The Case Against Nelly Dean

By Abbott Ikeler

          Readers of Wuthering Heights have generally settled on a patronizing view of Nelly Dean. As chief narrator, she seems at once an irritating petty bourgeois and a necessary counterpoint to the Byronic excess of the central characters. At the very least, her pedestrian moralizing functions as chorus, even as legitimizing context, for events we might otherwise find intolerably perverse or melodramatic. Some students of the novel have suggested that it is in fact precisely Nelly’s insensitivity to romance that compels us to sympathize with Heathcliff and Catherine¹. In either case, critics emphasize her emotional inadequacy on the one hand, and her practical good sense on the other.

          One less conventional reading suggests this estimate may be mistaken. Gideon Shunami, looking at both Lockwood and Mrs. Dean, insists they are unreliable narrators.² Unfortunately, the argument concentrates largely on their unconscious errors of perception and judgment and as such has not much disturbed the prevailing view. If, however, we apply a like skepticism to her involvement in the immediate drama of the novel’s first half, the case against Nelly Dean gains enormous force. She no longer merely blunders or misremembers events: she is agent provocateur and even premeditating villain.

          I believe, in fact, that the popular notion of Mrs. Dean – as a woman partly obtuse, partly admirable – must inevitably yield to a harsher valuation. She is, finally, both unreliable as narrator and dangerous as participant. Indeed, her open bias and active antagonism toward the novel’s principal figures are chiefly to blame for the death of Catherine Earnshaw.³ Moreover, she reveals to us on every page – in her own words and the words of Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff – the fact of her hostility, her complicity, her guilt and her satisfaction in the story’s tragic outcome.

          My argument falls naturally into three parts: an analysis of Nelly’s biases and motives; her actions and their consequences; and a look at explicit recognition of her guilt by those who surround her.

           In the first pages of her narrative, Nelly announces she is no dispassionate, ineffectual observer. Resentful of the “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” Mr. Earnshaw has rescued from the streets of Liverpool, she countermands his orders and puts “the stupid little thing” on the landing for the night,“hoping it might be gone on the morrow.”⁴ The master sends her from the house for her “cowardice and inhumanity,” but she remains Heathcliff’s hardened antagonist: “Hindley hated him, and to say the truth I did the same; and we plagued and went on with him shamefully.” (pp. 39-40)

          Through his early years, Nelly continually tasks him for his “savage,” “diabolical” ways. As the crisis at the Grange develops, she paints him in the lurid colors of a stage villain: “a nightmare to me,” “an evil beast…waiting his time to spring and destroy.” (p. 94) She descends at last to name-calling, branding Heathcliff “impudent,” “scoundrel,” “goblin,” “Judas,” “traitor,” “sneaking rascal,” “black villain,” and adds, gratuitously enough, “I detested him just then.” (pp. 96-97) That she appears heroic into the bargain may suggest one of her motives, but more importantly the violence of her opposition and her rhetoric deny any claim we might make for disinterest and restraint in her narrative.

           Nelly’s initial reasons for vilifying Heathcliff are difficult to establish. I suspect the roots of her unprovoked hostility lie in a distaste for the ungenteel and a presumption he may prove usurper and ingrate. Largely because of the inhuman treatment he receives first at her hands and then, more viciously, at Hindley’s, Heathcliff becomes precisely what she fears.

          We are reminded, however, of her bias against Heathcliff only intermittently: he is absent from Nelly’s sight for long stretches of the earlier story. Catherine, on the other hand, is her regular companion at the Heights and her mistress at the Grange. It is toward this daughter of Mr. Earnshaw that Nelly takes an immediate, intense and unrelenting dislike.

