Wuhtering Heights and Revenge

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REVENGE AND "WUTHERING HEIGHTS"
Author(s): THOMAS VARGISH
Source: Studies in the Novel, Vol. 3, No. 1 (spring 1971), pp. 7-17
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/29531434
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REVENGE AND WUTHERING HEIGHTS
THOMAS VARGISH
In The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis speaks unhappily of "Shake?
speare's apparently contented acquiescence in the ethical tomfoolery of
honour and revenge."1 The phrase raises inconveniently large questions,
questions pertinent to most literature in which revenge is an important
action. If honor and revenge are ethical tomfoolery, why do they seem to
make such excellent psychological and aesthetic sense? What is the
relation between the moral world in which personal revenge, at least, may
be condemned and the worlds of Achilles or Hamlet or Heathcliff?
Wuthering Heights explores these questions dramatically: in Heathcliff s
manipulation of the second generation we can see an attempt to structure
existence by means of a single impulse, that of revenge. In his policy and
practice and in his eventual transcendence of policy and practice, Emily
Bronte's conception of revenge reveals a depth, an aesthetic value, which
lifts it above the stock motive or the psychological convention it appears
to be in much earlier literature.
The questions as raised specifically by Wuthering Heights may be
put in this way: What significance should we attach to the brutal depriva?
tion and degradation Heathcliff inflicts upon Isabella and the three
children of the second generation, Hareton, Linton, and Cathy? What, in
relation to his love for the first Catherine,, is the meaning of his revenge?
And in order to understand Heathcliff s exploitation of the young we
must look briefly at his passion for Catherine as expressed in his own
childhood and youth. He will later attempt to reproduce past emotional
conditions in those who fall into his hands, to recreate the patterns of his
own love and its betrayal and loss.
It is Heathcliff s disaster that Catherine's love for him does not meet
the needs of her social position and education. In her contact with the
Lintons she develops a "double character," as Nelly puts it, "without
[7]
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8 / VARGISH
exactly intending to deceive any one" (ch. 8). Her association with them
flatters her vanity and offers opportunities for civilization and refinement.
When Edgar Linton proposes she accepts. Heathcliff believes she should
have endured " "misery, and degradation, and death1 " to stay with him
(ch. 15). She yields, however, to her fear of degradation and marries
Edgar, for whom she cultivates a somewhat literary affection, the condi?
tions of which she unintentionally parodies: " kI love the ground under his
feet, and the air over his head, and everything he touches, and every word
he says I love all his looks, and all his actions, and him entirely, and
altogether. There now!' " (ch. 9).
But the most interesting point about Catherine's acceptance of
Edgar seems to me to be her assumption that she can marry him and keep
Heathcliff: " 'Edgar must shake off his antipathy, and tolerate him, at
least. He will when he learns my true feelings towards him' " (ch. 9).
Exactly what these feelings are and precisely what sort of arrangement
Catherine contemplates have been the sources of considerable critical
speculation. Only two possibilities occur to the prosaic Nelly: " 'that you
are ignorant of the duties you undertake in marrying; or else that you are
a wicked, unprincipled girl' " (ch. 9). In less expressive language this
might read: "either you do not realize that your husband will have the
right to make love to you; or else you plan to go to bed with both of
them.,, Nelly herself thus raises the question of a sexual relationship
between Catherine and Heathcliff. At this point, however, they are
interrupted by the accursed Joseph so that Catherine cannot explain what
she intends and the novel gains another ambiguity. But Catherine's
assurance that Edgar would approve of her true feelings for Heathcliff
suggests that they are not of a narrowly sexual kind.
