Wuthering Heights:The Real Story of Lost Love and Complex-PTSD.

Why Catherine and Heathcliff have Borderline Personality Disorder, and how Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are Borderline Enviroments

Kevin Redmayne
11 min readMar 25, 2019

Wuthering Heights masquerades as a love story, but it is really a study of trauma. Catherine and Heathcliff both have Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and also shows signs of BPD. Behind the adult masks of monsters are two children so scorched by abuse, their forgotten their humanity.

The coarse adamantine story of a hardworking consumptive recluse, Wuthering Heights has its origins in the dreamy world of ‘Gondal,’ a fantasy realm the Bronte sisters constructed to escape a life of domesticity. Emily Bronte, the most earthy and yet most visionary, of the three sisters, transfigured a juvenile landscape into an adult borderland.

Even so, upon release in 1847, Wuthering Heights outraged most critics, who branded it indecent and immoral. It’s now of course, become one of the most popular novels of all time. Synonymous with love and romance, the story is actually about the love born of shared loss. Emily, famously remarked:

‘I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.’

Wuthering Heights is a nightmare world, which changes the lives of the people in it forever. As one critic remarked: ‘The world of Wuthering Heights is a world of sadism, violence and wanton cruelty, wherein the children, without the protection of their mothers — have to fight for very life against adults who show almost no tenderness, love or mercy.’

Heathcliff: A Dark Little Thing

Heathcliff’s trauma begins in childhood. Mysteriously picked up by Mr Earnshaw, ‘starving, houseless, and as good as dumb on the streets of Liverpool,’ he is quickly dehumanised by his step-siblings Catherine and Hindley, who emotionally abuse him, labelling him a ‘ghoul’ ‘vampire’ and an ‘imp of Satan.’ Nelly Dean, the manipulative housekeeper, misconstruing the boy as some sort of goblin says, ‘I put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might he gone on the morrow’ echoing Mrs Earnshaw’s more direct command to ‘fling it outdoors.’ Heathcliff is not wanted.

Having been rescued from a state of abandonment, he’s abandoned once again. Only this time it’s psychological. Like many children trapped in broken homes, he can’t be banished completely, and so the adults around him punish him instead turn to persecution.

‘The plough-boy,’ and ‘low ruffian’ now grows up under a cudgel. Subjected to ‘blows’ ‘pinches’ and ‘thrashings’ Heathcliff endures all ‘without winking or shedding a tear.’ No doubt adept at what DBT founder Dr Marsha Linehan calls inhibited grieving he goes through life without showing weakness, because weakness would risk further punishment. However, that subliminal rage must emerge in some form.

Heathcliff penchant for torturing animals, first emerges in childhood, when he sets a trap for baby fledglings. In adulthood he graduates to more gratuitous acts of violence like hanging Isabella Linton’s dog. While it appears Heathcliff has signs of psychopathology or antisocial personality disorder, we need Complex Post-traumatic Stress to explain why. Why does Heathcliff torture animals? It’s a symbolic re-enactment and mirror image of his own abuse in childhood. Once a defenceless creature, tortured by adults, he’s now an adult torturing defenceless creatures.

Heathcliff, makes the analogy directly speaking of Linton and Catherine II, he state ‘had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two’ Modelling his response on his own early environment, he construes all children as animals, who like his former self need to be punished. Since he cannot avenge himself on his original tormentors he seeks to hurt those who are closest to them. His own warped constitution exist under the C-Ptsd symptom: ‘Preoccupation with revenge.’ Flash-forward to adulthood we see Heathcliff’s propensity for violence and control. Splitting the world into angels and demons, defenceless prey, and sadistic predators he defends himself against his own sense of vulnerability that has been with him since he was a boy.

A core symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder is the “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” however, Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder helps explains its origins. Adults who fear abandonment, usually do so, because at some point they have been abandoned. Heathcliff displays symptoms of disorganised insecure attachment. As well as Inhibited grieving, it’s likely he also has problems with mentalisation. Unable to imaginatively infer the intention of others in terms of their thoughts, feelings, or motives of others, he has no choice but to force his own emotions via projective identification onto them, or introject their feelings into his own sense of self.

