In his new book, John Sutherland attempts to answer the riddles and problems posed by some of our greatest novels. In his witty title essay he asks: was Heathcliff a murderer?
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When he returns to Wuthering Heights after his mysterious three- year period of exile Heathcliff has become someone very cruel. He left an uncouth but essentially humane stable-lad. He returns a gentleman psychopath. His subsequent brutalities are graphically recorded. They are many and very unpleasant.

He humiliates Edgar Linton who has married Cathy during his absence. "I wish you joy of the milk-blooded coward," he tells Cathy in her husband's presence. The taunt is the more brutal since Edgar is clearly the weaker man and in no position to exact physical reparation. Heathcliff goes on to torment Edgar by hinting that he has cuckolded him. Subsequently Heathcliff beats his wife Isabella, as he has gruesomely promised to do in earlier conversation with Cathy: "You'd hear of odd things, if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face; the most ordinary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two; they detestably resemble Linton's."

When Nelly sees Isabella, after she has fled from Heathcliff, she does indeed describe "a white face scratched and bruised". Isabella goes on to describe her husband's "murderous violence" to Nelly in some detail. Heathcliff has shaken her till her teeth rattle. He has thrown a kitchen knife at her head which "struck beneath my ear"; she has a wound which will probably scar her for life. Had she not run away, who knows how far he would have gone in his cold brutality towards her.

In later life Heathcliff would certainly have beaten his son as savagely as he beat the boy's mother, were it not that he needs the degenerate brat whole and unmarked for his long-term scheme of revenge against Thrushcross Grange. He has no compunction about punching young Catherine. Young Heathcliff tells Nelly about his father's violent reaction on learning that the girl has tried to keep for herself two miniatures of her dead parents:

" 'I said they were mine, too; and tried to get them from her. The spiteful thing wouldn't let me; she pushed me off, and hurt me. I shrieked out - that frightens her - she heard papa coming and she broke the hinges, and divided the case and gave me her mother's portrait; the other she attempted to hide; but papa asked what was the matter and I explained it. He took the one I had away, and ordered her to resign hers to me; she refused, and he - he struck her down, and wrenched it off the chain, and crushed it with his foot.'

'And were you pleased to see her struck?' I asked: having my designs in encouraging his talk.

'I winked,' he answered. 'I wink to see my father strike a dog, or a horse, he does it so hard.' "

Or a woman, one may add. It is not just four-footed victims who feel the weight of Heathcliff's fist.

Heathcliff is capable of more cold-blooded and calculating cruelty. He abducts young Catherine and keeps her from her dying father's bedside, accelerating Edgar's death and ensuring that it shall be an extremely miserable one. He urges Hindley towards self-destruction by encouraging his fatal mania for drink and cards. On a casual level, Heathcliff is given to killing household pets (he strangles his wife's favourite dog by way of wedding present) and desecrates graves.

Mr Heathcliff, we may assume, is not a nice man. And in a later age his violence and lawlessness would have earned him a prison sentence - or at the very least a string of restraining orders and court injunctions. But does Heathcliff commit the cruellest crime of all, murder?

To answer this question we must examine the suspicious circumstances of the death of Hindley Earnshaw, master of Wuthering Heights. "The end of Earnshaw was what might have been expected," Nelly recalls in her long narrative to Lockwood, "it followed fast on his sister's, there was scarcely six months between them. We, at the Grange, never got a very succinct account of his state preceding it." Nelly learns of the death, after the event, from the apothecary, Mr Kenneth. "He died true to his character," Kenneth cheerfully adds, "drunk as a lord." Hindley was just 27. Evidently Kenneth has witnessed the death and signed the necessary certificate.

Nelly's suspicions are immediately aroused. "Had he fair play?" she ponders. The anxiety "bothers" her and she makes a trip to Wuthering Heights to discover what she can of the truth of the case. Before going she learns from Earnshaw's lawyer (who also acts for Mr Linton, Nelly's employer) that the "whole property [of Wuthering Heights] is mortgaged" - to Heathcliff. At the Heights, Nelly meets Heathcliff who, rather shiftily, as we may think, gives his eyewitness account of Hindley's death:

"That fool's body should be buried at the cross-roads, without ceremony of any kind [ie Hindley committed suicide] - I happened to leave him ten minutes, yesterday afternoon; and, in that interval, he fastened the two doors of the house against me, and he has spent the night in drinking himself to death deliberately! We broke in this morning, for we heard him snorting like a horse; and there he was, laid over a settle - flaying and scalping would not have wakened him - I sent for Kenneth, and he came; but not till the beast had changed into carrion - he was both dead and cold, and stark; and so you'll allow, it was useless making more stir about him!"