Although one does not want to call the passion of Heathcliff and
Catherine "sexless," there is some evidence that they both regard con?
ventional domestic sexual love with an unhealthy contempt. When
Isabella conceives her perfectly understandable passion for Heathcliff,
Catherine remarks, " 4I wouldn't be you for a kingdom, then!' " and
Nelly tells us that "she seemed to speak sincerely" (ch. 10). She never
reproaches Heathcliff for his marriage and on two occasions says she is
willing to further it if he likes (chs. 10 and 11). Heathcliff s treatment of
his wife may involve sexual brutalities, or so I interpret Isabella's
irritating allusions to behavior which she coyly declines to describe but
which would be in keeping with his contempt: " Tve sometimes
relented,' " he confesses, " 'from pure lack of invention, in my experi?
ments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing
back!' " (ch. 14). When Edgar asks Catherine if she loves Heathcliff
rather than him, she forbids the mention of Heathcliffs name and
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WUTHERING HEIGHTS / 9
scornfully adds the dutiful formula, " 'What you touch at present, you
may have' " (ch. 12). The last of the love scenes between Heathcliff and
Catherine, the only one to which the reader is invited, takes place with the
heroine seven months pregnant with her husband's child, a condition
which in Victorian fiction probably makes her unique in her role but
which does not affect the quality of their passionate utterances because
the quality of that passion is unique.
Perhaps C. Day Lewis has best expressed the nature of their need for
each other by reminding us of a stanza from Emily Bronte's poem "No
coward soul is mine":
Though earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in thee.
Of Heathcliff, Catherine tells Nelly: " 'If all else perished, and he
remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he
were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger' " (ch. 9).2
Heathcliff is the window through which Catherine sees the natural, the
essential world. He provides the means for her contact with it. He makes
it relevant to her. He stands between her and isolation. He says to Nelly
when Catherine lies ill at the Grange: " 'You talk of her mind being
unsettled. How the devil could it be otherwise, in her frightful isolation' "
(ch. 14). Without him she is isolated, and not just from her lover, but from
the natural universe. She dreams of being alien in heaven without him.
When he returns after her marriage she says, " The event of this evening
has reconciled me to God and humanity! I had risen in angry rebellion
against providence' " (ch. 10). And when she finally rejects Edgar it is
because he has brought about a separation between herself and Heathcliff,
thereby imposing an isolation which she finds unendurable.
This Heathcliff understands. He swears to Nelly that if Catherine
had needed Edgar's company, " 'I would have died by inches before I
touched a single hair of his head!' " (ch. 14). Heathcliff understands, as
Edgar does not, because he needs Catherine as she needs him, to prevent
the universe from becoming a " 'mighty stranger.' " This knowledge is the
source and substance of his question to the dying Catherine: " 'oh, God!
would you like to live with your soul in the grave?' " (ch. 15).
The explanation for this mutual need, to the degree that Emily
Bronte explains it environmentally, lies in a childhood world where
Catherine and Heathcliff were irrelevant, except as they lent meaning to
each other. Old Earnshaw's indulgence of Heathcliff develops Hindley's
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10 / VARGISH
resentment and awakens a Heathcliff who will feel his later degradation
acutely. When Earnshaw dies, Hindley succeeds as tyrant, returning to
the Heights with a consort. Together they abandon the children to Joseph
to abuse in the interests of his perverse Calvinism while they sit spooning
before the fire, absorbing its warmth and blocking its rays. Heathcliff
and Catherine are cut off from the hearth, throughout Victorian literature
a condition symbolic of emotional deprivation and especially important
in the writings of the Brontes. Catherine and Heathcliff turn to the moors,
never afterward to be fully domestic, always somewhat contemptuous of
those who are.
Hindley " 'swears he will reduce [Heathcliff] to his right place' "
(ch. 3), and begins by separating him from Catherine. At the beginning of
her final illness she will recall the grief this caused them. The separation
is physical in that they are no longer permitted to share the same bed.
In this decision Hindley may be properly motivated, for Catherine is
twelve at the time and Heathcliff thirteen. More unkind is Hindley's
social and intellectual meanness, which finally produces a Heathcliff
whose manner and intellect Catherine finds unacceptable. The total
rejection of Heathcliff by such forms of civilization as exist in the novel
is epitomized in his exclusion from the Christmas party which Hindley
arranges for Catherine and the young Lintons. Heathcliff has made the
difficult decision to be "good," by which he apparently means quiet and
clean. His efforts meet with ridicule and scorn and his Christmas dinner
is a beating. With precocious dedication he sits and studies how to pay
Hindley back, the thought of revenge dulling his physical pain (ch. 7).
