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Heathcliff is presented as an embodiment of dark powers. This aspect of his character is stressed throughout the novel. Mr. Earnshaw introduces him as a dark man "almost as if it came from the devil." Hindley calls Heathcliff a "fiend" and a "hellish villain." The mild Edgar Linton describes him to young Cathy as "a most diabolical man." When his own son shrinks from him, Heathcliff exclaims, "You would imagine I was the devil himself -- to excite such horror." But it is Isabella who leaves the reader with the strongest impression of Heathcliff's darkness. In a letter to Nelly, Isabella wonders if Heathcliff is a man or a devil. To her Heathcliff appears "diabolical," an "incarnate goblin," "a monster and not a human being," "only half man: not so much, and the rest fiend." Even, Cathy, who loves him, describes him to Isabella as "a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man."
Heathcliff's beginnings are questionable. The "gypsy brat" old Mr. Earnshaw brings home with him has no name, social status, nor possessions. He is a foundling who can be seen as either a "gift" or a "threat." Earnshaw's daughter Catherine is the only one at Wuthering Heights besides old Earnshaw who cares about Heathcliff. Hindley, Catherine's brother, sees the child as a rival for his father's affections and his own position as heir; he, therefore, hates and torments him. The housekeeper Nelly refers to him as the "cuckoo" and constantly puts Heathcliff in his place by reminding him that he is an outsider.
Naturally, the treatment that he receives at Wuthering Heights has an effect on Heathcliff. The cruelty meted out to him leads to his cultivating a great resentment towards his tormentors. As an adult, he deliberately resolves to free himself from the humiliation of oppression by attaining the status of an oppressor. He plans to avenge himself on Hindley and the Lintons by two methods. He will oppress and exploit their children, Hareton Earnshaw and Linton Heathcliff, in precisely the same way that Hindley and Edgar oppressed and exploited him. Heathcliff also plans to seize their lands and possessions.
One redeeming feature in Heathcliff's character is his love for Catherine, which is constant and deep. As children, the two of them are constant companions and defenders of one another. During adolescence, Heathcliff simply assumes they will always be together. Catherine, however, decides that Heathcliff is too uncouth and uneducated to be her husband. She turns her affections to Edgar Linton, a polished neighbor, although she never really loves him as deeply as she does Heathcliff. The marriage of Catherine and Edgar devastates Heathcliff. It changes him forever, for he lives the rest of his life feeling a great sense of betrayal and loss. When Catherine dies at an early age, Heathcliff is still drawn to her, feeling haunted by her spiritual presence.
Heathcliff's desire to see and embrace Catherine's corpse shows the depth of his passion for her. During the novel, he admits that his thoughts are never for away from the woman who was the only true love in his life. He openly states that he wants to be buried with Catherine. He even punches a hole in her casket and asks that the same be done to his so that their dust can mingle in death.
From the beginning of the novel, Heathcliff seems fated to work out his doom in torment and despair. Depraved by Hindley of any type of education or social existence, Heathcliff develops a sense of great hatred for almost everyone in the book besides Catherine. Although he marries Isabella, he never loves her, but simply wants to get back at Catherine and Edgar, who is Isabella's brother. Even his own son Linton is terribly abused by this devilish man. Determined to have his revenge at any cost, Heathcliff manipulates the younger Cathy, literally taking her prisoner at Wuthering Heights and forcing her to marry Linton in order to assure that he will some day be the owner of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff is truly a lost soul.
Catherine Earnshaw is portrayed as a wild and passionate character. Arrogant and willful, she is capable of real cruelty. In spite of her love for Heathcliff, she decides to marry Edgar because he is more educated and polished. She knows that the marriage is a misalliance and admits to Nelly, "I am Heathcliff! He is always in my mind; not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being." Her wrong choice in marriage ultimately destroys her, and she dies at an early age after giving birth to a daughter.
Just like Heathcliff, Cathy is utterly unprincipled when she wants something. She is prepared to use any means and sacrifice any person who stands in her way. In Chapter 8, she becomes enraged with Nelly for obeying Hindley's instructions and not leaving her alone with Edgar. She spitefully pinches and slaps Nelly. Later, her feminine jealousy is aroused by the discovery of Isabella's infatuation for Heathcliff. She relentlessly baits the humiliated girl in front of the object of her passion. Throughout their relationship she uses Edgar Linton quite ruthlessly. She admits to Nelly that one reason for marrying him is that "he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighborhood." But to her the best reason of all is to help "Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother's power." She experiences no sense of shame over this dubious matrimonial motive.
Before her marriage to Edgar, she vows that she and Heathcliff will never be separated: "Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I consent to forsake Heathcliff." After her marriage and Heathcliff's return, she insists on entertaining him at the Grange despite her husband's jealous displeasure. When there is an open quarrel between the two, Cathy unhesitatingly sides with Heathcliff to taunt Edgar.
During her fatal illness, Catherine becomes sad and delirious. Even though she knows she is dying, she has no desire to go to Heaven, for she knows that she will not be at home there. She belongs to the moors and the stormy elements of nature. Before her death she states that she wants Edgar and Heathcliff to suffer as they have caused her to suffer. She warns Heathcliff that her spirit will not let him rest until they are reunited in death. Actually, her early death does not mean her disappearance from the novel. Her spirit continues to wander through Wuthering Heights and over the moors, taunting Heathcliff in death, just as she did in life. Throughout the novel, Catherine's rebelliousness and passion make her an undeniably interesting character.