Wuthering Heights: Spoiler-Free Synopsis
As a young man, Heathcliff, an orphaned gypsy, is adopted by the Earnshaws, who live at Wuthering Heights, an isolated farm on the moors, where he becomes devoted to the pretty but spoiled daughter Catherine Earnshaw. In her turn, Cathy claims to love Heathcliff, but she longs for the money, education, and culture she sees in the Lintons, their neighbors at Thrushcross Grange. In an attempt to escape her narrow, abusive home-life, Cathy encourages Edgar Linton’s love and a proposal, arousing Heathcliff’s violent jealousy. Meanwhile, Edgar’s sister Isabella, though she has a pampered and luxurious life, wants to escape Thrushcross Grange, and she finds Heathcliff desperately exciting, arousing Cathy’s angry possessiveness. In this violent yet engrossing revenge tale, Heathcliff and Cathy’s tempestuous relationship threatens the lives of everyone in both families, as well as those of their descendants and the story’s multiple narrators. Can anyone survive their destructive passions?
Author Emily Brontë
One of the famous Brontë sisters, all authors, Emily was noted for her shyness, her love of nature, and her tendency to befriend stray neighborhood dogs. When a typhoid epidemic swept her boarding school, she was sent home (where two of her sisters died soon after) and educated at home. Emily wrote from a young age, mostly poetry and world-building with her sister Anne, and became a teacher at age 20. When Emily’s health suffered from the strain of teaching, she returned home. In 1848, shortly after the sudden death of her beloved brother Branwell, she took ill with an inflammation of the lungs from (undiagnosed) tuberculosis. She died in December 1848, only one year following the publication of Wuthering Heights, the novel for which she is famed.
Critical Reception of Wuthering Heights
Contemporaneous reviews (1847-49) of Wuthering Heights were not kind. While a few critics remarked on the terrific story (New Monthly) and powerful writing (Tait’s Edinburgh Review), most critics declared Wuthering Heights a strange book (Examiner), a disagreeable story (Athenaeum), or a strange, inartistic story (Atlas). Comparing the novel with Jayne Eyre, critic James Lorimer was brutally dismissive:
Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read. (North British Review)
Contemporary critics sometimes still compare Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre (Virginia Woolf, 1916), liken its protagonists to Shakespeare’s villains (Joyce Carol Oates, 1983), and confess to loving its “strange cruelty and enchantment” (Anne Rice, 2004).
Still, Wuthering Heights, though warped into a strangely violent love story by Hollywood and some readers, is now generally accepted as a classic. While acknowledging the novel’s structure as famously complex, critics have begun to more closely analyze the multiple, unreliable narrators, questioning the identity of the real villains of the story. Many critics now view Wuthering Heights as arising from yet altering the patterns of its Gothic predecessors, with their ghosts, isolated castles or fortresses, and captive heroines, creating a more complex and ambiguous world than that found in Gothic novels, and portraying females as more than persecuted Gothic heroines. Like Jane Eyre, written by Emily’s sister Charlotte, Wuthering Heights deals honestly and critically with social issues, especially those concerning women and children, causing both Wuthering Heights and its author to now be revered as feminist icons.
Free Public Domain Versions of Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights is available free online because it is in the public domain: the work was not originally copyrighted, the registered copyright has expired, or the author has been dead for more than 100 years; like the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, the book is considered to belong to the public. Since it is not possible to copyright a work already in the public domain, some publishers provide a short author BIO, an Introduction, or footnotes to their edition of a public domain work; publishers can then copyright only that particular edition of the public domain book.
Gutenberg, Standard Ebooks, and WikiSource are all dedicated to keeping public domain books completely free of charge and available to all readers: you can search any of their sites by author or title of the book.
You can read Wuthering Heights online or legally download a free copy from the following sites:
• Standard Ebooks provides a quality edited version with an artwork cover, available in ePub, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony editions. Detailed instructions for which version to download and how to put the book on your portable e-reader are included.
• WikiSource provides a 3-volume version of the 1847 first edition of Wuthering Heights (in two volumes; volume 3 of this edition is sister Anne’s Agnes Gray), available 0nline, for any device. This edition, unfortunately, has typographical errors (via the publisher, who was renowned for his carelessness), and, at this time, WikiSource does not yet have the 1849 second edition, corrected (and editorially revised) by the author’s sister Charlotte after the author’s death. The WikiSource unsourced edition may be the one upon which the Gutenberg edition is based. Both the first and the unsourced editions are available to read online.
• Amazon has an Amazon Classics ebook version (with a very brief, 2-paragraph biography of the author), but this public domain version is free only to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. (The other “free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers” version of the novel has a warning that it contains quality issues, i.e., numerous errors.)
Though the book is also available on many other sites, I have not included any sites which have intrusive or misleading ads. The following sites offer Wuthering Heights free, but I have not examined these versions for typographical or editorial errors.
• ManyBooks provides the Gutenberg.org 1910 edition of Wuthering Heights, available online only, although you can change the font size.
• Freeditorial offers an online, pdf, and epub versions. You can also send a copy of the file to your Kindle or Kindle app by providing your unique Kindle email address.
Other Free Wuthering Heights Information: Wikipedia’s Wuthering Heights has a plot summary, novel timeline, character list, and family relationships chart.
Audiobook: Although Amazon offers audio versions of many of the books in its classics series, the digital-mechanical voices “reading” the books are often stilted and distracting. The higher quality audiobooks are rarely free or even discounted. If you are not yet a member of Audible, however, you receive two free titles during your trial membership, one of which could be Audible’s exclusive version of Wuthering Heights, read by Joanne Froggart (of Downton Abbey fame). Additionally, both the Juliet Stevenson and Janet McTeer narrations of this novel are also excellent audiobooks, and you could choose one of those as your free title. Any free audiobooks acquired during the Audible trial remain in your library even if you cancel your membership.
Looking for other classic poems, stories, novellas,
novels, or nonfiction books in the public domain?
See my Free Classics page
• Portrait of Emily Brontë, by Patrick Branwell Brontë. Photo @ Wikipedia
• 1847 (first edition) title page of Wuthering Heights with Brontë’s pseudonym “Ellis Bell.” Published by Thomas Cautley Newby. Photo @ Wikipedia