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Was Mr. Earnshaw Heathcliff's Real Father?

Athlyn Green is an avid reader and discusses literary gems she's discovered with fellow enthusiasts.


A Mysterious Appearance

Wuthering Heights is a gothic tale full of mystery and intrigue. Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of all involves Heathcliff himself. Where did he come from? Who were his parents? And did the author, Emily Bronte, provide clues?

That latter question is one of the most interesting. The work is a master showcasing of "show not tell." Instead of telling readers what people are made of or what will happen, Bronte shows it in master storytelling. She does this through her characters' words and actions and through foreshadowing, symbolism and clues.

The more one studies this work, the more one realizes that Bronte was a subtle writer. She knew that perceptive readers would read between the lines and discover that much more was going on below the surface. This is in keeping with the gothic nature of this work. She doesn't insult readers' intelligence by spelling it out for them but rather allows them to make their own discoveries and their own decisions about what they find. And the deeper they delve into this novel, the more they discover.


I’m going to Liverpool today, what shall I bring you? You may choose what you like: only let it be little, for I shall walk there and back: sixty miles each way, that is a long spell!’

— Mr. Earnshaw

Questions About Mr. Earnshaw

Early in the novel, readers learn that Mr. Earnshaw makes an improbable trip on foot to Liverpool. They read that he suddenly decides to walk 60 miles each way in three days. Walking 120 miles in three days would be a daunting undertaking under any circumstances, and it raises the following questions.

Leaving at Harvest?

Mr. Earnshaw is a farmer, and it is unlikely he would want to leave his farm right at the beginning of harvest time. While we can conjecture that he may have directed his hired hands to look after things while he was away, what business would have been so pressing that he would have had to do this? This might be the first clue to readers that something was amiss.

Earnshaw Doesn't State What His Business Is

It seems odd that a man would leave at the busiest time of year on his farm and not tell his wife the nature of his business.

He Announces He's Walking

As if to forestall any questions, Earnshaw announces he's walking. How curious that he doesn't divulge why he has to leave, what his business is, but yet he includes this information, almost as if he wants to head off any questions.

Earnshaw's Behavior

Earnshaw almost treats this trip as a frivolous undertaking, which, with the distance and rigors involved, it clearly is not. We learn that he is generally a stern man, yet he is joking and merry. Why is he acting out of character?

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His Goodbyes

Earnshaw says goodbye to his children and he kisses them, but there's no mention that he bids his wife goodbye or kisses her.

Improbable Journey?

Out of Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Emily was the walker. She was well-acquainted with the moors and Top Withins, the area believed to be the setting for Wuthering Heights, so she would also have been aware of the physical challenges inherent and the time element required for her character to cover 120 miles in three days on foot in hilly country.

It is highly unlikely she wrote about Earnshaw's journey out of ignorance. Instead, she writes of a trip that seems near impossible to complete in three days. Why? Is she tipping readers off that it's highly unlikely that Earnshaw is, in fact, journeying to Liverpool?

Bronte may indeed have been providing another clue to readers: Earnshaw didn't have business in Liverpool; he had business closer to home. He invented Liverpool as his destination to deflect suspicion. Liverpool was far enough away from the farm that people wouldn't suspect him of going to a location nearby. And, of course, what was his motive for the fabrication if that was the case? What was he hiding?

Why Would Mr. Earnshaw Walk When He Had Horses?

If Earnshaw had important business to conduct that couldn't wait until after harvest, why on earth would he go on a grueling walk that would have consumed so much of his time and energy? He would have had little time left over for business. And when he reached Liverpool, without his horse and buggy, he would have been hindered and had to walk or hire some type of transportation to conduct his business. This truly doesn't make sense from any standpoint.

If it was the busiest time of year on your farm, wouldn't you use the fastest and most convenient means of transportation available, so you could get your business over and done with and return home as soon as possible?

However, if you feared discovery and recognition, would you go with your horses and buggy (a means of transportation that would force you to stay on public roads with heavier traffic, meaning your whereabouts would be noticed and possibly remarked on) and risk being spotted entering or leaving a certain area? Or, would you steal away on foot?

If you needed to go someplace in secret, this undertaking would be better accomplished by taking a route off the beaten track where you'd be hidden by swells, mounds and rolling hills, wouldn't it?

How Fast Could Someone Walk Over Flat Versus Hilly Terrain?

  • flat: 2.5-4 mph
  • hilly: 1 mph

Speed is determined very much by terrain, load being carried, age and fitness level of the person.

