Explore the role and function of the narrators in Wuthering Heights
Ellis Bell was criticised not only for the novel’s blasphemous nature and violent plot but a lack of conclusive moral. It seems freedom of expression was tolerated as long as the reader was left in no doubt of the righteous path. Bronte liberates the reader from this sense of duty and distinguishes her novel from its Victorian contemporaries. Helping to accomplish this task is her style of narration, being unusually structured in the concentric circles of Lockwood and Nelly Dean.
Lockwood descends on the Yorkshire moors, like the reader unaware of the turbulence that the beautiful country’ conceals. I have read that Bronte’s original purpose of the book was to show Lockwood the meaning of love and her choice of name, Lockwood’, implies a depth that is not on display nor easy to withdraw. (From this respect it is an ambitious novel for Emily Bronte to attempt as her life is from all accounts barren of much romantic attachment. Perhaps her impression of love mimics Isabella Linton’s adoration for a Byronic Heathcliff, an ideal never quite within reach.) Lockwood strikes me as a character who is much astonished by his own intelligence, he dilutes his account of the Heights with Latinate words and pompous expressions, relaxed a little in the laconic style of chipping off his pronouns and auxiliary verbs’. Either this is an early indication of his arrogance, later confirmed by his unlikely fear that Catherine would regret a union with Hareton on observing how tolerably attractive’ he was or possibly the primitive’ nature of the Heights provokes him to use language that he associates with civilised society in order to feel comfortable in an evidently uneasy situation. If this be the case Bronte mocks the established politeness of introduction showing his language to be simply a facade disguising his unsettled emotions. This language helps him to preserve his detached demeanour as only once is the reader given an insight to his insecure character. He relates an amusing incident in which a goddess’ he professed to be in love with hinted at a reciprocation of feeling that unfortunately caused him to flee rabbit-like, rapidly lessening the warmth of his glances’. This minor incident demonstrates his inability to handle complex emotions and in comparison to the forthcoming passion of Cathy and Heathcliff, Lockwood appears all the more sheltered. It is as though a distant relative of the Lintons has come to call.
Despite his elevated language the reader cannot help feeling cynical of Lockwood’s account due to his early blunders. Mistaking a heap of dead rabbits’ for an obscure cushion full of something like cats’ does not inspire confidence. On observing Catherine he immediately concludes that she is Mrs Heathcliff’ and exerts himself to gallantry, . . . with your amiable lady as the presiding genius’. His efforts fall a little flat but I think Lockwood highlights in context this assumption that the lady must be married. The stranger is confronted with Catherine’s rage, introducing a theme of female power that will become a major focus of the novel. Bronte is challenging the demure female stereotype whose sole object is marriage. Previously Catherine had demanded Lockwood if he had been invited to tea’ to which he had replied No . . . You are the proper person to ask me.’ This comment illustrates the place of a woman in the social sphere – as a beneficent fairy’ to keep house.
Perhaps the most striking error Lockwood makes, although its absurdity is not apparent until later, is his judgement of Heathcliff’s character. He firstly proclaims him to be A capital fellow’ and having exchanged a brief, barely polite conversation judges him to love and hate equally under cover’ whose reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling’. Bronte draws this sketch with bitter irony, revealing how mistaken our initial prejudices can be. Despite this Lockwood’s mistakes do sustain a mysterious impression of the Heights that is essential to its Gothic image and the reader predicts correctly that the unfolding story will not be straight forward.
By contrast, Nelly Dean is the very essence of reliability – even her name evokes religious or academic connotations that support themselves on an infrastructure of rules and regulations. She is witness to both life and death, raising the cyclic theme of the novel where succeeding generations, reflected in natural imagery by the changing seasons, add to the timeless quality of the novel, transcending the human-defined boundaries of time. Nelly’s survival lends her account an authority that is made more convincing when she informs Lockwood of her self-taught education. I have read more than you would fancy, Mr Lockwood. You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into. . .’ As a bildungsroman learning is an essential theme – Edgar Linton finds refuge in his library from Cathy’s sulking whilst her daughter overcomes her social prejudices in teaching Hareton to read. Amongst the many connections that have been made to Shelley’s Frankenstein this recognition of the power of knowledge parallels the developing interest in England.
