Opening (chapters 1 to 3)
In 1801, Mr. Lockwood, a wealthy man from the south of England, rents Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire for peace and recuperation. He visits his landlord, Mr Heathcliff, who lives in a remote moorland farmhouse, "Wuthering Heights", where he finds an odd assemblage: Heathcliff seems to be a gentleman, but his manners are uncouth; the reserved mistress of the house is in her mid-teens; and a young man seems to be a family member yet dresses and speaks like a servant.
Snowed in, Lockwood is grudgingly allowed to stay and is shown to a bedchamber where he notices books and graffiti left by a former inhabitant named Catherine. He falls asleep and has a nightmare in which he sees the ghostly Catherine trying to enter through the window. He cries out in fear, rousing Heathcliff who rushes to the room. Lockwood is convinced that what he saw was real. Heathcliff, believing Lockwood to be right, examines the window and opens it hoping to allow Catherine's spirit to enter. When nothing happens, Heathcliff shows Lockwood to his own bedroom and returns to keep watch at the window.
At sunrise, Heathcliff escorts Lockwood back to Thrushcross Grange. Lockwood asks the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, about the family at Wuthering Heights, and she tells him the tale.
Heathcliff's childhood (chapters 4 to 17)
Thirty years earlier, Wuthering Heights is occupied by Mr Earnshaw, his teenage son Hindley and his daughter Catherine. On a trip to Liverpool, Earnshaw encounters a homeless boy described as "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect". He adopts the boy and names him Heathcliff. Hindley feels that Heathcliff has supplanted him in his father's affections and becomes bitterly jealous. Catherine and Heathcliff become friends and spend hours each day playing on the moors. They grow close.
Hindley is sent to college. Three years later, Earnshaw dies and Hindley becomes the master of Wuthering Heights. He returns to live there with his new wife, Frances. He allows Heathcliff to stay but only as a servant.
A few months after Hindley's return, Heathcliff and Catherine walk to Thrushcross Grange to spy on the Lintons who are living there. After being discovered, they try to run away but are caught. Catherine is injured by the Lintons' dog and taken into the house to recuperate while Heathcliff is sent home. Catherine stays with the Lintons and is influenced by their fine appearance and genteel manners. When she returns to Wuthering Heights, her appearance and manners are more ladylike and she laughs at Heathcliff's unkempt appearance. The next day, knowing that the Lintons would visit, Heathcliff tries to dress up in an effort to impress Catherine, but he and Edgar Linton get into an argument and Hindley humiliates Heathcliff by locking him in the attic. Catherine tries to comfort Heathcliff, but he vows revenge on Hindley.
The following year, Frances Earnshaw gives birth to a son, named Hareton, but dies a few months later. Hindley descends into drunkenness. Two more years pass and Catherine and Edgar Linton eventually become friends while she becomes more distant from Heathcliff. While Hindley is away, Edgar visits Catherine, and they declare themselves lovers soon after.
Catherine confesses to Nelly that Edgar has proposed and she has accepted, although her love for Edgar is not comparable to her love for Heathcliff, whom she cannot marry because of his low social status and lack of education. She hopes to use her position as Edgar's wife to raise Heathcliff's standing. Heathcliff overhears her say it would 'degrade' her to marry him (but not how much she loves him) and in despair runs away and disappears without a trace. Distraught by Heathcliff's departure, Catherine makes herself ill out of spite. Nelly and Edgar thus begin to pander to her every whim to prevent her from becoming ill again. Three years pass. Edgar and Catherine marry, and live together at Thrushcross Grange.
Six months later, Heathcliff returns, now a wealthy gentleman. Catherine is delighted; Edgar is not. Edgar's sister, Isabella, soon falls in love with Heathcliff, who despises her but encourages the infatuation as a means of revenge. One day, he embraces Isabella, leading to an argument with Edgar. Upset, Catherine locks herself in her room, and begins to make herself ill again through spite and jealousy.
Heathcliff takes up residence at Wuthering Heights, and spends his time gambling with Hindley and teaching Hareton bad habits. Hindley dissipates his wealth and mortgages the farmhouse to Heathcliff to pay his debts. Heathcliff elopes with Isabella Linton; two months later the couple returns to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff hears that Catherine is ill and, with Nelly's help, visits her secretly. However, Catherine is pregnant, and the following day she gives birth to a daughter, Cathy, shortly before dying.
After Catherine's funeral, Isabella leaves Heathcliff and takes refuge in the south of England. She too is pregnant, and gives birth to a son, Linton. Hindley dies six months after Catherine, and Heathcliff thus finds himself master of Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff's maturity (chapters 18 to 31)
After twelve years, Catherine's daughter Cathy grows into a beautiful, high-spirited girl. Edgar learns his sister Isabella is dying, and so he leaves to retrieve her son Linton in order to adopt and educate him. Although Cathy rarely leaves the borders of the Grange, she takes advantage of her father's absence to venture farther afield. She rides over the moors to Wuthering Heights and discovers she has not one, but two cousins: Hareton in addition to Linton. She also lets it be known that her father has gone south to fetch Linton. When Edgar returns with Linton, a weak and sickly boy, Heathcliff insists that he live at Wuthering Heights.
Three years pass. Walking on the moors, Nelly and Cathy encounter Heathcliff, who takes them to Wuthering Heights to see Linton and Hareton. Heathcliff hopes Linton and Cathy will marry, so that Linton becomes the heir to Thrushcross Grange. Linton and Cathy begin a secret friendship, echoing the childhood friendship between their respective parents, Heathcliff and Catherine.
The following year, Edgar becomes very ill, taking a turn for the worse while Nelly and Cathy are out on the moors, where Heathcliff and Linton trick them into entering Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff keeps them captive to enable the marriage of Cathy and Linton to take place. After five days Nelly is released and later, with Linton's help, Cathy escapes. She returns to the Grange to see her father shortly before he dies.
Now master of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, and Cathy's father-in-law, Heathcliff insists on her returning to live at Wuthering Heights and remaining there after Linton's death. Soon after she arrives, Linton dies. Hareton tries to be kind to Cathy, but she retreats and then withdraws from the world.
At this point, Nelly's tale catches up to the present day. Time passes, and after being ill for a period Lockwood grows tired of the moors and informs Heathcliff that he will be leaving Thrushcross Grange.
Ending (chapters 32 to 34)
Eight months later, Lockwood returns to the area by chance. Given that his tenancy at Thrushcross Grange is still valid, he decides to stay there again. He finds Nelly living at Wuthering Heights and enquires what has happened since he left.
She explains that she moved to Wuthering Heights to replace the housekeeper, Zillah, who had left. Hareton had an accident and was confined to the farmhouse. During his convalescence, he and Cathy overcame their mutual antipathy and became close. While their friendship developed, Heathcliff began to act strangely and had visions of Catherine. He stopped eating and after four days was found dead in Catherine's old room. He was buried next to Catherine.
Lockwood learns that Hareton and Cathy plan to marry on New Year's Day. As he readies to leave, he passes the graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff, and pauses to contemplate the quiet of the moors.