I do not wish to argue that this environment "produces" or
"determines" the characters of Heathcliff and Catherine. Emily Bronte
takes care to suggest possible cosmic influences?Heathcliff might really
possess supernatural wickedness, Catherine might ultimately be
controlled by primitive natural energy?and she makes much of the
inheritance of temperament. But the childhood world is the context in
which the bonds of their devotion are forged. In it we discover the events
and influences which become significant when we examine Heathcliff s
use of the second generation, the patterns and relationships which he
later attempts to recreate and which we recognize.
If Catherine's education and the needs of her position as a lady lead
to a division of her energies between Edgar and Heathcliff, her brutalized
friend suffers no such distraction. Catherine may say before her marriage,
" 'Nelly, I am Heathcliff " (ch. 9), and it will be true for the deepest part
of her nature; but the total involvement is Heathcliff s because he has
been brutalized and degraded. He suffers as only a savage or a mono?
maniac can suffer, as only the devil can suffer.
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WUTHERING HEIGHTS / 11
Catherine's death is the ultimate deprivation for Heathcliff. Leading
up to it are several of what may be called metaphors of deprivation, most
in some way associated with the lovers. The gaunt thorns at Wuthering
Heights all stretch their limbs one way, "as if craving alms of the sun"
(ch. 1). To little Hareton Nelly sings of a dead mother listening for the
crying of her children:
It was far in the night, and the bairnies grat,
The mither beneath the mools heard that (ch. 9).
As Catherine, who has been starving herself after Edgar and Heathcliff
quarrel, raves in an Ophelia-like delirium, she remembers that Heathcliff
once set a trap over a nest of lapwings so that " 'the old ones dare not
come,' " and " 'we saw its nest in the winter, full of little skeletons' "
(ch. 12). The nest of small skeletons is metaphorically central to the novel
just as Catherine's death comes at its midpoint. The starved nestlings
evoke the deprivation and isolation of their childhood and hint at Heath
cliffs treatment of the next generation. Perhaps most poignant of all,
however, are the movements of a pair of ouzels which Nelly sees when she
finds Heathcliff just after Catherine's death: "passing and repassing
scarcely three feet from him, busy in building their nest, and regarding
his proximity no more than that of a piece of timber. They flew off at my
approach. . . " (ch. 16). Heathcliffs isolation is indeed final. He has
become almost invisible, almost intangible. Nelly has more reality for
common nature, as represented by the nesting thrushes of the Grange.
They ignore him in his hell as young Cathy and Hareton will ignore him
in his heaven at the end, as belonging outside their order of existence.
And this is what it means to be alone as one can be alone in the Brontean
universe: "He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up
his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to
death with knives and spears" (ch. 16).
II
Heathcliff s first object of revenge is Isabella. Her nearly hysterical
cadences help bridge the chasm between Catherine's death and young
Cathy's arrival at the age of reason and mischief. Isabella provides us
with a transition between the first and second generations as well as the
medium through which Heathcliff sires a son. Heathcliff sees her as an
important link in his rather complicated legal and not so legal maneuvers
to gain possession of the Grange. He explains his brutal treatment of her
as part of his revenge against Edgar for taking Catherine away from him.
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12 / VARGISH
" 'She even disgraces the name of Linton' " (ch. 14). But the extremity
of his behavior, the rhetoric and the violence with which he expresses his
aversion, seems to many readers forced and melodramatic, unworthy of
the earlier Heathcliff. He strikes them as a two-dimensional stage villain
whose actions are so disproportionate to his motives, or whose motives
are so shallow, that they cease to be credible: " 'I have no pity! I have no
pity! The worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is
a moral teething, and I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the
increase of pain' " (ch. 14).
