It is 1801, and the narrator, Mr. Lockwood, relates how he has just returned from a visit to his new landlord, Mr. Heathcliff. Lockwood, a self-described misanthropist, is renting Thrushcross Grange in an effort to get away from society following a failure at love. He had fallen in love with a "real goddess" (6), but when she returned his affection he acted so coldly she "persuaded her mamma to decamp." He finds that relative to Heathcliff, however, he is extremely sociable. Heathcliff, "a dark skinned gypsy, in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman" (5) treats his visitor with a minimum of friendliness, and Wuthering Heights, the farm where Heathcliff lives, is just as foreign and unfriendly. 'Wuthering' means stormy and windy in the local dialect. As Lockwood enters, he sees a name carved near the door: Hareton Earnshaw. Dangerous-looking dogs inhabit the bare and old-fashioned rooms, and threaten to attack Lockwood: when he calls for help Heathcliff implies that Lockwood had tried to steal something. The only other inhabitants of Wuthering Heights are an old servant named Joseph and a cook––neither of whom are much friendlier than Heathcliff. Despite his rudeness, Lockwood finds himself drawn to Heathcliff: he describes him as intelligent, proud and morose––an unlikely farmer. Heathcliff gives Lockwood some wine and invites him to come again. Although Lockwood suspects this invitation is insincere, he decides he will return because he is so intrigued by the landlord.
This chapter introduces the reader to the frame of the story: Lockwood will gradually discover the events which led to Heathcliff ––now about forty years old––living with only his servants at Wuthering Heights, almost completely separated from society. Here, Heathcliff is characterized by casual violence and lack of concern for manners or consideration for other people. This is only a hint of the atmosphere of the whole novel, in which violence is contrasted with more genteel and civilized ways of living.
Annoyed by the housework being done in the Grange, Lockwood pays a second visit to Wuthering Heights, arriving there just as snow begins to fall. The weather is cold, the ground is frozen, and his reception matches the bleak unfriendliness of the moors. After yelling at the old servant Joseph to open the door, he is finally let in by a peasant-like young man. The bare kitchen is warm, and Lockwood assumes that the young and beautiful girl there is Mrs. Heathcliff. He tries to make conversation but she is consistently scornful and inhospitable, and he only embarrasses himself. There is "a kind of desperation" (11) in her eyes. She refuses to make him tea unless Heathcliff said he could have some. The young man and Heathcliff come in for tea. The young man behaves boorishly and seems to suspect Lockwood of making advances to the girl. Heathcliff demands tea "savagely" (12), and Lockwood decides he doesn't really like him. Trying to make conversation again, Lockwood gets into trouble first assuming that the girl is Heathcliff's wife, and then that she is married to the young man, who he supposes to be Heathcliff's son. He is rudely corrected, and it transpires that the girl is Heathcliff's daughter-in-law but her husband is dead, as is Heathcliff's wife. The young man is Hareton Earnshaw. It is snowing hard and Lockwood requests a guide so he can return home safely, but he is refused: Heathcliff considers it more important that Hareton take care of the horses. Joseph, who is evidently a religious fanatic, argues with the girl, who frightens him by pretending to be a witch. The old servant doesn't like her reading. Lockwood, left stranded and ignored by all, tries to take a lantern, but Joseph offensively accuses him of stealing it, and sets dogs on him. Lockwood is humiliated and Heathcliff and Hareton laugh. The cook, Zillah, takes him in and says he can spend the night.
Brontë begins to develop the natural setting of the novel by describing snowstorms and the moors, and it becomes clear that the bleak and harsh nature of the Yorkshire hills is not merely a geographical accident. It mirrors the roughness of those who live there: Wuthering Heights is firmly planted in its location and could not exist anywhere else. Knowing Emily Brontë's passionate fondness for her homeland, we can expect the same bleakness which Lockwood finds so disagreeable to take on a wild beauty. Its danger cannot be forgotten, though: a stranger to those parts could easily lose his way and die of exposure. Heathcliff and the wind are similar in that they have no pity for weakness. The somewhat menacing presence of the natural world can also be seen in the large number of dogs who inhabit Wuthering Heights: they are not kept for pets.