Eminent BPD psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy argues ‘children who become fearful of their parents, will deliberately inhibit their capacity to mentalise the thoughts, feelings and motives of others, in order to avoid thinking about their parents unconscious wish to harm them.’ Heathcliff’s lack of empathy (if we can be so bold as to call it that) is product of his inability or unwillingness to read himself or other people — to do so would be to acknowledge their suffering and cruelty and his own. Tantamount to his own self-destruction.

Nelly Dean, tries to frame Heathcliff as someone without feeling, and therefore not human, and yet When Heathcliff stands under an old ash tree:

‘his hair soaked with the dew that had gathered on the budded branches […] He dashed his head against the knotted trunk and lifting up his eyes howled not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death.’

The air imbibes the tears he cannot cry. The blood upon his face and hands is an act of self-harm; not just a paroxysm of excess emotion but a way to punish himself. Once again we have BPD symptoms of emotional instability, and self-injury, and yet we need trauma to explain the origins. The source of his suffering? The loss the person he loves above all others, his step-sister Catherine Earnshaw.

Catherine: The Orphan Waif

Nelly Dean describes Catherine as a ‘a wild wicked slip’ of a girl. ‘Her spirits were always at high-water mark, her tongue always going — singing, laughing, and plaguing everybody who would not do the same.’ Prone to ‘hysterical emotion’ or emotional instability, she’s prone to ‘senseless wicked rages’ she seems to have all the classical traits of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Impulsive at one point ‘she lay dashing her head against the arm of the sofa and grinding her teeth, so that you might fancy she would crash them into splinters’ at another she’s in bed ‘tossing about, [in] feverish bewilderment [she] tore the pillow with her teeth.’

Like Heathcliff, she suffers frequents bouts of paranoia and also prone to splitting: She says, ‘I thought everybody and hated and despised each other, but could not avoid loving me’ contrarily ‘they have all turned to enemies in a few hours.’ At time’s she claims: ‘I’m afraid of being alone’ but at others says: ‘I require to be let alone!’

Finally she is preoccupied with suicide. She states, ‘the thing that irks me most is this shattered prison […] I’m tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there, really with it and in it.’ Nevertheless, that glorious world is not a dream of heaven: ‘Heaven did not seem to be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.’ The famous quote reveals the origins of her Borderline diagnosis: The chronic interpersonal trauma experienced in childhood, and which she sought to escape from by running away to the moors with Heathcliff.

Even from the beginning, no one ever really loved Catherine Earnshaw. She is the ‘unwelcome’ ‘neglected’ child who ‘might have wailed out her life and nobody [would have] cared a morsel during the first hours of her existence.’ When Mr Earnshaw asks her ‘why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?’ she answers, ‘why cannot you always be a good man, father?’ We have hints of bad parenting, potentially negligent and abusive, however, at this point Catherine is sitting in the lap of her father, suggesting some degree of ambivalence. Therefore Catherine’s propensity to splitting, her fears of abandonment and engulfment, her death wish, and her emotional and behavioural instability, are a product of her own mixed feelings toward her family, who hasn’t imbibed her with a strong sense of self.

The trauma is once again located in youth, so her death-wish, is synonymous with a return to childhood. On her deathbed, she cries out:

Oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free; and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed? why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words? I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. Open the window again!

As if she’s going to fly away like a baby bird, earlier she recalls seeing a nest of dead lapwings. ‘a nest in the winter, full of little skeletons.’ Are they recollections of her own broken dreams? We might assume it to be the skeletons of a family unit, which has been stewarded to an untimely death, by the ferocious elements which rave around her. However, there’s only two dead fledglings: One’s herself and the other Heathcliff. When Heathcliff starts killing birds, he is in fact symbolically killing them.

The Love story

Finally we come the wild passionate love story which has redounded through the last two centuries — it is actually a relationship based on the pain of lost love. Incest is an underlying theme of Wuthering Heights: Catherine and Heathcliff are most likely step-siblings, and this gypsy-boy from Liverpool is the misbegotten love child of a hapless Mr Earnshaw whose favouritism evidences a guilty conscience. Even if that weren’t the case, Catherine and Heathcliff grow up as if they were brother and sister, even sleeping the same bed until puberty. In normal family’s a strong incest taboo exists, which scientists call the Westermarck effect. It should mean that since Catherine and Heathcliff grew up together, there should be no sexual attraction. Nevertheless Catherine and Heathcliff do fall in love, but it’s not sexual. Both have actually undergone traumatic bonding, fusing themselves together in a protective pact against sadistic adults intent on harming them.