Perhaps the truth is that Heathcliffs actions and much of his rhetoric
are debased because he has himself become unworthy; or, to phrase his
condition in language closer to the novel's sensibility, because in losing
Catherine he has lost himself. A kind of deterioration begins even before
her death, signaled by subterfuges which are not characteristic of the
younger Heathcliff. Nelly praises his integrity in childhood when he made
a habit of telling the truth and refused to fawn on old Earnshaw. In his
association with Hindley and advances to Isabella she observes with
surprise and reproach that he is becoming a hypocrite and deceiver (chs.
10 and 11). Although he later protests that he professed no love for
Isabella before they ran off together, his complete understanding of her
sentimental illusions proves him both sardonic and disingenuous. But the
important evidence for Heathcliffs deterioration lies in the aesthetics of
his brutality, in the cruel smallness of his exposure of his wife's weakness.
With Isabella standing by, he informs Nelly that his first act on their
elopement was to hang her little dog: " 'But no brutality disgusted her?I
suppose she has an innate admiration of it' " (ch. 14). No doubt she has.
Also true, however, is that the hanging of little dogs and the tormenting of
sentimental girls should strike Heathcliff as unworthy of himself?of
himself, that is, as worthy of Catherine. And this truth, appropriately, it
is Isabella's privilege and revenge to transmit: " 'But then,' I continued,
holding myself ready to flee, 'if poor Catherine had trusted you, and
assumed the ridiculous, contemptible, degrading title of Mrs. Heathcliff,
she would soon have presented a similar picture! She wouldn't have borne
your abominable behaviour quietly; her detestation and disgust must
have found voice' " (ch. 17). With this remark Isabella achieves the
decidedly equivocal triumph of goading her husband into trying to kill
her, achieves it by invoking Catherine's disgust at his behavior, by
exposing his present unworthiness.
Heathcliff calls his treatment of Isabella " 'a moral teething.' " In
the phrase we have, I think, a clue to what is happening, to what,
intuitively or consciously, he is trying to do. Heathcliff sees himself as
developing those whom circumstances place within his power, as
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WUTHERING HEIGHTS / 13
educating them to conditions which he recreates from his own experience
of degradation and loss. His intention, of course, can hardly be termed
benevolent. To little Hareton he says, " 'Now, my bonny lad, you are
mine\ And we'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with
the same wind to twist it!' " (ch. 17). Heathcliff means to recreate in the
rearing of Hindley's son the degradation to which Hindley had subjected
him. Unassuaged by the ruin and death of the father, he means to extend
his revenge by keeping Hareton in brutal ignorance, just as Hindley had
deprived him of education and refinement. Not even Hareton's
resemblance to his dead aunt sways Heathcliff, despite his secret love for
the boy. He contrasts Hareton with his own son: " 'Mine has nothing
valuable about it; yet I shall have the merit of making it go as far as such
poor stuff can go. His had first-rate qualities, and they are lost?rendered
worse than unavailing' " (ch. 21). Nature will be denied and perverted in
Hareton's as she was in Heathcliff s degradation, and he thinks to rejoice
in the perversion.
Heathcliff has similar plans for the young Catherine. When she
protests her imprisonment at the Heights he beats her nearly senseless
and then remarks to Nelly, " 'I know how to chastise children, you see' "
(ch. 27). Indeed, one Christmas more than a generation ago Hindley had
taught him how. Heathcliff gives his desire for the Grange as his motive
for forcing the marriage of Cathy to his petulant invalid son, Linton,
but the match provides what Dorothy Van Ghent calls a "parody,"
presumably of the marriage of Catherine Earnshaw to Edgar Linton.3
(Linton Heathcliff parodies his uncle, who thinks his nephew might
resemble him, in somewhat the same way that Lockwood, self-styled
misanthrope and great lover, parodies at the novel's opening the infuri?
ated Heathcliff.) Nelly, speaking to Linton, points to the perversion of
nature which such a match entails: " 'And do you imagine that beautiful
young lady, that healthy, hearty girl, will tie herself to a little perishing
monkey like you?' " (ch. 27). The feeble Linton perhaps represents a
reduction of his uncle's refinements proportionate to the young Cathy's
domestication of her mother's energies. And yet in Cathy's reaction to
her husband's death, the only reaction of hers in which Heathcliff betrays
real interest, there is a definite echo of his own loss: " 'you have left me
so long to struggle against death, alone, that I feel and see only death! I
feel like death!'" (ch. 30).
