Race in Wuthering Heights: The Characterization of Heathcliff Illustrates Racist Ideology
Emily Brontë’s gothic romance Wuthering Heights details the drama of two generations of wealthy families whose conflict is a production of the romance of protagonists Catherine and Heathcliff. Central to the story and seen through the lens of the Critical Race theory, and what is grotesquely identified as the reasons behind Heathcliff’s sadistic, selfish nature, are his origins and supposed race. Because Heathcliff is an outsider, he becomes the target of racial fetishization, racial based aggression, and unfair comparison with his white, heroic counterpart, Edgar Linton. Race criticism reveals that Wuthering Heights illustrates how race plays a foundational role in the brooding, yet romantic, characterization of the tragic hero Heathcliff. The novel romanticizes and degrades him, ultimately demonstrating the idea that blackness becomes an identity that walks the line between being seductive and forbidden.
Before he was a sinister, jealous man hellbent on revenge, Heathcliff was an orphan adopted into a wealthy white family living on the English countryside. Found in Liverpool, alone, he is established as an outsider from the beginning, being referred to as a “dirty gipsy” (40). He is unwanted by his family, who look at him in disgust and anger the evening Mr. Earnshaw brings him home, and he is often the target of Hindley Earnshaw’s physical and verbal abuse. Hindley feels threatened by his presence, accusing Heathcliff of stealing the money and attention from their father that is rightfully his, calling him a ‘gipsy,” and associating such as an “imp of Satan” (44). The Romani people, or gipsies, were considered wanderers who crept throughout life attempting to steal and trick those around them. The term “gipsy” is then used as a broad label for people who are untrustworthy, or in terms of Heathcliff, an intruder. In this way, the novel sets up Heathcliff as an “other” from the beginning; he is someone who couldn’t dream of fitting in or being worthy of Catherine’s love, and yet, is the target of her forbidden fantasies. It can be questioned what about Heathcliff would even cause Catherine to consider him, as she has another available suitor in Edgar Linton, and Heathcliff isn’t on the same plane of prestige or worth in their eyes. It is Heathcliff’s seductive racial identity then, as Nelly describes, that lures Catherine to him. Through the way the novel villainizes Heathcliff we begin to see that Edgar is his foil, and the standard he can never meet because of his racial identity.
By juxtaposing Heathcliff with Edgar in terms of behavior–and dictating that behavior in terms of their different breeding–Brontë demonstrates a concept seen throughout white literature, which uses a darker-skinned character to construct a specific perception of the white character. Edgar is the better man, the gentle lover who cares deeply for Catherine, driving himself ill at her passing. Edgar has “dove’s eyes,” those of “angels,” and descriptions of him are the opposite of Heathcliff’s (123). This further insinuates that the darkness of Heathcliff’s complexion–the dark gipsy–is an accurate mirror of his bad character, while Edgar’s light beauty mirrors the opposite. Thus, fair-skinned, light-eyed, flaxen-haired Edgar becomes the “smart” decision for Cathy, and the standard that dark-haired, scruffy, dark-skinned Heathcliff is constantly compared to. Heathcliff’s origins brand him as less desirable, and because of the discrimination he experiences from Hindley and now Catherine–whom he loved and trusted–he begins to lose a sense of his self-worth. His harsh speech and attitude that he built up from years of abuse now confirms that his gipsy nature is the cause of his wretchedness, and we can even see his bad nature just by looking at him. In other words, the white characters who forced Heathcliff to become a defensive, “naughty” child have confirmed their own beliefs about him, though their psychological impact on him was what caused his character flaws in the first place. Heathcliff is a victim of racial prejudice, and his reactions only confirm the beliefs of Catherine–who loves Heathcliff essentially because of his brooding nature–Nelly, Hindley and Edgar. Brontë, in crafting Heathcliff as the villain, shows how race is used in association with supposed inherent characteristics to create a certain character type. Critical Race theory shows us how race is used as a tool in such a way, maintaining that whiteness is superior over blackness.
Additionally, Brontë illustrates the fetishization of race to demonstrate how white people–because of their privilege–tend to weigh different aspects of a race in terms of their worth. Heathcliff is romanticized as the brooding, dangerous, sex symbol of classic literature. Heathcliff stands for corruption, passion, power, and a mysterious darkness that is magnetic for Catherine, who herself has some dark tendencies, and for Isabel Linton, who has been a “good girl” her entire life. Though Heathcliff is characterized as selfish, violent, evil, and abusive–which is likened to his race, the Moorish gipsy–he is also seen as seductive and forbidden. Eroticizing the “exotic” black character is seen throughout literature and is telling about how white people view race as a matter of convenience to themselves. It is convenient to blame Heathcliff’s brutish actions on him being a deceitful, dirty gipsy rather than admitting that the abuse he suffered through because he was different is the cause of his behavior. All Heathcliff knows is rejection, alienation, and hatred, so consequently he becomes vengeful and brutish himself. Conversely, because Heathcliff is physically different, he is exoticized, and when his dark countenance is paired with his passion, fury, and desperate love, he becomes the perfect forbidden fantasy. Catherine admits this when she says it would “degrade her” to marry him, but that “whatever [their] souls are made of, his and [hers] are the same,” (93). Despite a fierce passionate love for him, and seeing the dark, bad behavior within herself reflected in him, he still isn’t suitable for marriage because of his origins and race. Because of Heathcliff being the unforgiveable parts of herself, Edgar, though their souls are as “different as a moonbeam from lightning or frost from fire,” becomes the better choice (93). Heathcliff’s self-worth is so damaged by Cathy’s proclamation that he runs away to become more of a gentleman with better manners and wealth–desperately trying to reidentify himself as something other than a poor gipsy orphan. Heathcliff’s sole worth then comes from being an outlet for white female rebellion, and nothing more. Every other trait he exhibits is considered negative, which, though enticing, could never truly redeem him in the eyes of any of the characters, even Nelly. Through Heathcliff’s actions and turmoil Brontë illustrates that his blackness (or racial difference) is central to character’s perceptions of him, as well as his perceptions of himself. Heathcliff becomes a tool Brontë uses to show the wider idea that white people tend to reduce others to functions of their race, limiting and labeling them as worth less because of it.
Critical Race Theory acknowledges the inequality between whiteness and blackness and reveals how those ideologies function in texts. For Wuthering Heights, race is essential to the characterization of Heathcliff, and reveals repeated ideas that associate negative behaviors and traits with other racial identities, ultimately reinforcing that whiteness is “above all.” Texts that function with racist ideology give unrealistic representations of black people (in Heathcliff’s case, Moorish gipsies) and demonstrate how blackness can be twisted and contorted to the advantage of white people, while black people remain tools being reduced to representations of their race rather than individuals. Race, in this way, becomes a fetishized, exotic identity that is associated with temptation–the “forbidden fruit” that brands them as different and dangerous.