Throughout Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s personality could be defined as dark, menacing, and brooding. He is a dangerous character, with rapidly changing moods, capable of deep-seeded hatred, and incapable, it seems, of any kind of forgiveness or compromise. In the first 33 chapters, the text clearly establishes Heathcliff as an untamed, volatile, wild man and establishes his great love of Catherine and her usage of him as the source of his ill humour and resentment towards many other characters.
However, there are certain tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities present in Chapter 34 that establish the true intensity Heathcliff’s feelings towards Catherine; feelings so intense that they border on a jealous obsession. Chapter 34 begins with a tension in regard to Heathcliff’s disposition.
Since Heathcliff’s countenance has seldom expressed anything but a sullen disposition, certainly nothing even remotely resembling joy, it comes as somewhat of a surprise when in the last chapter, young Cathy, upon seeing Heathcliff, reports that he looks, “almost bright and cheerful — No, almost nothing — very much excited, and wild and glad (276)! ” This is entirely unlike the Heathcliff that has been established up until this point. Even Nelly, who is well-accustomed to Heathcliff’s personality and dark moods is taken aback by the sudden change, so uncharacteristic of his usual temper –“… nxious to ascertain the truth of her statement, for to see the master looking glad would not be an everyday spectacle, I framed an excuse to go in (276). ”
Since Catherine has previously almost always been the cause of such wild mood fluctuations, it stands to reason that she has somehow inspired this wild and frightening joy in him as well. During the final days of his life, Heathcliff’s curious behaviour continues. He refuses to eat, absents himself from the company of Cathy, Hareton, or Nelly, disappears inexplicably for long intervals of time and refuses to explain his absences.
Most disturbing, his strange excitement continues, causing discomfort to all those around him, especially Nelly. When Nelly asks him where he was the night before his he began to exhibit this odd elation, he tells her, “Last night, I was on the threshold of hell. To-day I am within sight of my heaven — I have my eyes on it — hardly three feet to sever me (278)! ” His statement is ambiguous–it does little to explain his sudden change of humour and little to satisfy Nelly’s curiosity and wonder at his state. Joy in most characters in Wuthering Heights is an uplifting state associated with happiness and delighted exhilaration.
However in Heathcliff, as Nelly observes, it is a horrible, frightening thing. In Heathcliff, the mood arouses wariness and fear in others and indicates some inner change so dramatic that its cause is almost unthinkable. Heathcliff offers no coherent explanation for his sudden change of state and the text offers no concrete solution as to what could have caused his dark exhilaration. Thus, the question of his condition is left largely unanswered as Heathcliff continues to exhibit such uncharacteristic behaviour, inspiring all the more uneasiness in Nelly, especially. He frightens her greatly several times with his agitated state.
Once, upon encountering him in his room, Nelly tells Mr. Lockwood, “I cannot express what a terrible start I got, by the momentary view! Those deep black eyes! That smile, and ghastly paleness! 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 (278)”. Even Nelly, who has never before, even after many, many years of acquaintance to Heathcliff, shown any intimidation or fear of him despite his blatant displays of brutality, is shaken and haunted by his strange appearance and his agitated condition.
So shocking is his countenance that she even asks herself if he is a ghoul or a vampire. Since he is not willing to divulge entirely what it is that is causing him such excitement, Nelly, and all of Bronte’s audience, are left to ponder for themselves what could effect such a change. Of course, the only thing previously that has caused Heathcliff to fluctuate so wildly in his moods and to hover between such dramatically varying temperaments is Catherine.
Nelly, having been witness to Heathcliff’s fits of passion and rages in regard to Catherine before is shrewd enough to credit his appearance and strange condition to her former mistress, even though she has been dead for many years. Heathcliff has previously professed the misery Catherine’s death has caused him and stated his desire to be close to her — his anticipation to meet her when he dies. When Nelly attempts to serve Heathcliff food in the last chapter she finds Heathcliff watching some invisible apparition with rapt attention.
Though Nelly admonishes him for his refusal to eat and his poor condition, he never moves his eyes from whatever it is he sees — one may assume it is vision of Catherine, since his expression is a conflicting one of “both pleasure and pain, in exquisite extremes… (280)”. Little else could arouse such extreme emotion in Heathcliff, and nothing else, it seems, could make them apparent on his face. Apparently Heathcliff, seeing himself near death, and despite their present separation, feels himself as near to Catherine as he can possibly be given the fact that he is still alive.
And given this relative proximity, his mood has been heightened to a delirious agitation at the prospect of seeing her again. With this anticipation, the text introduces another contradiction. Heathcliff assumes that he will be united again with Catherine in eternal bliss when he dies. Given this belief, Heathcliff apparently believes that Catherine is in heaven. He has admitted to Nelly numerous times that he is an evil man, merciless, and bent on revenge towards his enemies, even if it means hurting those who have never wronged him–young Edgar Linton, and young Cathy, in particular.
Heathcliff realizes that he is filled with hate and vengeance and makes no excuse for his behaviour. Yet, since he imagines himself being reunited with Catherine after his death, he apparently feels that he will go to heaven when he dies. This is a curious contradiction coming from a man who recognizes his evil and makes no attempt to reform himself. Maybe Heathcliff holds no beliefs concerning heaven or hell, but in the last chapter, he tells Nelly how close his soul is to bliss, which seems to indicate that he does believe in something following death.
When Heathcliff does finally die, the cause of his death is never really ascertained. His countenance in death is almost a smile, at the same time a sneer, according to Nelly–a look of life-like exultation. His countenance doesn’t suggest which end he met–the sneer he wears in death is close to his normal expression in life. It must be assumed that his obsession with Catherine, his desperate yearning to be with her, and his longing for death was what ultimately killed him.
That such a longing could actually kill Heathcliff suggests that perhaps what he was experiencing was more than love. It seems unlikely that love would inspire in Heathcliff such rage and anger as consumed his life for the many years following Catherine’s death. That love alone could cause his physical decline and death seems unlikely as well. Heathcliff’s condition indicates that what he felt towards Catherine was more than love–it was more like a violent obsession, fuelled by a mad jealousy and hatred of anyone who dared to stand between himself and her.
The text in the last chapter introduces several contradictions and tensions, but also resolves them, in a subtle way. Heathcliff’s strange behaviour and mysterious death, according to the text, seems ultimately to be the result of his mad obsession with Catherine, and his inability to function rationally without her. The text implicates Heathcliff as nearly a madman–seeing apparitions, rambling almost incoherently about his approaching death, shunning food or anything else that might keep him alive.
Heathcliff went beyond what was reasonable and rational in his love for Catherine–his behaviour, as illustrated in the last chapter was erratic, and his death disturbing–all indications that Heathcliff was wildly obsessed with Catherine, a premise which does much to resolve many of the complexities in Chapter 34. Bronte does an excellent job of introducing complexities and tensions within the text and then resolving them subtlety and exquisitely through Nelly’s narration and observations and through Heathcliff’s wild moods and unpredictable actions.