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Who Runs the Kitchen at Wuthering Heights?

Johannes Vermeer. A Maid Asleep, ca. 1656–57. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is one of those long and harsh novels assigned in high school that tend to get SparkNoted. Most people get the general outline of the story: Heathcliff takes revenge on his adopted noble family by crushing the hopes and dreams of its descendants. While the focus is often on the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw as a uniquely morbid romance, the nooks and crannies of Wuthering Heights are teeming with stories in the shadows.

On an initial read, it is difficult to see why the book is listed on so many Must-Read lists, especially those by famous authors (including Hemingway’s). What one can gather, however, is a sense of power and surging energy throughout the novel, released in bursts of rage and violence by each of the characters. I will attempt to trace one line of development, to uncloak a few hidden figures from the Heights.


From the first chapter, Thrushcross Grange (the large manor) feels empty, devoid of inhabitants save the dogs and the woman housekeeper introduced to us. Heathcliff’s bad temper takes up much of the room we are allowed to see, but with so much emptiness with a distant “chatter of tongues and a clatter of culinary utensils,” (Brontë, 5) one wonders: Who is running the kitchen? 

Let us not forget Marx: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The novel is narrated from 1801-1802 but the story itself starts somewhere within the range of 1760 to 1775. Notably, this is before the French Revolution of 1789 in which the noble classes (the Ancien Regime) were toppled in favor of a new ruling class (the bourgeoisie). Following my crude recount of Marx’s history of class mediation, one would note that by the time of the story’s telling in 1801, the noble classes should be considered a vestige of the past, holding on in spite of current forces towards liberal democratic capitalist control, where land is no longer the currency of social class.

In one sense, this is the case. Heathcliff commandeers Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange from their original, aristocratic owners through his sheer capital, accumulated from an unknown source. At the same time, by the end of the novel, his reign of terror has ceased in favor of the true heirs: Cathy and Hareton. While one feels the utter violence and shock of this transition, the fall of the Earnshaws and Lintons from power into powerlessness, the incident seems removed and accidental—an anomaly. Removed as they are from general society (and given how far the moors of Yorkshire are from Paris) the tumult does not swallow the aristocrats whole. A sense of “normalcy,” the Ancien Regime, is retained.

With this little tangent to ground us, let’s return to the original question: Who is running the kitchen?


In a long novel criss-crossing the lives and innermost demons of two noble families (and the ignoble Heathcliff), one is never sure what the living situation is in Wuthering Heights or Thrushcross Grange. Within the first few chapters, we learn the lead maid at Wuthering Heights is Zillah and meet the rude, rough spoken Joseph. Beyond these two, it is not clear who, exactly, is working for the manor or how they are being treated. What do they have to say about their masters and what do they feel about the tumult of the novel?

Unfortunately, servants are never the true center of the conflict. There are rare inputs from any working people (the commoners from nearby Gimmerton) and usually only in relation to a request by one of the leading nobles.

This conclusion is, however, premature. The majority of the story is dictated through Nelly Dean, long time servant at Wuthering Heights. Thus, the voice through which the narrative itself exists is “the servant,” the eternally present background character to the actions of the nobility. While the narrative is focused on the lives and actions of the nobles (the Earnshaws and Lintons), one can never forget that the keeper of information (remember, knowledge is power) is a servant.

With this background shading in mind, the story through the voice of a servant (observer), we can begin finding what other anomalies of class we are dealing with in Yorkshire.

Nelly herself is a sign of the mixing of classes present at Wuthering Heights. With her mother being a nurse at the Heights, she often “sat eating [her] porridge” with the Earnshaws as a child (36). Further, she has read many of the books in Thrushcross Grange. Finally, she retains a last name—Dean—that raises her from commonhood. Among all the non-aristocratic characters, Nelly can be considered the highest among them in pure social standing (and thus, the most qualified to retell a noble tragedy). She not only bridges the gap between noble and peasant, but crosses it midway, prevented from crossing the entire length through birth, lack of ambition, and loyalty to the family. Even if she did have ambition, her position as a woman might have hampered her ascent.

