‘Heathcliff as a hero’- a reading of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with reference to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

the picture of dorian graywuthering heights

Literary critics have often pondered the themes of heroes in Emily Bronte’s mid-19th century gothic and romantic novel Wuthering Heights. As a result of which, there are several understandings and interpretations over the presentation of Heathcliff, the novel’s main character. He can be seen as a Byronic hero, a Gothic hero and a working-class hero. These different interpretations of heroes can also be seen in Oscar Wilde’s late-19th century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Heathcliff can be seen as a Byronic hero because of his tall, dark and handsome looks, which are described by Lockwood at the very beginning of the novel and by Nelly when Heathcliff is only a child. Lockwood uses the adjective in the premodified concrete noun phrase “black eyes”, and Nelly goes as far as to call Heathcliff by the adverb and stative verb “rather handsome” and the metaphor “a prince in disguise”. As well as this, Heathcliff has an air of mystery around him, common of the Byronic hero. This can be seen in his return to Thrushcross Grange after disappearing earlier in the novel. Nelly uses no less than 7 interrogatives to inquire as to where Heathcliff has been, and he replies to none of them. Instead, he uses mono-syllabic words such as “are they at home?”, simple sentences, such as “I dared not enter” and “speak!”, and exclamative and imperatives such as “Go, carry my message!”. Heathcliff is also mysterious in his origins, as they are completely unknown. In addition to mysterious, this presents Heathcliff as commandeering, confident and authorative, like a gentleman. These are other characteristics of the Byronic hero. In addition to this evidence, it is probable that Bronte had the poet Lord Byron himself in mind when constructing Heathcliff’s character, as the two men are strikingly similar and Bronte was an admirer of Byron’s work.

In comparison, Dorian Gray, the main character of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, can be seen as a Byronic hero. This is because he also is described as being tall, dark and devastatingly handsome, as this is a major premise of the book. Dorian also has an element of mystery, due to his secret to staying forever young and the infamous portrait in the attic. In addition to this, Wilde was also a fan of Lord Byron’s work.

Heathcliff can be seen as a Gothic hero because he is the main character of a Gothic novel. Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel because of the themes of supernatural, death and revolutionary social theories proposed in it, such as lower classes marrying upper classes. Heathcliff plays a part in all of these themes. He is linked through the supernatural after Cathy’s death. The first episode is imediatly after her death, with the exclamative direct speech “You said I killed you- haunt me then!”. The past participle dynamic verb ‘killed’ links Heathcliff to death and violence. The present participle dynamic verb ‘haunt’ links Heathcliff to the supernatural. He is also connected with the supernatural and death at the end of the novel, when Nelly discovers his body. Nelly exclaims that he was “dead and stark” to emphasise the gothic nature of his death. She also describes his appearance, particularly the premodifed concrete noun phrase “sharp, white teeth” to introduced connotations of vampirism. To further establish Heathcliff’s role as a gothic hero, he is connected with pathetic fallacy. This can be seen in the episode when Heathcliff runs away, as there is a terrible storm. Bronte describes the storm through personification, as the dynamic verb ‘rattling’ is used, as well as the abstract noun phrase ‘full fury’ and the adjective ‘violent’. Another aspect of the gothic hero’s character is immorality and evil. There is no lack of this in Heathcliff’s character, as numerous times throughout the book he is described as being the concrete noun “devil”, as well as being linked with the abstract noun “hell”. His actions are downright immoral, particularly in his behaviour towards Isabella, as from the letter she writes to Nelly she writes the tricolon of interrogatives, “is he a man?…is he mad?…is he a devil?”. The two concrete nouns and the stative verb ‘man’, ‘mad’ and ‘devil’ denote Heathcliff’s gothic hero character.

Dorian Gray can also be seen as a gothic hero, because of his connection with immorality. This is a key theme in the novel, as it proposes the debate over whether Dorian is truly evil or merely outside of society’s morals. This is an aspect of the gothic hero.

Heathcliff can also be seen as a working class hero. This is because of his origins being distinctly un-noble, as he is described by Hindley as the concrete noun ‘cooko’, meaning he is underserving and feeding of the kindness of Mr Earnshaw. He is also called the concrete noun phrase ‘gypsy brat’ by Mrs Earnshaw and by Edgar Linton. Nevertheless, Heathcliff is a hero because of his achievements despite his low-class origins, making him a favoured character in the eyes of Marxist critics. Heathcliff’s achievements include money and property, marriage, and status. His achievements are made apparent early in the novel but at the end of the chronological order of the tale. Lockwood calls him the concrete noun ‘my landlord’ and the adjective and concrete noun ‘capital fellow’. This denotes his status as a gentleman, as well as is ownership of property and money. Despite this, Heathcliff has not forgotten his working class origins, as he is brutish as rude in his behaviour, using simple and minor sentences, as well as monosyllabic words. Later on in the beginning of the novel, Lockwood reads Cathy’s diary, in which Cathy comments on Hindley wanted to “reduce Heathcliff to his place”. The dynamic verb ‘reduced’ and the abstract noun phrase ‘his place’ denote Heathcliff’s position as a working class hero.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is the opposite of a working class hero. Rather, he is the aristocratic villain in many of his actions and characteristics, which are common of gothic, Romantic inspired novels, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and Bram Stokers Dracula. Nevertheless, the character of Sibyl Vane can be seen as a working class hero because she is bitterly poor and working as the lower-than-working-class career as an actress, she is good-natured and honest, and dies the death of a myter. She is victimised by the upper-class antagonist, just as Heathcliff is.

In conclusion, the presentations of heroes in Wuthering Heights and The Picture of Dorian Gray are similar, as they both include aspects of the Byronic, gothic hero and workings class heroes. Wuthering Heights particularly used these specific types of heroes to communicate different points. Through the use of the Byronic hero, Bronte established the theme of romance, passion and mystery in the novel, which dominates Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy. They gothic hero aspect introduced a theme of good vs evil and the ethical debate which is the difference between the two. It also introduced the argument between ethics and social morality. The workings class hero creates a theme of social justice and class warfare.

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