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On the following night Lockwood requests that his housekeeper, Mrs. Dean, tell him something about Heathcliff and his family. Nelly Dean reveals that before coming to the Grange to work for the Lintons, she worked at the Heights for eighteen years. After fetching some hot gruel for her master and a little sewing for herself, she gives details of the family history. She discloses that Hareton Earnshaw, whom he met at Wuthering Heights, is the late Mrs. Linton's nephew and cousin to young Mrs. Catherine Heathcliff (the daughter-in-law). Heathcliff was married to Mr. Linton's sister, Isabella.
Nelly Dean tells Lockwood that one time, on his way back to Wuthering Heights from Liverpool, Mr. Earnshaw brought home a foundling: a dirty, ragged gypsy child who came to be named Heathcliff. From the moment of his arrival, the child breeds bad feelings in the house; only Mr. Earnshaw and his daughter, Cathy, come to love him. Hindley, Earnshaw's son, hates and mistreats Heathcliff with the silent consent of his mother. On the first night of his arrival, Nelly admits that she places Heathcliff on the stairs in the hope that he will go away. She is punished for this act by Mr. Earnshaw.
Chapter 4 begins the history of the Earnshaw and Linton families and contains a shift in narrators. The first three chapters were told by Lockwood, but in this chapter the narrator becomes Nelly Dean (Mrs. Ellen Dean), the present housekeeper at the Grange; Lockwood becomes the listener. As a narrator, Nelly is talkative and imaginative, a natural storyteller. Since she has served at both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, she knows both families very well. Her story does much to establish the relationship of the characters, explain the conflict between Hindley and Heathcliff, and reveal the affectionate relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff.
Nothing is known about the origin of Heathcliff since he was a ragged orphan when he was picked up by Mr. Earnshaw in a Liverpool slum and brought home to Wuthering Heights. From the very beginning, Mr. Earnshaw's son, Hindley, feels antagonistic to the stranger, but Heathcliff patiently endures Hindley's cruel treatment of him. In contrast, Hindley's sister, Cathy, is drawn towards Heathcliff, and the two of them become fast friends. Cathy, who is described as a mischievous girl who is willing to stand up to anybody who tries to keep her and Heathcliff apart.
There is a great deal of foreshadowing in this chapter. The three children are versions of the people they will be as adults. Hindley, a boy of fourteen, proves himself to be obnoxious. He "blubbers aloud" when he discovers that his father's gift for him has been broken on the journey back from Liverpool. Additionally, he is cruel and spiteful in his treatment of Heathcliff. When there is, however, a showdown between the two boys, Hindley acts like a coward. Catherine is quite different from her brother. When she discovers that her gift from Liverpool was lost, she laughs it off. She also shows her mischievous nature by spitting at Heathcliff. Later, however, she becomes a fast friend with this gypsy child. Heathcliff proves that he is sullen and hardened. He shows great cunning and determination in getting his way and can patiently wait on things. He also shows that he is vindictive, a quality which at first escapes Nelly.