The compulsion constantly to recreate past circumstances may be
one definition of obsession. The obsessed, and perhaps possessed, Heath?
cliff finds in the second generation?Hareton, Cathy, Linton?materials
admirably suited for the distorted recreation of his own destiny, materials
of great flexibility and significance. In Hareton he can wreak revenge on
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14 / VARGISH
the man responsible for his own degradation by reproducing that
condition in Hindley's son. In forcing the marriage of Cathy and Linton
he provides a parodic comment on what he has always seen as the
grotesque mismatch of his Catherine with Edgar Linton. So that one way
of describing what Heathcliff attempts to do with the second generation
in Wuthering Heights is to observe that he makes their condition
comment upon his own past. In his terrible isolation after Catherine dies
the only source of personal meaning which he can tap and control is the
past. Facing a universe which has become a " 'mighty stranger/ " he
applies his great and ruthless energy to the creation of patterns he can
recognize and in which he seeks, with almost tragic blindness,.some
mitigation of his loneliness.
What Heathcliff calls "revenge," I think, means precisely this, action
and purpose which have meaning when all other meaning in life has been
lost. It becomes a margin of reference for the survival of the self. In
Wuthering Heights, as in the greatest of English tragedy, revenge has
profound psychological and aesthetic significance. It forces the action
forward. Its destructive aims paradoxically provide a source of order. It
sustains direction and form when all other impulses toward direction and
form have been blocked by the loss of everything valued?when the lover
dies, when the father is murdered, when the kingdom is lost and divided.
Lockwood fancies that he vociferates in a manner that "smacked of King
Lear" (ch. 3). But of course it is Heathcliff s utterance, even more than
Catherine's, which approaches the passionate intensity and echoing
compression of that tragedy: " 'painting the housefront with Hindley's
blood' " (ch. 6), " 'It is a moral teething' " (ch. 14), " 'My soul's bliss kills
my body, but does not satisfy itself " (ch. 34). And Heathcliffs
importance lies, during most of the second half of the novel, in his efforts
to resist the meaninglessness which is otherwise the inevitable corollary of
complete isolation.
In the end, however, Heathcliff withholds his revenge. We see that
the nature of his manipulations has forced him to become "detestable"
and "disgusting," and we sense that these aesthetic terms are more
damaging than what Nelly considers his "evil" or "wickedness." By
working through the second generation he begins to lose stature, he puts
himself in danger of depending on them, in danger of becoming derivative,
in danger of becoming morally relevant. These dangers, I believe, he
survives. Closer to the novel's concluding mystery is the fact that
Heathcliff s plans for revenge are suspended because revenge loses its
primacy as the source of value and meaning. Slowly and strangely
Catherine returns to Heathcliff.
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WUTHERING HEIGHTS / 15
The process by which Heathcliff transcends his design for revenge
seems to me one of the great achievements of the novel, a crowning
achievement. The unique transference of Heathcliff s energies from the
second generation back again to Catherine does not strike us unprepared.
Immediately after her death he begs her ghost to haunt him. Near her
grave, he tells Nelly much later, he feels her presence and is temporarily
consoled (ch. 29). The sensation stays with him: " 'It was a strange way
of killing, not by inches, but by fractions of hair-breadths, to beguile me
with the spectre of a hope, through eighteen years!1 " (ch. 29).
Just as he realizes the power to destroy both Heights and Grange,
the image of the first Catherine interposes between Heathcliff and his
revenge. The final stage of his obsession is perhaps triggered by the
resemblance of his young instruments to Catherine herself: "They lifted
their eyes together, to encounter Mr. Heathcliff. Perhaps you have never
remarked that their eyes are precisely similar, and they are those of
Catherine Earnshaw" (ch. 33). Confessing to Nelly that he has lost the
will to strike, Heathcliff attempts to define his new relation to Hareton
and Cathy: " Those two who have left the room are the only objects
which retain a distinct material appearance to me; and, that appearance
causes me pain, amounting to agony' " (ch. 33). To put it another way,
they are the only material objects which Heathcliff finds pertinent to
himself, and this pertinence now pains him. He needs now to sever his
ties to the ordinary world, to escape from the prison of time, his
inexorable enemy since Catherine's death. He needs to escape from the
context of Hareton and Cathy, the context of his revenge. That impulse
has served its purpose. He has survived his isolation.
