All of the other main characters except Lockwood advance the action in some way - the plot wouldn't be the same without them. But Joseph doesn't do nowt, as he might say. The nearest he comes is threatening to report Heathcliff's kicking the stuffing out of Hindley to Edgar the magistrate, a threat he is persuaded not to carry out. But he certainly has enough to say for himself throughout the novel - far more, you might think, than his actual narrative importance warrants, and some of it barely intelligible. What was Emily playing at?
My wife has suggested that it has to do with the impotence of religion. There are three religious strands running through this novel.
- "Conventional" (i.e. Anglican) religion. This is conspicuous by its absence. It isn't mentioned very much, and when it is, it's off-stage. We don't see any of the weddings (Hindley=Frances, Cathy=Edgar, Catherine=Linton, Catherine=Hareton, Heathcliff=Isabella). The vicar ceases to come to the Heights after Hindley's degeneration folloiwng his wife's death, and the attendance of Edgar's household at church at Gimmerton merely serves as an excuse for Heathcliff to visit his wife. No one prays or invokes God, as far as I can remember - quite unlike her sisters' novels. The characters' fates are entirely in their own hands. The church building is somewhat dilapidated, and has become more so when Lockwood returns in 1802. God and conventional morality are mentioned by characters, especially Nelly, as irrelevant responses to the "real" psychic and spiritual action of the novel - that between Cathy and Heathcliff.
- Joseph's ranting takes up much more space than this. His brand of religion seems to represent the other extreme from the insitutionalised sort: the personal, emotionally committed type. But it has absolutely no effect on the novel per se. Basically, Joseph is your Shakespearean "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", a quite deliberate strategy by Emily.
- The only "religion" that matters in this novel is the one involved in the union of Cathy and Heathcliff. You could, I suppose, read the novel on one level as the creation of religious vaccums which are then filled. Conventional religion is an off-stage cipher and personal, evangelical religion, while onstage in the person of Joseph, is meaningless and empty rhetoric. The novel fills this space with a new, amorphous "religion", a mystical union of two people in a "heaven" and "hell" that have nothing to do with their orthodox counterparts, being as they are entirely of their own making.
What do people think?