For those of you that don’t know, Catherine Earnshaw is the most significant female character in Emily Bronte’s famous novel, Wuthering Heights. Set on the Yorkshire moors, the plot follows the mysterious and tortured Heathcliff’s quest for revenge, which all centres around his lost love, Catherine (also known as Cathy). The novel scandalised Victorian society (but then again, so did women’s ankles) and has gone on to become one of the most famous love stories ever told. Since its publication, people have been fascinated by the tempestuous love affair between Cathy and Heathcliff, which has spawned more period dramas than you could shake a stick at. As for Cathy herself, she’s become one of the most divisive and interesting characters in recent history, depending on how you look at her.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
The question of how much Cathy is really in control of her own destiny is a very interesting one. On the one hand, Cathy is a notoriously independent character who frequently rebels against authority – she doesn’t behave in the way she’s expected to, she goes out of her way to make sure she gets what she wants, and her decisions regularly have a huge impact on the plot. On the other hand, like any other woman in the late eighteenth century, she’s subjected to massive social pressures that she eventually ends up bowing to. Despite the fact that she wants to run around on the moors all day with Heathcliff, she knows that due to class- and gender-based restrictions, she’ll never be free to marry him.
All this sets up the ultimately contradictory nature of Cathy’s character. She’s a fiercely independent young woman trapped by social pressures to act like a proper lady, to marry within her social class, and to rein in her passionate, tempestuous nature. Sometimes, she caves to the pressure, and sometimes she doesn’t. It’s worth noting that she’s much more in control of where she goes and what she does when she’s a young girl – the second she starts entering into an engagement we see her holding herself back and being forced into the mould of the proper young lady. The adult Cathy still has her moments of independence, but she still spends much of her time cooped up inside with her husband, where she doesn’t really want to be. This has all sorts of interesting implications in terms of freedom and marriage which I’ll be discussing later on, but for now I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Cathy’s hobbies aren’t talked about in a huge amount of detail, but we do know she enjoys wandering around on the moors and a lot of outdoor activity, as opposed to the more traditional, ladylike ‘accomplishments’.
Her goals aren’t particularly clear. When she’s a child, her goal is really just to spend as much time with Heathcliff as possible, and when she becomes a teenager, she decides she wants to expand on this by raising Heathcliff’s social status. She thinks she can achieve this by marrying Edgar Linton, but this backfires after Heathcliff runs off, only showing up three years later with a pile of mysteriously acquired cash and a desire for revenge. After that, she doesn’t really have much of a goal apart from getting her own way – and for much of the novel it’s not really clear exactly what she wants in the first place.
Her beliefs are much more clearly defined. She values passion over politeness, loves her freedom and independence and regrets losing it, and – unusually for an eighteenth-century woman – believes that she won’t go to Heaven, and doesn’t seem to want to go, either. As far as her beliefs on the afterlife go, the only thing she really wants is to be wherever Heathcliff is, whether that’s Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in between. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Cathy is a pretty consistent character. She’s reckless, impulsive, wild, manipulative, domineering, passionate and has a very quick temper, which can often devolve into spite and violence. Her outward appearance changes quite dramatically after her brief stay with the Lintons – where she goes from a wild child to a proper little lady – but that’s more of a surface level thing. While she does behave a bit more politely and expresses more of an interest in social rank, that fades pretty quickly, and the core elements of her personality are still there.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
Actually, it’s pretty difficult to describe Cathy’s story without referencing her love life. You can certainly describe her personality, but her trajectory through the novel depends entirely on her infatuation with Heathcliff, her marriage to Edgar and as the object of Heathcliff’s desire/bizarre revenge fantasies. I’ll give her half a point for personality, but I’m being generous.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Most of the decisions Cathy makes are influenced by her love life, but as with many other complex characters, it’s not immediately clear that what she feels could really be called love. On the surface, it certainly looks that way – she decides to spend as much time with Heathcliff as possible and declares her feelings for him, then she decides to marry Edgar, and then she decides to try and win Heathcliff back over when he seduces and marries Isabella Linton. These are all decisions which directly relate to her love life, and she doesn’t make many other decisions that don’t fall into this category.
That said, if you look more closely at Cathy’s behaviour it becomes clear that mixed up with all of these romantic entanglements is a clear desire to control. The decisions she makes about who to pursue are undercut by a clear motivation to serve her own interests. She decides to spend time with Heathcliff because she loves him, but also because Heathcliff lets her do whatever she wants – whether that’s running around on the moors or spying on the Lintons – and he takes most of the punishment for it. She decides to marry Edgar because she loves Heathcliff (great logic there, Cathy) but also because of what marrying a man of higher social standing can give her – and because marrying someone like Heathcliff isn’t really an option for someone of her social class. She decides to win Heathcliff back when he returns because she still loves him, but also because he’s turning his attentions to someone else, now, and Cathy can’t stand that.