In opposition to this steward of the Heights is the destroyer, the great enemy of the houses Earnshaw and Linton—Heathcliff. A ragged and dark haired boy from nowhere (the streets of Liverpool), speaking a language “nobody could understand”—possibly Romani, given Mrs. Earnshaw’s perjorative language—Heathcliff slips into the noble classes through an act of grace and pure chance. He has no connection whatsoever to the community, no family lineage (not even a common one), and no education. He is the true foreigner, an outsider, placing him below Nelly in social standing. At the same time, however, his status as a semi-adopted child of the Earnshaws allows him to rank among the noble children—one notes the fluidity of class among children, the semi-equal standing with which Nelly, Hindley Earnshaw, and Heathcliff can all be friends and/or enemies—before education sets in. Working to preserve his place at the Heights, Heathcliff is never properly educated by the aristocrats (they may have saved him, but they will only raise him to a safe limit).

What comes with age is the growing separation and filtration between classes. Despite Catherine Earnshaw’s behavior mirroring that of Heathcliff, her birth allows her to rise to a noble standing through her teenage years. Heathcliff’s dismay at being bested by Edgar Linton to marry Catherine makes him wild; she doesn’t love Edgar, but knows that as a husband he will “be rich…proud…respectable.” But, of course, in her heart of hearts she truly loves Heathcliff who is “more myself than I am” to Catherine, yet marrying him would “degrade” her (80-81). The separation of classes is enforced, not by the parents or other social guardians, but by Catherine herself in her desire to retain status.

Overhearing this comment, Heathcliff leaves as suddenly as he arrived. Disappearing for three years to… nowhere, Heathcliff returns with money (not wealth, capital), education, and proper posture. This “nowhereness” attached to his persona and his riches allows Heathcliff to disturb the local social hierarchy of Yorkshire through regaining his status as foreigner. As a domestic, he was forced to bow to the Earnshaws and be their workboy; by becoming a rich foreigner (as opposed to his original position as an orphaned foreigner, a refugee of sorts), he can reset his position and slip upwards in the hierarchy.

While this story might be one of triumph under the auspices of the American Dream (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses…”), on this side of the Atlantic Heathcliff’s ascendance is a scandal, a tragedy. Heathcliff is no Gatsby. While Gatsby attends to a defanged and decadent American aristocracy (well after the Revolution), Heathcliff knows his own elites are willing to fight tooth and nail against him. While his return is welcome for those in need of cash, like Hindley (a man whose extreme wealth funds his addiction to gambling and alcohol), it is scorned by the Edgar, a man with the vision to see the doom awaiting the Lintons if they give in to this new, seductive bourgeois force.

The waves and ripples of 1789 crash into Yorkshire. Heathcliff’s ability to venture into the world and return with money galore allows him to exert revenge upon the aristocrats. The dark side of revolutionary politics is revealed as Heathcliff is not merely the emissary of a new, democratic age, but the vengeance wreaked upon the nobility for the subjugation of the lower classes (a veritable Reign of Terror). Despite this maneuvering, however, Heathcliff remains stamped with the signs of commonality: dark-hair, lack of last name (though he is now “Mr. Heathcliff”), and lack of ancestry make Heathcliff impossible to reconcile with the aristocracy.

His sudden rise and muscular takeover has its seductive charm, too. While Edgar Linton senses Heathcliff’s vengeful desires (especially those towards Mrs. Catherine Linton), his sister, Isabella, falls into the trap. The glamour and subversive appeal of Heathcliff (tall, strong, dark, mysterious—the transgressive nouveau riche) draws her into his schemes, allowing her wealth and only child to be trapped through the legal mechanisms of marriage, a marriage she regrets almost instantly. Heathcliff lawfully and decisively rips away the wealth of the nobility, turning it into his capital. Note—it was Isabella and Hindley who let the vampire in to take ownership of both the Heights and the Grange.

