HL Essay: Exemplar 1 ('Wuthering Heights')

This HL Essay exemplar is focused on the concept of perspective in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, exploring the two main narrators and how Brontë uses their naive perceptions and interpretations to create ambiguity and mystery for readers.  While this is a good essay with many strengths, it has a scope that is really too broad for the word limit of the essay; as such, it is a useful example as it illustrates how many bright, engaged students still need guidance when it comes to narrowing and refining the focus of their essay.

The sample essay is available as a PDF and can also be seen by clicking on the icon below.  

Sample HL Essay

 Sample HL Essay: Wuthering Heights  

Foolish notions: narrative perspective in Wuthering Heights.  

Wuthering Heights (1847) is narrated entirely in first person, split between the predominant voices of Lockwood and Nelly Dean. While we may feel connected to these two characters, at least superficially, Brontë’s use of first person narration creates a sense of distance when it comes to the novel’s protagonists, as it adds additional layers of separation between them and the readers. The narrative structure has been likened to Russian dolls, with Nelly Dean’s story and shorter stories told by other characters all sitting inside Lockwood’s framing narration. While this structure has a significant effect on the way we experience the story, this essay is more focussed on Brontë’s choice of Lockwood and Nelly as the two main storytellers and how she contrasts their perspectives with the characterisation of the protagonists. Her creation of two such “foolish” characters as the primary storytellers is what really creates an obstruction to readers, preventing us from getting closer to the novel’s central characters. The separation and ambiguity created by Brontë’s narration is intentional and crucial to the novel as a whole. It instills a sense of mystery and reminds readers of their status as outsiders; we share this status with her narrators, as well as their profound inability to truly understand the inner workings of the novel’s protagonists. While readers are able to get beyond the “foolish notion[s]” (168) of Lockwood and Nelly, in doing so we come to understand that Brontë, more broadly, uses these narrative perspectives to portray the elusive nature of objective truth and the futility of trying to truly comprehend the lives, relationships, and motivations of others. 

From the very beginning, readers have to negotiate the obfuscation and unreliability of Lockwood’s narration. His diary entries are verbose, and riddled with statements of contradictory and dubious opinion. Comparing himself to Heathcliff, at first he says they are “a suitable pair to divide the desolation between them” (3), eager to liken himself to such “a capital fellow!” (3) However, by the end of the first chapter he tells us that “it is astonishing how sociable [he] feel[s] [him]self compared with him.” (8)  Thus, in a short space, Lockwood is revealed to be pompous and superficial, keen to liken himself to Heathcliff, a character of interest and high social standing, before moving swiftly on to imply a sense of superiority over his landlord.  The final lines of the first chapter augment this with a comical lack of self-awareness: while Lockwood is observant enough to note that Heathcliff “evidently wished no repetition of [his] intrusion”, Bronte follows this immediately with Lockwood’s statement, “I shall go, notwithstanding.” (8) So, in the space of a few pages it becomes clear to readers that our narrator’s judgement of character is skewed by self-centredness and a desire to impress.  As Lockwood is set up in contrast to Heathcliff, the latter becomes imbued with the mystery and depth lacking in the narrator.  While the narrative perspective allows us to perceive this, its limitations mean we cannot explore these depths any further.  Thus we can see how the narrative perspective is crucial in creating a sense of mystery typical of Gothic literature.  

Bronte uses humour and dramatic irony in a way that allows us to see things Lockwood cannot, and to establish him as a character who misreads situations and who has no self-awareness.  In the second chapter he tries to charm young Catherine by asking if a “cushion full of something like cats” were her “favourites”, only to discover it was in fact “a heap of dead rabbits.” (11)  Thus Bronte establishes a humorous juxtaposition between reality and Lockwood’s reading of that reality, which runs throughout his narration and creates a sense of dramatic irony.  He says later: “I began to feel unmistakably out of place in that pleasant family circle.” (14) Use of the word “pleasant”, in this context, strikes readers as comedically inaccurate, and further illustrates Lockwood’s inability to ‘read’ his surroundings and his own emotions - he cannot connect his feelings to the undertones in his surroundings, undertones that are obvious to readers in the “austere silence” of the room, as well as the bleak setting and the abrupt dialogue from the inhabitants. He ‘sees’ what he expects or wants to see, in this case “a pleasant family circle” rather than the dysfunctional and hostile dynamics that are described. There are multiple indications that suggest the unfavourable nature of the environment, and readers can glean from Lockwood’s words that he is inept at properly understanding, let alone conveying, the mood of the room.  All this, in the exposition of the novel, establishes a sense of distrust, and a lack of certainty in Lockwood’s descriptions.  His is an unreliable perspective in this respect; however, thanks to Bronte’s “authorial flagging”, he quickly becomes what James Wood refers to as a “reliably unreliable” narrator (Wood, 7).  In turn, this makes our perspective of the protagonists, especially Heathcliff, more stable and it heightens the sense of mystery and complexity surrounding them. 