This all points to a clear desire to dominate and manipulate her friends and family. It’s made very clear to the reader that Cathy hates being pushed aside and will go to extreme lengths to get her own way, including violence and making herself ill, but as an eighteenth-century woman, she has very few weapons in her arsenal. She can’t go out and make her fortune, or join a profession, or live the life she wants to lead, as there were enormous restrictions placed on women doing all of these things without a man being involved in the project (or at least, enormous piles of cash). Realistically, the only way Cathy can get want she wants in a society which encourages women to be very passive players is to manipulate the men around her. This is exactly what she does – she uses her charm and good looks to bend Edgar and Heathcliff to her will because she doesn’t really have many other options.
This makes the question of her love life a little bit difficult to untangle. Cathy’s love life is not just how she feels about other people – it’s also the best way she has for getting what she wants, the foundation of her future financial and social security, and a direct influence on her life and the lives of her friends and family. You have to factor this in to her decisions when you look at the choices she makes. There may well be some genuine romantic feelings mixed in there, but there’s a good deal more than emotions that are influencing her decisions. I’ll give her half a point because frankly, it’s quite difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Cathy doesn’t really develop much over the course of the story. As I mentioned earlier, when she goes to Thrushcross Grange and marries Edgar, she becomes a little more refined and ladylike, but this is a surface-level change. We only see her act like a proper lady when she’s around Edgar and his sister, and that starts to fade once she marries Edgar and Heathcliff comes back in the picture. Personally, I think this is much more of a façade than a deeper-level personality change, as she goes right back to her wild and reckless ways the second Heathcliff steps through the door. To be honest, she isn’t really given much opportunity for change, as she ends up dying halfway through the novel when she’s still in her late teens, but I’m still withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Cathy has plenty of weaknesses. She’s violent, cruel, manipulative and self-destructive, and this does actually hold her back over the course of the story. Her cruelty and manipulative behaviour drive a wedge between her and her sister-in-law, Isabella Linton, and eggs on Heathcliff to greater heights of nastiness. It doesn’t really affect her relationships all that much – for Edgar and Heathcliff, her charm seems to outweigh her mildly psychotic tendencies – but her self-destructive behaviour has much more of an impact. She makes herself ill on more than one occasion, wanders around on the moors in a storm while heavily pregnant, and this ends up taking a drastic toll on her health and eventually killing her. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Cathy does have an influence on the plot, but it definitely has its limits. As I mentioned earlier, most of her influence comes in the form of manipulating other people. She doesn’t always go out and do exactly what she wants, but gets other people to do things that end up giving her what she wants. Equally, her second biggest impact on the plot is deciding who she wants to marry. In this respect, she’s limited – as an eighteenth-century woman, she can’t propose herself – she has to wait for someone else to ask her (dropping hints like bricks as she does so) before she can actually make a decision. Regardless, her decision to marry Edgar instead of Heathcliff generates a huge amount of tension for the plot and the story simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
However, her biggest influence on the plot isn’t a decision at all – it’s her death. Cathy dies young, just after giving birth to a daughter, and this sends Heathcliff into a destructive spiral of complicated, marriage-based revenge plots against the Lintons. Her death is the force that propels him through the story, motivates nearly all of his decisions and generates the entire second half of the book. Obviously, this has its problems. Cathy is a huge impact on the plot, but not by actually doing anything – she just exists, makes the decisions that are put before her and dies. It’s not really her actions that create the tension between the characters – it’s the way the other characters perceive her and react to her. I’ll give her half a point for her manipulation, but I can’t help feeling like I’m being generous.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
When you look at how Cathy relates to gender stereotypes, you basically come back with a ready-made gender studies essay. Cathy is a bit of a mixed bag, relating to gender stereotypes in both positive and negative ways, and whether you see her was progressive or traditional really depends on your own viewpoint.
We’ll start with the positives. In some ways, Cathy can be seen as a character ahead of her time. She’s a wild, reckless, passionate young woman in a time period where that kind of behaviour was discouraged. She starts off a tomboy who cares little for appearances and laughs at the kind of expectations placed on other women. She has limited amounts of power, but she does what she can with what she’s got. When she marries Edgar Linton and becomes a lady, she’s clearly unhappy, regrets her decision and ultimately starves herself to death. It’s pretty easy to interpret this as a condemnation of the expectations placed on eighteenth-century women. She marries Edgar in pursuit of class and social standing and withers away, as all the things she loved are no longer available to her. Being forced into the role of perfect wife and mother literally kills her – which is a hugely subversive idea for Victorian society.
