3. An End and a Beginning

Decorated initial B

esides, before Catherine is blamed (as Heathcliff himself blames her later), it must be remembered that what she herself labels the "initiatory step" in the long rebellion against the pressures on her relationship with Heathcliff has in fact already been taken (62). Not long after Earnshaw's funeral, the pair had absconded together for a "scamper on the moors" under cover of the "dairy woman's cloak" (64). This is their first escape, and a foretaste of the companionable hauntings at which the last chapter hints. It is, however, only the beginning of a protracted struggle. Increasingly desperate measures are taken to try to bypass reality and resume the old intimacy, whether that reality is generally hostile (as it is when they are younger and in Hindley's power) or simply hostile to their continued relationship (as it is when they are older, and are separated by Catherine's contact with the Lintons, her marriage, and social conventions).

The next attempt is again made by both, though it comes to fruition by Catherine's own initiative, and at her own risk. The skylight scramble is only the culmination of a long episode spanning two days and marked by the kind of "oscillations" which, as Piaget suggests, characterize the various transitions of adolescence. It is worth looking at the episode in detail, because it is the most closely described episode of their shared adolescence, and is fraught with all the tensions which later explode into Heathcliff's revenge and Catherine's self-destruction.

It is Christmas Eve when Catherine comes back from the Grange, so greatly altered in appearance. Heathcliff's discomfiture, and her own changed attitude towards him, have already been noted. Everything which follows on from this awkward meeting is entirely understandable, on both sides. At first Catherine reflects not on the damage to Heathcliff's feelings but on the danger to her new and "splendid garments" from contact with his grime (93). After all, Nelly has described the boy as being covered with dirt, and Catherine is wearing a silk frock and white trousers. This might be seen as Catherine's effort to assume the mantle of adulthood — to become, as the Victorian medical profession expected, "modest in her deportment." But Heathcliff, mortified by a sense of his own inferiority and sensing her recognition of it, cries out childishly: "You needn't have touched me!... I shall be as dirty as I please, and I like to be dirty, and I will be dirty." He then rushes out of the room. Catherine's amusement evaporates instantly: Nelly notes that while Hindley and Frances enjoy his reaction, which nicely fulfils their aim of "separating the two friends" (93), it is to her "serious disturbance" (95). However, having spoken unthinkingly herself, she does not fully understand the reason for it. Perhaps because of her incomprehension, as well as the excitement of the occasion, she allows herself to be kept busy for the rest of the evening. Her time is taken up with Hindley and his wife's showing her the various gifts they have bought for her to give the Lintons on their Christmas Day visit. It is therefore not Catherine but Nelly who, troubled by the memory of Mr Earnshaw's anxiety about Heathcliff, goes out to Heathcliff in the stable, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade him to smarten himself up and come indoors to the kitchen. Whatever else can been said about her (and Nelly has had a very bad press ever since James Hafley noticed her own feelings of rivalry towards her master's daughter [182ff.]), Nelly is not one of the agents of Catherine and Heathcliff's division here. Indeed, she takes it for granted that the two old friends will want to make up their difference — "then you can sit together, with the whole hearth to yourselves, and have a long chatter till bed-time." But Heathcliff is still suffering from Catherine's apparent transformation and laughter, and fails to respond. For her part, Catherine does eventually seek him out in the kitchen, but finding him absent returns to her preparations for the next day, having "a world of things to order for the reception of her new friends" (96).

Catherine has crossed the social divide which John Leech commented on in a Punch cartoon of 1843 entitled "Substance and Shadow."

These vacillations come to an end the next morning. On Christmas Day, Catherine's distress resurfaces: Nelly tells Heathcliff that "she cried when I told her you were off again this morning" (97). Heathcliff has wept too, and is ready to swallow his pride and follow Nelly's advice in order to present a pleasant face to Catherine. However, the reunion which is now looked for on both sides is at first subverted by Hindley's irritation and Edgar's rudeness, and is not accomplished easily. Before Heathcliff has done anything to warrant it, Hindley proclaims that he must be excluded from the "fragrant feast" (100). His mocking comment on Heathcliff's "elegant locks" is taken up by Edgar, "peeping from the doorway" of the room where he and his sister are warming themselves after their journey to the Heights (99). Stung by the ridicule to which his own attempt to smarten up has exposed him, Heathcliff lets fly with one of the tureens and is marched off to his room, where he is beaten before being imprisoned: "That brute of a lad has warmed me nicely," gloats Hindley on his reappearance (99). Catherine's apparent indifference soon breaks down and she is now as effectively barred from enjoying the Christmas spread as Heathcliff is. Thinking of his misery, she cannot even eat one mouthful of the goose-wing which is on her plate. She has been forced to fast before, as a punishment by Joseph, but this is the first time we see her having difficulty in eating what is put in front of her. She even pretends to drop her fork in order to lower her head under the table and hide her tears. The refusal of food will become a conscious and self-destructive ploy, a development which tallies with at least one recent study implicating what may be considered a "difficult home environment" in the genesis of female eating disorders (see Brooks-Gunn 143). Right now, thinking of Heathcliff's banishment, Catherine must remain "in purgatory throughout the day" (100). The boy, Nelly discovers, has been locked up; Catherine pleads in vain for him to be allowed to join the dance which takes place later in the day. Although she appears to be enjoying the carol-singing which follows, her heart is evidently not in it, for on the pretext that "it sounded sweetest at the top of the steps" she at last escapes from the company and climbs to Heathcliff's garret. It is when Nelly climbs up to warn her of an imminent lull in the festivities that she discovers Catherine's unexpected and dangerous feat: "instead of finding her outside, I heard her voice within" (101).