           She introduces her as a “wild, wicked slip,” “plaguing everybody,” and shortly confesses her distorted judgment and active opposition: “I own I did not like her after her infancy was past; and I vexed her frequently by trying to bring down her arrogance.” (p. 61) Again, should we somehow overlook the fact of her prejudice, Nelly underscores it: “I’ve said I did not love her, and rather relished mortifying her vanity.” (p.65)

          We need not look far for Mrs. Dean’s motive: the first of these asseverations is followed at once by the observation that Catherine “had the bonniest eye, and sweetest smile and lightest foot in the parish”; the second is prefaced with an admission that Edgar Linton had begun to court “Miss Cathy” who “at fifteen…was the queen of the countryside” and “had no peer.” (pp. 42-43, 61)  

          Clearly, just as Nelly resents the preferment of an unpedigreed interloper from the city, she is even more openly jealous of Catherine’s beauty and her popularity with the neighborhood’s young squires.  In contrast, Nelly occupies a neutered, servile position with regard to eligible gentlemen in the district. As the daughter of Hindley’s nurse, she can expect no romantic attentions from the gentry; at the same time, her sycophancy cuts her off from the men of her class. Cathy’s high spirits and multiple conquests must rankle indeed, for they only serve to remind Nelly of her own prospects of lifelong spinsterhood.

          If we should miss the source of Mrs. Dean’s animosity, the context invariably recalls it to us. She asserts “I did not love her” while playing dog-in-the-manger to an early meeting of Edgar and Catherine at the Heights; she finds the young Miss “saucier” and “haughtier” in direct proportion to Edgar’s increasing infatuation with her; and after their marriage and Nelly’s forced move to the Grange, she owns that “to my agreeable disappointment” the master’s bride “behaved infinitely better than I dared to expect.” (pp. 79,81)

          Unlike Heathcliff, Catherine gives Mrs. Dean few objective grounds for her mean-spiritedness.⁵ She sings and laughs and “it seldom happened that she would not keep you company”; despite Nelly’s efforts to vex her, “she never took an aversion to me,” and “had a wondrous constancy to old attachments.” (p. 61) Moreover, though Nelly slanders her as a “thorny,” “erect” and “imperious” mistress, Catherine’s actual behavior at the Grange is quite the opposite: “she seemed almost over-fond of Mr. Linton; and even to his sister, she showed plenty of affection.” (p. 81)

          Throughout her narrative, in fact, Nelly seldom misses an opportunity to poison the wells, undercutting Cathy’s most bluff and trusting responses with cattiness – “who can be ill-natured and bad-tempered, when they encounter neither opposition nor indifference?”; or her romantic success with cynicism – “Edgar Linton, as multitudes have been before and will be after him, was infatuated; and believed himself the happiest man alive on the day he led her to Gimmerton chapel.” (pp. 81, 79) She refuses to admit all along that Edgar is in love with his wife: a fact his later history establishes in spite of her persiflage.

          Nelly is equally quick to load Catherine with full responsibility for events over which she has little or no control. For the disappearance of Heathcliff, for example, Nelly is “provoked” to blame Cathy to her face (though the provocation is never specified). Even for Catherine’s own fatal illness, Mrs. Dean reports the sufferer wholly to blame “for bringing it on herself.” (p. 124) In the latter case, Nelly clearly hopes to banish any pity Cathy’s condition may excite from the inquiring Heathcliff.

          Finally, the edge of Nelly’s antipathy is not at all dulled by the misfortunes that overtake her mistress. As Cathy wanders in the delirium of her last days, alternately appalled by her dreams and her wasting reality, Nelly gloats over her humbled pride: “she lay still now, her face bathed in tears.  Exhaustion of body had entirely subdued her spirit; our fiery Catherine was no better than a wailing child!” (p. 106) Even at the approach of death itself, Nelly’s spite remains unabashed.  With jealousy quickened by the anguish of both Edgar and Heathcliff, she reflects on the insensible Catherine:

          “I was sincerely glad to observe that Catherine’s arms had fallen relaxed, and her head hung down.

