One of the biggest mysteries about Heathcliff is his past. Chapter 4 of Wuthering Heights states that Mr. Earnshaw saw Heathcliff “starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb, in the streets of Liverpool,” and decided to bring him back to Wuthering Heights (para. 36). We don’t know his family background, his origin story, or why he was left alone in Liverpool; however, one thing we can infer is that, whether intentionally or not and whether by his own will or not, he was left alone. This common theme of neglected and/or abandoned children is present in Wuthering Heights and in a text we’ve worked with previously: “The Chimney Sweeper.”
There are two characters in Wuthering Heights that come to mind when I think of abandoned and/or neglected children. The first is, as stated above, Heathcliff. It’s interesting to note that Heathcliff’s name, which was given to him after Mr. Earnshaw took him to Wuthering Heights, is described in the text to be the “name of a son who died in childhood” (Chapter 4, para. 38). Heathcliff’s name serves as a reminder that he could have easily died alone on the streets of Liverpool if he did not run into Mr. Earnshaw. The second character is Hindley’s son, Hareton, who is left in Nelly’s care after his mother, Frances, dies soon after childbirth. Although Hareton receives care from Nelly, Hareton is considered “abandoned” in the sense that he’s without his mother. Additionally, he is often treated quite violently or neglected by his father: Nelly narrates how every time Hareton encounters Hindley, “(Hareton) ran (into) a chance of being squeezed and kissed to death (or) being flung into the fire, or dashed against the wall” (Chapter 9, para. 1).
Mistreatment of children is also shown in “The Chimney Sweeper.” The poem starts with the speaker finding a young chimney sweeper out in the snow alone; when asked, the child tells the speaker “(mother and father) are both gone up to the church to pray.” The line “They clothed me in the clothes of death” also hints at child mistreatment and/or neglect; “clothes of death” signify that the child is being forced into something that risks death. This line is a reference to how the child is a chimney sweeper, a profession that required young children to crawl into chimneys and dust them. As we discussed in class, these children often ended up with lung diseases such as cancer.
Although the children in the two texts suffer as a result of different reasons, they are connected by a common theme of abandonment and/or neglect. This might hint at a poor level of child well-being in the Victorian era.