Real Name: Ellen Dean
Alias: Mrs. Dean
From: Wuthering Heights
Created by: Emily Bronte
Portrayed in Film/TV by: Flora Robson (1939 movie), Christine Lindsay (1948 TV movie), Jean Anderson (1962 TV movie), Anne Stallybrass (1967 TV series), Judy Cornwell (1970 film), Pat Heywood (1978 TV series), Janet McTeer (1992 film), Polly Hemingway (1998 TV movie), Sarah Lancashire (2009 TV series)
Family: None known
Lovers: None known
Allegiance: Wuthering Heights (housekeeper); Former: Thrushcross Grange (housekeeper)
Significant Relationships: Heathcliff, master; Catherine Earnshaw, mistress (deceased); Hindley Earnshaw, master (deceased); Hareton Earnshaw, foster son; Catherine Linton, foster daughter
Powers: Nelly Dean is a human. She has advanced house management and cleaning skills, as well as an innate ability for telling a good story. She is also a capable caregiver.
Personality: Above all else, Nelly is a gossip, not afraid of telling stories and injecting herself into everyone else's business. It is unknown, though, how much of a liar Nelly is. Inconsistencies in her story lead many to believe that she has a higher opinion of herself than others do. Nelly is a decent housekeeper and does have a knack for taking care of children, especially those very young. Despite her meddling, she is not a very good manipulator, as things very rarely go her way.
Similar Characters: Unreliable Narrators: Nick Carraway
Works Featuring Nelly Dean: Wuthering Heights (Norton Critical Editions)
Hindley's wife Frances dies of consumption, leading to the rapid deteriotation of Hindley himself and forcing Nelly to become foster parent to Hareton, their young infant son. When Catherine moves to Thrushcross Grange, marrying Edgar Linton instead of Heathcliff, Nelly goes with Catherine to Thrushcross. Catherine dies in childbirth, leaving Nelly once again the foster parent, this time to the younger Catherine, named for her now-dead mother.
Nelly remains at Thrushcross Grange long enough to see Healthcliff return and enact his revenge on Hareton and the younger Catherine for their parents' failings. Nelly recounts all this horror to a renter at Thrushcross Grange, Mr. Lockwood, who wants to know the story of the mysterious Heathcliff, his landlord. Heathcliff manages, as the years pass and despite Nelly trying to protect her, to marry the younger Catherine to his own son, Linton, thus giving Heathcliff control of both Thrushcross and Wuthering Heights when Linton dies soon after.
Despite being apparently angry with Heathcliff, Nelly nonetheless returns to Wuthering Heights, the home of her childhood, when Heathcliff asks her to. She eventually finds Heathcliff dead in his own chambers, thus allowing the younger Catherine to marry Hareton, who had fallen in love while both were under Heathcliff's abusive control.
Other Versions: While Nelly has appeared in several adaptions and parodies of Wuthering Heights, her character remains mostly the same. Wuthering Heights has been adapted many times into film and TV programs, operas, plays, musicals, a role-playing game, parodies, and genre-splicers (including the obvious Heathcliff as a vampire). It has also inspired songs.
Wuthering Heights is known most for its dark hero Heathcliff (or villain, depending on how romantic you think he is), its gothic manors, and its use of the unreliable narrator. It's the character of Nelly Dean, in fact, that transforms this book from a simple tortured romance and revenge drama into a masterpiece.
A brief summary: Mr. Lockwood, who narrates the opening of the book, arrives at Thrushcross Grange and encounters the manor's housekeeper, Nelly. Nelly, bored, a gossip, and starved for attention, decides to tell him all about the manor, its twin manor Wuthering Heights, and their sordid pasts. Nelly interjects herself into the tortured story of Heathcliff, Catherine, and their children, providing both insight and possible lies.
For most scholars, it's Nelly's character that remains the most interesting. Since the story is not told plainly, as Nelly officially interjects her thoughts into the narrative at times and she also unofficially registers her opinions on all matters of her employers' behavior, Nelly's version of the tale can't really be trusted. While she describes herself as being there for most of the major events, whether or she actually was is open for debate, for the majority of the characters she describes, like Catherine herself, are already dead and her stories can't be confirmed.
It's also believed, and supported by the text, that Nelly elevates her status in the story. She believes herself to have been raised as Catherine and her brother's equals, almost like another sister, and does not see herself as Catherine's servant. Instead, Nelly sees herself as Catherine's friend, and even, closest confidant. It's to Nelly that Catherine delivers her rather epic speech about why she must marrry Edgar and not Heathcliff, who she loves. Or, at least, that's the way Nelly tells it.
Some scholars have even go so far as to suggest that Nelly, while she tells Lockwood the tale, is actually recounting her crimes. She, as a master manipulator, is actually the villain of the piece, making sure that she is the one who cares for the children, as much as she's allowed, and in the end, is the surviving parental figure. Through her gossip, it could be easily seen that she helps to promote the strife that causes so many untimely deaths and Nelly does profit from each of these deaths in some way.
But I'm not willing to buy that Nelly Dean is in fact evil. Instead, I'm much willing to suspect that she is a liar and wants to paint herself as the all-knowing and benevolent caretaker. And it's for this reason that not a single thing she tells Mr. Lockwood should be trusted. In the end, that's what makes the unreliable narrator so interesting: what to trust and what not to trust is almost up the reader - just like it is in the real world (see Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby).
In fiction, the idea that a character is telling the truth is almost always taken for granted. In life, however, people lie all the time, for reasons that are so complicated that they can never truly be pulled apart. In a way, Bronte is trying to circumvent the narrative form by detailing an aspect of human nature (gossip, lying, inflating one sense of self) that is all too common but truly difficult to capture in story form, since the reader has been trained to trust what the characters and narrators tell them. In general, when we encounter a liar in fiction, they're either heart of gold scoundrels or the villains.
But Nelly Dean is either. Instead, she's just a maid trying to sell a story to a passerby. There's no evil, though, just a story around a fire meant to entertain. So who knows what's true and what's not? For Nelly (and in general, the reader), it's more about how the story's told.
Images: Top: Nelly Dean as portrayed by Sarah Lancashire
Middle: Wuthering Heights cover by Bantam
Bottom: Wuthering Heights cover by Penguin