In the late winter months of 1801, a man named Lockwood rents a manor house called Thrushcross Grange in the isolated moor country of England. Here, he meets his dour landlord, Heathcliff, a wealthy man who lives in the ancient manor of Wuthering Heights, four miles away from the Grange, but otherwise isolated in the moors. In this wild, stormy countryside, Lockwood asks his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him the story of Heathcliff and the strange denizens of Wuthering Heights.
Nelly consents, and Lockwood writes down his recollections of her tale in his diary; those written recollections form the great majority of Wuthering Heights. When Nelly was a young girl, she was a servant at Wuthering Heights to Mr. Earnshaw and his family. One day, Mr. Earnshaw goes to Liverpool, and returns home with an orphan boy whom he will raise with his own children. At first, the Earnshaw children–an older boy named Hindley and his young sister Catherine–detest the dark-skinned Heathcliff. Catherine quickly grows to love him, and the two are soon inseparable.
They spend their days playing on the moors. After his wife’s death, Mr. Earnshaw grows to prefer Heathcliff to his own son, and when Hindley continues his cruelty to Heathcliff, Mr. Earnshaw sends Hindley away to college, keeping Heathcliff nearby. Three years later, Mr. Earnshaw dies, and Hindley inherits Wuthering Heights. He returns with a wife, Frances, and immediately seeks revenge on Heathcliff: the once orphan and now spoiled boy is now to be treated as a common laborer, and forced to work in the fields.
Heathcliff continues his close relationship with Catherine, however. One night they wander to Thrushcross Grange, hoping to tease the cowardly, snobbish Linton children, Edgar and Isabella, who live there. Catherine is bitten by a dog, and is forced to stay at the Grange to recuperate for five weeks, during which time Mrs. Linton works to make her a proper young lady. When she returns, she is smitten with Edgar, and her relationship with Heathcliff grows more complicated.
Frances gives birth to a baby boy named Hareton and then dies; Hindley descends into the depths of alcoholism, and behaves even more cruelly and abusively toward Heathcliff. Eventually, Catherine’s desire for social advancement prompts her to become engaged to Edgar Linton, despite her overpowering love for Heathcliff; Heathcliff runs away from Wuthering Heights, and does not return for three years, until shortly after Catherine and Edgar’s marriage. When Heathcliff returns, he immediately sets about seeking revenge on all who have wronged him.
Now possessed of a vast and mysterious wealth, he easily wins possession of Wuthering Heights by loaning the drunken Hindley money to feed his gambling addiction; when Hindley dies, Heathcliff inherits the manor. He also places himself in line to inherit Thrushcross Grange by marrying Isabella Linton, whom he treats very cruelly. Catherine becomes ill, gives birth to a daughter, and dies; Heathcliff curses her spirit to remain on Earth and haunt him–anything, as long as she does not leave him alone.
Shortly thereafter, Isabella flees to London and gives birth to Heathcliff’s son, named Linton after her maiden name. Thirteen years pass, which Nelly Dean spends as Catherine’s daughter’s nursemaid at Thrushcross Grange. Young Catherine is beautiful and headstrong like her mother, but her temperament is modified by her father’s more gentle influence. Young Catherine grows up at the Grange with no knowledge of Wuthering Heights, but one day, wandering through the moors, she discovers the manor, meets Hareton, and plays with him.
Shortly thereafter, Isabella dies, and Linton comes to live with Heathcliff. Heathcliff treats his sickly, whining son even more cruelly than he treated his wife. Three years later, Catherine meets Heathcliff on the moors, and makes a visit to Wuthering Heights to meet Linton. She and Linton begin a secret romance conducted entirely through letters; when Nelly destroys her letters, she begins sneaking out at night to spend time with the frail young man, who convinces her that only she can nurse him back to health.
However, it quickly becomes apparent that Linton is pursuing Catherine only because Heathcliff is forcing him to; Heathcliff hopes that if Catherine marries Linton, his legal claim upon Thrushcross Grange–and his revenge upon Edgar Linton–will be complete. One day, as Edgar Linton grows ill and nears death, Heathcliff lures Nelly and Catherine back to Wuthering Heights, and holds them prisoner until Catherine marries Linton. Edgar dies not long after, and the sickly Linton dies soon after that. Heathcliff now controls both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
He forces Catherine to live at Wuthering Heights and act as a common servant, while he rents Thrushcross Grange to Lockwood. Nelly’s story to Lockwood ends as she reaches the present. Lockwood, appalled, ends his tenancy at Thrushcross Grange and returns to London. However, six months later, he pays a visit to Nelly, and learns of further developments in the story. Though Catherine originally mocked Hareton’s ignorance and illiteracy (in an act of retributive vengeance, Heathcliff ended Hareton’s education after Hindley died), Catherine grows to love Hareton as they live together at Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff grows more and more obsessed with the memory of Catherine, to the extent that he begins speaking to her ghost. Everything he sees reminds him of her. Shortly after a night spent walking on the moors, Heathcliff dies. Hareton and Catherine inherit Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, and plan to be married on the next New Year’s Day. After hearing the end of the story, Lockwood goes to visit the graves of Catherine and Heathcliff.