The power dynamics that Lockwood observes in the household of Wuthering Heights are extremely important. The girl is evidently frightened of Heathcliff and scornful of Hareton; Hareton behaves aggressively because he is sensitive about his status; Heathcliff does not hesitate to use his superior physical strength and impressive personality to bully other members of his household. The different ways in which different characters try to assert themselves reveal a lot about their situation. Most notably, it is evident that in this house, sheer force usually wins out over intellectual and humane pretensions. The girl is subversive and intellectual, an unwilling occupant of the house, but she can achieve little in the way of freedom or respect.
Lockwood continues to lose face: his conversational grace appears ridiculous in this new setting. Talking to Heathcliff, for example, he refers to the girl as a "beneficent fairy," which is evidently neither true nor welcome flattery. This chapter might be seen, then, as a continuation of the strict division between social ideals (grace, pleasant social interactions, Lockwood) and natural realities (storms, frost, dogs, bluntness, cruelty, Hareton, Heathcliff). If the chapter was taken by itself, out of context, the reader would see that while social ideals are ridiculed, it is clear that the cruel natural world is ugly and hardly bearable. However, these depictions will change and develop as the novel continues.
Zillah quietly shows Lockwood to a chamber which, she says, Heathcliff does not like to be occupied. She doesn't know why, having only lived there for a few years. Left alone, Lockwood notices the names "Catherine Earnshaw," "Catherine Linton," and "Catherine Heathcliff" scrawled over the window ledge. He leafs through some old books stacked there, and finds that the margins are covered in handwriting––evidently the child Catherine's diary. He reads some entries which evoke a time in which Catherine and Heathcliff were playmates living together as brother and sister, and bullied by Joseph (who made them listen to sermons) and her older brother Hindley. Apparently Heathcliff was a 'vagabond' taken in by Catherine's father, raised as one of the family, but when the father died Hindley made him a servant and threatened to throw him out, to Catherine's sorrow.
Lockwood then falls asleep over a religious book, and has a nightmare about a fanatical preacher leading a violent mob. Lockwood wakes up, hears that a sound in his dream had really been a branch rubbing against the window, and falls asleep again. This time he dreams that he wanted to open the window to get rid of the branch, but when he did, a "little, ice-cold hand" (25) grabbed his arm, and a voice sobbed "let me in." He asked who it was, and was answered: "Catherine Linton. I'm come home, I'd lost my way on the moor." He saw a child's face and, afraid, drew the child's wrist back and forth on the broken glass of the window so that blood soaked the sheets. Finally he gets free, and insists that he won't let the creature in, even if it has been lost for twenty years, as it claims. He wakes up screaming.
Heathcliff comes in, evidently disturbed and confused, unaware that Lockwood is there. Lockwood tells him what happened, mentioning the dream and Catherine Linton's name, which distresses and angers Heathcliff. Lockwood goes to the kitchen, but on his way he hears Heathcliff at the window, despairingly begging 'Cathy' to come in "at last" (29). Lockwood is embarrassed by his host's obvious agony.
Morning comes: Lockwood witnesses an argument between Heathcliff and the girl, who has been reading. Heathcliff bullies her, and she resists spiritedly. Heathcliff walks Lockwood most of the way home in the snow.
It is very important that the ghost of Catherine Linton (who is more than just a figment of Lockwood's imagination) appears as a child. Of course Lockwood thinks of her as a child, since he has just read parts of her childhood diary, but Heathcliff also seems to find it natural that she appeared in the form she had when they were children together. Rather than progressing from childhood on to a maturer age with its different values, Heathcliff and Catherine never really grew up. That is to say, the most emotionally important parts of their lives either took place in childhood or follows directly from commitments made then. They never outgrew their solidarity against the oppressive forces of adult authority and religion that is described in Catherine's diary. Thus the ghost of Catherine Linton (that is her married name) tries to return to her childhood sanctuary, which Heathcliff has kept in its original state. This challenges the dominion of linear time.