On the other side, the anti-Heathcliff of sorts, is Hareton Earnshaw. While Heathcliff represents the power of the capitalist class to dominate the weak, old, and sickly nobility (through seduction and force), Hareton is the promise of rejuvenation. Despite being put down by Heathcliff’s abuse and deliberate lack of education, by the end of the novel Hareton has reclaimed his post as owner of Wuthering Heights—a “return of the king” story arch—Arthurian almost.

What becomes difficult, however, is Brontë’s demand that Hareton retains nobility despite his upbringing. From the start, Hareton is handsome and intelligent. While his inability to read hinders him, his natural talent and ambition marks him as inherently noble. One wonders: is this essentialist, perhaps eugenicist, by our author? While the importance of upbringing is noted, Hareton does what even Heathcliff cannot through his blood line—to have lighter hair and to be respected as owner of the Heights.

The novel’s clear detest for lower class subversions and love of nobility is spread throughout the story. Hareton and Catherine Heathcliff’s marriage, while incestuous (they are both first cousins), is considered more legitimate than the one between Isabella and Heathcliff. While both are legally legitimate, only the shared link of nobility is considered socially legitimate. 

Are we giving Brontë a fair reading?

To get a better grasp of Brontë’s full argument, we need to expand our view. An issue arises, however, in that the majority of the servants in the novel are either unacknowledged or unnamed. Despite the sizable number of workers to maintain the workings of the Heights and the Grange (stables, kitchen, bathroom, fieldwork, etc.) we only meet a handful. Zillah has been mentioned before, but she retains a certain distance from the story, possibly due to her distance from Nelly as the storyteller. Closer to the story is Joseph, the Earnshaw family servant.

In America, we tend to hyperfocus on race in relation to class; by these metrics, Joseph would count as a “white” and upper class personage. Given his rural background, however, Joseph is ensconced in his social position; his accent (his voice) and illiteracy lock him into a position that can be superseded even by the racially “lesser” Heathcliff (the Romani) given enough money. This inability to speak “properly” stifles Heathcliff, too, until he secures one of the key characteristics of social standing: education. The same goes for Hareton, a boy raised as if he were common and only raised to his born position once he is given literacy by Cathy.

Joseph serves his master obediently, whoever it happens to be. He helps Heathcliff abuse Hareton, supporting the child’s increasingly brute behavior and shunning formal education. He exists sempiternal, always in the background of the Heights, tending to the needs of the legal owner of the home. In this way, he represents the serf—locked to land and ever obedient, always focused on the “life beyond” in Heaven. His small joys are that of the plants he tends to in the garden and his ties to religion.

We are given a sense of Joseph’s own thinking on his position when he stands by Heathcliff’s dead body:

“But suddenly composing himself, [Joseph] fell on his knees, and raised his hands, and returned thanks that the lawful master and the ancient stock were restored to their rights” (335).

Being drawn particularly to theology, Joseph’s serfdom is justified through the existence of worthy owners; while Heathcliff remains his legal master, Joseph feels that Hareton, despite being less educated and less wealthy (even less accomplished) is born with the right to rule over him. The imagery of livestock gives a sense of the evolutionary, blood relation-style thinking at play. Who is Joseph thanking other than God? Only He, through his commands and divine ordinance, justifies a hierarchy. Heathcliff’s capitalist overturning of the noble class was utterly immoral: He achieved the usurpation that Satan desired, to take the place of God through brute force. Now, justice is restored with his death.

