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Wuthering Heights: Cathy and Heathcliff as Witches, Familiars and Devils
Article ID: 9082
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,446
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Author: Crow Tarot Lady
Posted: March 27th. 2005
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Wuthering Heights is the brainchild of Emily Bronte. It is a classic book, and plays upon the fears and imagination of the Victorian literate. Bronte hearkens back to a very dark period of time in European history: The Witch Hunts or Burning Times. Many characters in Wuthering Heights reflect and personify the fears associated with the Burning Times. Heathcliff especially is given the role of the corrupting Devil, and Cathy Earnshaw the role of a High Priestess Witch. The archetypes these characters portray are representative of the social structure contained within the novel, and also reflect the Victorian society at large.
The Burning Times was a period between the 14th and 18th centuries when the Catholic and Protestant Churches and local officials were trying to gain control over the Pagan masses. Over the four hundred years, it is estimated that between fifty- and ninety-thousand people were accused, tortured, hung, or burnt at the stake for practicing Witchcraft. About seventy-five percent of those murdered were women and children.2 When the Malleus Maleficarum ("The Hammer Against Witches") was distributed in 1486, it detailed who and what a supposed Witch was, how to obtain a confession, and how to punish a convicted Witch. Generally, an unlimited amount of torture was used to obtain a confession, so it only took a little while to get a victim to say whatever you wanted to hear. Often the illiterate accused would sign confessions they hadn't even read (with lurid details pulled out of the Malleus Maleficarum), or would exaggerate a local Fairy story, associating Fairy mischief with Devilry.3
The Burning Times ended with the coming of science and the Age of Reason. The Victorian trends of categorization and objective study left little room for superstition. But while the vast majority of the English no longer believed in Witches, ghosts and Fairies, many people still found it fascinating. Many tales of the supernatural were written, and most fall under the category of Gothic Literature, which is characterized by a dark ambiance and emotionally driven characters.
Among Gothic Literature, Wuthering Heights is unusual. It brings up fears and perceived realities that were almost extinct by the time the book was published. The very inclusions of the various accusations of Witchcraft, which besprinkle the book, are seemingly against the scientific mindset of the times. Bronte may be commenting on this dark history with the ending of her story, which is relatively mundane and melancholy - as compared with the supernatural excitement in the former half - as Heathcliff's revenge is carried out and he loses interest in causing his children to suffer.
Heathcliff acts in many ways like both the Devil and a Witch. When Nelly catches a glimpse of Heathcliff as a young boy and new addition to the family, she notes him to be a, "…dirty, ragged, black haired child...[who] only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand (36)." Devils and those possessed are supposed to be able to “speak in tongues.” With his penetrating eyes, dark skin and hair, Heathcliff is often referred to, literally, as The Black Man, a euphemism for the Devil. When Isabella marries Heathcliff, she writes to Nelly asking, "Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil? (133)"
Heathcliff, on the other hand, seems to come from a dark place to begin with - showing many signs of being otherworldly. He is frequently called a Gypsy, a people foreign to England who wander in their caravans reading palms and fixing pots, who, as outsiders, were often the first accused of being Witches in local villages. His introduction to the Earnshaw family is similar to a Fairy or Changeling, "...they had christened him 'Heathcliff:' it was the name of a son who died in childhood, and it has served him ever since, both for Christian and surname (37)." A Changeling would take the place of a baby in the family and grow up to be evil and demonic, which seems to have occurred at Wuthering Heights. As a Witch, he twice desecrates Cathy's grave, and hurls one hell of a curse at her, causing her to become a ghost, as a Necromancer (another feared evil) might. He might also be seen as an Incubus: the scene in the bedroom before Cathy's death seems to replace Linton's baby with one much closer in likeness to Heathcliff. He also twice steals Nelly's babies, Hareton and Catharine Linton Jr., a common fear associated with Devils and Changelings.