On the other hand, she doesn’t have a lot of influence on the story, is frequently depicted as a shallow, flighty girl and spends at least half the book dead. From the very beginning she is presented to us as the archetypal ‘Lost Love’ – a beautiful young woman whose tragic death exists to motivate other people on their journey through the story. This makes her less of a character in her own right and more of a motivation for other characters. She spends most of the story as an abstract concept, tormenting Heathcliff and spurring on his desire for revenge without actually doing anything (what with her being dead and all). She is the object of other people’s desires, the focus of other people’s memories, and the centre of the tragedy that engulfs them all for far longer than she is an active character in her own right.
And that brings us on to her relationship with Heathcliff. It is, of course, very complex. The book depicts it as a grand, all-consuming passion, but unusually, the destructive nature of that kind of love is not shied away from. In some of my other reviews, I’ve talked about how all-consuming passions are often portrayed as positive experiences by the media, but in Wuthering Heights this is not the case. Cathy and Heathcliff don’t just love each other – they want to possess each other, destroy each other, and become each other. In one of her most famous lines from the novel, Cathy declares “I am Heathcliff”, implying that the sheer force of their passion for each other has eaten away at her own identity. Their love is not a positive force – it drags everyone around them into despair, ruins people’s lives and results in the deaths of more than one person. It’s a very powerful and dangerous force – which is complicated by the fact that for part of their childhood, Cathy and Heathcliff were raised as brother and sister.
Interestingly, some modern adaptations completely gloss over this, portraying their feelings for each other as a sweeping, epic romance rather than as something which consumes and destroys the lives of multiple people. Heathcliff is often portrayed as a brooding, Byronic hero rather than the abusive, violent, puppy-killing sociopath he really is. The book, however, keeps this romanticism to a minimum, and the reader is left in no doubt of just how nasty Heathcliff really is.
This has some interesting implications for Cathy’s character, too. In adaptations where Heathcliff’s nastiness is downplayed, Cathy’s character tends to get dialled down a notch, too. Her manipulative and domineering behaviour are cast aside in favour of romantic swooning. In the original novel, the destructive element of Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship adds another layer to her character too – a kind of fascinating darkness that we don’t always see in female leads whose main focus is a love story.
Long story short? Cathy presents both sides of the argument in one crazy package. There are both positive and negative elements to her character where gender stereotypes are concerned, and the same incidents can sometimes be used to justify either side. I’m going to give her half a point, but the fact that she can generate this much debate is, in itself, something to celebrate.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Cathy doesn’t really relate to many other female characters. She dies giving birth to her daughter, so we never see them interact. She’s polite to her brother Hindley’s wife, Frances, but she dies pretty quickly too, so we don’t see a lot of that. Most of her interactions are with Isabella Linton and Nelly Dean, the narrator.
Isabella is clearly set up to be Cathy’s foil. The two are very different – Cathy is wild, passionate and manipulative; Isabella is meek, gentle and delicate. They start off as something like friends, but Cathy’s cruel and domineering nature drives Isabella away. There’s also an element of jealousy there, as Isabella ends up marrying Heathcliff, but once it’s made clear that he still really fancies Cathy that largely disappears.
Nelly is another matter. She is the only character in the story able to see through Cathy’s manipulation and recognise her destructive behaviour for what it is. She’s Cathy’s confidant, but also her servant, and gets treated with a mixture of friendliness and disdain depending on exactly what role she’s fulfilling. She’s the only one prepared to confront Cathy, too – even though this rarely works. Despite all of this, Nelly’s impact on the story is pretty minimal – she is more of a lens through which the reader can view the action, rather than an active player herself.
There’s a certain distance between Cathy and the rest of the female characters she relates to – the general sense is that she doesn’t quite connect with any of them, perhaps due to her intense relationship with Heathcliff. That said, her relationships are certainly interesting and carry a certain amount of complexity and variety, so I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10
Cathy is a consistent character with a range of strengths and weaknesses and varying relationships with different female characters, but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. Her influence on the plot is somewhat limited, we don’t really see her grow, her story arc really does revolve around her love life and she presents a few problems with regards to gender stereotypes.
Does this mean she’s a character not worth talking about? I don’t think so. For all her flaws, she’s a very complex character whose actions and decisions raise a lot of interesting questions. She may not have passed my test, but for what it’s worth, I still find her story really compelling and engaging.
Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourite shows for the fourth time, because I just can’t say no. Toph Beifong, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.