          ‘She’s fainted or dead,’ I thought, ‘so much the better that she should be dead, than lingering a burden and a misery to all about her.’” (p. 136)

          Notably, Nelly shows no joy in the peace that death can bring Catherine but is “sincerely glad” only for those “about her.” Indeed, she seems troubled by the possibility that Mrs. Linton may achieve in death precisely the tranquility that her servant wishes to deny her. Speaking to Lockwood of “Catherine’s blessed release,” Nelly speculates nervously:

           “To be sure, one might have doubted, after the wayward and impatient existence she had led, whether she merited a haven of peace at last.  One might doubt in seasons of cold reflection, but not then, in the presence of her corpse. It asserted its own tranquility, which seemed a pledge of equal quiet to its former inhabitant.”

Then Nelly turns to Lockwood:

          “’Do you believe such people are happy in the other world, sir?  I’d give a great deal to know.’”

And he addresses the reader:

          “I declined answering Mrs. Dean’s question, which struck me as something heterodox.  She proceeded –

          ‘Retracing the course of Catherine Linton, I fear we have no right to think she is [happy]: but we’ll leave her to her Maker.’” (pp. 137-138)

Nelly’s ill-will toward her mistress is nearly bottomless, it seems. Despite having survived her by eighteen years, she hounds Catherine’s departed spirit with a hope so unkind it strikes even her fellow gossip as blasphemous.⁶

          Nelly’s malevolent wishes and distorted judgment would merit only slight attention, however, were they not the basis for significant actions against Catherine. In fact, at regular intervals – sometimes by slanting information, sometimes by divulging or withholding it, and sometimes by outright slander – Nelly herself propels the crisis of the first half of her story. And though her active antagonism is chiefly inspired by and directed against Catherine, it inevitably involves the two men who love her mistress and deepens the tragedy of all three.

          Indeed, Nelly is hardly a passive presence even in her early role as companion/servant to the children at the Heights. Just as she joins Hindley in tormenting the newly-arrived Heathcliff, she soon conspires with him to wreck the budding romance between Catherine and Edgar Linton. Having agreed to “make a third party to any private visits” Edgar pays to Miss Earnshaw, Nelly follows her instructions with a destructive zeal all her own.  She banks on her “fidgeting” presence and saucy replies to rouse Catherine’s quick temper, and finally reports to Edgar a “nip” her mistress has given her to drive her off. Recriminations escalate until Edgar is frightened by the violence into leaving. Nelly muses after him, delighted by her successful interference: “That’s right!...Take warning and begone! It’s a kindness to let you have a glimpse of her genuine disposition.” (pp.65-66)

          But her meddling isn’t done. She sees him hesitate in the courtyard and resolves “to encourage” his departure with another attack on Catherine: “’Miss is dreadful wayward, sir!’ I called out. ‘As bad as any marred child – you’d better be riding home, or else she will be sick, only to grieve us.’” (p. 66)

          Nelly’s brief is both wrong and counterproductive: Edgar returns to the house, Cathy is not sick, and the two in fact “confess themselves lovers.” Yet an insidious sort of damage has nonetheless been done, since their relationship, though more intense, is now grounded in instability and distrust.

          Mrs. Dean is guilty of another, more serious disruption during her early tenure at the Heights. A second object of her jealousy is the nearly symbiotic liaison between Catherine and Heathcliff, and her chief sin in that regard is one of unpardonable omission.⁷ Knowing that Heathcliff is overhearing Catherine’s kitchen confession that she will marry Edgar and would be degraded by a match with Heathcliff, Nelly makes no effort to warn her mistress of his presence or his portentous departure.

          More incriminating still, Mrs. Dean dissembles when Catherine asks who’s there (“Joseph is here”) and equivocates with a vague response when quizzed if “Heathcliff has no notion of these things”: “I see no reason he should not know, as well as you.” (p. 73) Nelly, after all, is uniquely placed to prevent – with expedient action – the tragic breach that is opening in front of Catherine.  She alone knows both the conciliatory whole of her mistress’s declaration (“how I love him,” “his [soul] and mine are the same”) and the disastrous misconstruction that Heathcliff’s precipitate withdrawal has made possible. Instead of informing Cathy and setting off after him at once, she dismisses Catherine’s anxiety and routinely prepares dinner for Joseph and Hareton.

