While most characters in Wutheirng Heights operate out of their passion and emotion, Nelly Dean highlights a new type of character, one driven by duty over desire. The divergence between duty and desire proves consequential, according to Mary Dean, who stresses the necessity of the former in all she does. She advises Nelly to “not get in the habit of imagining [her]self entitled to more than [she] have earned by [her] own labours” and to “leave off making idle wishes” (67). She tells to remember her place and live accordingly, reminding her in a letter to “do [her] duty” (82). Likewise, Mary urges Mrs. Earnshaw, who would rather treat Heathcliffe according to her distaste of him, that her “duty is now to this child” (29) and that it is her “duty to bring him up to be a credit to the family” (28). Page 82 provides perhaps the most telling passage regarding Mary’s dedication to duty over desire. When Mrs. Earnshaw laments her departure to Brassing, Mary responds with, “You wouldn’t have me neglect my duty to Tom, would you?” (82). This seems an interesting response. What drives her to Yorkshire is not an overwhelming love for her husband and sadness at the thought of being separated from him, but an allegiance to her duty as a wife.
Was this sober, unemotional fidelity to duty the common stance of woman at this time? Not necessarily. Rather, women were stereotyped as being driven by their emotions.
However, this stereotype seems to contradict the picture of women illustrated in Mary’s story, “The Heart’s Wish”, which she conveys as a well-known local tale. The wife in this story seems, like Mary, more devoted to duty than desire.
She asserts her duty to speak against what might destroy her family, while her husband, the farmer, follows his own hankering to his downfall. Perhaps her portrayal of the heroine as one driven by responsibility and reason rather than emotion indicates that Mary tweaked the story in order to provide an memorable illustration for her daughter of what happens when desire overpowers duty.
Though resolute in her duty as a wife and in Nelly’s place as a servant, Mary proves less adamant in her stereotypical role as a woman. She adheres to class boundaries while pushing gender boundaries. For example, when addressing Mr. Earnshaw after Nelly has been expelled from the Heights, Mary presses him “with directness that rather startle[s] [Nelly]” (20). Furthermore, she questions Earnshaw with confidence, challenging his decision to bring Heathcliffe home and interrogating him on his business trip to Liverpool. As a woman and a servant, Mary would have no right to speak this way to her master. This implies, then, that either Mary takes quite a progressive stance regarding gender or that there is a history between Mary and Earnshaw that solicits her treatment of him. Her behavior resembles that of the wife in “The Heart’s Wish”. Perhaps then, their relationship at one time extended beyond servant and master.