Brontë is playing a double take here. First, she notes that Heathcliff’s ascendance is brutal and violent and does not free any of the other servants to reach a higher post: the capitalist takes over for the noble; the noble languishes in wealth (Hindley drinks himself to death); the servants continue working, simply with a new ruler. The serf class, however, holds disdain for this new bourgeois overlord in their lack of religious or ancestral legitimacy; what makes working for the noble house bearable is the sense of lineage, of hierarchy as being heavenly ordained and ever-lasting. The Revolution will be difficult because of this attachment to religious meaning from the common folk; in a way, to allow for the capitalist to take over, one must first disillusion the population to view their rulers as arbitrary. If the nobles only rule arbitrarily, then switching them for a capitalist has no consequence; for a theologian like Joseph, this change brings signs of doom and devilish usurpation of the “proper order.” Brontë hits on the great modern political dilemma: Who is justified to rule over whom? She finds both the nobles (weak, emaciated) and bourgeois (greedy, illegitimate, vengeful) to be unfit. What is needed is Hareton (also the name of the first owner of the Heights from 1500)—of noble blood and common education—strength and intelligence and lineage all coming together. He is the rebirth of Baldur after Ragnarok, resetting a dying dynasty, breathing life into the line started by his namesake descendent from 300 years ago to rule with compassion and justice once more.

An aristocratic, romantic, and unlikely arrangement in 1802: A near impossibility in 2020.

Let’s return to the majority of the remaining servants who are considered background shadows, only named or mentioned when they are used by or interfere with the noble cast in their desires. The guards of the Grange are absent from the story until Edgar suddenly desires to chase Heathcliff from the property; then they appear in force, armed and ready to go. When the moment passes, they fade again into the shadows. One is never certain what it is that these workers desire, how it is that they live. It seems that their approval, however, is key to the lives of even the aristocrats; the Earnshaws and Lintons and Heathcliff all fear the law, especially as it is administered by the evidence and desires of the common people.

In this way, it is the law that acts to anchor the desires of the nobles to the needs of commoners. While the law is certainly written and maintained by a government apparatus separate from the illiterate people of Gimmerton, the servants exist as a force preventing the most direct action of the nobles (Hindley cannot kill Heathcliff, Isabella cannot break her marriage to Heathcliff, and Heathcliff must obtain the legal rights to both manors). As observers, the servants weigh their judgement against the aristocrats.

Returning to the original backdrop, we realize the narrative decision to exclude most all servants from reference is Nelly’s. While Nelly never leaves her position in the social hierarchy in any formal way, we are slowly revealed just how truly powerful this “servant” can be when she chooses to be. By having the trust and confidence of the nobles who hold the legal titles to her service, Nelly bends and can even break the line separating the common from the noble. Nelly nursing and caring for Cathy Linton as a child allows her to exert pressure on Cathy or her father; earlier on, her ability to choose to omit or reveal information to the elder Earnshaw or to any of the other nobles gave her power through her knowledge. In this way, Nelly acts not only as servant, but as friend, confidant, religious advisor, and enemy to those above her. The person to most recognize this is Heathcliff, a member of the lower class who has used similar social manipulations to force his way to the top of the hierarchy; he sees through his manipulations most clearly and thus bars her from the Heights in order to retain control over Cathy. When does a servant become a friend or an equal?

One final lens is left that colors the story: Mr. Lockwood. While Nelly narrates the story, a second filter is created through Lockwood’s position as journaler (and therefore, the key archivist) of the story. This may further explain the lack of reference to most servants in the story.

What this final perspective shifts notes, however, is the fundamental assumption and lesson of Wuthering Heights. While power may shift and aristocrats may fall, ultimately the ones who will record the stories and histories are the elite (those with access to paper, ink, and education). The elite are defined by their ability to filter information, to control the presentation of stories. While our own democratic age of the Internet allows many people to write, many of the writers who are actually read are still elites (elite by education, birth, or wealth—Duke students especially).

The lesson I will take from this: Who are the unheard voices, the servants and “commoners”, the forgotten people of today? How can we make sure our own history (even if we are an upper class commoner, like Nelly) is sure to represent their stories? Who runs our kitchens and why don’t we hear more from them—and how do we not filter out their voices when it disagrees with our own?

Brontë leaves us to write our own novels in response.



  1. Brontë, Emily.  Wuthering Heights, edited by Pauline Nestory, Penguin Books, 2003.