If Heathcliff is the Devil, then Cathy is the first Witch he corrupts: A High Priestess to his dark rituals. She throws such a fit when Heathcliff is first brought into the house that she earns, "...a sound blow from her father, to teach her cleaner manners (36)." But when it comes to marriage, she chooses Linton, the angelic-looking fellow with an enviable lifestyle. However, it seems that she is too corrupt to stay there; the wildness of Heathcliff gives her no rest, and he often tempts her to sin. When she is sick and dying, Cathy and Heathcliff consummate their love in a symbolic way, but it nearly amounts to adultery for Mrs. Cathy Linton. In the same scene she also commits idolatry, "...forgive me! Come here and kneel down again! (157)"
Cathy possesses both Heathcliff and Linton in an entrancing, sexual way. With Linton, she clearly lays with him because she has his child, but she never can entirely give herself to him, leaving Linton angry and wanting. With Heathcliff, she gives her heart and soul, but cannot truly give her body, and he is also left angry and wanting. She bewitches them both, taking on the role of the Succubus. The Malleus Maleficarum would thus decree her to be a Witch -both a victim of the Devil, and a threat to the welfare of others.
Aside from merely acting devilish, Heathcliff can also seemingly turn into an animal. Nelly remarks that, "...on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she [Catharine] had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species... (158) " The Devil is said to be able to turn into a variety of beasts. If we follow the metaphor that Cathy herself is a Witch, Heathcliff could also be seen as her familiar; that is, an evil animal controlled by the Witch that gives her supernatural powers directly from the Devil, which might explain their animalistic attraction. Cathy both bewitches and is bewitched.
The Malleus Maleficarum would have offered Heathcliff a possible cure for his unquenchable attraction to Cathy. It says, "Let a man obey the law of his intellect rather than that of nature, let him turn his love to safe pleasures, let him remember how momentary is the fruition of lust and how eternal the punishment, let him seek his pleasure in that life where joys begin never to end, and let him consider that if he cleaves to this earthly love, that will be his sole reward, but he will lose the bliss of Heaven, and be condemned to eternal fire..."3
Both Heathcliff and Cathy were lucky that the Burning Times were over. Though Joseph accuses Cathy of being a Witch, he never follows through with any of the punishments. Nor does he see fit to exorcise any of the demons haunting these characters, though it seems it would be his place as a wannabe curate. Joseph's inadequacies as a shepherd of souls seem to be a metaphor for the lack of authority or outside law within the narrative. Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are self-contained, and requires no rule from the outside world.
While perhaps Joseph, as a personification of the moral majority, believes that Heathcliff and Cathy's patterns of behavior came from Witchcraft and Devilry, perhaps those more down-to-earth, such as Nelly, perceive that, though their actions were unwise, they were not tricks of the Devil. The unconsummated love between Cathy and Heathcliff had perhaps more to do with being personifications of the very land they lived on. They grew up together on the moors: the wild, rough and uncultivated terrain. It is a land that is difficult to grow anything in, except that flora and fauna which is tough, resourceful and thorny. Wuthering Heights lacks the cultivation of the outside world that pervades Thrushcross Grange. So when Cathy marries Linton, it is like bringing a wild blackberry bush into the house: It has lovely flowers, tastes sweet when ripe, but is bitter before then, and incredibly sharp. She is out of place and cannot act properly within that environment and thrive. Her "otherness" expresses itself in ways that appear evil.
Even Cathy's love is tied to the land; she says that, "My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods; time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath; a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! (80) " But in a time when order, civilization and lawfulness were valued over other lifestyles (from the Burning Times until now), Cathy and Heathcliff's relationship and actions are entirely out of place. This is symbolized by her burial place being on the edge of the moors, not within the boundaries of the churchyard and not near her familial relations.
All in all, the accusations of Witchcraft were really just another way to weed out "The Other" imbedded in a society. Women who held property or sexual power over men, foreigners, and others who disobeyed the rules were cruelly exterminated. Their behavior was not acceptable to the masses, as was Heathcliff and Cathy's. But instead of being burnt at the stake, the protagonists of Wuthering Heights suffered the natural consequences of their actions, and both brought misery to others where there could have been joy.
1. Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Barnes and Noble Books, New York.
2. www.religioustolerance.org, © 1999 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Originally written: 1999-DEC-14. Author: B.A. Robinson
3. www.malleusmaleficarum.org, Part II, Question II, Chapter 3. 1486 Transcribed by Wicasta Lovelace and Christie Rice. HTML Scripting © 1998-2004 by the Windhaven Network®.
Copyright: © 2005 Jamie Lewis aka: crowtarotlady
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