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The Dilemma Within Wuthering Heights: A Freudian Perspective

Pavel Tchelitchew – Portrait of Jacques Stettiner

Wuthering Heights is a novel rife with opposing elements, from the constantly present juxtaposition between the natural and civilized realms to the contradictory dispositions of such characters as Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. Similarly, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, viewed the human psyche as another landscape of conflicting drives and energies due to its tripartite nature. The behavior and roles played by the three main characters of Wuthering Heights, Catherine Earnshaw, Heathliff and Edgar Linton, can be seen as corresponding to or representing each of the three sections of the human psyche – the id, ego and superego- which Freud outlined in his seminal 1920 essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Heathcliff: The Animalistc Aspect of Being

Heathcliff symbolizes the id in the novel. At birth, the human mind will not yet have developed an ego or a superego; at that stage the psyche is still primarily made up of the id and therefore it is its most instinctive and integral constituent. The id can be described as follows:

“The id constitutes the lustful, aggressive (in Freud’s terminology, sexual) part of our personality . . . The id does not argue or deliberate, possesses no values or rules and respects neither common sense nor logic. It is pure craving. As our id-drives usually remain repressed, finding expression only in short-lived and apparently unconnected actions, the true nature of this part of our personality remains in the dark. Freud therefore describes the id as being unconscious.”
(Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction)

The id pursues the immediate attainment of pleasure through the reduction of tension. In other words, it aims for the satisfaction of our most basic human needs such as nourishment or shelter, without being hindered by any notions of morality or law.

The animalistic terms which are constantly used in relation to Heathcliff throughout the novel represent his connection to the primitive nature of the id. Lockwood thinks of his manner of speaking as “growl[ing]”, while Nelly views him as a “mad dog” and later recounts how he “howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast” when she informed him of Catherine’s death.

Catherine describes Heathcliff’s character in the following manner:

“Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone . . . He’s not a rough diamond—a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man. . . and he’d crush you like a sparrow’s egg, Isabella, if he found you a troublesome charge. I know he couldn’t love a Linton; and yet he’d be quite capable of marrying your fortune and expectations” Here, she paints a picture of him that is reminiscent of the properties and function of the id in its primitive and often destructive attributes. He is once more associated with animal imagery, as shown in Catherine’s usage of the word “wolfish”. The desire to decrease tension through the accumulation of possessions and wealth is also pronounced in this passage.

Catherine goes on to say:

“I never say to him, “Let this or that enemy alone, because it would be ungenerous or cruel to harm them;” I say, “Let them alone, because I should hate them to be wronged:””, which clearly illustrates his lack of moral values and inhibitions, just as the id is devoid of ethical considerations or a sense of selflessness.

Heathcliff is a portrayal of the thoughtless and chaotic id; he recklessly heeds and is powerfully dominated by his emotional impulses. After he overhears Catherine exclaiming that it would “degrade [her]” to marry him, he immediately runs away from Wuthering Heights for three years. In addition, when he hears of Catherine’s death, Nelly observes how “he dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears. [She] observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained” This can also be seen in the “murderous violence” which he displays on several occasions, such as when he hanged Isabella’s dogs. Isabella also recounts how, at one point, he “snatched a dinner knife from the table, and flung it at [her] head”. He falls into an “uncontrollable passion of tears” when Lockwood relates his dream encounter with Catherine’s ghost.  In fact, his entire course of action throughout the novel is mainly driven by his passionate need for revenge, which is an attempt to gratify an emotional impulse.

His disdain for social and religious conventions is also visible in Wuthering Heights. Nelly is “shocked by his godless indifference” when he tells her of the manner in which he wishes to be buried and in how he dismisses the notion of repentance:

“It is to be carried to the churchyard in the evening . . . No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me.—I tell you I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me.”

He is also quite mysterious, and this resembles the fact that the id is an unconscious aspect of the psyche. Heathliff’s origins and parentage remain unknown till the end of the novel. When he returns to Wuthering Heights after an absence of three years, no one knows how he had attained his wealth, or anything about his manner of living during those years.