Furthermore their personalities are so damaged, that individual identity is submersed in the other. What this means is that both experience life together as if they were one person. How are we to account for Cathy’s exclamation: ‘I am Heathcliff’ ‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same,’ and Heathcliff exhortation: ‘ Do not leave me in this abyss alone […] I cannot live without my life and I cannot live without my soul.’ Such statements, suggest an identity diffusion, so deep that it finds no outlet other than in an infantile regression where the boundaries of self and other are wholly dissolved. They psychologically join together.

When Catherine lays dying she rebukes Heathcliff’s rage by claiming ‘That is not my Heathcliff. I shall love mine yet; and take him with me: he’s in my soul.’ And when Heathcliff, notoriously digs up Catherine’s coffin, and climbs in to lay next to her corpse, exclaiming ‘when I saw her face again — it is hers yet!’ The inference is that both live with an idealised image of each other which has carried over from childhood. It remains firmly intractably nestled snug within their hearts, alongside a devalued image as well. They see the other and themselves as a rescuer or persecutor, devil or saint, and never really know anything other than the false representations they’ve created.

As two children, the pair vowed to grow up ‘as rude as savages’ however, when adulthood arrives both are forced to seperate. Camping outside Thrushcross Grange to see how the other half live, old Mr Linton sets the dog on them. Heathcliff recounts how a ‘beast of a servant came up with a lantern, at last, shouting “Keep fast, Skulker, keep fast!” He changed his note, however, when he saw Skulker’s game.’ At this point Skulker’s maw is fastened around Cathy’s ankle. ‘The dog was throttled off; his huge, purple tongue hanging half a foot out of his mouth, and his pendent lips streaming with bloody slaver.’ The blood is symbolic of Catherine’s burgeoning sexuality, her admission into adulthood, and new status as a potential mate. Meanwhile Skulker’s suitably phallic tongue, symbolises the penetrative intrusion of another (in this case Edgar Linton) who will eventually violate the sacred pact between her and Heathcliff. Heathcliff tells us, ‘The man (the servant) took Cathy up; she was sick: not from fear, I’m certain, but from pain. He carried her in; I followed, grumbling execrations and vengeance.’ This marks the point of traumatic seperation.

Of course, Catherine does return eventually, but by now a psychological distancing has taken place. The adult world has intruded in on them, and neither can escape. While Heathcliff defends against loss, by conjuring a dangerous world of persecutory objects, Catherine defends against loss by an infantile regression. While Heathcliff is temporarily buoyed up by a fantasy of revenge, Catherine’s sinks willingly with a dream of childhood innocence. She is after all much closer to the truth — the knowledge that their childhood is gone, no matter how much revenge she exacts on another she’ll never get it back — it’s better to recreate it through imagination. Even though Catherine and Heathcliff are separated the attachment subsists, and both continue to live in a state of suspended adolescence. They continue to experience life through the lens of complex-PTSD.

Catherine dies, but Heathcliff endures old age. Toward the end of his life, he remarks: ‘My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me. But where is the use? […] I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.’ That unspoken symptom of C-Ptsd, dissipates under the weight of time, and finally Heathcliff is forced to let go of his anger. What’s underneath? The pain of lost love:

I cannot look down to this floor, her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree — filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day — I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women — my own features — mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!

When Heathcliff hears Cathy calling from outside the window ‘twenty years. I’ve been a waif for twenty years!’ he’s burnt by his own candle; as if to imply the “old flame” is both his source of light, but also the source of his own immolation. At his own death, he follows her out onto the moor to wander as a ghost. Two orphans of the storm are finally reunited. The pain of lost love becomes the heavy bliss of remembrance.

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Kevin Redmayne

Freelance journalist writing on mental health and disability. Words have the power to shine a light on realities otherwise missed.