The narrative is non-linear, involving several flashbacks, and two primary narrators: Mr. Lockwood and Ellen "Nelly" Dean. The novel opens in 1801, with Mr. Lockwood arriving at Thrushcross Grange, a grand house on the Yorkshire moors that he rents from the surly, brooding, unsociable Heathcliff, master of nearby Wuthering Heights. Lockwood is treated rudely, and coldly by Heathcliff, but must stay overnight at Wuthering Heights after being attacked by a savage dog of the Heights and entrapped by the weather. The housekeeper cautiously takes him to a chamber but warns him to not speak to Heathcliff about where he is sleeping, for he would get in deep trouble.
That night, Lockwood finds the diary of a girl named Catherine Earnshaw, a close childhood friend of Heathcliff. Dozing off, Lockwood has a terrifying dream of Catherine's ghost appearing at his window, deathly pale, and begging to be let in, then struggling to enter through the broken window. Horrified, Lockwood finds himself driving her away by seizing her wrist and forcing it down on the window's broken glass. Heathcliff, awakened by Lockwood's shouts, comes running. Heathcliff's mood changes dramatically when Lockwood tells him of Catherine's ghost. Heathcliff asks Mr. Lockwood to leave the room and Lockwood hears him sobbing outside the door saying, "Oh Cathy, please come in." The next morning, after returning to Thrushcross Grange, Lockwood asks the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell the story of Heathcliff, Catherine, and Wuthering Heights.
Nelly (Ellen) Dean takes over the narration and begins her story thirty years earlier, when Heathcliff, a foundling from the streets of Liverpool, is brought to Wuthering Heights by the then-owner, the kind Mr. Earnshaw, and raised as his own. Ellen speculates that Heathcliff is perhaps descended from American origins. He is often described as "dark" or "gypsy". Earnshaw's daughter Catherine becomes Heathcliff's inseparable friend. Her brother Hindley, however, resents Heathcliff, seeing him as an interloper and rival. When Mr. Earnshaw dies three years later, Hindley (who has married a woman named Frances) takes over the estate. He brutalises Heathcliff, forcing him to work as a hired hand. Catherine becomes friends with a neighbouring family, the Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, who mellow her wild personality. She is attracted to the refined and mild young Edgar Linton, whom Heathcliff instantly dislikes.
A year later, Hindley's wife dies, apparently of consumption, shortly after giving birth to a son, Hareton. Hindley takes to drinking. Some two years after that, Catherine agrees to marry Edgar. Nelly knows that this will crush Heathcliff, and Heathcliff overhears Catherine's explanation that it would be "degrading" to marry him. Heathcliff storms out and leaves Wuthering Heights, not hearing Catherine's continuing declarations that "she is Heathcliff" and that her love for him is immovable like the rocks. After realizing Heathcliff has left her, Catherine becomes desperate and is struck down by a fever. Edgar's attentions slowly return Catherine back to health, and some years later she marries him. She lives in apparent happiness for a few months, until Heathcliff returns, intent on destroying those who prevent him from being with Catherine. He has, mysteriously, become very wealthy. Through loans he has made to the drunken and dissipated Hindley that Hindley cannot repay, Heathcliff takes ownership of Wuthering Heights upon Hindley's death. Intent on ruining Edgar, Heathcliff elopes with Edgar's sister Isabella, which places him in a position to inherit Thrushcross Grange upon Edgar's death.
Catherine is initially very happy at seeing Heathcliff again, but then becomes very ill after a harsh argument with Heathcliff regarding Isabella. They reconcile a few hours before her death, however, reaffirming their feelings for one another. Catherine dies after giving birth to a daughter also named Catherine, or Cathy. Heathcliff becomes more bitter and vengeful towards those around him. Isabella flees her abusive marriage a month later and subsequently gives birth to a boy, Linton. At around the same time, Hindley dies. Heathcliff takes ownership of Wuthering Heights and vows to raise Hindley's son Hareton with as much neglect as he had suffered at Hindley's hands years earlier. Later on, Heathcliff tells Nelly that he despises his own son, Linton, who reminds him of Edgar and Isabella, and favours Hareton as a son, recognising an element of Catherine in him (it having already been established that both Catherine and Heathcliff considered themselves one and the same person), and therefore himself. Yet, Heathcliff chooses to ignore these paternal emotions so that he might continue to degrade Hareton as Hindley degraded Heathcliff: thereby achieving his revenge on his hated foster-brother.
Twelve years later, the dying Isabella asks Edgar to raise her and Heathcliff's son, Linton. However, Heathcliff finds out about this and takes the sickly, spoiled child to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff has nothing but contempt for his son, but delights in the idea of him ruling the property of his enemies. Cathy and Linton meet while Cathy is out riding on the moors, accompanied by Nelly, while Linton is accompanied by Hareton, who is illiterate and hardly speaks. Linton treats Hareton with just as much disrespect and contempt as his father does, believing Hareton to be an imbecile. Nelly is appalled by the state of Hareton, remembering him as a bright, loving toddler. Cathy feels sorry for Linton, who knows his father despises him and is utterly miserable. Heathcliff uses his son to issue Cathy invitations to Wuthering Heights, but Edgar senses a trap and refuses to let Cathy go. Cathy's nature is much sweeter than her mother's and she reluctantly obeys her father. But when she receives news that Linton has fallen ill, she refuses to stay at home and hurries to Wuthering Heights to see if she can be of help. Heathcliff attempts to persuade her to marry Linton. With Linton's health diminishing swiftly, he puts Cathy under house arrest and forces the two to marry. Soon after, Edgar Linton dies, followed shortly by Linton Heathcliff. This leaves Cathy a widow and a virtual prisoner at Wuthering Heights, as Heathcliff has gained complete control of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. It is at this point in the narrative that Lockwood arrives, renting Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff, and hearing Nelly Dean's story. Shocked, Lockwood leaves for London.
During Lockwood's absence, events reach a climax. These events are later described to him by Nelly upon his return. Cathy gradually softens toward her rough, uneducated cousin Hareton, just as her mother was tender towards Heathcliff. She teaches him to read and he allows her to open up again after becoming so bitter from Heathcliff's brutal treatment. When Heathcliff is confronted by Cathy and Hareton's love, notably Hareton's determination to protect the defiant Cathy from Heathcliff's attacks, he seems to suffer a mental break from reality and begins to see Catherine's ghost. He abandons his life-long vendetta and soon dies, smiling as he fulfills his life-long dream of joining Catherine in the afterlife. Nelly describes finding Heathcliff's corpse: lying on the bed, stiff with rigor mortis. The window is open and rain is pouring in through it, soaking Heathcliff's body. His hand is outstretched as if reaching for somebody else's hand (possibly the ghost of Catherine as seen by Lockwood). He is buried next to Catherine in the graveyard (Edgar's grave is on the other side of Catherine's). The story concludes with Lockwood visiting their graves, noting how restful the spot seems