Ghosts in Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations

Wuthering Heights ends with a striking and iconic depiction of ghosts when a young boy perceives the spectral Heathcliff and Catherine upon the heath, roaming the earth together in an atypically active afterlife. Ghosts are referenced, though not explicitly seen, on numerous other occasions, for example, when Heathcliff visits Catherine’s grave and feels the oppression of her spirit upon him. In all, Wuthering Heights portrays ghosts as legitimate and active forces that are capable of presenting themselves within the physical world and who perhaps even reside within it.

An active ghost is also introduced in Great Expectations when Magwitch details his life story to Pip and Herbert. While glossing his experience working for Compeyson as a forger and counterfeiter, Magwitch mentions one of Compeyson’s “colleagues,” a man named Arthur, who was involved in a scheme with Compeyson to swindle a rich woman of her fortune. Herbert and Pip realize that this woman was Miss Havisham, making Arthur the man who left Miss Havisham at the altar. This realization is supported by the “haunting” that Magwitch experiences at the hands of Miss Havisham. Magwitch reports an instance wherein Arthur, in a cold sweat, claims that the ghost of Miss Havisham has presented herself to him “all in white…[with] white flowers in her hair” (Dickens 52) and appears “awful mad.” Perhaps most disturbingly, Arthur asserts that Miss Havisham’s ghost possesses a bleeding heart and has assured Arthur that he has broken it and caused its bleeding.

Compeyson replies to Arthur’s story by flippantly calling him a fool. “[D]on’t you know she’s got a living body?” (Dickens 52) he says, demanding that his wife go comfort Arthur and investigate the validity of the ghost’s presence. While Compeyson’s wife is trying to assuage Arthur’s fear, Arthur perceives the “ghost” of Miss Havisham yet again and begs her not to touch him with the ominous shroud she carries and resists her attempts to lift him up. However, the “ghost” of the jaded woman ultimately succeeds, as Magwitch recalls seeing Arthur lift himself up and die immediately after.

Thus, an interesting and complex parallel is drawn between the two novels. This parallel poses multiple questions that could be answered in a variety of ways. On one hand, both novels seem to be assigning agency to the deceased by citing instances of their intervention. However, Wuthering Heights takes care to grant validity to the phantoms, as they are only perceived by a character, the young boy, who himself does not bear the bias that the novel’s other narrators, Lockwood and Nelly, bear. On the other hand, Great Expectations creates a specter of a living soul. As Compeyson insensitively but correctly states, Miss Havisham is still living and therefore likely could not haunt Arthur without entering the premises physically. Indeed, Miss Havisham’s haunting of Arthur could be perceived as a figment of Arthur’s imagination and as a manifestation of his guilt over his actions. Furthermore, Arthur’s encounter with Miss Havisham’s ghost could be attributed to the state of decline that Magwitch perceives him to occupy.

Unlike Wuthering Heights, the legitimacy, or at least, the agency, of ghosts is questioned through the skepticism of Compeyson and through the apparent hand Arthur had in his own destruction, as Magwitch sees Arthur lift himself before passing away. However, in questioning the legitimacy of Miss Havisham’s ghost, another question is posed by Dickens. Is it possible that Miss Havisham, though living, was indeed haunting Arthur? It is undeniable that, due to the tragedy she experienced, Miss Havisham’s life is exceedingly extraordinary. Perhaps, somehow it is Miss Havisham’s broken and therefore “dead” heart that haunts Arthur.

It is in this way that both Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations validate the existence of ghosts that arguably exist as the outcomes of love and that demonstrate love’s omnipotence. Just as Catherine and Heathcliff’s love was powerful enough to unite them in an active afterlife, Miss Havisham’s heartbreak was powerful enough to allow her to physically haunt Arthur, despite her being still alive.

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