He bid me be silent; and then, for the first time, allowed himself a glance round the room and a look at the pictures. Having studied Mrs. Linton’s, he said—‘I shall have that home. Not because I need it, but—’ He turned abruptly to the fire, and continued, with what, for lack of a better word, I must call a smile—‘I’ll tell you what I did yesterday! I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there : when I saw her face again—it is hers yet!—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up: not Linton’s side, damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead. And I bribed the sexton to pull it away when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too; I’ll have it made so: and then by the time Linton gets to us he’ll not know which is which!’

from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Background Information: Mr.Linton died recently and is soon to be buried beside his wife who died 18 years ago.

When did Heathcliff think of that? The moment when he was with the sexton or further past? At what point of time the possible 'staying' was meant? Did he express past possibility or past wish?

What is the meaning of once? Was it just a fleeting idea? Is it in connection with thought or the following part?

I'm so confused about this sentence and the use of would have past participle. Help me, please!

  • 3
    Just to point it out, that was written 150 years ago and therefore is not representative of English spoken today. Sometimes it can be tricky to interpret old literature (Shakespeare being another example)... Your question might be more suited to a the [S.E. Literary page]( literature.stackexchange.com)!
    – ashleedawg
    Nov 16, 2017 at 9:03
  • Look up once in a good, professionally-compiled dictionary (such as Oxford). Since you say you have difficulty with the sentence and the meaning of once, I'll tell you that the meaning here is Number 2. Nov 16, 2017 at 9:19

1 Answer 1


Heathcliff was obviously obsessed with Catherine before and after her death, which explains some of his bizarre behaviour in the novel, and his desire to own and control anything that was once associated with her. However, possessing those things never satisfies him because the things are not her.

It is not actually clear when he decided to open her coffin. It may have been something that he planned in advance, but more likely he just took advantage of an opportunity when it arose.

'Once' in this paragraph is used in the same sense as 'once upon a time' or 'I was once a poor man', i.e. it is referring to an undefined time in the past. In this case, Heathcliff could also have said, 'There was a time in the past when I would have stayed there'. To me, this is the turning point in the novel, as far as Heathcliff goes. His infatuation with Catherine still causes him to bribe the sexton to make sure that when he dies, his body will be buried next to Catherine, and that a space is left open in the side of their coffins to allow their bodies to decompose together - and I thought I was being romantic when I bought my wife flowers. However, from that point forward, Heathcliff (now knowing that he and Catherine will be together after he dies) becomes less destructive and seems to be more at peace with himself.

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