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Vampires in Wuthering Heights
Vampires in Wuthering Heights. Seriously? Yes, seriously. This is no movie adaptation taking liberties; this is a valid interpretation with textual evidence to support it. Whether you choose to push that interpretation to metaphorical or literal levels is up to you.
But first, a spoiler warning: in the process of explaining my interpretation, I will spoil the hell out of this novel. And yeah, it came out over 150 years ago, but if you’ve had it on your to-read list, go ahead and bookmark this post and come back once you’ve read it. (And go read it now, because it’s awesome.)
Okay, let’s cut right to the chase. Within Wuthering Heights there’s plenty of evidence to read this plot: Cathy becomes a vampire, haunting Heathcliff for years before finally turning him into one as well, so they – joined at last – can roam the moors eternally as the undead.
Think I’m smoking something? Let’s break it down.
Brontë structured the novel unchronologically, but if we take the events of the book in order, the vampiric motifs begin with Cathy’s illness. Nelly, our inner-layer narrator, repeatedly describes Cathy with classical vampiric traits, such as glowing or flashing eyes, sharp teeth, wicked smiles, pale skin, hollow cheeks, thinness of limbs, preternatural strength, and bloodlessness. At the beginning of Cathy’s “illness,” which represents her initiation into vampirism, Nelly details her “[starting up]—her hair flying over her shoulders, her eyes flashing, the muscles of her neck and arms standing out preter-naturally.” And although Nelly says that Cathy’s “countenance had a […] bloodless lip,” Edgar exclaims, “She has blood on her lips!” [Note: bolded phrases throughout will be my emphasis, not the author’s.]
After this vivid description, Cathy flees to her bedroom and locks herself up for three days. Three is key; it’s the mythical length needed to transform in vampire lore. What’s more, Cathy’s bed is singular: a “large oak case, with squares cut out near the top, resembling coach windows [...] In fact, it formed a little closet.” Sounds eerily like a coffin, doesn’t it? During her three days locked in her room, Cathy refuses to eat. (In some lore, vampires can’t eat, only drink blood.) When she finally unbars the door, she tells Nelly that she believes she’s dying. Her transformation has begun.
During Cathy’s prolonged death, the connections to vampirism multiply. Perhaps the most striking scene is when Cathy sees “someone” in the mirror across her bedroom, demanding to know who it is. Nelly cannot seem to make Cathy realize that she sees her own reflection, and covers the mirror with a shawl. Yet Cathy continues in fear: “It's behind there still! […] And it stirred. Who is it? I hope it will not come out when you are gone! Oh! Nelly, the room is haunted!” The fact that Cathy doesn’t recognize her reflection is reminiscent of the legend that vampires cannot see themselves in mirrors, either because they have no reflection or because they’re unable to look at themselves. “‘There's nobody here!’ [Nelly] insisted. ‘It was yourself, Mrs. Linton; you knew it a while since.’ ‘Myself!’ she gasped, ‘and the clock is striking twelve! It's true then, that's dreadful!’” At this point Cathy realizes what she is becoming, and she fears her future.
Heathcliff vehemently questions Cathy, “Are you possessed with a devil[?]” Possession has always been one theory of vampirism, which serves as the basis for their being ‘damned’ souls. Likewise, Heathcliff curses Cathy once she dies: “May she wake in torment! […] Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? […] I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. […] Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
(Who says romance is dead?) Heathcliff’s declaration that Cathy hasn’t “perished” even though she’s dead comes to interesting fruition. When he digs her up twenty years later, he finds her unchanged. A body failing to decompose after that long more than hints at the supernatural. No doubt, Brontë knows what she’s doing.
The final nail in the coffin (sorry) that proves Cathy’s vampirism? Her return. Vampires always come back for their loved ones. When Lockwood, our outer-layer narrator, opens the novel, it’s twenty years after Cathy’s death. And before he even knows her story, he spends the night at Wuthering Heights in Cathy’s creepy oak-paneled coffin bed, pressed up against the bedroom window.
In what is certainly the most chilling scene in the novel – and arguably in any novel – Lockwood ‘dreams’ that he lies listening to the creepy sound of a branch continuously scraping against the window. Maddened by it, he eventually busts through the glass (the window is sealed shut) and reaches out to move it, only to be grabbed by “a little, ice-cold hand!” Lockwood tells, “The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in—let me in!’”
The girl, of course, is Cathy, dead and begging to be let in. What’s vampire rule number one? We They have to be invited in. Understandably terrified but perhaps not understandably brutal, Lockwood saws Cathy’s wrist across the broken glass until she lets go. Then he blocks the hole and refuses to let her in. Heathcliff, however, hearing the commotion, bursts in, flings open the window, and yells, “Come in! come in! […] Cathy, do come.” Although by then the “wraith” is gone, this invitation seals Heathcliff’s fate.