  1. As can be seen, the land around the farmhouse was rugged, uneven terrain
  2. Earnshaw was carrying a load
  3. Earnshaw wasn't in the prime of his youth. As an adult with a 14-year-old son, it is unlikely Earnshaw was at peak fitness.

Walking-Time Calculations: Wuthering Heights to Liverpool, 120 Miles in 3 Days (72 Hours)

MPHTime it Would TakeWalking Hours Per Day

4 (flat)

30 hours

10 hours

3 (flat)

40 hours

13+ hours

2.5 (flat)

48 hours

16 hours

1 (hilly)

120 hours

40 (impossible) 40 - 24 hours = -16 hours

.5 (hills)

240 hours

80 (impossible) 80 - 24 hours = -56 hours

• As can be seen in the map below, rolling hills and valleys were nearby, so someone on foot would easily be hidden from view.

• If you zone out on the map, you can also see the distance to Liverpool.

The Hilly Terrain Around the Heights

Folds and hills characterized the landscape around the Wuthering Heights farmhouse.

Folds and hills characterized the landscape around the Wuthering Heights farmhouse.

‘See here, wife! I was never so beaten with anything in my life: but you must e’en take it as a gift of God; though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil.’

— Mr. Earnshaw

A roomy cloak could easily hide something from view.

A roomy cloak could easily hide something from view.

Earnshaw Wore a Greatcoat

Was Bronte giving us another clue? Why would Earnshaw wear a long, roomy coat in August? Even if we conjecture that the moors could be windy or hit with inclement weather, to wear such a garment would seem unlikely since this type of garment (by dent of the greater material and hence, greater weight) would only add to the endurance required in journeying a long distance over hills on foot. Anyone who has gone on any type of extended hike knows about the significance of extra weight and how it impacts energy levels and stamina.

But Mr. Earnshaw would have been able to use a roomy coat (with a high collar designed to protect the face and a cape that could act as a hood) to possibly hide his face if needed. And if necessary, he would have been able to hide something else, at least until he got closer to the Heights.

Earnshaw Claimed to Have Carried the Boy

Earnshaw returns and indeed has something in his greatcoat: a young child, which he says he carried. We can assume he meant off and on. Still, this would have been highly improbable for a return distance of 60 miles over steep hills but far more doable at a shorter distance.

Mr. Earnshaw's Preference for Heathcliff

Mr. Earnshaw's immediate preference for and bonding with the child (later named Heathcliff) and his wanting for his family to treat Heathcliff as a son rather than as a spare lad around the farm to help with chores also indicates an emotional attachment that only makes sense if Earnshaw was the boy's father. (In many cases of separation between parents and children, when they meet for the first time, there's a familiarity and an immediate bond, which scientists now say may exist on a cellular level).

When Cathy learns that her father lost her whip, she grins and spits at Heathcliff--and she receives a sound blow from Mr. Earnshaw. Why did Mr. Earnshaw strike Cathy instead of merely reprimanding her? Why would he have felt so protective toward a strange child?

Mr. Earnshaw wants Heathcliff to sleep with his children the first night. If the child was his, it makes sense that he would have shown this level of concern. But caution would have been warranted for a strange child with unknown habits. It seems Earnshaw wanted to seal Heathcliff's standing as a son right off the bat.

Despite his wife's and son Hindley's unfavorable and extreme reactions to Heathcliff, Mr. Earnshaw is strongly and irrevocably drawn to the boy. Why would his feelings for an outsider be more important than his own family's feelings? If he thought Heathcliff was his son and loved him as his son, this would explain Earnshaw's actions.

When Mr. Earnshaw learns Hindley is persecuting Heathcliff, he is furious. Again, this would seem an overly-emotional reaction over a child that wasn't your own but would completely fit the circumstances if the child actually was. Mr. Earnshaw's fury seems more driven by a paternal instinct to protect a son.

When the friction between Hindley and Heathcliff reaches the breaking point, Earnshaw sends Hindley away, not Heathcliff.

Despite Hindley's opposition to him, Heathcliff calls Mr. Earnshaw his father. One can reasonably conclude that Mr. Earnshaw instructed the lad to do so in a household that refused to recognize Heathcliff as a son.

Conclusions About Mr. Earnshaw

  1. Earnshaw had business much closer to home.
  2. He went on foot to steer clear of public roads.
  3. He wore a greatcoat to hide his identity when he went to get his child.

Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors.