Edgar Linton: The Ideal Man

Edgar Linton’s character, on the other hand, corresponds to the superego.

“The superego comprises the norms, values, and ideals that upbringing and education have instilled in us . . . the superego represents an unconscious pressure on us to live in complete accordance with the wishes that other people (first and foremost our parents and teachers) have instilled in us”
(Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction)

Gustave Dore – Celestial Rose (1868) – Public Domain

Linton is bred as a gentleman and he, along with his household, Thrushcross Grange, represent the aspect of civilization and gentility in the novel that counters Heathcliff’s emotional tumult. He acts as Heathcliff’s antithesis or foil, just as the id and superego act in opposition to one another. Edgar’s home, Thrushcross Grange is even described as “heaven” by Heathcliff, which reflects the superego’s association with morality, and thinks of Heathliff as a “moral poison that would contaminate the most virtuous”. The wild and boisterous Catherine is transformed during her stay with the Lintons after injuring her leg: she returns to Wuthering Heights a lady, having been influenced by the respectable atmosphere at the Grange to follow societal and moral conventions of dress and behavior.When Linton discovers Heathcliff’s romantic pursuit of Isabella, he derides Catherine for associating with him and the language he uses relates to social conventions of being proper:

“What notion of propriety must you have to remain here, after the language that has been held to you by that blackguard? I suppose because it is his ordinary talk, you think nothing of it; you are habituated to his baseness, and, perhaps, imagine I can get used to it too!” By shutting Heathcliff out of his home, Linton is attempting to bring order back to his life and that of his family.


Catherine Earnshaw: The Entrapment of Ego

Paolo Monti – Serie Fotografica – (1978)

Catherine Earnshaw represents the Ego that is torn between these two conflicting drives:

“the ego tries to find a healthy balance between our wishes and those of others . . . In brief, the ego faces a threefold challenge: “from the external world, from the libido of the id, and from the severity of the superego”” (Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction)

She is constantly faced with the predicament of having to make a choice between Heathcliff and Edgar, something that Edgar puts into words after his quarrel with Heathcliff: “Will you give up Heathcliff hereafter or will you give up me? It is impossible for you to be my friend and his at the same time”

This is also expressed when Catherine asks Ellen Dean whether she had made the right decision in accepting Linton’s marriage proposal. Even though she has a deep emotional bond to Heathcliff, even going so far as to say that “[she] is Heathcliff”, she is aware that in tying herself to him she will become destitute. Edgar Linton provides an alternative that is almost equally daunting; because while he is wealthy and will provide her with a prestigious social standing, Catherine is conscious of the fact that she does not belong to the world of Thrushcross Grange with its strict propriety and decorum. This is manifested in the dream which she relates to Ellen Dean, where she enters heaven but quickly discovers that it “did not seem to be [her] home”. Heaven symbolizes the world of Thrushcross Grange as the civilized domain and Catherine finally admits that she has “no more business to marry Edgar than [she has] to be in heaven”. Catherine ultimately realizes that she is not able to give up either of them, and this tension comes to a head after Linton asks her to give up Heathcliff. This ultimatum strains her mind to the point of madness: “if I can’t keep Heathcliff as a friend- if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I’ll end up breaking their hearts by breaking my own”. She suffers psychologically when she finally understands that she cannot achieve a conciliation or harmony between these opposing drives of her personality and that they must remain fractured, never to be united into a whole.

The entire story of Wuthering Heights is propelled forward by the tension that arises from the presence of duality. The central dilemma of Wuthering Heights is, therefore, Catherine’s difficult position as ego, mediating and struggling to attain balance between the id and superego. Looking at the novel from this point of view, Catherine becomes symbolic of a universal dilemma that takes place in each individual human psyche: whether one should strive to gratify one’s desires, a path which often ends in self-undoing and the prevalence of disorder, or to surrender to the strict codes of morality enforced through social conventions, law and religion, a submission which ultimately results in intense suffering and dissatisfaction.


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