has matured and now embodies the social status he has gained over the last couple years leading up to the time Lockwood and Heathcliff meet. Lockwood states:
“He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman…”
Heathcliff’s background presents a strange contrast to an aristocrat owner of these two manors, Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. Even with his said property, he isn’t able to escape his appearance and social standing. He dresses like a gentleman, and has all the proper means to be a gentleman of the country and his property. But it is probably his education that is lacking for
“In the first place, he had by that time lost the benefit of his early education: continual hard work, begun soon and concluded late, had extinguished any curiosity he once possessed in pursuit of knowledge, and any love for books or learning. His childhood's sense of superiority, instilled into him by the favours of old Mr. Earnshaw, was faded away...Then personal appearance sympathized with mental deterioration: he acquired a slouching gait and ignoble look; his naturally reserved disposition was exaggerated into an almost idiotic excess of unsociable moroseness; and he took a grim pleasure, apparently, in exciting the aversion rather than the esteem of his few acquaintance.” (68).
This blend of Gypsy and gentleman makes Heathcliff so un-representable that other people in the novel have to speak for him. The majority of ‘his story’ or his past is told through Nelly Dean.
There often a degree of mystery surrounding the life of a Gypsy, Heathcliff is no exception. There is one occasion where Heathcliff saves Hindley’s infant son unexpectedly after a fall. “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.” (75). It is a mystery that Heathcliff was able to reach Hareton in time before any damage was done. It is also precarious that Heathcliff even bothered to catch the son of his oppressor who he despises.
Other mysterious things surrounding the character of Heathcliff include it is never revealed where and how he made his fortune after returning to Wuthering Heights. The parentage and origin of Heathcliff before he was taken into shelter by Mr. Earnshaw are unknown and his reasons behind digging up Catherine’s body after her death except that we know his obsession with her grew stronger after her death. Heathcliff appears as a person of Gypsy heritage from all the features of his character presented in the novel when comparing to the stereotypical view of Gypsies represented in that time period.
Nestor, Pauline, and Lucasta Miller. Emily Brontë: Wurthering Heights. London: Penguin, 1999.