— Nelly Dean speaking about Mrs Earnshaw's reaction to Heathcliff

Questions About Mrs. Earnshaw

His Wife Is Suspicious and Calls Heathcliff a Gypsy

Mrs. Earnshaw's reactions could also provide clues. Instead of being curious, she "flies up" and asks how her husband could bring "that gypsy brat" into the house. She also scolds her husband. So instead of reacting with curiosity, she reacts with anger.

How curious that she doesn't ask, "Why did you bring a child home?" Instead, she says, "that gypsy brat," almost as if she was aware of or suspected that such a child existed. And one can almost hear, "How dare you bring that gypsy brat into the house."

While Mr. Linton, later in the novel, says Heathcliff might have been a Lascar (Asian) or of Spanish descent, assuming he may have come in on the ships that sailed into Liverpool Harbor, Mrs. Earnshaw doesn't assume this. The first thing that comes to her mind and out of her mouth is that the boy is a gypsy.

So this begs the question, why? Was she aware that gypsies routinely camped nearby? Did her husband hire gypsies for seasonal work? Did her husband spend time in the camps? Why would she be so against a helpless gypsy child?

Was She Using Innuendo?

She may have also been letting her husband know that she suspected he hadn't gone to Liverpool and instead had visited a gypsy encampment. And that raises other questions. Did she suspect her husband had more dealings with the gypsies than just hiring them for farm work? (During that time-period gypsy women were believed to have traded sexual favors for money.)

Did She Deny Her Husband His Conjugal Rights?

This is also probable for a number of reasons:

  1. Back in that time, people died much earlier, and pregnancy was risky, with a high number of women dying in childbirth. Mrs. Earnshaw may not have wanted to risk another pregnancy as she got older.
  2. As there were no effective nor commonly-used birth control methods, abstinence was used to avoid pregnancy.
  3. At times, if doctors felt future pregnancies placed a woman at serious risk, they advised couples to practice abstinence.
  4. Mrs. Earnshaw had lost a child in death. She may have been too afraid to risk having another child and possibly losing that child.

If she refused to have relations with her husband, this situation might have caused resentment and friction between them, leading to her worrying about her husband straying.

Mrs. Earnshaw may have been letting her husband know of her suspicions of his seeking sexual favors elsewhere by her "that gypsy brat" remark.

Mrs. Earnshaw's Treatment of Heathcliff

We know that the Earnshaws are Christian and allow Joseph to give their children religious instruction. In light of this, it seems very odd that Mrs. Earnshaw, a mother of young children, has such an immediate angry reaction to Heathcliff and shows so little concern or compassion for a young vulnerable child. Her behavior truly isn't the norm.

Who of us, if our partner brought a child home, whom we believed was hungry and homeless, would react this way? We would be curious, we would want to make sure the child was okay, but to react with anger and call the child a brat right off the bat?

If, however, she already had suspicions that her husband had been unfaithful (maybe from his disappearance without explanation on other occasions when gypsies camped nearby or from her own woman's intuition), her behavior would make more sense.

She never does seem to accept Heathcliff. Readers learn that Mrs. Earnshaw never put in a word on Heathcliff's behalf when she saw him wronged. This indicates a disconnect. It's clear from the details Bronte provides that Mrs. Earnshaw never accepts Heathcliff as a replacement for the son she lost.

She doesn't appear to have been a happy or pleasant woman. And it doesn't seem that either she or her husband communicated on a deeper level.

Mrs. Earnshaw's Death a Short Time Later

It could be that Mrs. Earnshaw, with her worst fears confirmed of her husband's infidelity and daily reminders of it in the form of Heathcliff, lost her will to live. In under two years, she passes away, and again, this is a subtle detail that Bronte chooses to include.

Conclusions About Mrs. Earnshaw

  1. She suspected her husband of using the services of a gypsy prostitute.
  2. She suspected Heathcliff was her husband's illegitimate child.
Harvest was starting and gypsies worked as seasonal laborers on farms.

Harvest was starting and gypsies worked as seasonal laborers on farms.

Fast Facts

  • Romanichals (gypsies) are thought to have arrived in England in the 16th century.
  • Gypsy bands were common in England and central Europe from the mid-18th century.
  • Casual work was available on farms throughout the spring and summer, as well as in autumn for the harvest.
  • Gypsies earned a living doing agricultural work and it makes sense they would camp near the farms where they labored.
Gypsy women traded "favors" for coin.

Gypsy women traded "favors" for coin.

