Although Wuthering Heights received neither critical praise nor any local popularity during its initial publication, the reading public has changed substantially since 1847, and now both critical and popular opinion praise Emily Brontë's singular work of fiction. Victorian society would not accept the violent characters and harsh realities of Wuthering Heights, but subsequent audiences are both more understanding and accepting of the use of unsavory aspects of human life in literature.
The first person to praise publicly Wuthering Heights was Charlotte Brontë, Emily's sister, who wrote a preface and introduction for the second publication of the novel in 1850 and became the novel's first and foremost critic. Yet Charlotte herself was not entirely convinced of all its merits. Commenting upon the advisability of creating characters such as Heathcliff, Charlotte states, "I scarcely think it is [advisable]." Charlotte's comments may be a direct concession and appeal to Victorian audiences to accept and respect Wuthering Heights without having to accept completely everything within the text. In addition to having difficulty with the content, the Victorian audience's view of women could not allow anyone of that period to accept that Wuthering Heights was the creation of a female (it had been published originally under the pseudonym Ellis Bell). After its initial publication, both critical and popular audiences ended up embracing Wuthering Heights, and it remains one of the classic works still read and studied.
Wuthering Heights is an important contemporary novel for two reasons: Its honest and accurate portrayal of life during an early era provides a glimpse of history, and the literary merit it possesses in and of itself enables the text to rise above entertainment and rank as quality literature. The portrayal of women, society, and class bear witness to a time that's foreign to contemporary readers. But even though society is different today than it was two centuries ago, people remain the same, and contemporary readers can still relate to the feelings and emotions of the central characters — Heathcliff and Catherine — as well as those of the supporting characters. Because Brontë's characters are real, they are human subjects with human emotions; therefore, Wuthering Heights is not just a sentimental romance novel. It is a presentation of life, an essay on love, and a glimpse at relationships. Many critics, praising Brontë's style, imagery, and word choice, contend that Wuthering Heights is actually poetry masquerading as prose.
This lyrical prose has a distinct structure and style. Significantly, Wuthering Heights is about ordered pairs: two households, two generations, and two pairs of children. Some critics dismiss the plot of the second-generation characters as being a simple retelling of the first story; however, in doing so, they are dismissing the entire second half of the book. Each of the two main story lines of the two generations comprises 17 chapters. Clearly, in order to appreciate fully Wuthering Heights, attention must be paid to the second half, particularly noting that the second half is not just a retelling but rather a revising — a form of renewal and rebirth.
These ordered pairs more often than not, are pairs of contrast. The most noticeable pair is that of the two houses: Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Wuthering Heights has the wild, windy moors and its inhabitants possess the same characteristics. Opposite this are the calm, orderly parks of Thrushcross Grange and its inhabitants. Each household has a male and female with a counterpart at the other. Readers gain insight into these characters not only by observing what they think, say, and do but also by comparing them to their counterparts, noticing how they do not think, speak, and act. Much is learned by recognizing what one is not.
Structurally, the narrative is also primarily told from a paired point of view. Lockwood frames the initial story, telling the beginning and ending chapters (with minor comments within). Within the framework of his story, Nelly relates the majority of the action from her outsider's point of view. In essence, readers are eavesdropping rather than experiencing the action. And embedded within Nelly's narrative are chapters told primarily from another character's point of view that has been related to Nelly. This technique allows readers to experience more than would with any one narrator, enabling readers to gain an insider's perspective.
The role of the outsider should not be overlooked because the setting of Wuthering Heights is one of complete isolation; therefore, only those with first- or second-hand experiences are able to relate them to others. The moors connecting Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange serve a dual purpose — linking the two households while simultaneously separating them from the village and all others.
This isolated setting is important for Brontë's combination of realism and gothic symbolism. Brontë took conventions of the time and instead of merely recreating them in a work of her own, used them as a springboard to write an entirely original tale, creating characters who are simultaneously real and symbolic archetypes.
Brontë uses these characters to explore themes of good versus evil, crime and punishment, passion versus rationality, revenge, selfishness, division and reconciliation, chaos and order, nature and culture, health and sickness, rebellion, and the nature of love. These themes are not independent of each other; rather, they mix, mingle, and intertwine as the story unfolds.
Wuthering Heights is also a social novel about class structure in society as well as a treatise on the role of women. Brontë illustrates how class mobility is not always moving in one direction. For Catherine, representing a lower class, social class plays a major role when deciding to get married. That is why she cannot marry Heathcliff and agrees, instead, to marry Edgar. For Isabella, however, just the opposite is true. She is drawn to the wild, mysterious man, regardless of the fact that he is beneath her social standing. Because of her infatuation, she loses everything that is dear to her. Readers must therefore look not only to social class when judging and analyzing characters; they must determine what decisions are made by members of a certain class and why these characters made the decisions they did.
On the surface, Wuthering Heights is a love story. Delving deeper, readers find both a symbolic and psychological novel. (Contemporary audiences, for example, easily relate to issues of child abuse and alcoholism.) In fact, Wuthering Heights cannot be easily classified as any particular type of novel — that is the literary strength that Brontë's text possesses. The novel told from multiple points of view is easily read and interpreted from multiple perspectives, also.
Like other literary masterpieces, Wuthering Heights has spawned dramatic productions, a musical retelling, movies, and even a novel that fills in the gaps of Heathcliff's three missing years. Emily Brontë's novel has overcome its initial chilly reception to warm the hearts of romantics and realists worldwide.