Ellen "Nelly" Dean is a female character in Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights. She is the main narrator for the story, and gives key eyewitness accounts as to what happens between the characters. Ellen is for the most part called "Nelly" by all characters.
A tenant named Lockwood visits the household of Wuthering Heights at the beginning of the story, and is overcome with shock when he believes he has seen the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw at a window in one of the chambers of the Heights. Eager to know the story of Heathcliff, the master of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood returns to Thrushcross Grange, his temporary residence, where he asks Nelly, the housekeeper, to divulge all that she knows.
Nelly's mother was a servant at Wuthering Heights, and helped raise Hindley Earnshaw; Nelly was thus a foster sister and servant to Hindley and his sister Catherine Earnshaw. Nelly is the same age as Hindley, about six years older than Cathy. After an orphan boy named Heathcliff is brought to live at Wuthering Heights, Nelly is witness to much of the Earnshaw family's misfortune, the affection that Mr. Earnshaw has for Heathcliff (which leads to Hindley's bitter jealousy) and, above all, the childhood companionship between Heathcliff and Catherine, which eventually blossoms into a passionate love.
When Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange asks Catherine for her hand in marriage, Catherine confides in Nelly, explaining her distress. As a result, Nelly is the only witness to Catherine's famous "I am Heathcliff" speech. Nelly's own reaction to it is derisive and incredulous.
An arguably more significant event witnessed by Nelly, however, is the rapid loss of health and sanity of Hindley, which leads her to nurse the infant Hareton Earnshaw after his mother dies of consumption.
After Catherine marries, and Heathcliff mysteriously disappears for three years, Nelly goes with the former to Thrushcross Grange. She is thus witness to Heathcliff's ominous return and his quest for revenge on both Hindley and the Linton family. She is also present for Catherine's maddening illness and psychological delusions as well as Cathy's final meeting with Heathcliff.
Catherine's death after childbirth causes Nelly to nurse another child, Catherine Linton. Nelly tenderly adores Cathy, and, fearing for her future, she and Edgar try desperately to keep the innocent yet curious girl from falling into Heathcliff's machinations. Heathcliff succeeds in spite of them, and Cathy is forced into a marriage with his weak and quickly-dying son Linton. Cathy's misery at Wuthering Heights is one of the few sequences of events that Nelly does not witness for herself: She has been ordered by Heathcliff to remain at the Grange, but inveterate gossip that she is, she manages to hear of it from Zillah, the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights.
Nelly continues to fight to restore peace at Wuthering Heights and, at the conclusion of the novel, is asked by Heathcliff to come back to work there. She is the one who finds Heathcliff dead in his chamber, enabling the New Year's Day marriage of Cathy and Hareton. Despite Heathcliff's dreadful treatment of her erstwhile charges, Nelly is "stunned by the awful event; and my memory unavoidably recurred to former times with a sort of oppressive sadness."
Nelly is an archetype of the unreliable narrator as is Lockwood. The nesting narrative betrays the innocence of both as unbiased; the former being too close to events, and the latter was not involved at all. She insists that she does not love Catherine Earnshaw because of her "saucy", strong-willed manner, but cries bitterly at her death. Nelly nurses both Cathy and Hareton, although it is the former whom she truly raises and forever adores. Little is known of Nelly's life, and although she is called "Mrs. Dean" by Mr. Lockwood, it may likely be a form of a respectful address. However, it is not made clear whether Ellen is a wet nurse to the children. Although Nelly constantly complains about the Earnshaws and Lintons, she never once ceases to pursue her wish to finally bring peace to both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.[dubious ]
While this has been the common interpretation of Nelly, James Hafley's "The Villain in Wuthering Heights", an article in 1958 , rejects this view, arguing that she only seems like the moral center of the novel because of the instability and violence of the world she describes. Looked at objectively, she is the true villain in the novel, driving the majority of the conflicts. Lockwood's faith in her story is taken as the ultimate mark of his innocence.
Nelly often hints at having a strong bond with Hindley Earnshaw. She is less close to Frances, who is Hindley's wife. She cries bitterly at his death, she does not want to leave Wuthering Heights, she loves his son Hareton like a mother, and she is shattered when he snubs her -- "For he meant all the world to her, and her to him".
- James Hafley, "The Villain in Wuthering Heights," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3. (Dec., 1958), pp. 199-200.