Other Conclusions About a Gypsy Connection

  1. If Mr. Earnshaw hired gypsies as seasonal laborers on his farm, he likely knew when and where the gypsies camped.
  2. This association may have led to his seeking other services from a gypsy woman.
  3. She may have become pregnant and never revealed to Earnshaw that he'd fathered a child. If he was a client, she may have feared he would have either taken her child from her or stopped paying for her services.
  4. Earnshaw may have known he had a child, but of course, he couldn't claim him as such.
  5. Heathcliff may have recognized Mr. Earnshaw as a visitor to the camp, so he wouldn't have been afraid of him.
  6. Heathcliff's mother may have become ill and either asked Earnshaw to take his son or, before she passed away, asked that Mr. Earnshaw be notified that he had a son. A mother would do this to ensure that her child was looked after. This would have certainly explained Earnshaw's sudden trip and return home with a child out of the blue.

Questions About Heathcliff

Would Heathcliff Have Gone Willingly With Mr. Earnshaw?

If Heathcliff was an orphan in the streets of Liverpool, it is unlikely he would have gone willingly with Mr. Earnshaw, yet there is no mention of his fearing Mr. Earnshaw or trying to run away from him. A child of the streets would soon learn to be wary of strangers and if a stranger tried to pick them up, would struggle and flee.

Heathcliff Spoke in a Different Language

This would have been fitting for a child of a gypsy camp.

Some have conjectured that if Earnshaw was having an affair with a gypsy women, she would have had to have known some English, and that Heathcliff would have spoken English, as well. But not necessarily. While gypsies might have spoken a handful of English words in order to have dealings with outsiders, it is likely that in their camps, they spoke their mother tongue. A gypsy child would have had little need to use English.

And why assume that Earnshaw was having an affair with a gypsy woman? Far more likely is that the gypsies, in their nomadic lifestyle, frequented certain areas for securing seasonal farm work and that Earnshaw made use of certain other services when they were available and when he could slip away. Like many others before him, he may have had a woman he preferred and he would seek out her services when she was in the area. If he was paying for what she was offering, her being able to speak English would have been of no importance.

Conclusions About Heathcliff

  • It is far more likely Heathcliff would go with someone he recognized as a friend of his mother's than going with a complete stranger.
  • Heathcliff may have recognized Mr. Earnshaw if the latter had dealings with gypsies he hired to work on his farm.

Note: It's interesting that Bronte included so many references to the word gypsy in relation to Heathcliff. The question is, why did she?

Does How Heathcliff Is Described Point to His Being a Gypsy?


"He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect..."

Mr. Lockwood


"that gipsy brat"

Mrs. Earnshaw


"‘Take my colt, gipsy."



"He’s exactly like the son of the fortune-teller that stole my tame pheasant."



"“Miss Earnshaw scouring the country with a gipsy!"

Mrs. Linton


"I declare he is that strange acquisition my late neighbour made, in his journey to Liverpool—a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway.”

Mr. Linton


Conclusion About Heathcliff's Ethnicity

  • Heathcliff is described most often and by different people as being a gypsy.

Questions About Heathcliff's Name

Why Choose the Name Heathcliff?

Another tantalizing clue may be the name given to the child.

  1. The Earnshaws had a son who had died that they had named Heathcliff. If Earnshaw knew that Heathcliff was his son, this choice of name would make sense. If Heathcliff wasn't his son, it seems unlikely that Earnshaw would have risked causing his wife pain with a choice of name that would have been a constant reminder of the child she'd lost. We know his wife opposed her husband's decision to bring this strange child into the family, so it's unlikely she favored using the name.
  2. Heathcliff had no last name. This could also be another clue. If Heathcliff was Earnshaw's illegitimate son, Earnshaw couldn't publicly claim him as such. He viewed him as a son, yet he never adopted him, thus giving him the last name of Earnshaw. Why? Mr. Earnshaw seems to have been aware that to have done so might have fueled speculation about Heathcliff's paternity. Earnshaw couldn't bear not to claim him, yet couldn't publicly claim him as his son.
Ponden Kirk is thought to be the location for Penistone Crags and is about one kilometer north of Top Withens. A hole in its base corresponds to the Fairy Cave.

Ponden Kirk is thought to be the location for Penistone Crags and is about one kilometer north of Top Withens. A hole in its base corresponds to the Fairy Cave.

Meaning of the Name "Heathcliff"

Heathcliff is a Middle English name meaning "heath near a cliff." It appears it was no accident that Bronte chose a name that seemed to provide clues as to location.

