The dream sequence at the beginning of the classic novel Wuthering Heights introduces many of the themes and tropes that pervade the novel. There are many possible interpretations and readings that can be derived from this scene in the novel. Three of the things that are introduced here are Lockwood’s role in the narrative, the theme of submitting to/subverting authority, and the importance of the novel’s setting.
The dream sequence introduces/symbolizes Lockwood’s role as the hearer of confessions, the keeper and recorder of the history, the “sins,” of the former and present residents of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. “I was condemned to hear all out,” says Lockwood of his role in the dream.
This is his role in the novel as well. Although he seeks out the story from Nelly, and listens willingly and eagerly, the reader gets the sense that Lockwood feels compelled to learn the history of the two households. This is reinforced by the fact that he is recording the story in his own diary.
His compulsion begins on the night where he has the dream, when he spends the night in Catherine’s room. After reading Catherine’s name carved in the shelf, Lockwood cannot get the name out of his head. He speaks of a “glare of white letters…as vivid as spectres—the air swarmed with Catherines.”
This is the moment when he arises from bed and begins to read Catherine’s diary, which is inscribed in the margins of a printed book. “I began to nod drowsily over the dim page” says Lockwood, “my eye wandered from manuscript to print. I saw a red ornamented title…’Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy First.”
A Pious Discourse delivered by the Reverend Jabes Branderham, in the Chapel of Gimmerden Sough. And while I was, half consciously, worrying my brain to guess what Jabes Branderham would make of his subject, I sank back in bed, and fell asleep. As Lockwood drifts out of consciousness and begins his dream, he symbolically takes on the mantle of the recorder of the events that will be recounted to him.
The dream also introduces the theme of adherence to/ challenging of authority, which is central to the novel, and is symbolized here by the pilgrim’s staff and by Jabes Branderham’s religious authority.
In the dream, Joseph carries a pilgrim’s staff, leads Lockwood to the chapel, and becomes his “nearest and most ferocious assailant,” symbolizing his role in the novel as someone who both adheres to authority and subversively exercises whatever power he, as a servant, possesses. This contradiction is present in Nelly’s character as well. While she ostensibly bends to the will of her employers, she exercises her own agency many times throughout the novel, perhaps most blatantly in the fact that it is she who is relating the events to Lockwood, and therefore she who is shaping the story itself. This very act is subversive.
As the dream ends, the rapping of the pilgrim’s staffs and the tapping of Branderham turns to the rapping of a fir-tree against the window. “And what was it that had suggested the tremendous tumult, what had played Jabes’ part in the row? Merely, the branch of a fir-tree that touched my lattice, as the blast wailed by, and rattled its dry cones against the panes.”
The fact that the symbols of authority in the dream are, in reality, a tree branch moved by the wind, speaks to the importance of nature in the novel, of the novel’s setting on the stark, windy moors, which are the ultimate authority.