Nelly’s language is less affected than Lockwood’s; it is colloquial with a few provincialisms’ creating a steadier character that Mark Schorer aptly names the perdurable voice of the country’. Lockwood’s narrative moves excessively slowly, he picks out minute details and examines them beneath magnifying spectacles. As he explains to his human fixture’ he has that mood of mind in which . . . the cat licking its kitten on the rug before you, you would watch the operation so intently that puss’s neglect of one ear would put you seriously out of temper’. Nelly is of the opinion that this is a terribly lazy mood’ and so consequently her own narrative accelerates, I will be content to pass to the next summer’. She edits well, picking out dramatic scenes whose vivacity are proof of her excellent memory, for she relates each character’s part so credibly the reader forgets this is a second hand account.
There is a distinct lack of a strong motherly figure in Wuthering Heights. Mrs Earnshaw exits the story less than two years after Heathcliff enters it. Frances Earnshaw dies shortly after giving birth to Hareton, a premonition of Cathy’s own departure. Birth (or arrival) and death seem inextricably linked. In addition, the event of their pregnancies is little discussed, this could be Nelly’s consideration for the Victorian sensibilities of Lockwood but seems unlikely in view of the marital violence, oaths, drunkenness and gambling that are openly referred to so perhaps this is evidence of Bronte’s own evasion of ignorance? It could be construed that Bronte was subconsciously influenced by her own motherless childhood. Nelly, in part due to her continual presence, adopts the most motherly role and Tabby’, Bronte’s housekeeper, is suggested to be the basis for Nelly’s role as she was fond of storytelling.
Nelly is the confidante of both Heathcliff and Cathy yet although she counsels them, she appears ambivalent in her judgement of either character. On Heathcliff’s arrival she appears as uncharitable as the rest of the household, labelling him as it’ and evidently vindictive physically as well for her pinches moved him only to draw in a breath. . .’. She softened’ however as Heathcliff suffering from a customary child illness is nursed by her and he would have me constantly by his pillow’. This innocent picture is the antithesis of the devil imagery that is projected by Mr Earnshaw, Joseph, Hindley, Isabella and Nelly herself. Nelly’s affection for Cathy dwindles as she observes her manipulative nature towards Edgar and Heathcliff, reaching a climax when Cathy spitefully’ pinches her on the arm in Edgar’s presence. Nelly honestly informs the reader that she did not love her, and rather relished mortifying her vanity’. However on death she remarks that no angel in heaven could be more beautiful than she appeared’. Her narration of both their positive and negative attributes increases the reader’s sympathy for the pair, helping to view them as tragic victims at mercy to feelings beyond their control.
It is not her mistakes that make the reader question Nelly but her judgement. In her position as a servant character and a narrator Nelly is paradoxically excluded yet involved in the family history and her interference has sometimes tragic consequences for the other characters. She is confident that the marriage between Edgar and Cathy is solid and they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness’ so the reader has a greater shock at the disruption Heathcliff brings. Nelly also underestimates the extent of Cathy’s illness and withholds information from Edgar, I believed no such thing, so I kept to myself’. Nelly serves under two houses of patriarchal rule and in her discourse shows herself to be in alliance with the master’. This often involves her contravening the wishes of Isabella and Cathy, Mr Hindley had given me directions to make a third party in any private visits Linton chose to pay’. This rebellion reveals a meddling side to Nelly’s nature that emerges when she perceives it is within her power to act for the greater good. In my opinion many readers will be able to identify with this feeling.
Lockwood’s function is to arouse the curiosity of the reader leaving him intrigued to discover the meaning behind the mystifying circumstances of the Heights. His primary concern is narration of the present while Nelly has a monopoly over the past. Through Bronte’s careful chronological weavings she is able to begin the novel at a point where the inhabitants bear the most complex relations, deeply rooted in their history that will leave the reader as desirous as Lockwood for Nelly to satiate their hunger with her wholesome explanations.
Having a balance of male/female narration has been analysed psychologically as a further reflection of the Jungian animus/anima of Heathcliff and Cathy seeking union. I regard this as an interesting coincidence rather than a serious deliberation of Bronte’s and further evidence of the fine lines of symmetry that separate its pages. Lockwood and Nelly are often held in opposition but they share a common fallibility of judgement that is proof of their humanity. In this way every reader feels they understand more intimately the emotions of Heathcliff and Cathy and their individual interpretation is more ontological than the next.