  1. The first part of the name, "heath" hints of the outdoors. Gypsies lived out-of-doors. Was there an encampment in the heath area in the vicinity of the Heights?
  2. The second part, "cliff," immediately brings to mind Penistone Crags, which was nearby.
  3. The Wuthering Heights farmhouse was located at the very top of the moors.

Conclusions About Heathcliff's Name

  • Mr. Earnshaw gave Heathcliff a family name.
  • Heathcliff came from the heath in a location near to where the land rose to a considerable height, which places him in the vicinity of Wuthering Heights.

The Best of the Best

Like a good movie, Wuthering Heights is interesting enough to be enjoyed again and again. Each time I read it, I discover more gems in this story. This tale has it all: a tortured Byronic hero/dark brooding villain, gothic and paranormal elements, soul mates who experience ultimate love and loss, twists and turns, and it unfolds against a backdrop of wild, windswept moors. This is the book for anyone who likes a passionate, unswerving love story.

Questions About Hindley

As seen in the table above, Hindley also calls Heathcliff a gypsy and a vagabond, which could indicate that he also had doubts about Heathcliff's paternity:

'Take my colt, Gipsy, then!' said young Earnshaw. 'And I pray that he may break your neck: take him, and be damned, you beggarly interloper!

Why does Hindley hate Heathcliff so much, and why is he so cruel to him? We either have to conclude that Hindley was bad to the bone or that he felt he had good reason. Does his mother's reaction to the child make him suspicious? He clearly views Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent's affections and his privileges, and he grows bitter with brooding over these injuries.

His resentment is so fierce he becomes violent, thrashing Heathcliff, making his arm black and blue, cuffing his ears, and with murderous intent, he throws a heavy iron weight at Heathcliff's chest and also knocks him under a horse's feet. This level of hatred and willingness to harm or even kill Heathcliff is truly over the top and suggests there may be much deeper reasons fueling the hatred.

Hindley calls Heathcliff "imp of Satan," which might be an allusion to a child begotten in sin.

Conclusions About Hindley

  • It's not unreasonable to presume that a child filled with such hatred might have deeper reasons for his feelings.
  • It's unlikely that Hindley at 14, the time of Heathcliff's arrival at the Heights, would have fully understood or have been overly concerned with future inheritance issues.
  • At 14, Hindley would have been at an age to have felt embarrassed and betrayed by his father, if he suspected his father had had a liasion with another woman which had resulted in an illegitimate son.
  • As Hindley grew older and if he believed Heathcliff was truly his brother, he would have then viewed him as a threat to his inheritance.

Fast Facts

* Violins were thought to originate with the Romani people.

* There was even what was known as a gypsy fiddle.

Questions About the Fiddle and Whip

It's interesting that of all items Bronte could have chosen for Hindley and Cathy to ask their father to bring back for them, Bronte chose a fiddle and a whip. Was she providing more subtle clues?

  1. It seems reasonable to conclude that if Mr. Earnshaw were really going to walk back from Liverpool, he would have objected to his children's choice of those items to bring back with him. While he tells his children to pick something little, he then offers no objection when Hindley wants a larger item, a fiddle, and Cathy wants a long object, a whip. Why didn't he?
  2. Both items would have been common in a gypsy camp. Gypsies were musical people who traveled in caravans led by horses.
  3. Another curious fact is the fate of both gifts: a) The fiddle is broken. Mr. Earnshaw passes this off as being due to his carrying Heathcliff, but he could have slung the fiddle on his back. Instead, is it possible he may have intentionally broken the fiddle before he arrived home to hide the fact that it was second-hand? b) He claims he lost the whip. The gypsies may have been less inclined to part with a whip, so he may not have been able to purchase one.

Conclusions About the Fiddle and Whip

  • Gypsies were skilled musicians of stringed instruments, including fiddles and violins.
  • Both items could be found in a gypsy camp.

Pieces of a Puzzle

When all the various parts are woven together and considered as a whole (like joining together the pieces of a puzzle), it is probable or at least suggestive that Heathcliff was the illegitimate son of Mr, Earnshaw and a gypsy woman.

Sources and Further Reading

© 2017 Athlyn Green


Jay on January 27, 2020:

This is a great essay, but could you please not use the word "gypsy"? It's considered a racial slur. Just say Romani, Roma or Romanichal(s). Thanks.

Hummingbird5356 on February 16, 2017:

Very interesting hypothesis.

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