The events of the novel are mediated through two narrators: Lockwood opens and concludes, and we rely on Nelly Dean for the rest. The novel spans a period of forty years or so, charting the histories of three generations of the Earnshaws and Lintons. The central characters are Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Their frustrated and passionate relationship affects all around them, being the force driving the story forward, and continuing to dominate the lives of others beyond the grave.
Lockwood introduces himself at the beginning as Mr. Heathcliff's new tenant, and we see his relationship with his landlord explored in the first three chapters. Lockwood is unsettled and disturbed during his stay, being at a loss as to how to deal with its inhabitants and experiencing a number of strange and visionary dreams. Attempting to leave, he gets lost in snow and is forced to rest until better. Here the narrative then passes to Nelly, who tells Lockwood of how Heathcliff came to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff enters the Earnshaw family as a foundling, Mr. Earnshaw taking pity on the boy while on a visit to Liverpool. He is given the name of a dead son and treated as such by the father. Cathy and Heathcliff grow up as brother and sister. Their bond swiftly deepens after Cathy's initial resentment, but Hindley Earnshaw, the son of Mr. Earnshaw and Cathy's real brother, never becomes reconciled to the intrusion. He sees Heathcliff's entrance into the family as a usurpation and leaves after being humiliated in a confrontation. The death of Mr. Earnshaw brings the newly married Hindley back to reclaim the Heights. Seeking to degrade Heathcliff now, his desire to weaken their tie is given opportunity when Catherine is forced to spend five weeks at Thrushcross Grange, the house of the Lintons, after being bitten by their guard dog. Hindley is able now to avenge himself upon Heathcliff, insisting that he works as a labourer on his land after refusing him education. The boy's shame is compounded when Catherine returns to the Heights transformed into a lady, her friendship with Edgar and Isabella Linton making him intensely jealous. Her decision to marry Edgar, despite professing to Nelly her deeper love for Heathcliff, causes him to disappear from the Heights for three years. At the same time, Hindley's wife Frances gives birth to a son, Hareton, her death soon after pushing Hindley into a decline of self-destruction. Cathy's marriage to Edgar is markedly more subdued in comparison to her relationship with Heathcliff. Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, moves with her to the Grange, able to chronicle the profound effect of Heathcliff's return later. He has become a man commanding respect and admiration, captivating not only Catherine once more, but also Isabella. Edgar remains unwavering in his hatred of him.
Heathcliff stays at Wuthering Heights, gambling with his former enemy, Hindley. Isabella has now fallen in love with Heathcliff despite being warned of his violent nature by both Cathy and Nelly, and we become aware that Heathcliff sees in her his chance to seek revenge upon Edgar for denying him Cathy. This comes to a head in a violent argument between the two men, making Cathy ill. While she recuperates from this illness, Heathcliff courts and marries Isabella. Edgar disowns her. Nothing is heard of the couple for two months after their elopement until a letter from Isabella to Nelly informs us that they are back at the Heights. Bitterly unhappy, she begs Nelly to visit. The marriage was a regrettable sham.
The second volume opens with a fierce and moving union between Heathcliff and Cathy, the obvious signs of her imminent death fuelling the desperate expression of their love. She dies that evening, giving birth to a daughter: Catherine. Taking advantage of Heathcliff's weakened and distracted state of mind, Isabella runs away to the South of England where she gives birth a few months later to a son, Linton Heathcliff. At this time, Hindley dies, leaving his son Hareton alone with Heathcliff. Heathcliff exploits this chance to take revenge upon Hindley for the abuses of his childhood, treating the boy as Hindley did him. Isabella's death brings Linton to Thrushcross Grange, briefly meeting his cousin and uncle before being summoned by his father. The younger Catherine's life at the Grange is closely protected, Linton's proximity kept hidden from her. However, on her sixteenth birthday she accidentally meets Heathcliff and Hareton on the moors and returns with them to Wuthering Heights. There, she is amazed to see Linton. Heathcliff sees in Catherine the chance to gain possession of both houses, through the marriage of her and his son. Though sick and irritable, Catherine is fond of her cousin, and feels responsible for his happiness. This is unashamedly exploited by Heathcliff to serve his own ends. However, when Edgar finds out about Catherine's visit to the Heights he forbids her to go back. She transgresses by writing to her cousin instead, eventually sneaking out to see him undetected once again. Heathcliff's plans to marry the two are still in place, but they are pressurised by the decline of his son. Unable to wait any longer, he forces the cousins to marry by locking Catherine in a room at the Heights, unsympathetic towards Catherine's pleas to be with her dying father. She is able to be reconciled with him at the last minute, but his death marks only the start of her troubles. Thrushcross Grange passes to Linton as he is the male descendent of the family; Linton's death shortly afterwards sees the house inherited by Heathcliff, as he is Catherine's father-in-law now. Dispossessed, Catherine lives at the Heights in misery, rebuking the approaches of Hareton and Zillah, the housekeeper. It is at this point that Lockwood enters the narrative, and the final three chapters, like the first three of the first volume, see him recount the events of the story once more. He returns to the Heights a year later to find that Heathcliff has died, with Nelly describing the events leading up to his death, and that Cathy and Hareton are engaged.