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The structure of Wuthering Heights is not typical, for it is told as a flashback out of chronological order. Emily Brontë, however, strives to tie all of the loose ends of the story together by the last chapter. What was not understood by Lockwood or the reader in the beginning chapter has been fully explained by the last one. In spite of the broad span of time that passes in the book, the author also strives to weave the tale into a unified whole by a repetition of theme, a small setting, and the constancy of character in the person of Heathcliff, who dominates also the entire plot.
In actuality, the plot of the novel is divided into five different phases, which correspond to the five stages in the plot of a classical drama. The brilliantly conceived first section of the novel forms its exposition. It establishes the nature of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, their relationships to each other, and the strange atmosphere that surrounds them. Events in the novel are set in motion by the arrival of Heathcliff, picked up as a waif of unknown parentage on the streets of Liverpool by Mr. Earnshaw, who brings him home to raise as one of his own children. This opening narrative, told by Nelly, deals mainly with the childhood and personalities of Heathcliff, Catherine, and Hindley.
The real rising action of the novel's plot begins when Mr. Earnshaw passes away; his death brings forth a quick succession of events that complicate the plot. Bullied and humiliated by Hindley, Heathcliff develops a passionate and ferocious nature that finds its complement in Earnshaw's daughter, Catherine. Their childhood affection develops into an increasingly intense, though troubled, attachment to one another. Catherine, however, decides to marry Edgar Linton, for he is wealthy and more polished than Heathcliff, her true love. Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights before the marriage of Catherine and Edgar takes place.
There are several key incidents that lead to the climactic moment of the novel. Heathcliff returns three years later and finds the married Catherine is still attracted to him, a fact that devastates her husband, Edgar. Heathcliff is allowed to stay at Wuthering Heights with Hindley, who is now widowed with a son, Hareton; he has become a hardened gambler and loses everything to Heathcliff. As a result, Heathcliff becomes the master of Wuthering Heights and brings Hindley and Hareton completely under his power. Ruled by a desire for vengeance, Heathcliff makes the two of them suffer as he has previously suffered under Hindley's cruelty. As part of his revenge, Heathcliff also marries Edgar Linton's sister, Isabella, and cruelly mistreats her. He also unintentionally hastens Catherine's death, which is the point of climax for Heathcliff.
The unraveling of Heathcliff's revenge forms the falling action. He lures the young Cathy, the daughter of Catherine and Edgar, to his house and forces a marriage between her and his son, Linton. Since Linton is a sickly young man, Heathcliff knows he will soon die, putting Heathcliff in a position to control both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. After Linton's death, he forces Cathy to stay on at the Heights, a situation that allows an affection to spring forth between her and Hareton. She does her best to educate him and eventually falls in love with him. Heathcliff's desire for revenge eventually wears out, and he allows Cathy and Hareton to pursue their relationship. All Heathcliff longs for now is death, which will at last reunite him with Catherine.
The denouement, or conclusion, of the novel is reached with the death of Heathcliff. In and through Heathcliff's death there is the promise that the two contrasting worlds and moral orders represented by the Heights and the Grange will be united in the next generation in the union of Cathy and Hareton.