Poignant as this whole episode is, it serves only to bring home to Heathcliff the fact that he and Catherine are being forced apart by social pressures which he is currently unable to control. For it is just after this, when Nelly has brought him to the kitchen for some food after his long fast (though he too is hardly able to eat), that Heathcliff first shows signs of wanting to take revenge on Hindley. But his motive is not revenge alone, nor is it even primarily revenge. It is basically to distract himself from the havoc Hindley has wrought between him and Catherine by creating this social gulf between them. "Let me alone, and I'll plan it out," he tells Nelly. "[W]hile I'm thinking of that, I don't feel pain" (101). Nor is his brooding now a definite ambition to supplant Hindley; it is only indirectly connected to what he does to Hindley later. Large-scale but vague plans are very much the preoccupation of a normal adolescent:

We see, then, how the normal adolescent goes about injecting himself into adult society. He does so by means of projects, life plans, theoretical systems, and ideas of political and social reform. In short, he does so by means of thinking and almost, one might say, by imagination. [Piaget 67]

Catherine too is at this stage, as she explores the possibility of developing her relationship with the Lintons, while unrealistically hoping that she might somehow keep Heathcliff in the picture. There is a difference, however, and this too is rather typical of their particular situations, for it relates to the gender divide. In Heathcliff's case, the plan is aggressive. Here, social scientists have verified what common experience has long suggested, not only that child abuse and neglect are "definite risk factors" in anti-social behaviour (Widom 218) but also that adolescent males are far more likely than females to externalize than to internalize their problems (see Larson and Asmusson 38), in other words, to revolt openly and actively against their stressful situations. Although the forms it will take are not yet known, Heathcliff's later violence (not only towards Hindley, who tyrannized over him, but also to Catherine who seemed to have abandoned him, as well as to the Lintons, whose very demeanour mocked him) is all rooted in these experiences of his adolescence.

To repeat, however: his ultimate goal is neither the revenge nor the violence with which it is eventually enacted. It is to re-establish the old intimacy with Catherine. While something of that intimacy remains, he does absolutely nothing. On the contrary, five months after the fiasco of the Lintons' Christmas visit, he has let himself go in every way, slouching around morosely and ignoring Nelly's advice to try and improve himself. Nelly notes that because he cannot keep up with Catherine, he seems determined to sink even lower: "there was no prevailing upon him to take a step in the way of moving upward" (108). He has chosen what Erikson calls a negative identity at this stage, that of the farm labourer which in his deepest heart he so bitterly scorns: "many a sick or desperate late adolescent if faced with continuing conflict, would rather be nobody ... than not-quite-somebody" (Erikson 176). What he has failed to realize is that in making such a choice he is effectively cutting himself off even more from Catherine. He no longer supplies all that his foster-sister expects in a companion. Thus, although the two of them still spend much time together, Catherine often spends the evenings with the Lintons — evenings which her companion at the Heights jealously marks on the almanack. When she points out that she does so for the conversation and amusement which she cannot get from him, Heathcliff is genuinely shocked and shaken out of his negativity. This sharp home truth is delivered just before one of Edgar's visits, and her own agitation over uttering it, and seeing its effect on Heathcliff, leads straight into her display of passion in Edgar's presence: nerves taut, she pinches Nelly and shakes little Hareton out of pure irritation, and then hits out at Edgar for restraining her. The heightened emotions of this episode, in turn, lead to Edgar's proposal and Catherine's famously overheard confession to Nelly, the nub of which is not her acceptance of Edgar but her confession that "if the wicked man in there [Hindley] had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn't have thought of it" (121). Now indeed, in answer to this implicit demand for it, her secret listener sets off to better himself. Heathcliff takes a dramatic step. He runs away from his home and his one strong familial attachment.

This seems like an end, but it could also be a beginning. At this point, the pair are still in a position to recover from their childhood traumas: in Nelly's recollection, Heathcliff is sixteen (108), and Catherine is fifteen (106). Both have some positive prospects, some definite potential for (as Piaget puts it) injecting themselves successfully into society. After all, as Erikson is at pains to reassure his readers, adolescence is a normal period of life, and its storminess and uncertainties usually do pass, usually are resolved. This age (fifteen/sixteen) is a highly appropriate time for a start towards successful adulthood. And indeed, a start does seem to be made on both sides: Catherine continues her relationship with Edgar and marries him, leaving home three years and some months later, presumably when she turns eighteen, and the pair achieve a stable relationship; Heathcliff in the meanwhile is successful in transforming himself into "a tall, athletic, well-formed man.... [whose] countenance ... looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation" (135).

Created 8 December 2017