At the end of chapter seventeen, Nelly walks into the house after speaking with Bodkin to find everyone in a tizzy about a loosed falcon in the living room. We don’t know much else — who brought it in or how it otherwise got into its current predicament. There is not even a description of the falcon itself. We only see the family’s and then Nelly’s reaction to its presence. Almost immediately I connected this hawk with Nelly herself and the relationships she holds with the rest of the family.
Nelly herself thinks on the hawk later, after the debacle has concluded. She thinks on it in relation to the family she serves, believing it “a good figure for any of the three of them”. As a reader, however, I am drawn make comparisons between the loosed bird and the main character. She, of course, does not indulge my thought spirals, using the whole event to reach the (rather obvious) conclusion “’I am not like them’”. Honestly, Nelly, we figured that out about ten chapters ago, but okay! Glad that you are on board with us. Just after this declaration, however, Case drops hints that Nelly understands her predicament on a deeper level. She phrases herself as having “bruised [her] wings on those ancient beams a few times”, but believes now that se has learned better from it. It is the same lesson that her mother has been trying to drill into her skull since she was four — she is not like the Earnshaws, to any mess that they make for themselves is therefore not hers to clean. The lesson that she actually learns, however, is that she is their tamed bird to keep and give attention to at their own enjoyment. No matter how much the Earnshaws mistreat and manipulate her, she no longer has the ability to tear herself away.
This is depressing, partially because I really enjoy Nelly as a character. She is brave, sensible, reliable, and genuinely cares for others. I often find myself pulled aside from the book by my own thoughts and fantasies about her escape from Wuthering Heights. I imagined that she would flitter away to work with her mother or in some other town, find herself a loving (and preferably rich (and definitely not Hindley)) husband, and create a home and hearth of her own. Then I remember this is Wuthering Heights, and no one here gets a happy ending. She could achieve so much of only she would leave the residents of Wuthering Heights to drown in their own cesspool. But she can’t, and this is her fatal flaw. The moment she falls for Hindley she becomes another captured victim of the mire. Her wings will never carry her farther than her feet, nor will she experience life outside of the small cage she has constructed.
The most depressing aspect of Nelly’s ‘caging’ is that she has willfully constructed and stayed inside her provincial gave despite multiple efforts by others to make her leave. This most notably comes in the form of her mother, ironically the same person who originally deposited her there in the first place. When Nelly is a child, her mother repeatedly warms Nelly against placing herself as an equal to the Earnshaws This is an effort on her part to keep Nelly from becoming too emotionally attached for proper work. As an adult, she outright asks Nelly to abandon the Earnshaw house and come work with her. All in all, she is trying to keep Nelly from putting her own stake in with the Earnshaws. Chapter four is entirely consumed with a story from Nelly’s mother warning against the dangers of wishing. This, unfortunately, is the very hole that Nelly falls into — she wishes to marry Hindley against all practicalities, she wishes that Hindley and his father will get along, she wishes that Hindley could be a more responsible adult and master, and one by one her wishes fall to the wayside, harming nor helping anyone but Nelly herself.
In effect, Nelly lives up to the words of Hindley, becoming “a permanent fixture” in spite of everything that should lead her to be the contrary. For such a sensible character, it is her soft heart that eventually causes her downfall.