          Only when both the meal and the trail of the enraged Heathcliff are cold, does she allow the pursuit to begin, whispering to Cathy that he may have “heard a good part of what she said.” (p.74)  

          Furthermore, though Heathcliff’s is an absence “that gathers weight as it goes on,” Nelly compounds her error by alternately scoffing at Catherine’s concern as “a great noise for nothing” and turning the blame for his alienation on its chief victim. She is, in fact, dishonest with Cathy, the reader and herself when she adds parenthetically that her mistress “well knew” the justice of her charge. The effect, of course, of Nelly’s additional comments is simply to exacerbate the misery she has helped to create.

          Nelly’s efforts to estrange both men from Catherine do not cease with her removal from Wuthering Heights, either. Forcibly separated from Hareton, her favorite, Mrs. Dean set about even more vigorously at the Grange to ensure the divisiveness of what she has begun. She does so, in fact, by a series of Iago-like tricks.

          First of all, she resolves “on mounting vigilant guard” against Heathcliff’s visits to Isabella “and doing my utmost to check the spread of such bad influence at the Grange, even though I should wake a domestic storm by thwarting Mrs. Linton’s pleasure.” (p. 96) She doesn’t wait long. On Heathcliff’s next appearance in the courtyard, she raises the emotional ante with hysterical imprecations – Judas, traitor, hypocrite, sneaking rascal, etc. – and once again manipulates the principals so that Catherine rather than herself is the victim of the storm that follows.⁸ Heathcliff vows revenge on the hapless Mrs. Linton: “I know you have treated me infernally….and if you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you to the contrary, in a very little while!” (p. 97)

          And when their quarrel diminishes to a brooding silence, Nelly scurries off to find the master and wake his wrath against the beleaguered Catherine. Again she is disingenuous in telling us she fancied her report “could not be very prejudicial to Mrs. Linton.” Edgar’s response makes it clear where Nelly has placed blame:

          “’This is insufferable!’ he exclaimed. ‘It is disgraceful that she should own him for a friend, and force his company on me! Call me two men out of the hall, Ellen. Catherine shall linger no longer to argue with the low ruffian – I have humoured her enough.” (p. 98)

          Thus Mrs. Dean brings a minor incident between Heathcliff and Isabella to a life-threatening pitch for Catherine. At the same time, by giving the event an adulterous look, she successfully undermines her mistress’s security from two sides.

          Later, pressing her advantage, Nelly ridicules the distraught Mrs. Linton in front of her husband. Though Cathy has “blood on her lips” and “no breath for speaking,” though “her cheeks, at once blanched and livid, assumed the aspect of death,” Mrs. Dean jeers, “There is nothing in the world the matter…..Never mind!”  To Lockwood she confesses both her recognition of the true danger and a motive: “I did not want Edgar to yield, though I could not help being afraid in my heart.” (p.102) The effect of her disparagement, and perhaps the deeper motive for it, is to drive Catherine from her husband in a “preternatural” rage. By dismissing Cathy’s frenzy as play-acting, Nelly has, in fact, challenged her mistress to prove the truth of her display.

          For the next several days, Mrs. Linton retreats to her room, fasts “pertinaciously” and believes herself dying. Meanwhile the bumptious Mrs. Dean keeps the lovers apart, refusing to tell Edgar of his wife’s deteriorating health, though she owns Catherine’s pleas are “meant for Edgar’s ears.”  She simultaneously ignores the “sighs of [her] master, who yearns to hear his lady’s name.” (p. 103) And when Catherine shows signs of rallying, despite the estrangement that Nelly has enforced, Mrs. Dean crushes her reviving spirits with a bold lie.  

