What role does social class and class ambiguity play in Wuthering Heights? To what extent is Heathcliff’s social position responsible for the misery and conflict so persistent in the book?
Social class plays an important role in shaping the plot of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff’s social class and that of the other characters has a deep influence on their fate. Heathcliff lost his love because he belonged to a lower social class and despite the close relationship between him and Catherine, he did not perfectly fit in the picture of a husband. Catherine did not want him as her husband for he did not belong to the elite social class like the Lintons. He lived with her family at her father’s and brother’s mercy. So, until he has grown rich he is a classless orphan. He is born an orphan and orphans do not have a social identity or class. Catherine’s father brought him from Liverpool, a poor orphan, whom he could not leave alone and helpless in the streets. However, once Heathcliff leaves and returns richer, his class has changed and with it his aura.
If he has not received the same care and love as the others, then it is because he was never a part of the Earnshaw family. He can understand the reason why he is despised by the others and why Catherine cannot marry him. The resulting frustration only makes him more callous. His childhood emotions have a deep effect on his entire life. The events and situations he has faced during his childhood have an effect on his personality and psychology. He was born poor and a childhood spent in acute poverty also turns him into a monster. In this way, the social and economic conditions, Heathcliff has faced have carved his personality.
Social class also affects how the other characters in the novel behave. Hindley is rich and spoilt. He abuses Heathcliff after his father’s death. Edgar is civilized, has received a noble upbringing and yet he is frail and cowardly. He is from a rich family and not toughened like Heathcliff. On the other hand, despite having gotten rich, Heathcliff cannot forget his days of poverty at the Heights. The misery and ignominy he had faced because of Hindley are still fresh in his mind. He can neither forget that it was because of his social class that he lost Catherine. All these things make him feel all the more miserable and turn him savage. However, the misery that follows Heathcliff’s return is also rooted in social class. Heathcliff is a rags to riches story. He has grown rich but he has not forgotten what poverty had given him as a kid. His source of power is his wealth which he uses to control the characters in the novel.
He is the same orphan inside but has grown influential after having acquired wealth and it makes him both haughty and cruel. He has seen worse days and that has toughened him from inside. His return also marks a cruel turn in Catherine’s life who sometimes laments having married Edgar. If the hatred inside Heathcliff has doubled, then it is because he is frequently reminded of his helplessness as a poor orphan. Except for Catherine and her father, he does not think any body in Earnshaw family had truly accepted him. Heathcliff has grown embittered and with his new wealth and control over others he only makes them feel miserable, trying to extract revenge. Thus, social class is an important factor and a major cause of the conflict and misery that abound in the novel. However, Heathcliff’s changed social class does not change things positively in his life. Instead, it acts to increase the toxicity within him and life for the poor creatures living at Wuthering Heights, life is a toxic hell once Heathcliff has taken ownership of the house.
There is class ambiguity too at several points in the novel like poor Hindley does not really have a class. Heathcliff has raised him after his father’s death as a poor servant. This also affects his status and identity in the novel. Heathcliff treats him as a poor orphan like he himself once was. Hindley is from a well to do family but unaware of his social status and class and therefore a poor victim who is being made to pay for his father’s mistakes.
He believes that others have wronged him because they used to be richer than him. Thus, all the major problems and misunderstandings in Wuthering Heights are rooted in social class. Wealth and social class remain the cause of the biggest differences in the lives and stories of Heathcliff and Catherine and also at the roots of the biggest ups and downs in the entire novel. Even with this less level of gloom and pessimism, the story has an unexpectedly positive and happy end. At the end, the curse Heathcliff had brought has been lifted from WUTHERING HEIGHTS. However, the positive end looks like a drop of water in a desert. It is also for the level of negativity in the novel that it was criticised heavily at the time of its publication.