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Heathcliff, Colonialism, and the Gothic Villain

June 19, 2020

by rachel stogner

“If you were a regular black…”

Nellie, the primary narrator of Wuthering Heights, said to young Heathcliff, sparking a long-standing controversy over his racial identity. Heathcliff, the infamous Gothic protagonist of Wuthering Heights, is certainly not a white man. That much is known. Emily Brontё gave a half-dozen references to Heathcliff’s ethnicity, which, although decidedly ambiguous, staunchly describe a non-English man. “Who knows,” Nellie wonders, “[maybe] your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen…And you were kidnapped by wicked sailors and brought to England.”

Heathcliff’s identity has been linked to his origin in Liverpool, a well-known hub for the transatlantic trade of enslaved people in 1801, when Wuthering Heights is set. Despite the Brontёs being famously isolated, Emily would not have been sheltered from the contemporary and historical realities of slavery. She wrote her novel in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, the abolishment of the slave trade, and the general decline of the plantation-based economy. Her neighbors’ and associates’ wealth and livelihoods were dependent on it. Her school was mere miles away from a notorious slave-trading family (Fowler.) Hence, we can assume that Heathcliff’s origin at Liverpool may have been a nod to a mixed race origin, or at the very least, a way to further associate his character with the non-English world. 

After all, Heathcliff is defined by his essential “otherness.” He, like the moorland, surrounds the outskirts of society, ever encroaching on the houses of the elite, wild and haunted. He represents social danger and upheaval, usurping not only expectations of class, but of race, by becoming independently wealthy and having sometimes passionate, sometimes violent, affairs with white upper class women. 

The approximation of a foreign entity and the untamed and supernatural does not begin with Brontё, however. It is a tradition that has followed the Gothic since its inception, with deep roots in Colonialism. Consider The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, written in the late 18th century, is considered by many to be the quintessential Gothic romance. It checks every box, with ruined castles in an ancient foreign land, a brooding, sexually threatening villain, and a heroine plagued by tragedy and the supernatural. (So much so, it is parodied in Austen’s Northanger Abbey.) Emily, our protagonist, is defined primarily by her contrast. She is pure, Protestant, naive, sensitive, fond of poetry and nature; she is surrounded by an arrogant, superstitious, greedy, Catholic cast (excluding her father and mother.) Further, Emily is markedly not Italian, but French Protestant. 

The stereotyping and disdain towards Italians functions more than just as an appeal to xenophobia to drum up an uneasy atmosphere. At the time Udolpho was written, the English were trying to “reclaim” Greco-Roman artifacts and philosophy. The Italians, being Catholics, and plainly, not the English, were seen as inferior successors to the Greco-Roman heritage. In order to delegitimize their claim, the English tried to distance the Italians from the characteristics they idealized in the Greco-Roman, namely rationality and objectivity. The Italian becomes irrational, impulsive, impure to glorify the logical, careful, moral Englishman, much more like the Greeks and Romans than those who currently inhabit the Mediterranean. Gothic literature was borne from these political and cultural conflicts, an evolution of the popular travel narrative into darker territory, largely informed by Colonial philosophy. 

By exploring the roots of Gothic villany, one thing becomes clear: the Gothic villain is steeped in xenophobia and fear of non-English, non-Protestant others, whether it be Italians or not. The dark, moody, dangerously emotional Gothic villain was born of the need to stigmatize what has become a qualification to be considered part of the genre — the “other.” Heathcliff is a successor of this trope. 

If we take that Emily Brontё had a man of mixed-race origins in mind while writing Heathcliff, the stereotypes of non-white people and violence, passion, and the endangerment of white women become glaringly obvious. The most common analysis of his character, equating him as a symbol of the moors and “savagery” impinging on English homes, takes on an emphatically racist turn. Whether or not Brontё actually intended to drum up these stereotypes, or if she was simply inheriting a Colonialist trope that preceded her writing by some half a century, I will not decide. However, it is undeniable that Heathcliff, and what he has come to embody, is steeped in colonial identity. 

Fowler, Corrine. “Was Emily Brontё’s Heathcliff Black?” The Conversation, University of Leicester, 18 Sept. 2018, theconversation.com/was-emily-bront-s-heathcliff-black-85341.

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the entire credit to this article and its photos goes to rachel stogner aka caffeaulait

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