          We know, after all, that Edgar has “shut himself up among books that he never opened – wearying… with a continual vague expectation” of Cathy’s return. Nelly answers Mrs. Linton’s inquiries, however, with another story: “He’s tolerably well, I think, though his studies occupy him rather more than they ought.” (p.103) The narrator admits she would not “have spoken so, if I had known her true condition,” but her claim of ignorance is patently false. Moments before, in fact, she has told us she preserved her “external composure, in spite of [Catherine’s] ghastly countenance and strangely exaggerated manner.” (p. 103)

          Again, the effect of Nelly’s misrepresentation is instantaneous and terrible. Catherine is unable to “bear the notion which I had put into her head of Mr. Linton’s philosophical resignation” and lapses from “feverish bewilderment [in] to madness.” (p. 104) Once again Nelly pleads forgetfulness, recollecting after the fact a “doctor’s injunction that she should not be crossed” in her illness. Surely Mrs. Dean has strained the alert reader’s credulity beyond the breaking point.

          Should we have any lingering doubt of the crucial part Nelly plays in the destruction of Catherine, her final conspiracy with Heathcliff serves to convince us. Although her mistress “is all nerves and she couldn’t bear the surprise, ”Nelly agrees to carry a letter from Heathcliff and to arrange a meeting with Catherine in Edgar’s absence.

          Knowing full well she may be administering the coup de grace to her ailing mistress – the doctor has ordered everyone to “preserve around [Catherine] perfect and constant tranquility” – Nelly nonetheless proceeds. She rationalizes her actions as an attempt to “create a favorable crisis in Catherine’s mental illness,” but she might, of course, more reasonably destroy the letter and warn Edgar to guard his wife against intruders.

          To that objection she has an equally specious answer: “Mr. Edgar’s stern rebuke of my carrying tales.” (p. 129) Those “tales” were in fact the ones in which she accused Catherine of encouraging Heathcliff, whereas this truthful message would protect Mrs. Linton’s delicate health and unite husband and wife against a common threat. Instead, Nelly promotes the killing confrontation and stands by as Heathcliff torments her eighteen-year-old mistress into the grave. Catherine dies, as Mrs. Dean might have expected, within hours of his visit.

          Nelly has withheld from us another profoundly incriminating fact. Only in the very sentence in which she announces the passing of Catherine, does she permit us to learn that Mrs. Linton had just given birth to “a puny, seven month’s child.” Had we been told of Catherine’s condition earlier, we might have been moved to much greater pity for her and much less tolerance for the vicious goading of her servant. The truth that Mrs. Dean so successfully disguises is that she tortured a woman into madness and despair in the last stages of a difficult pregnancy.

          Where there is opposition so concerted and so deadly, the reader has a right to expect some recognition of it from its victims. Since Edgar and Heathcliff are less often and less directly under attack, one is hardly surprised to find their perception of Nelly’s antagonism less acute than Catherine’s. As a child, Heathcliff indeed resents her canting and her anger, but in their adult encounters, he either studiously disregards her insults or matches them with preemptory threats to imprison her at the Heights. Apparently, though he immediately takes Nelly for an adversary, he does not – in the pride of his manhood and his place – consider her worth worrying about.⁹

          Edgar, on the other hand, is much slower to sense the danger she represents. That is all of a piece, of course, with his general naivete. In those instances where he does recognize the threat, however, he takes it more seriously than Heathcliff.  When, for example, after days of melancholy separation from his wife, he at last discovers the extremity of her condition, he glances first “from her to [Mrs. Dean] in horrified astonishment.” Nelly is all awkwardness and guilty apology, attempting to mollify him by belittling the crisis. Edgar throws the words back in her face:

          “’It is nothing, is it, Ellen Dean?” he said sternly. ‘You shall account more clearly for keeping me ignorant of this!’ And he took his wife in his arms, and looked at her with anguish….'not to give me one hint of how she has been these three days! It was heartless! Months of sickness could not cause such a change!’” (p.109)

He sees immediately that Nelly has both neglected and slandered his wife, and comes close to dismissing her:

           “’I desire no further advice from you….You knew your mistress’s nature, and you encouraged me to harass her….The next time you bring a tale to me, you shall quit my service, Ellen Dean.’” (pp. 109-110)

Only his overcivilized nature prevents him from firing her on the spot.

