“Moral Poison”: Heathcliff As An Antihero

1473 words - 6 pages

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 such an integral character these unheroic characteristics creates a captivating dynamic at the core of the story and also allows the villainy to be forgiven ever so slightly by the audience. While his actions are not entirely condonable, his more favorable characteristics and the sympathy a reader has for a protagonist temper his appalling behavior.
Another facet of Heathcliff’s character is the immense affection he shares with Catherine--the unifying love that forms the core of Wuthering Heights. Because Heathcliff makes up half the shared soul that sits at the heart of the story, it is hard not to find some shred of compassion for him. However, it is also that incredible love that, in its unsustainability becomes too wild and destroys the lives of those around it, leading to unhappiness and broken people. All of the terrible adversities he inflicts on the people around him cannot be excused by the love that lead him to do it, no matter how unparalleled it is. Rather, his love for Catherine, the evidence of his humanity, becomes his redeeming quality and softens his later actions. Without it he would be a psychotic, insubstantial villain. This saving grace makes him a more relatable and interesting character,...

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