Lockwood is bored and a little weak after his adventures, so he asks his housekeeper, Ellen Dean, to tell him about Heathcliff and the old families of the area. She says Heathcliff is very rich and a miser, though he has no family, since his son is dead. The girl living at Wuthering Heights was the daughter of Ellen's former employers, the Lintons, and her name was Catherine. She is the daughter of the late Mrs. Catherine Linton, was born an Earnshaw, thus Hareton's aunt. Heathcliff's wife was Mr. Linton's sister. Ellen is fond of the younger Catherine, and worries about her unhappy situation.
The narrative switches to Ellen's voice, whose language is much plainer than Lockwood's. She is a discreet narrator, rarely reminding the listener of her presence in the story, so that the events she recounts feel immediate. She says she grew up at Wuthering Heights, where her mother worked as a wet nurse. One day, Mr. Earnshaw offered to bring his children Hindley (14 years old) and Catherine (about 6) a present each from his upcoming trip to Liverpool. Hindley asked for a fiddle and Catherine for a whip, because she was already an excellent horsewoman. When Earnshaw returned, however, he brought with him a "dirty, ragged, black-haired child" (36) found starving on the streets. The presents had been lost or broken. The boy was named Heathcliff and taken into the family, though he was not entirely welcomed by Mrs. Earnshaw, Ellen, and Hindley. Heathcliff and Catherine became very close, and he became Earnshaw's favorite. Hindley felt that his place was usurped, and took it out on Heathcliff, who was hardened and stoic. For example, Earnshaw gave them each a colt, and Heathcliff chose the finest, which went lame. Heathcliff then claimed Hindley's, and when Hindley threw a heavy iron at him, Heathcliff threatened to tell Earnshaw about it if he didn't get the colt.
In this chapter, the narrative turns to the past: from now on, Lockwood will gradually lose importance as the story of Heathcliff and Catherine's childhood becomes more and more vibrant. However, we cannot entirely neglect the role Ellen Dean plays as a narrator: her personality means that the events she recounts are presented in a unique style. She is practical and, like a good housekeeper, tends to incline to the side of order. Even when she was young, she did not really participate in the private lives of the children of Wuthering Heights, and has little access to the relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine. Brontë demonstrates her versatility by using different points of view, faithfully recording each character's distinctive style of speech.
Considering character development, it is interesting to know what Heathcliff and Catherine were like as children since, as we have seen in the previous chapter, their essential natures remain very much the same. Like her mother, Catherine Linton was willful and mischievous and Heathcliff was uncomplaining but vindictive.
Earnshaw grew old and sick, and with his illness he became irritable and somewhat obsessed with the idea that people disliked his favorite, Heathcliff. Heathcliff was spoiled to keep Earnshaw happy, and Hindley, who became more and more bitter about the situation, was sent away to college. Joseph, already "the wearisomest, self-righteous pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself, and fling the curses to his neighbors" (42) used his religious influence over Earnshaw to distance him from his children. Earnshaw thought Hindley was worthless, and didn't like Cathy's playfulness and high spirits, so in his last days he was irritable and discontented. Cathy was "much too fond" of Heathcliff, and liked to order people around. Heathcliff would do anything she asked. Cathy's father was harsh to her and she became hardened to his reproofs.
Finally Earnshaw died one evening when Cathy had been resting her head against his knee and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. When she went to kiss her father good night, she discovered he was dead and the two children began to cry, but that night Ellen saw that they had managed to comfort each other with "better thoughts than [she] could have hit on" (44) imagining the old man in heaven.
The extremely close and entirely sexless relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy already manifests itself in an opposition to the outside world of parental authority and religion. Cathy is already charming and manipulative, though her love for her father is real. Joseph's false, oppressive religious convictions contrast with the pure, selfless thoughts of heaven of the grieving children.
Earnshaw's decline and death highlights the bond between the physical body and the spirit. The old man had formerly been charitable, loving, and open, but his physical weakness makes him irritable and peevish: the spirit is corrupted by the body's decline. One might remember that Emily Brontë watched her brother Branwell die wretchedly of alcohol and drug abuse, having had his youthful dreams of gallantry and glory disappointed.