The strange narrative of Nelly Dean poses an interesting question, “What comprises a duty?” Who and what determines its parameters? Is it subjective to the one upon whom it is placed? Most would say no. Yet, the justification for all of Nelly’s undertakings bank upon duty’s subjectivity to the one upon whom it is placed.
From a young age, Nelly’s mother instills in her a devotion to duty and a caution towards pursuing desire when duty crosses it. As the novel continues, Nelly, fearful of the farmer’s tale that forewarns the danger of desire, extends the framework of her duty as servant of Wuthering Heights to encompass her deepest wishes and, in doing so, quiets her conscience.
Nelly’s understanding of her duty can be summarized as such: to save the Earnshaws from themselves. This responsibility, and her adoption of it, issues originally from Mr. Earnshaw’s sincere remark in his belief that she was “born to be the salvation of [the] house” (105). Nelly, in turn, banks her life upon this statement. Henceforth, she endeavored to save them, and from that salvation to attain her heart’s yearnings: the love of Hindley. Upon discovering that he is returning with a wife, Nelly walks the moors to clear her head and choose a course of action. Resolving to stay her post, Nelly “tells herself “that [her] prior good influence with [Hindley] and [Heathcliffe] made it [her] duty to stay and bring about peace between them” (237). She later discerns that “in truth it was compounded in equal parts of selfish interest and pride” (237).
As time goes on, contemplations and conversations continue to reveal the latent desires that drive Nelly’s understanding of her duty to Wuthering Heights. When Mr. Earnshaw was dying, Nelly admits her dream of delivering him, through her committed care, from his illness in order to win his approval and thus earn the right to Hindley’s hand in marriage. Later, she likewise acknowledges her initial supposition that, if Hareton embraced her as his mother, Hindley would follow suit and embrace her as his wife.
Several characters challenge her notion of duty, beginning with Heathcliffe, who, as a child, furious at Nelly’s nursing of Heathcliffe, asserted, “it’s all very well to say you were only doing your duty, Nelly,… but you half killed yourself to save him” (110). Likewise, Bodkin urges her to remember that she is not “obliged to keep working” at Wuthering Heights, to which she simply responds of her affection for the residents and their need of her (117).
Nelly’s undertaking to bind Hareton to herself through Elspeth’s means prove telling portent of her muddling of duty for desire. Though her endeavor to sustain his life is honorable, her duty as a servant did not necessarily warrant her actions at Pennington Crag. Instead, they were driven by her deepest wishes, which in turn imbued her view of her role in at Wuthering Heights.
In the end, Nelly concedes what drove her all those years, for what she had wanted “more than anything, was to be one of the Earnshaw’s to be truly a member of their family (447).