Nelly Dean, the principal narrator of Emily Brontes Wuthering Heights, relates the tale of two houses, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. She tells the story as a first hand witness of the events, but to what extent can the reader trust her narration? Being the servant at Wuthering Heights, and later on at Thrushcross Grange, Nelly becomes very involved and interferes with many of the characters. She also acts as a mother figure to many of the younger characters, which leads to bias. Nellys depiction of certain events may not be fully correct due to her own perceptions.
Nelly is not only a witness to events in the story, but a part of them. Her own actions often affect what occurs throughout the story. She is prone to interference when delivering letters between Linton and Cathy, and telling Edgar of their relationship. When she brings Catherine a letter from Heathcliff, she interferes by allowing him to see her despite Edgars wishes against it. Nelly also interferes by withholding information from some characters. She fails to tell Edgar when Catherine becomes ill or about Linton and Cathys relationship until it is already well advanced. This involvement in the story greatly affects events. But does this qualify her as an unreliable witness?
There really is no mother figure in Wuthering Heights, and therefore Nelly takes on a significant mother role to many of the characters. She aids both Catherine and Heathcliff with many of their troubles. She takes care of Heathcliff during his retaliation against Hindley and helps Catherine when she is angry with Edgar. Cathy and Hareton were basically born motherless, leaving Nelly the only one to care for them. She grew with these characters and spent much of her time with them, learning about their lives and knowing much of what went on. She knew the deep parts of most everyones life, and for this reason, and for that fact that she could retell the story of every other character because of all the information she has learned by being so close to everyone. Things that no other characters knew, such as Heathcliff and Catherines feelings for each other, Isabellas treatment, and how Heathcliff seems to have been haunted by Catherines spirit for so many years, Nelly knew, and could retell. This makes her an excellent source of information for the reader.
However, despite Nellys in depth knowledge, she is not infallible. She is tricked by Heathcliff and becomes prisoner of Linton until he and Cathy marry, and it seems to be a quite simple task of deceiving her. This leads the reader to believe that some of the information she carries over in her story may not be as true as she intends it to sound.
Because of Nellys closely knit involvement with the characters, it is inevitable that her account is affected by her own opinions. She must have a feeling of fondness and family duty towards Catherine, Heathcliff, and Hindley, having grown up with them, and these feelings could cause her to be more lenient towards them than their behavior deserves. In addition, those feeling could also bias her outlooks on their behaviors, and make them seem different than they truly are. For example, Nelly often refers to Cathy as her "angel", though Cathys behavior is far from angelic. Nelly also shows a great deal more disapproval towards characters she is less fond of. Nelly has a hard time explaining to the reader Lintons marriage to Cathy, and seems to be safely out of the way when it is occurring.
The reader may also notice that while Nelly knows very much about the characters, there are extremely important things which she fails to touch on throughout the story. This leads the reader to believe that she has a lack of knowledge and may not be as keen about the characters as she seems. For instance, how Heathcliff suddenly had money and what he did during his absence. Although this may not affect Nellys skills of storytelling, the narration would have changed drastically had she known.
Nelly Dean was a good choice of Emily Bronte to pick as narrator of Wuthering Heights, with her lively tales and informative gossip, but the reader should be aware that despite all of her knowledge, there are many factors that change how truthful Nelly Deans depiction may really be.