What type of Villain is Heathcliff? Overwhelmingly, the novel describes him as something less than human: a beast, an animal, a wild untrained thing with brutal impulses. When it does not turn to nature to describe the man, it instead uses the supernatural and describes him as devilish, or in Isabella’s case, as a devil itself.
These descriptions are effective in inciting terror because they other Heathcliff. They obscure his motives from the reader and turn him into a mystery. Our expectations of how a human may behave are thwarted and instead we must wait in terror and wonder what the bounds of his morality will finally be, if they are ever to be met.
However, the beastly, devilish characterizations, though frequent, are not the most powerful tools in the villain’s characterization. To over stress Heathcliff’s monsterification is to ignore the true roots of Wuthering Heights’ horror: His objectification.
When Heathcliff is first introduced to his adopted family by Mr. Earnshaw with the phrase “it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil” although the phrase devil is used, he is not made to be any kind of creature resembling one. Instead he is an object, devoid of any personality or motives of its own, only a force of the devil, almost like a plague. The repeated reference to Heathcliff as an It over the following pages reinforces his objectification.
Although, “it” can refer to animals as well as objects, the early characterizations of Heathcliff are devoid of animalistic traits. He is a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk…sullen, patient…hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment” (Ch. 4). It is not until later in the book that the boy takes on beastly traits. In the early stages of his development he is a passive force, resembling an object more than a creature.
He is passive in his responses to Hindley, passive in accepting his father’s affection, and does nothing to directly cause harm and yet “from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house” (Ch. 4).
The only force which raises Heathcliff from his inanimate status is Cathy. Once we consider, though, that he came to Wuthering Heights in place of her promised whip, It the raises the possibility that even in action he is an object. Obeying Cathy’s whims even in death, as he carries out her final curse on himself and Edgar.
If the actions of a monster are a mystery to readers, then the actions of an object are doubly so, and thus Heathcliff is doubly terrifying.