NELLY DEAN -
A KEY ELEMENT IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS? 46222tmg14jlv6p
Wuthering Heights, which has long been one of the most popular and highly regarded novels in English literature, seemed to hold little promise when it was published in 1847, selling very poorly and receiving only a few mixed reviews. Victorian readers found the book shocking and inappropriate in its depiction of passionate, ungoverned love and cruelty (despite the fact that the novel portrays no sex or bloodshed), and the work was virtually ignored. Even Emily Brontë's sister Charlotte—an author whose works contained similar motifs of Gothic love and desolate landscapes—remained ambivalent toward the unapologetic intensity of her sister's novel
Set in England, on the Yorkshire Moors of the 18th century, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a novel of conflict and gothic passions, all of which are presented through the voice of Nelly Dean, the loyal servant and confidant of all the heroes. Though Heathcliff and Catherine are the main characters of the novel, the ones who generate all the conflicts and passions, and whose complicated relationship – never together, but always deeply in love – determine the plot, Nelly Dean is, in fact, the one who presents the facts to the readers, and her judgements, as biased as they may be, are the only ones that pertain to the readership. In fact, due to the lack of other sources of information, the reader is obliged to take Nelly’s words for granted.
One of the most important aspects of the novel is its second- and third-hand manner of narration. The story is told through entries in Lockwood's diary, but Lockwood does not participate in the events he records. The vast majority of the novel represents Lockwood's written recollections of what he has learned from his conversations with Nelly Dean, thus nothing in the book is written from the perspective of an unbiased narrator. The reader can immediately question Lockwood's reliability as a conveyer of facts, as a shallow outsider, but Nelly Dean is more knowledgeable about events, as she has participated in many of them first hand. Nelly is generally a dependable source of information. Nevertheless, she frequently glosses over her own role in the story's development and the reader may observe that she favours some characters and her words disadvantage some others.
Being a housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean served as a mother figure for young Catherine and Hareton, for Catherine Earnshaw and her beloved companion, Heathcliff. Nelly nurtured the latter ones and admonished them when they were wrong; she also observed, perhaps better than anyone else, the deep connection between the two, especially as they had her as their confidant. When Catherine decided to marry Edgar Linton, it was Nelly to whom she told about it and the reason behind her decision and to whom Catherine asked for advice: ml222t6414jllv
“Nelly would you keep a secret for me?” she pursued , kneeling down by me and lifting her winsome eyes to my face with that sort of look which turns off bad temper, even when one has all the right in the world to indulge it.
“Is it worth keeping?” I inquired, less sulkily.
“Yes, and it worries me, and I must let it out! I want to know what I should do. Today, Edgar Linton has asked me to marry him, and I’ve given him an answer. Now, before I tell you whether it was a consent or denial, you tell me which it ought to have been.” (Chapter IX)
Nelly Dean was the only one to know the reason for Heathcliff’s departure and it was she the first one to find out about his desire of vengeance. Nelly even had a premonition, as she said that Heathcliff’s arrival would bring something evil.
However, Nelly is not a passive character as, later on, she plays the role of the mediator between Wuthering Heights – the place of wildness and restless passions (whether love or hatred) – and Trushcross Grange – the place of calm, refined society. She manages in getting along to Earnshaws and Heathcliff and Lintons, understanding all parts but also adventuring in telling small lies as to lessen the conflict between the enemies. For example, in her despair, Isabella writes a letter to Nelly to tell her about the raging Hindley and Heathcliff and though having little power, Nelly tries to help her. Then, thirteen years later, while bringing little Linton to Wuthering Heights, she says to the boy that his father, Heathcliff, is an affectionate, generous man, though he was nothing of the kind, just to make Linton feel better about the changes in his life. Nelly also takes action at Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff’s burrials. She stands by Edgar, insisting upon burring Catherine in the church courtyard though the others said it would be better if she rested together with the rest of her family and she respected Edgar and Heathcliff’s wish to be burried next to Catherine.
Nelly also seems to generate some incidents, as she refuses to completely obbey the rules imposed to her by the landlords. For example, she was supposed to take care of little Heathcliff and Catherine, to supervise them and forbid them to leave together for the moors. Nevertheless, they run to the Lintons, where Catherine is bit by a dog and forced to stay to at Trushcross grange for five weekes, a period that will change her for ever and determines her to marry Edgar. The conflict between Heathcliff, Edgar and Catherine that took place in the kitchen, when the former returned, was also determined by Nelly, who tricked Catherine in seeing “the stranger” visiting her, but also telling Edgar the truth. Later on, young Catherine got to know her relatives at Wuthering Heights only because Nelly allowed her to, despite of Edgar’s commands in this regard. She even tried to suggest to Lockwood marring young Catherine, in order to save the girl from Heathcliff’s tyranic behaviour.
Nelly Dean is also a subtile judge of the characters. The readers may observe that, though she was found of Catherine, Nelly also criticized her: “from the hour she came downstairs till the hour she went to bed, we had not a minute’s security that she wouldn’t be in mischief. Her spirits were always at high-water mark, her tongue always going – singing, laughing and plaguing everybody who would not do the same. A wild, wicked slip she was”. Nelly despised Heathcliff’s vengeance and his cruel attitude towards the children, yet she would partially understand that his behaviour was determined by other’s injustice towards him. Nelly did not aprove to the marriage between Catherine and Edgar as she realised from her conversation to the girl, that Catherine did not love Edgar, but his social status and wealth and she tried to tell to the girl that marrying a man because of that is wrong. Yet, she remained loyal to Catherine and tried to protect her marriage when Heathcliff returned.
Though a simple woman, taking pride in her housekeeping, Nelly Dean seems to know all the characters, being a sort of guardian angel to them and in the end remaining the wiser character in the whole of the novel. While the others are governed by passion, she seems to be the only rational person. She seeks for information and she is given information even without asking for it. She takes the liberty of interpreting the facts and the feelings; she somehow decides what is evil and what is good. Nelly Dean is the spectator, the witness, the advocate and the judge attempting to solve a case of doomed passionate love and unnatural relationships.
- Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: New American Library, 1959