The reader never receives an explicit depiction of Cathy transforming Heathcliff by biting his neck, sucking his blood, etc. (The only overt reference to such a thing comes when at one point Heathcliff threatens, “I would have torn his heart out, and drunk his blood!”) The reader knows when something occurs because Heathcliff says, “Nelly, there is a strange change approaching—I’m in its shadow at present.” However, the method, manner, and form of his interaction with Cathy are left to the reader’s imagination. In fact, when Nelly questions Heathcliff about his strange behavior, he simply replies, “You'll neither see nor hear anything to frighten you, if you refrain from prying,” which quite beautifully implies that there is something there to frighten.
Just as when Cathy fell ill, Nelly tells Heathcliff, “The way you've passed these three last days might knock up a Titan. Do take some food, and some repose. You need only look at yourself, in a glass, to see how you require both. Your cheeks are hollow, and your eyes blood-shot, like a person starving with hunger, and going blind with loss of sleep.” Again, after several such descriptions, we get starvation within the mystic period of three days, a refusal to look in the mirror, paleness, strength, and extraordinary eyes. It’s clear to a discerning reader that what befell Cathy is now befalling Heathcliff.
Nelly explains that “At dusk, he went into his chamber—through the whole night, and far into the morning, we heard him groaning, and murmuring to himself.” This physical agony reflects that of people turning into vampires. Dusk is a significant time, marking the beginning of a vampire’s active period. Nelly continues to describe him with phrases such as “unnatural,” “bloodless,” and “ghastly.” At one point she sees him and admits, “It appeared to me, not Mr. Heathcliff, but a goblin; and, in my terror, I let the candle bend towards the wall, and it left me in darkness.”
Finally, as Heathcliff’s illness draws to a close, he obsesses over the conditions of his burial. He mentions specifically that his coffin “is to be carried to the churchyard, in the evening. […] and mind, particularly, to notice that the sexton obeys my directions concerning the two coffins!” He wants his to be open to Cathy’s, implying their bodies will be mobile and their essences not departed. He even tells Nelly that if the people bury him against his specifications, “[Y]ou must have me removed secretly; and if you neglect it, you shall prove, practically, that the dead are not annihilated!”
The climax of the vampiric plot occurs when Nelly finally witnesses Heathcliff ‘dead.’ The reader now has the opportunity to view him as a full vampire. First, Nelly notes his position: “Mr. Heathcliff was there—laid on his back.” This is classic vampiric posture, like someone in a coffin. She refers again to the strangeness of his eyes: “His eyes met mine so keen, and fierce, I started; and then, he seemed to smile.” She debates his state of being: “I could not think him dead—but his face and throat were washed with rain; the bed-clothes dripped, and he was perfectly still. The lattice, flapping to and fro, had grazed one hand that rested on the sill—no blood trickled from the broken skin, and when I put my fingers to it, I could doubt no more—he was dead and stark!”
Her first reaction is perhaps the most important, due to its instinctive correctness; he is not quite dead. She draws attention to his throat again, to his bloodlessness, and even to the window, that symbol through which the vampire was invited in. Nelly says, “I tried to close his eyes—to extinguish, if possible, that frightful, life-like gaze of exultation, before any one else beheld it. They would not shut—they seemed to sneer at my attempts, and his parted lips, and sharp, white teeth sneered too!” The transformation is complete; Heathcliff has joined Cathy in the realm of the undead.
With all of the connections to vampirism that Heathcliff and Cathy claim, perhaps the most elemental is the spreading of fear. People have always passed down vampire lore through tales and rumors, which Nelly describes at the end of the novel: “But the country folks, if you asked them, would swear on their bible that he walks. There are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house—Idle tales, you'll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen two of ’emlooking out of his chamber window, on every rainy night, since his death.” Nelly admits, “[Y]et still, I don't like being out in the dark, now—and I don't like being left by myself in this grim house.”
It’s clear there’s plenty of textual evidence for the theory of Cathy and Heathcliff as vampires, but it does beg the question: Was there enough cultural knowledge at the time of Emily Brontë’s writing to produce such intention? The short answer is yes. In fact, the word ‘vampire’ appears in Wuthering Heights: “‘Is he a ghoul, or a vampire?’ I mused. I had read of such hideous, incarnate demons.” Nelly’s use of the word at minimum puts the thought in the reader’s head and proves the author’s knowledge of its existence.
What’s more, Emily Brontë was writing Wuthering Heights in the thick of what scholars call the ‘vampire mania’ that hit England. We know Brontë had access to some popular vampire literature in her father’s library (Byron), and likely many more (Polidori, the famous penny dreadful Varney the Vampire).
Indeed, when Emily Brontë decided to subtly weave a tale of vampirism – whether she intended it literally or metaphorically, and I do believe there’s a strong case for literalism here – she was contributing to a long, complex lineage that authors and readers continue to this day. Indeed, with her striking feminist portrayal of what may be the first female vampire in English literature, she could well have influenced such classics as Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Dracula, notorious in critical circles for its themes of sexuality and gender.
In sum, I believe that in the long list of genres that Emily Brontë influenced with her seminal work – the gothic novel, romance, horror, literary fiction, family saga, and drama – we can rightfully include the vampire novel.
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