Moral Poison: Heathcliff as an Antihero

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In literature, a hero is fundamentally a paragon of moral strength while a villain is a challenger of virtue. As the protagonist of Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff fulfills the broadest definition of a literary hero but this only thinly veils his dark delight in causing torment that places him squarely in the realms of villainy. His only trace of humanity is revealed by the transcendent love he shares with Catherine. It is this value that evokes sympathy from the audience and mitigates his immorality, rendering him an antihero rather than a villain. Brontë’s choice to portray Heathcliff so heinously allows vengeance to overwhelm love as the salient theme of the novel and therefore elucidates the darkest and most destructive motivations of mankind. Heathcliff has both a complex personality with many contrasting traits (fiercely romantic yet sinister) and also the role of a primary character, two qualities that elicit feelings of empathy from a reader. The incredibly realistic depth to his behavior and psyche compels the reader to feel a connection with him. The resentful relationship that the reader finds with such a frightening character as Heathcliff is fueled not only by his intricate characterization but also by his more admirable attributes. His passionate affection--though directed towards Catherine only--and his inexorable dedication to his resentment are such critical elements of the novel that they create a quasi-disguise for Heathcliff, making him a more attractive character. Eventually these positive qualities are degraded by Heathcliff’s less appealing traits as his initial intense love for Catherine turns into an all-consuming obsession that prompts his commitment to manipulative schemes. Brontë giving... ... middle of paper ... ...ions gives Heathcliff a demonic streak, underscoring his villainy in the novel. Heathcliff, whose very name evokes opposite but equally isolated images of low scrubland and high cliffs, is a man of harshly contrasting duality. His moral deficiency that defines him as an antihero--and prevents him from being the hero of the story though he is the protagonist--is stressed throughout the novel but is also mainly tempered by his immense ability to love Catherine and the sympathy that his character receives as a result of that love. He is hardened like stone cliffs by his immorality, but he is also softened by his love for Catherine; he is a villain but also a hero. His duality as a character ties into the theme of doubles that connects the two generations of the story while allowing Brontë to point out the imperfections of mankind and our inability to always be a hero.

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