Heathcliff: The Object of His Own Demise

     Heathcliff is quite a character. Emily Brontë in 1847 ingeniously created a stranger, an outsider, a wonderer, a restless soul longing for a place to belong. This sojourner found a home at Wuthering Heights and a meaningful existence in Catherine's heart. With her love he found himself and a strength to endure forever, but sadly he forsook this strength by laying the foundation of his destruction. In William Wyler's 1939 film Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is portrayed in this light. He is a much stronger person because he did not let his resentment destroy him.

     A scared helpless young child found himself in a new and intimidating environment. Such an impressionable lad, he grew up in a house torn by jealousy and resentment. After Mr. Earnshaw died, Heathcliff became the victim of Hindley's hatred. His only redeemer was Catherine and her love, which burned brightly through him.

     The same can be said for Hindley's despicable treatment of Heathcliff, but it cannot be blamed entirely as the fire that lit the fuse to Heathcliff's destructive life. He had no one to blame for his actions and his miserable state but himself. Even after he lost Catherine, he could have still gone on and had a happy and useful life.

     Heathcliff's mistake was in not leaving after Catherine died. He let his pain and agony over her death turn into a burning zealous quest for revenge that burned so deeply within him that it destroyed everyone and everything in its path. His rage eventually even consumed himself.

     Humanly speaking, Heathcliff had every reason to seek revenge--on Hindley for degrading him; on Edgar for being everything he was not, including Catherine's husband; and on Catherine for betraying her own heart. But he proved he was no better than they were by stooping to their level of deceit.

     The fact that Heathcliff was a mastermind at plotting his revenge proved that he could have had a successful life doing whatever he chose. Sadly he chose to degrade himself worse than Hindley ever could had by embarking on his revenge. All Heathcliff had to do was forgive the mistakes of others, put them behind him, and move on with his life. This act would have proven himself a man and worthy of honor.

     Heathcliff carried Catherine's love with him for the rest of his life. He could have used her love to get past the pain and fear he felt and her passing and motivate him to live. Instead he dishonored her memory and turned their love into the destroyer of life rather than the giver.

     In William Wyler's 1939 film Wuthering Heights, Laurence Olivier portrayed a much more mellowed Heathcliff. His jealousy-driven revenge-seeking life was seriously downplayed. This Heathcliff had basically the same situations to deal with, but his main difference was in the way he dealt with them. He accomplished a few underhanded sneaky tricks in dealing with Hindley (Hugh Williams), but they were overshadowed by his otherwise nearly compassionate treatment of him. He did not harbor as much hatred and resentment over the things he had no control over as Brontë's Heathcliff did. The fact that this story did not have a second generation to deal with added to Heathcliff's virtue.

     If Brontë's Heathcliff could had taken some lessons from Wyler's Heathcliff in forgiving and moving on, the former could have been a man more worthy to bear Catherine's love.

Christy Stephens

Table of Contents