          Catherine, of course, as the chief target of Nelly’s hostility, has the fullest appreciation of her servant’s inimical will. After Heathcliff’s disappearance from the Heights, Cathy recognizes in Mrs. Dean’s recriminations a settled hatred: “Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch.” (p. 73)  A few days later she matches spite for spite, punishing her attendant for displacing the entire blame: “From that period, for several months, [Cathy] ceased to hold any communication with me, save in the relation of a mere servant.” (p. 79)

          Cathy is conscious of Nelly’s bias at the Grange as well, particularly her preference for the more tractable Lintons: “’Even you, Nelly, if we have a dispute sometimes, you back Isabella, at once.’” (p. 86) Nor are Mrs. Linton’s protests limited to Nelly’s indirect antipathy. Cathy resists quite strenuously Mrs. Dean’s hysterical interference in the courtyard meeting between Heathcliff and Isabella: “’To hear you, people might think you were the mistress!...You want setting down in your right place!’” (p. 96) No doubt Nelly’s resentment is sharpened by these reminders of her subservient role, but they should also serve to remind us of the narrator’s presumption.

          But it is only during her final illness that Catherine begins to recognize the full extent of Nelly’s villainy. Ironically, her first declaration may be mistaken for delirium. Mrs. Linton, having shredded a pillow in her distraction, has fallen to counting the feathers rather as Ophelia counts the flowers she’s picked before drowning. Nelly faces her as Catherine muses:

          “’I see in you, Nelly….an aged woman – you have grey hair, and bent shoulders. This bed is a fairy cave under Penistone Crag, and you are gathering elf-bolts to hurt our heifers; pretending, while I am near, that they are only locks of wool. That’s what you’ll come to fifty years hence; I know you are not so now. I’m not wandering; you’re mistaken, or else I should believe you really were that withered hag, and I should think I was under Penistone Crag….’” (p.105)

          This is in fact no fit of madness, but rather a prescient vision of Nelly as her mortal enemy – a witch, disguised as a shepherd, gathering arrowheads to harm “heifers” and children. Significantly, Catherine envisions herself underground. We are further encouraged to accept the prophecy, since, in the second half of her speech, the prophet clearly distinguishes between what will be and what is.

          Later, during her anguished reconciliation with Edgar, Catherine makes the final connection: she applies her vision to the present Nelly. Just as her husband turns on Mrs. Dean for her calumny, Mrs. Linton at last places blame for their domestic miseries where it belongs:

          “’Ah, Nelly has played traitor….Nelly is my hidden enemy [italics mine]. You witch!  So you do seek elf-bolts to hurt us!  Let me go, andI’ll make her rue!  I’ll make her howl a recantation!’” (p.110)

Nelly makes a discreet withdrawal (“I felt no inclination to tarry the event”), carefully undercutting Catherine’s “maniacal” accusations as she goes.

          Finally, one might expect Nelly’s own conscience to accuse her as she recounts her involvement in these horrors. From time to time she does admit to complicity or misgivings. Early on, while openly disparaging Catherine’s anxiety over Heathcliff’s absence from the Heights, Nelly concedes she was “rather uneasy myself”; later, while stirring Edgar’s spirit against his wife, she confesses Mrs. Linton “did not know my share in contributing to the disturbance, and I was anxious to keep her ignorant.”(p.100)

          In the last stages of her mistress’s illness, she “could not help being afraid in my heart,” and she allows herself a full measure of self-recrimination over her part in Heathcliff’s final visit:

          “Was it right or wrong?  I fear it was wrong, though expedient….I tried to smooth away all disquietude on the subject, by affirming, with frequent iteration, that that betrayal of trust, if it merited so harsh an appellation, should be the last.” (p. 129)

          These are meagre concessions, however, considering the gravity of her crimes. Unless, of course, we recall that her story is not being told primarily to us or to herself.  She is speaking, after all, to a middle-aged London gentleman in his bedroom. Remembering further that both auditor and narrator are unmarried¹⁰ and share a gossipy disapproval of Byronic temperaments, it is easy to see that Nelly operates under strong restraints. Any confessional instinct that her recollections may excite is largely quelled by her vanity and the expectations of her audience.  

