Wuthering Heights: Nature vs nurture

By Edwin Gilson


Nature and nurture

Emily Brontë’s classic novel explores the timeless question of how we become the people that we are. Wuthering Heights examines the influence of nature and nurture on human development. By ‘nature’ I mean the personality traits we are born with, not the natural world. ‘Nurture’ refers to the ways that our lived experience shapes us. In order to understand how Brontë engages with the nature-nurture issue, let’s take a closer look at two of her central characters: Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw.


Heathcliff: A ‘genuine bad nature’?

Brontë’s most famous creation grows up at Wuthering Heights after Mr Earnshaw finds him alone on the streets of Liverpool. ‘Where did he come from, the little dark thing?’, wonders Nelly Dean (p. 336). As a result of his complexion and mysterious origins, the young Heathcliff is referred to as a ‘devil’ (p. 37) (by Earnshaw) and an ‘imp of Satan’ (by Hindley) (p. 40). Darkness is equated with evil here, which makes for uncomfortable reading in our age of heightened racial awareness. At any rate, because Heathcliff’s family background is never revealed, it is impossible to know the extent to which genetics are responsible for his actions. Upon visiting Wuthering Heights, Lockwood detects a ‘genuine bad nature’ (p. 12) in the adult Heathcliff, while Nelly remarks upon his ‘violent nature’ as a child (although he is often provoked by Hindley) (p. 59). These descriptions imply that Heathcliff’s tendency towards volatile behaviour is inherent in his genetic composition. Nelly notes that the young Heathcliff was a ‘sullen, patient child; hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment’, but does not clarify whether she is referring to his life before or after arriving at Wuthering Heights (p. 38). In this regard, Brontë seems to deliberately cloak her character in ambiguity. Heathcliff is frequently described as untamed and wild, much like the moors that surround Wuthering Heights. Indeed, he describes himself as a ‘crooked tree’ (p. 190). Hindley’s cruelty to him as a child suggests that his difficult upbringing in Yorkshire is at least partly to blame for his troubled personality. Brontë draws clear symbolic parallels between her protagonist and the ‘atmospheric tumult’ of the moors but implies that nurture is a key reason behind Heathcliff’s apparent kinship with the harsh and unforgiving landscape (p. 4). 

When Heathcliff returns to Yorkshire after a prolonged absence, Nelly notices a change in his demeanour. While his heavy brows retain a ‘half-civilized ferocity’, his ‘manner was even dignified, quite divested of roughness’ (p. 97). This assessment suggests that the formative experiences garnered on his travels have lifted him above his ‘savage’ nature, however temporarily. Speaking candidly to Nelly near the end of the novel, though, Heathcliff admits that his entire life has been clouded by the loss of Catherine Earnshaw, with whom he was inseparable in childhood. Heathcliff is dealt the devastating double blow of Catherine’s marriage to the wealthier Edgar Linton and then her death. ‘It is a long fight, I wish it were over!’ he laments of his tortured life (p. 331). This outburst suggests that Heathcliff’s lifelong despair and dark moods can be largely traced to the demise of the intense childhood relationship that has haunted his existence ever since.


Hareton: From ‘colossal dunce’ to ‘civilised’ gentleman

When considering the factors that have formed Hareton, it is worth remembering that he is born into a household marked by grief and barbarism. His violent alcoholic father, Hindley, is in mourning after the death of his wife. However, Hareton enjoys the nurturing presence of Nelly, who treats him like her own child. After his father’s death, Hareton is denied an education and put to work in the fields by Heathcliff. Hareton’s brooding demeanour and short temper as a youth could be associated with nature or nurture. He may have inherited some of his father’s obvious anger issues (albeit aggravated by grief), but he has also been scarred by Hindley’s violence towards him as a very young child. His social standing and life opportunities are then severely restricted by Heathcliff.

Hareton is mercilessly mocked by Linton Heathcliff and Catherine Linton for his illiteracy, with the former calling him a ‘colossal dunce’ (p. 224). When Lockwood returns to Yorkshire after many years away, however, he finds Hareton miraculously changed. Nelly explains that Hareton has benefited enormously from the tutelage of Catherine Linton; rather ironically given her earlier mistreatment of him. Catherine’s patient teaching has allowed him to overcome his social and intellectual limitations to be ‘another man’ from his previous self (p. 319). Nelly Dean recounts the story of how the animosity between Hareton and Catherine eventually gave way to a ‘treaty’ between the pair, from which point they became ‘sworn allies’ (p. 321). Lockwood overhears Catherine affectionately teasing Hareton over his mispronunciation of a word, calling him a ‘dunce’ in an echo of Linton’s derogatory earlier comment (p. 313). The playful tone of Catherine’s remark emphasises the gulf between Hareton’s unhappy, uneducated childhood and the learned young man he has become. While Hareton does not become ‘civilized’ overnight, he is eventually unrecognisable from the ‘rough and uncultivated’ youth Lockwood encountered on his first trip to Wuthering Heights (p. 12). ‘His honest, warm, and intelligent nature shook off rapidly the clouds of ignorance and degradation in which it had been bred’ (p. 328), concludes Nelly.  


Conclusion: A tale of two Catherines

Heathcliff and Hareton are both shaped by women named Catherine. Heathcliff never recovers from the loss of his soulmate Catherine Earnshaw, whose death compounds his propensity for gloominess and violence, while Hareton undergoes a radical transformation of character thanks to the benevolence of Catherine Linton. At the end of the novel, Lockwood observes a tender scene involving Hareton and the younger Catherine, whom we presume are to be married. Her ‘light shining ringlets’ tangle with his ‘brown locks’ (p. 314): an image which symbolises their intimacy but also recalls the ultimately doomed bond between Heathcliff and the older Catherine. The fates of Heathcliff and Hareton are largely determined by the two Catherines, suggesting that lived experience, rather than inherent nature, is the decisive factor in the psychological development of Brontë’s memorable male characters.


Brontë, E. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Classics, reprint edition, 2009.



Edwin Gilson is a doctoral researcher in contemporary fiction at the University of Surrey. He graduated with BA and MA in American Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London and University College Dublin respectively.