We understand his actions more thoroughly if we see that the young
lovers affect him in different ways. Cathy, as always, awakens his violent
aversion: " 'her presence evokes only maddening sensations' " because
she represents by her existence and in her qualities the union of Catherine
and Edgar Linton. Hareton " 'moves me differently.' " He embodies
" 'the thousand forms of past associations, and ideas.' " He seems " 'a
personification of my youth, not a human being.' " At the same time he
possesses a " 'startling likeness to Catherine.' " Hareton is circumstanced
like Heathcliff but resembles Catherine. As Cathy combines her mother
with Edgar, Hareton joins Heathcliff and Catherine, so that his " 'aspect
was the ghost of my immortal love' " (ch. 33).
To realize their true relation to him is a part of Heathcliff s achieve?
ment. To escape to a world beyond their apprehension is his triumph.
How completely he has escaped may be suggested by his bizarre response
to Nelly's pieties: " 'I've done no injustice' " (ch. 34). We can measure
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16 / VARGISH
his transcendence by the fact that the monstrous assertion somehow
strikes us as appropriate, and perhaps even true. He can now make the
mysterious and uniquely Brontean journey "out" to Catherine.
That Heathcliff s plans for revenge are abandoned does not lessen
the importance of his use of the second generation. When he impatiently
leaves Hareton and Cathy to each other they have fulfilled their purpose:
their commentary upon his love for Catherine is complete. Their relation
to Heathcliff is not unlike the relative sufferings of Gloucester and Lear.
They have measured the implications of a higher emotion by their own
domestic sensibilities. They have provided insight into the depth of
Heathcliffs isolation. They have hinted at the meaning of his revenge and
shown it to be almost an extension of his love. They have identified the
lesser sphere in which nature and civilization can harmonize, in which
conventional moral judgments are made, in which we can play and in
which we can bear to be laughed at.
Heights and Grange return to Earnshaw and Linton; Hareton and
Cathy prepare to cultivate their flower garden. Cathy has been cured of
her snobbery, in part by Heathcliff s treatment of her. Her admission,
" Tm stalled, Hareton' " (ch. 31), concedes her previously unacknowl?
edged kinship to her rough cousin and also to the "jade" with which
Heathcliff has ungallantly associated her. She, for her part, can correct
Hareton's illiteracy. Lockwood, casting himself as Satan gazing upon
Paradise, overhears her correct his mispronunciation of the word
contrary, keep his attention to his task of reading with some slight slaps,
and reward him with kisses. After the blows, the desperate embraces, the
vast antinomies of Heathcliff and Catherine's passion, this mispronun?
ciation of contrary, these slaps and kisses, should strike us as convention?
ally romantic and specifically sexual?as, indeed, a conscious reduction
of stature. The young will never see so much nor live so long. Perdita is
not Hermione, nor Edgar, Lear. The dwarf apple trees are in bloom. The
ouzels build their nest. The thrushes, crossed and recrossed, return to
the Grange. But Emily Bronte casts her last glance, delicately veiled in
Lockwood's uncomprehending phrases, toward Heathcliff and Catherine:
"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths
fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind
breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever
imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth." And yet
the subtle animation of the scene, even though the storms have played
themselves out, asks at the end that we imagine just that.
DARTMOUTH COLLEGE
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WUTHERING HEIGHTS / 17
NOTES
1 The Allegory ofLove (Oxford, 1958), p. 357.
2 From Notable Images of Virtue, quoted in the Norton Critical Edition of Wuthering
Heights (New York, 1963), p. 367.
3 The English Novel: Form and Function (New York, 1953), p. 155.
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