Wuthering Heights has a very complicated narrative structure. There are two clear narrators, but the novel is almost a drama, that is to say, dialogue plays a great part.
Different levels of narration construct the story, not by the usual way of telling the same events from different perspectives, but the participation of characters helps in understanding what happens. It could be said that, instead of a multi-perspective story, this is a multi-layered story. We need to connect every part to obtain a global comprehension. But, at the end, some points remained unexplained (for example, where Heathcliff was born, how he got his money, if Catherine was really a ghost or not...) and even the narrators are not so reliable as they may seem to be –because they are also characters involved in the plot, not omniscient narrators.
In the novel we find two times of reference:
-a “present narrative”, that is a kind of “present time”, when Lockwood rents Thrushcross Grange, meets his landlord, Heathcliff, and asks Nelly Dean to tell him the story of his landlord.
-a “past narrative”, that is a kind of “past time”, where the events told by Nelly Dean took place.
Both are interrelated and got mixed during the novel, since the action extends to the present narrative, and the book opens when it is about to finish. The time reference go backwards and forwards very easily.
The reason why I have said before that this is a multi-layered novel, is that, apart from the two obvious narrators, we have incidents explained by characters who had taken part in them, as Catherine in her diary at the beginning or Isabella’s letter to Nelly. By means of dialogue we learn a lot of things about the characters and the story too. In addition, the narrators are eyewitnesses, characters involved in the story, and they neither have an absolute knowledge about the events, nor about the inner life of the other characters.
We can say that Lockwood represents a “narrative external frame”. He put the story in context, and like the readers, listens to Nelly’s storytelling -although he gets in touch with the main characters in his “real time”. In fact, the whole novel is supposed to be extracted from his personal diary, where he took down Nelly’s words.
She is, therefore, a “narrative inner frame”, since she has taken part in the happenings.
Lockwood as narrator, as character.
He is the new tenant (inquilino) of Thrushcross Grange, a gentleman who came from the city to the Yorkshire country. He is a stranger in Yorkshire, and the behaviour of the people of Wuthering Heights is difficult for him to understand. So, he asks his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to explain their history to him, in order to understand the situation. With his questions about Heathcliff he arise the reader interest, and by the chapter 4th we are eager to hear the story.
As narrator, Lockwood is very perceptive to details and changes in the characters (as we can see, by comparison, in the opposite descriptions of Cathy or Hareton at the beginning or at the end of the story). We know the action through his personal diary, where he comments on what he has seen, and since he is an outsider it is easy for us, the readers, to identify with him. In addition, his personal style, full of descriptions, his constant misunderstandings, make him a very likeable character. He makes a point of humour in the story, for example, when he mistakes Cathy as Heathcliff’s wife.
Lockwood’s narrative style is remarkably different from Nelly’s style, and his language too. He writes in an educated literary language, with complex sentences, longer phrases, words of Latin or Greek origin. Along the book, his style becomes more and more sophisticated.
At the beginning of Chapter 15th, Lockwood says that he will continue the story in Nelly’s words, without interruptions, as he thinks that he could not improve her style, and describes her as a “very fair narrator”.
Nelly as narrator, as character.
Nelly is the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange, as she has been before in Wuthering Heights, and also the nursemaid of the Earnshaws, Heathcliff and Cathy Linton.
So, Nelly is an eyewitness-first person participant-main narrator of Wuthering Heights. Her narrative style is very different from Lockwood’s; plain and colloquial language, shorter phrases; less sophisticated, but not at all worse. It is very detailed, magnetic and soon engage the readers’ attention. As she dramatizes most of her narrative, it has an incredible energy and immediacy. She seems to be relating something that happened two hours ago. Through dialogue the action seems to develop freely, not re-created by the narrator; and the characters seem more vivid, more real. We feel closer to the characters, and you easily forget the complicated narrative frames to concentrate in the fascinating plot.
As I have said before, she also played a part in the story. She recalls from her memory events that had happened more than 20 years ago, but she remembers everything perfectly clearly. It could be explained by different reasons: her whole life she had lived between the Earnshaws and the Lintons, or, as Lockwood says, because “she was a regular gossip”. Whatever it may be, she might be reliable, but not neutral.
She talks from her point of view, not only about the happenings, but about the characters’ personalities too; she has prejudices against some characters (she doesn’t like Catherine Earnshaw), and her role might be “coloured”. Her attitude towards the characters seems to depend on her mood, because she is a little inconstant. In the love triangles she plays an important part, but she never has clearly stated her preferences; as soon as she helps Edgar Linton, she arranges a meeting between Heathcliff and Catherine. Since she is limited by her values and beliefs, we are likely to believe that we have a better understanding of the events and the characters than her.
In fact, neither of the narrators are reliable 100%. Lockwood is always making mistakes, confusing intentions and words, he shows us how things are not, in contrast with the usual narrator function. Nelly is determined by her down-to-earth way of thinking, and she does not seem to understand what is really happening among the characters. She could not apprehend the nature of the events she has witnessed. Both fall under their prejudices and moral judgments, but ironically, we the readers realize that it is wrong, and our opinion of the characters are not the same than Lockwood or Nelly, at least when we reach the end of the novel. This might be the way to avoid the readers falling in the same mistakes and misunderstandings. By means of the narrators perspectives, Emily Brontë is telling us what we shouldn’t do: judge her characters as we would judge any real person, and close our minds to what seems sensible and correct. They are not only fictional characters, but they are also something greater –or worse- than we could be in real life.
Why did Emily Brontë imagine such an intricate structure?
The narrative technique is not easy to analyse. But, while reading the novel, I could hardly think of a better way to involve the readers inside the story. If the action has been explained by the comments of the author, or of an omniscient narrator, it would not have been so fascinating. The shifts in the time reference, events, narrators, and the great role of dialogue catch –and keep- our attention immediately. Dialogue allows the characters to express themselves, appear as real and dynamic personalities, with a deep inner life, and we, the readers, just fall under their spell.
This may signify a little limitation, because the story has to speak for itself and give the required information to the reader without help; there is no narrator to explain the feelings of the characters, so we have to imagine them from their words. The language must be very emotive and powerful. But once overcome this difficulties, it reveals to be the best way to impact the readers.
The complicated frame of narrative voices is almost forgotten during the reading of the novel –absorbed in the plot-, but it gives an essential background, because it makes the story believable in spite of the undoubtly supranatural (supra-real) happenings
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