Heathcliff as Byronic Hero

Anyone who knows me knows that I adore classic literature, and my favorite classic novel is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights!    In honor of this today’s post is devoted to the character of Heathcliff.   Heathcliff is often named as a Gothic Villain, and he does bare many markers of the term, but he better fits the term of Byronic Hero.      

Byronic Heroes are protagonists that are often distanced from society, often exotic, and wild.    The term referred to the hero, as written by the great romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.   Byron was himself a hedonistic libertine, and the hero in most of his stories were in fact very similar to him.   Lord Byron wrote the epic poem Don Juan, and that work exemplified the Byronic Hero in Byron’s era!    The darkly ominous Byronic Hero is certainly later exemplified by Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights!    Throughout the novel Heathcliff is referred to as a gipsy, and his dark skin and hair give him a very exotic appearance.   Many scholars have theorized that Heathcliff was in fact mixed race, and possibly was Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard son.   That part of the theory is not my favorite, since the soulmates of the tale would then be half-siblings.    Nevertheless, Heathcliff’s unknown origins and race help to keep him as both exotic and distanced from the society in which he lived.

Another important part of being a Byronic hero was to have a gentlemanly appearance.   This is very true of Heathcliff after he comes back to the Grange.   He had been gone for three years and Catherine knew nothing of what happened to him.    He had taken that time to amass much wealth, and to become a true gentleman.   Heathcliff would also come home in order to seek revenge on those who had wronged him for most of his life.   He even won Wuthering Heights from Hindley Earnshaw, and made Hindley, and his son Hareton’s lives hell!    This, of course, is revenge for Hindley treating Heathcliff as a servant, and the ultimate outcast after Mr. Earnshaw’s death. 

Heathcliff was one of the darkest heroes of all of Victorian literature.   Yet many woman, myself included, see him as one of the great male characters.   There is always an attraction to the bad boy, and Heathcliff, with his darkly brooding nature and violence, is definitely a bad boy!   He treated his wife terribly, most likely in large part due to the fact that she was the sister of Catherine’s husband!    He found his own son to be lacking, and seemed to not care much about the child.

One of the most beautiful things about Heathcliff is that when Cathy lay dying he begged her to haunt him always.    To me this is one of the strongest moments in the novel, a man losing his soulmate and begging her to be with him always in spirit!    As any reader of this novel remembers Cathy did in fact haunt Heathcliff for eighteen years, until his own death.    I find the end of the novel to be incredibly romantic, Cathy and Heathcliff haunting the moors together is how they could finally be together, in death!

I hope that you enjoyed this look at the character of Heathcliff.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a photo from the 1992 Wuthering Heights film.   The picture is of Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes as Cathy and Heathcliff.   I found the image on youtube.com. 

Further Reading/Watching

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights (1939)
  • Wuthering Heights (1992)