“’Is he a ghoul or a vampire?’ I mused. I had read of such hideous incarnate demons. And then I set myself to reflect how I had tended him in infancy, and watched him grow to youth, and followed him almost through his whole course and what absurd nonsense it was to yield to that sense of horror. ‘But where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?’ muttered Superstition, as I dozed into unconsciousness.”
Nelly Dean is the speaker here, but Brontë undoubtedly asked herself similar questions about Heathcliff as she lay shivering in bed at night. T. L. Stone pursues the vampire angle here.
Although supposed to be set early in the nineteenth century, Wuthering Heights was written during the Irish Potato Famine. This was pointed out by Terry Eagleton in arguably his greatest book, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger.
In Eagleton’s plot summary, Heathcliff “is picked up starving off the streets of Liverpool by old Earnshaw. Earnshaw unwraps his greatcoat to reveal to his family a ‘dirty, ragged, black-haired child’ who speaks a kind of ‘gibberish,’ and who will later be variously labeled beast, savage, lunatic, and demon. It is clear that this little Caliban has a nature on which nurture will never stick; and that is simply an English way of saying that he is quite possibly Irish.”
“Possibly, but by no means certainly. Heathcliff may be a gypsy, or (like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre) a Creole, or any kind of alien. It is hard to know how black he is, or rather how much of the blackness is pigmentation and how much of it is grime and bile.”
One disturbing thing about Heathcliff is his complete disappearance for a few years, before returning transformed, with “upright carriage” and a manner “quite divested of roughness,” not to mention a sudden facility for cards and the determination to systematically ruin all who have wronged him. If this was a fairy-tale, Heathcliff would appear to have sold his soul to the Devil – instead the explanation we’re offered is the speculation that he may have been in the Army, although this seems like something it would have been easy enough for the other characters to check up on, which they never do. Recent Wuthering Heights covers may suggest vampirism, or in some cases not so much, but Heathcliff is invariably portrayed as Anglo-Saxon-looking.