When Lockwood begins transcribing Nelly’s narration, readers begin to realise that her accounts are, to an extent, similarly skewed. Her narrative perspective plays with time; when she describes Heathcliff’s childhood, Brontë uses prolepsis in describing her perceptions of Heathcliff: “I really thought him not vindictive: I was deceived so completely, as you will hear.” (40) This not only foreshadows Heathcliff’s actions, to be revealed later in the novel, but it also reminds readers that Nelly speaks with hindsight, and that her accounts of the distant past will inevitably be biased due to her existing predispositions toward the subjects of her story. Readers cannot know definitively whether characterisation of young Heathcliff as “vindictive”, for instance, is a valid and objective observation, or a judgement unfairly imposed upon a child based upon the knowledge of future events. Nelly Dean even admits: “I had no more sense, so I put it (Heathcliff) on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow [..] Hindley hated him, and: to say the truth I did the same.” (37-8) Nelly’s dehumanisation of Heathcliff and her condemnation of his vindictiveness becomes ironic and hypocritical. Nelly played a direct role in Heathcliff’s abuse, yet she describes Heathcliff’s mistreatment as if she played no part in it. For instance, she recounts Heathcliff’s bruises from a confrontation with Hindley when they argued about a horse: “I persuaded him easily to let me lay the blame of his bruises on the horse.” (40) In this instance, she protects Hindley at Heathcliff’s expense, choosing to trivialise Heathcliff’s injuries, rather than putting an end to his abuse. While Nelly is characterised as being more self-aware and perceptive than Lockwood, she is still established as a “reliably unreliable” source and we quickly learn that her self-interested perspective limits our understanding of the protagonists. 

The fact that the narration falls upon two unreliable sources creates a layer of uncertainty and mystery that runs throughout the novel. The ambiguity that this creates means that readers are unable to fully delve into the minds of the subjects of the story. After Catherine’s death, Nelly describes what she perceives to be Heathcliff’s emotions: “I perceived that he had got intelligence of the catastrophe; a foolish notion struck me that his heart quelled and he prayed.” (168) Despite the vivid description Nelly provides, Brontë draws attention to the fact this was all “perceived” by her, and that her interpretation was simply a “notion”, rather than fact.  Indeed, this concept of “perception” and its unreliability is a motif in the novel and a major source of its tensions and complexity.  The novel ends with Lockwood looking over the graves and  “wonder[ing] how any one could imagine unquiet slumber for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” (337) Given all that has gone before, including his own experience with Catherine’s ghost in Chapter 3, Brontë is clearly drawing our attention to the naiveté of this conclusion based on his mere perception of a “ benign sky” and “soft wind breathing through the grass.” (337)  Now joined in death, Catherine and Heathcliff remain enigmatic to readers and we are left with the fact that we will never fully comprehend their stories. Indeed, readers can only “imagine”, as we cannot know for certain. 

While Brontë evokes a sense of peace at the end of the novel which can be read as Lockwood’s blissful ignorance, readers are left with more than this; we cannot know for certain but we are not ignorant.  We are left with what Keats called Negative Capability, his term for what he saw as a desirable, creative state of mind that is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,  without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Keats, 43).  Brontë’s use of naive first person narrative perspectives conveys the impossibility of obtaining complete insight into the lives of others; while Nelly and Lockwood strive to simplify and define what they perceive, Brontë’s use of contrast, humour and dramatic irony elevates readers to a higher plain of appreciation for the mysteries and complexities we will never fully fathom. 

Works Cited

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Classics, 1847.

Keats, J. The letters of John Keats: A selection (R. Gittings, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Wood, James.  How Fiction Works.  Vintage, 2009.

Word count: 1498

 Teacher's comments

Criterion A: Knowledge, understanding and interpretation (5 marks)
  • To what extent does the student show knowledge and understanding of the work or text?
  • To what extent does the student use their knowledge and understanding to reach conclusions about the work or text in relation to their chosen topic?

4 out of 5

There is good knowledge and understanding demonstrated with relevant references used throughout to build a sustained and intelligent interpretation.  The references are largely from the opening few chapters of the novel so this limits the student's acheivement in this area.  A narrower focus  - perhaps just looking at one of the narrators  - would have helped the student show more in terms of breadth of knowledge and understanding from across the text.  

Criterion B: Analysis and evaluation (5 marks)
  • To what extent does the student analyze and evaluate how language, style, and wider authorial choices influence meaning in relation to their chosen topic?

4 out of 5

This essay demonstrates insightful analysis and evaluation  - at times, rather than in the consistent and convincing way required by the top band.  Again, a narrower focus would have helped the student achieve greater depth in terms of their analysis and evaluation of textual features. 

Criterion C: Focus, organization, and development (5 marks)
  • To what extent is the presentation of ideas organized, focused, and developed?
  • How effectively has the student integrated supporting examples into their essay?

5 out of 5

The essay is well orgnaised and coherent, with a line of argument developing from beginning to end.  Examples are effectively integrated.

Criterion D: Language (5 marks)
  • How clear, varied, and accurate is the student's language?
  • To what extent is the student's choice of register, style, and terminology appropriate?

5 out of 5

While the writing could be more precise at times, overall the style is mature, fluent and effective, worthy of the highest mark. 

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