Opening (chapters 1 to 3)
In 1801, Lockwood, a wealthy young man from the south of England, who is seeking peace and recuperation, rents Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire. He visits his landlord, Heathcliff, who lives in a remote moorland farmhouse, Wuthering Heights. There Lockwood finds an odd assemblage: Heathcliff, who seems to be a gentleman, but whose manners are uncouth; the reserved mistress of the house, who is in her mid-teens; and a young man, who seems to be a member of the family, yet dresses and speaks as if he is 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 into 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. After his visit to the Heights, Lockwood becomes ill and is confined to his bed for some length of time. The Grange housekeeper, Ellen (Nelly) Dean, who is looking after him, tells him the story of the family at the Heights during his convalescence.
Heathcliff's childhood (chapters 4 to 17)
Thirty years earlier, the owner of Wuthering Heights was Mr. Earnshaw, who lived with his son Hindley and younger daughter Catherine. On a trip to Liverpool, Earnshaw encounters a homeless boy, described as a "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect". He adopts the boy and, as he refuses to divulge his real name, Earnshaw 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 university. Three years later Earnshaw dies, and Hindley becomes the landowner; he is now master of Wuthering Heights. He returns to live there with his new wife, Frances. He allows Heathcliff to stay, but only as a servant, and regularly mistreats him.
A few months after Hindley's return, Heathcliff and Catherine walk to Thrushcross Grange to spy on Edgar and Isabella Linton, who live 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. The Lintons are landed gentry, and Catherine is influenced by their elegant 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 are to visit, Heathcliff, upon Nelly's advice, tries to dress up, in an effort to impress Catherine, but he and Edgar 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 she dies a few months later. Hindley descends into drunkenness. Two more years pass, and Catherine and Edgar Linton become friends, while she becomes more distant from Heathcliff. Edgar visits Catherine while Hindley is away, and they declare themselves lovers soon afterwards.
Catherine confesses to Nelly that Edgar has proposed marriage 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 that it would "degrade" her to marry him (but not how much she loves him), and he runs away and disappears without a trace. Distraught over Heathcliff's departure, Catherine makes herself ill. Nelly and Edgar begin to pander to her every whim to prevent her from becoming ill again.
Three years pass. Edgar and Catherine marry and go to live together at Thrushcross Grange, where Catherine enjoys being "lady of the manor". Six months later, Heathcliff returns, now a wealthy gentleman. Catherine is delighted, but 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. This leads to an argument with Catherine at Thrushcross Grange, which Edgar overhears. Finally, enraged by Heathcliff's constant appearance and foul parlance, he forbids Heathcliff from visiting Catherine altogether. Upset, Catherine locks herself in her room and begins to make herself ill again. She is also now pregnant with Edgar's child.
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 after their elopement, Heathcliff and Isabella return to Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff discovers that Catherine is dying. With Nelly's help, he visits Catherine secretly. The following day, she gives birth to a daughter, Cathy, shortly before dying. While Catherine is lying in her coffin overnight, prior to the funeral, Heathcliff returns and replaces the lock of Edgar's hair in her necklace with a lock of his own.
Shortly after the funeral, Isabella leaves Heathcliff and finds refuge in the South of England. She 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)
Twelve years pass. Catherine's daughter, Cathy, has become a beautiful, high-spirited girl. Edgar learns that his sister Isabella is dying, so he leaves to retrieve her son Linton in order to adopt and educate him. Cathy, who has rarely left home, takes advantage of her father's absence to venture further afield. She rides over the moors to Wuthering Heights and discovers that she has not one but two cousins: Hareton, in addition to Linton. She also lets it be known that her father has gone 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 that Linton and Cathy will marry, so that Linton will become the heir to Thrushcross Grange. Linton and Cathy begin a secret friendship, echoing the childhood friendship between their respective parents, Heathcliff and Catherine. Nelly finds out about the letters.
The following year, Edgar becomes very ill and takes 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 both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, Cathy's father-in-law, Heathcliff, insists on her returning to live at Wuthering Heights. Soon after she arrives, Linton dies. Hareton tries to be kind to Cathy, but she withdraws from the world.
At this point, Nelly's tale catches up to the present day (1801). 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 has an accident and is confined to the farmhouse. During his convalescence, he and Cathy overcome their mutual antipathy and become close. While their friendship develops, Heathcliff begins to act strangely and has visions of Catherine. He stops eating and, after four days of increasingly bad health, is found dead in Catherine's old room. He is buried next to Catherine.
Lockwood learns that Hareton and Cathy plan to marry on New Year's Day. As he gets ready to leave, he passes the graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff and pauses to contemplate the quiet of the moors.