          Indeed, she makes a conscious effort to submerge her own role in the tragedy. Nelly’s intent is all along to appear a genteel presence, somewhat discomfited by the vulgarity of the events she chronicles. Where she can, she makes a pitch for her own heroism; for the rest she is content to seem eminently sensible. Lockwood, for his part, seldom suspects her complicity. Even when she cannot contain her virulence and lashes out at the peaceful image of Catherine’s corpse, he greets her envy with a well-bred silence.


          A last caution. The foregoing is certainly not an attempt to whitewash the central characters of Wuthering Heights: Catherine is indeed headstrong, Heathcliff is unquestionably vengeful, and Edgar is both naïve and timorous. What I do hope to have demonstrated, beyond Nelly’s unreliability as narrator, is her deep, sometimes criminal, involvement in the events themselves. Without her active and regular prompting, the tragedy that animates the novel’s first half could not take place.

          The time has come, I think, to discard – along with any early trust we may have had in her vision – even the mediating view of her as a merely ignorant and narrow woman. More important perhaps are the literary implications of such an admission. Nelly Dean is, rightly understood, a psychological study of at least as much subtlety and craft as any of the fin de siècle creations of Henry James and Oscar Wilde. Just as C.P. Sanger taught us to respect the structural complexity of Wuthering Heights, a close look at the novel’s chief narrator teaches us to recognize Emily Brontë’s full genius as a delineator of character.


1.    John K. Mathieson, for example, feels that Nelly’s “inadequacy” forces us to judge the principals for ourselves. He admits in passing that Mrs. Dean’s views “result in advice and action which are part of the total harm done to Catherine and Heathcliff,” but he contends Brontë's point is merely to “reveal the futility of a common-sense attitude.” Cf. “Nelly Dean and the Power of Wuthering Heights,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction XI (1956). Mark Schorer’s estimate is more orthodox: Nelly is “the perdurable voice of the country,” an “old wife” whose “drone”contains the melodrama of the actual events. Cf. “Fiction and the ‘Analogical Matrix,’” Kenyon Review XI (1949)

2.    Gideon Shunami, “The Unreliable Narrator in Wuthering Heights,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 27 (1973). His broad, often theoretical, survey of both narrators through the entire book falls short of accusing Nelly of deliberate or sustained hostility toward either Heathcliff or Cathy. John Fraser, in “The Name of Action: Nelly Dean and Wuthering Heights,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20 (1965), also accuses her of errors in judgment, though he finds her narrative and her motives mostly trustworthy.

3.    In conceding that Nelly is “servant, companion and saucy antagonist,” who acts as well as judges, Carl Woodring goes farther than most earlier critics. Unfortunately, he summarizes her complicity in a single paragraph that devotes equal space to her function as “witness and chorus.” Her behavior seems to Woodring, as to Schorer and Mathieson, largely a means of revealing “the character of others” or of “perfecting the symbols.” Cf. “The Narrators of Wuthering Heights,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction XI (1957).

4.    Wuthering Heights, ed. By William Sale (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1963), p. 39. All further quotations from the novel are drawn from this edition.

5.    Catherine does remind her regularly of her servant status, but always in response to Nelly’s imperious interference.

6.    Nelly is concerned here with Catherine’s “merits” in the next world, not with any supernatural staying power she may have in this one.

7.    Mathieson calls it “a major failure, ”but suggests “few could have done better.” “Nelly Dean and the Power of Wuthering Heights,” p. 121.

8.    Cf. the Catherine-Edgar quarrel, Wuthering Heights, pp. 65-66.

9.    His treatment of her in the novel’s second half confirms this view.

10. “Mrs.” Dean is merely a Victorian courtesy.

Image: Vesna Armstrong


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