Heathcliffe: Daemon or Demon – Withering Frights

Daemon = a divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans.

Demon = an evil spirit or devil, especially one thought to possess a person or act as a tormentor in hell.

Which of these words most aptly describes Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights?

Wuthering_Heights_1

Heathcliff is a foundling who is cared for by old Mr Earnshaw and inwoven into his family at Wuthering Heights in Yorkshire. A passionate, instinctive relationship is forged between the young Heathcliff and Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine. The beauties of the Yorkshire moors (the heath) are theirs to love and explore. It is a time filled with a joy and wonder at being alive. But Catherine has a jealous brother Hindley; his jealousy is the beginning of the corruption of this childhood innocence. It is beginning to sound like the destructive forces that undermine childhood innocence in William Blake’s  Songs of Experience. Jealousy turns into brutality and brutality turns into revenge in an ever-expanding cycle of destructiveness. Can, does, anything survive this cycle? The answer is YES. On Lockwood’s last return to Wuthering Heights he is met, not by barred doors and words of surly rejection:

I had neither to climb the gate, nor to knock – it yielded to my hand. That is an improvement! I thought. And I noticed another, by the aid of my nostrils; a fragrance of stocks and wall flowers, wafted on the air, from amongst the homely fruit trees. Both doors and lattices were open…. 

And inside he is greeted by a sight of two young people (Catherine and Hareton), one engaged in teaching the other to read…

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And this is not all that greets Lockwood in the closing chapters of the book. There is Heathcliff himself who is transformed in the way that he opens his heart and soul to Nelly (housekeeper and narrator): “Nelly there is a strange change approaching – I’m in its shadow at present… Hareton’s aspect was the ghost of my immortal love, of my wild endeavours to hold my right, my degradation, my pride, my happiness, and my anguish… Last night, I was on the threshold of hell. To-day, I am within sight of my heaven. I have my eyes on it…” 

The novel concludes with Lockwood’s description of his last visit to the slope on the moor – near the collapsing Kirk- where the headstones of Edgar Linton, Catherine Linton and Heathcliff were placed:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth. 

Daemon or Demon? It seems to me that the daemonic spirit that powers, energizes our human life and that gives us the force to live truly, in harmony with our essential nature, can survive, but it can also be distorted and can, for a time, deviate into the demonic. To me this is a story of severe deviation, but a story in which the essential daemonic energy can be seen for what it is worth, and can ultimately survive. There is that powerful moment near the end where the young Catherine challenges Heathcliff’s anger at her use of part of the garden to plant -with Hareton- a bed of flowers:

“You shouldn’t grudge a few yards of earth for me to  ornament, when you have taken all my land!”

This is one of the most explosive moments that Heathcliff has had to cope with! This challenge from a woman! She has dared to stand up to him! Heathcliff’s response seems a miraculous turn-around, the beginning perhaps of some type of deep conscience, or even conversion:

His black eyes flashed; he seemed ready to tear Catherine in pieces… when of a sudden, his fingers relaxed, he shifted his grasp from her head to her arm, and gazed intently in her face. Then, he drew his hand over his eyes, stood a moment to collect himself apparently, and turning anew to Catherine, said with assumed calmness- “You must learn to avoid putting me in a passion, or I shall really murder you, some time!”

Demonic or Daemonic?

There is an amazing poem written by Emily Brontë at about this time which gives a deep insight into her own sense of where true human integrity lies; it is a poem which taps into her own passionate love for the landscape of her childhood; it sees that passion, that love, as the ingredient that can bring about a deep inner balance between the warring halves of the human psyche. The first two lines of the poem read (click on first line for great audio reading- don’t miss it! Poetry read aloud beautifully is amazing)

Often rebuked, yet always back retuning

   To those first feelings that were born with me… 

And the concluding two stanzas are:

I’ll walk, where my own nature would be leading:

   It vexes me to choose another guide:

Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;

   Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?

   More glory and more grief than I can tell:

The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling

   Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

Blog Topics on Emily Brontë

CREATIVE

1/ Take a single line from any poem by Emily Brontë and use this line as a starting point for a poem of your own that is in harmony with some of the ideas that Emily is exploring about her own life.

2/ “Those first feelings that were born with me”. Emily Brontë is clearly thinking/ feeling back to her own earliest childhood memories. She is asking herself what passions, what joys drove her nature when she was very young? Could you answer this question about your own life? Could you write a short answer to this in either prose or poetry. I imagine this could be a wonderful creative moment for some of you? Can you reach back that far??

CRITICAL

3/ Daemonic or Demonic? By now, from what you have read so far and from what has been said both here in this blog and also at the lecture, do you have a point of view on this question? Is Heathcliff the embodiment of one or the other? What do you think? Give your answer with a few illustrations from the novel itself.

4/ There is so much material out there on the Web about Emily Brontë. Can you do a bit of careful sleuthing for us and create a well designed, carefully chosen digital kit on this author that we could all benefit from? This could be the perfect start for your own growing ePortfolio which will be a wonderful resource for your own students in years to come. And there is quite a big chance that you will be teaching this novel sometime in the future!

  2 comments for “Heathcliffe: Daemon or Demon – Withering Frights

  1. March 18, 2015 at 3:43 am

    This is an incredible post. I can’t wait to do this course myself. I am yet to read Wuthering Heights but will do so with joy. Not knowing the period in which it was wriiten; from your description, it seems to border on Romanticism and Modernism. .. something I learned a little about this week.

  2. March 18, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Thanks Dave- looking forward to your participation. It is a novel that bridges between Romanticism and Victorianism, having been published in 1847 (ten years after Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne) but still filled with themes and ideas strongly reminiscent of the Romantic movement in literature.

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