Seeking the answer to a rather simple question this weekend, we opened up an entirely new, intriguing, and entertaining window on Wuthering Heights. None of us has been terribly fond of Nelly Dean, the primary narrator of the story, since early on in our reading. A surface interpretation of the story could leave the reader thinking that Nelly is merely a humble servant recounting history as she saw it. I believe that is how Mr. Lockwood is intended to see her. For our own part, we have taken a somewhat different view. As we have made our way through the novel, Nelly has struck us variously as gossipy, astoundingly and cruelly negligent, and even abusive. Her lack of action in several circumstances not only failed to avoid catastrophe, but caused it.
Humble servant, negligent gossip or conniving and abusive? We weren’t sure exactly how Nelly was to be taken. At times we felt as though we were supposed to find her a sympathetic character, as she has attempted to portray herself to Lockwood. Eventually, however, our curiosity and uneasiness led us to seek corroboration; is there anyone else who has developed a similarly dim view of her character. Well, imagine our surprise…there is a fairly large community of people who view Nelly Dean as the villain of Wuthering Heights.
Over the next several nights we will be taking a slight detour on our extended read-aloud, looking over a 1958 essay by James Hafley: “The Villain of Wuthering Heights” in order to see whether we agree.