By the last enigmatic remark, Heathcliff means that it would have been "useless" calling in the coroner, on the grounds that the death was suspicious.

Heathcliff's account is "confirmed" to Nelly by Joseph, the misanthropic (but wholly reliable) old manservant at the Heights. Joseph, however, is by no means happy about his former master's last hours :

"Aw'd rayther he'd goan hisseln fur t'doctor! Aw sud uh taen tent uh t'maister better nur him - un' he warn't deead when Aw left, nowt uh t'soart [I would rather that Heathcliff had gone himself for the doctor! I should have taken care of the master better than him - and he wasn't dead when I left, nothing of the sort]."

Joseph is invincibly honest. And one concurs in his "muttered" doubts (he dare not voice them out loud, in case Heathcliff hears, and gives him the back of his hand). It is most improbable that a 27-year-old man, in otherwise robust health, should be able to "drink himself to death" in a single night. Young men do, of course, kill themselves by excessive drinking, but usually by driving cars drunk or by inhaling their own vomit while sleeping. It is clear that - although he is "snorting" - Hindley is breathing efficiently when he is left alone with Heathcliff.

Did he show signs of being about to suffocate, it would be an easy thing for Heathcliff to lift him up and bang him on the back, thus clearing his throat. And, as Joseph recalls, although dead drunk, Hindley did not appear to be dying. He was, however, insensible and incapable of resisting anyone stifling him with a cushion. Kenneth is a somewhat elusive figure, but it is likely that as a mere apothecary ("Mr" Kenneth) he would not have been able to conduct any expert medical examination of the body. It may even be that Heathcliff bribed him to sign the certificate and obviate any embarrassing coroner's inquest.

It is nicely poised and every reader must make his or her own judgement. If Heathcliff did stifle Hindley (albeit that Hindley has earlier tried to shoot and stab Heathcliff) we have to see him as a sociopathic monster. If he watched the man die, and declined to prevent his death (by clearing Hindley's throat, for example) he is scarcely better. These plausible reconstructions of what happened at Wuthering Heights while Heathcliff and the incapable Hindley were alone together render absurd such rosy adaptations as the Samuel Goldwyn 1939 film (the Goldwyn screenplay, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, ends with Heathcliff, played by Laurence Olivier, and Cathy, played by Merle Oberon, reunited as carefree ghosts skipping merrily over Penistone Crags).

If we believe that Heathcliff was simply an innocent bystander at Hindley's self-destruction, then we can credit the sympathetic reading of his character suggested by the exclamation Nelly overhears him make, in the intensity of his wretchedness: "I have no pity! I have no pity! The [more the] worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething, and I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain."

When a baby savagely bites its teething ring, it is because it (the baby) is experiencing excruciating pain from the teeth tearing their way through its gums. So Heathcliff may be seen to inflict pain on others (hurling knives at his wife, taunting Edgar, striking young Catherine, lashing his horse) only because he feels greater inward pain himself. But one cannot so justify the furtive smothering, in cold blood, of someone whose death will mean considerable financial gain to the murderer.

There are no clear answers to this puzzle. As Ian Jack has noted: "Wuthering Heights is one of the most enigmatic of English novels." Whether or not Heathcliff is guilty of capital crime remains a fascinating but ultimately inscrutable enigma at the very heart of the narrative. For what it is worth, I believe he did kill Hindley, although for any unprejudiced jury it is likely that enough "reasonable doubt" would remain to acquit him.

'Is Heathcliff a Murderer?' is published by World's Classics/OUP at pounds 3.99.

John Sutherland's Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction is a collection of essays on such vexed questions as "Was he Popenjoy?" (Is He Popenjoy?) "Is Alec a rapist?" (Tess of the d'Urbervilles) "What is Jo sweeping?" (Bleak House) and "Does Becky kill Jos?" (Vanity Fair). Some of the problems stem from what looks like simple authorial error, like Dickens's innovative use of weather in total defiance of the seasons in Martin Chuzzlewit, or Jane Austen's reference to apple- blossom on Box Hill in June in Emma. Other conundrums are more elusive, such as the Invisible Man's seeming inability to provide himself with an invisible suit. Left, Nastassja Kinski in Polanski's Tess; right, Claude Rains in The Invisible Man.