At first glance, Wuthering Height shows us conflict between a landlord, Heathcliff, and Mr. Lockwood. Heathcliff, one of the novel’s main characters, is portrayed as an uncompromising, sadistic bully, and produces a desire in Lockwood’s character to find out more about his past. Bronte uses Lockwood’s character to pull in her main narrator, Nelly Dean. Nelly was a first-hand witness to Heathcliff’s story and so proceeds to relate the history, as she remembers it, to Lockwood. It appears very soon, after the start of the story, that Nelly Dean is the protagonist.
She appears more than happy to stir the conflict, which goes a long way in keeping the story interesting and moving right along. Wuthering Heights is set in the “remote moors of Yorkshire” (680), on that “bleak hill-top” where “the earth was hard with a black frost” (686). Almost all the characters in this story have a very frosty, antagonistic side to them and Nelly introduces us to Catherine and Hindley, when they were children, on the eve of Heathcliff’s entry into the family. Nelly appears to make this story-telling as straightforward as possible, but her feelings for Heathcliff are not disguisable.
When she made the step from playmate to the children’s nursemaid during the measles episode, her feelings toward Hindley and Catherine hardened and she softened so much toward Heathcliff that “Hindley lost his last ally. ” Heathcliff “was the quietest child that ever nurse watched over. The difference between him and the others forced me to be less partial. Cathy and her brother harassed me terribly, he was a uncomplaining as a lamb… ” (702). Nelly developed alternate feelings for Catherine: “she put us all past our patience fifty times and oftener in a day. She was much too fond of Heathcliff. ” “In play she liked, exceedingly to act the little mistress… but I would not bear slapping and ordering; and so I let her know” (704). The class distinction, after the measles, became a clear, hard line: Nelly, on the servant side with Joseph, and Catherine and Hindley on the side of the owners of servants. This further hastened Nelly’s spiteful feelings toward Catherine when Mr. Earnshaw died. Hindley came home with a new bride, and Nelly was physically installed in the servants’ quarters and Heathcliff was installed with the animals in the stables.
In her story up to now Nelly has portrayed herself as a concerned member of the family that has finally been relegated to where she knew she would end up anyway, a servant. The first real conflict stirring she relates is the night Catherine came back after her five-week visit at Thrushcross Grange. Seeing the despair in Heathcliff’s countenance caused Nelly to try to clean him up to be presentable enough to converse with Catherine. From past experience she should have known better, but I think she was curious to see all these newly introduced uppercrust characters react to the “real” Heathcliff.
Cathy states, “But you are so dirty! ” The sound of laughter followed Heathcliff out of the room and I think it hurt Nelly more than Heathcliff. She proceeds to talking him into giving Catherine a kiss to show up Edgar Linton. “You are younger… taller and twice as broad in the shoulders–you could knock him down in a twinkling. Don’t you feel you could? ” (712). This scene ends up badly, when Hindley interrupts Heathcliff’s entrance and Edgar Linton makes fun of his looks. The pot was definitely stirred then. If Nelly had left well enough alone, Heathcliff would have stayed hidden and the story would have been dull.
Nelly is memory selective in this story, so she relates a fight between Catherine and Heathcliff, which leaves Catherine looking like a shrew. “What do you talk about? You might be dumb or a baby, for anything you say to amuse me, or for anything you do either” (719). Nelly prevents Heathcliff from venting his return emotions by bringing another character in at that moment. When she feels that the one she loves had been injured, she does portray her anger as justified, as when Hindley comes close to killing his son, Hareton, in a drunken rage, and puts the blame on Nelly, or as she is referred to frequently in the family, “Ellen. Injured… if he’s not killed, he’ll be an idiot…. You’re worse than a heathen–treating your own flesh and blood in this manner” (720). Nelly’s ill feelings toward Catherine allow her to neglect telling Cathy that Heathcliff is listening from another room when she swears Nelly to secrecy about her marriage proposal from Edgar (724-728). Nelly lies to Catherine about Heathcliff being anywhere close to overhear their conversation. “Joseph is here… and Heathcliff will come in with him” (725). Heathcliff left before he heard how Catherine actually felt about him.
Nelly is not afraid to tell Catherine what she thinks: “You are a wicked, unprincipled girl. But trouble me with no more secrets. I’ll not promise to keep them” (726). Catherine creates quite a caterwauling when Heathcliff doesn’t come in that evening. “She beat Hareton, or any child, in a good, passionate fit of crying,” and despaired herself into a real illness. There are plenty more instances where Nelly stirs the plot pot, times where she shows herself the loving, caring “auntie” figure, and yet interposes her own self-righteous indignation when someone was “truly” being hurt that she loved.
All the heartache these two families went through did nothing to alter world history, but did make for a wonderfully interesting fire-side story for the likes of someone such as Lockwood, who thought he and his life were the most self-consuming to date. Bronte uses the interrelationships between characters and Nelly Dean as the protagonist in this story to somehow bring the bleakness of the North England moors to life. With Nelly’s narration being first person, and allowing her personal bias to color the story, it keeps you swaying from loving one character to hating another constantly.