The Kids Never Had a Chance

In reading all about Heathcliff’s conniving, vengeful behavior in Chapters 17-25, I am reminded of “The Steam King” by Edwin Mead. Though the character of the Steam King in Mead’s poem is supposed to represent the steam engine itself, perhaps it is most fitting to compare Heathcliff to a machine at this stage in his life–after all, machines typically have one specific purpose, and the same could be said of Heathcliff. He is so enamored with his own rage that Heathcliff’s only true purpose and motivation is exacting revenge and performing spiteful acts.

The children of Wuthering Heights (i.e. Linton and Hareton) unfortunately make up the bulk of the casualties of Heathcliff’s actions, which is a fact echoed in this stanza from “The Steam King”:

Like the ancient Moloch grim, his sire
In Himmon’s vale that stood,
His bowels are of living fire,
And children are his food.

We can easily put Heathcliff in place of the Steam King in this poem and understand how Wuthering Heights could be seen as a substitute for Himmon–in the Hebrew Bible, the Valley of Himmon is a cursed place where kings used to sacrifice their children by fire. Similarly, Heathcliff has made Hareton’s life a hell on Earth, sacrificing his childhood and any possibility to get an education all because Heathcliff hated Hareton’s father, Hindley. After Isabella dies in London, Heathcliff forces his son Linton to join the hellscape of domesticity that is life at Wuthering Heights. In addition, the line “children are his food” from Mead’s poem is reminiscent of how Heathcliff views his son–he has no love for him of course, or even a sense of fatherly obligation, but rather he views Linton as the force of sustenance for his scheme to take control of Thrushcross Grange via marrying off the poor, sick Linton to Catherine Earnshaw. In a book where revenge and obsession are the fuel driving the plot forward, making the comparison between Heathcliiff and the Steam King is not only a frighteningly accurate portrayal; it is also the sad reality of these character’s lives with the tyrant that is Heathcliff.

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