Charlotte Brontë was always concerned that her work be judged on its own merits and not because of her gender. She continued to use her pseudonym even after her authorship was revealed, and in her letters she often referred to herself as Currer Bell. Jane Eyre, her first published novel, has been called feminine because of the Romanticism and deeply felt emotions of the heroine-narrator. It would probably be more correct to point to the feminist qualities of the novel, as reflected in a heroine who refuses to be placed in the traditional female position of subservience and who disagrees with her superiors, stands up for her rights, and ventures creative thoughts. More important, Jane is a narrator who comments on the role of women in society and the greater constraint imposed on them. Those feminine emotions often ascribed to in the character of Jane are found as well in Rochester, and the continued popularity of this work must suggest the enduring human quality of these emotions.
Brontë often discusses the lack of passion in her contemporaries’ work and especially in that of Jane Austen, about whom she said, “Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet.” Coldness, detachment, excessive analysis, and critical distance were not valued by Brontë. The artist must be involved in her subject, she believed, and must have a degree of inspiration not to be rationally explained. Such a theory of art is similar to that of the Romantic poets, an attitude no longer entirely popular by the mid-nineteenth century.
In Jane Eyre, Brontë chose the point of view of a first-person narrator, which suited both her subject matter and her artistic theory, The story is told entirely through the eyes of the heroine, a technique that enabled Brontë to deliver the events with an intensity that involves the reader in the passions, feelings, and thoughts of the heroine. A passionate directness characterizes Jane’s narration: Conversations are rendered in direct dialogue, and actions are given just as they occur, with little analysis of event or character. In a half dozen key scenes, Brontë shifts to present tense instead of the immediate past, so that Jane narrates the event as if it were happening at the very moment. After Jane flees Thornfield and Rochester, when the coachman puts her out at Whitcross where her fare runs out, she narrates to the moment: “I am alone . . . I am absolutely destitute.” After a long description of the scene around her and her analysis of her situation, also narrated in the present tense, she reverts to the more usual past tense in the next paragraph: “I struck straight into the heath.” Such a technique adds to the immediacy of the novel and further draws the reader into the situation.
Like all of Brontë’s heroines, Jane has no parents and no family that accepts or is aware of her. She, like Lucy Snowe in Villette (1853) and Caroline Helstone in Shirley (1849), leads a life cut off from society, since family is the means for a woman to participate in society and community. Lacking such support, Jane has to face her problems alone. Whenever she forms a close friendship (Bessie at Gateshead, Helen Burns and Miss Temple at Lowood, Mrs. Fairfax at Thornfield), she discovers that nonkinship ties can be broken easily by higher authority, death, or marriage. Cutting her heroines off so radically from family and community gave Brontë the opportunity to make her women independent and to explore the Romantic ideal of individualism.
Jane Eyre is a moral tale, akin to a folk or fairy tale, with hardly any ambiguities of society, character, or situation. Almost all of Jane’s choices are morally straightforward, and her character—though she grows and matures—does not change significantly. Her one difficult choice is to refuse to become Rochester’s mistress and leave Thornfield. That choice is difficult precisely because she has no family or friends to influence her with their disapproval. No one will be hurt if she consents; that is, no one but Jane herself, and it is her own self-love that helps her to refuse.
Like a fairy tale, Jane Eyre is full of myth and superstition. Rochester often calls Jane his “elf,” “changeling,” or “witch”; there are mysterious happenings at Thornfield; Jane is inclined to believe the Gypsy fortune-teller (until Rochester reveals himself) and often thinks of the superstitions she has heard; the weather often presages mysterious or disastrous events. Most important, at the climax of the story, when Jane is about to consent to be the unloved wife of St. John Rivers, she hears Rochester calling her—at precisely the time, readers learn later, that he had in fact called to her. This event is never explained rationally and readers must accept Jane’s judgment that it was a supernatural intervention.
Many symbolic elements pervade the novel. Often something in nature symbolizes an event or person in Jane’s life. The most obvious example is the chestnut tree, which is split in two by lightning on the night that Jane accepts Rochester’s marriage proposal, signifying the rupture of their relationship. The two parts of the tree, however, remain bound, as do Jane and Rochester despite their physical separation.
The novel is also full of character foils and parallel situations. Aunt Reed at Gateshead is contrasted with Miss Temple at Lowood; the Reed sisters at the beginning are contrasted with the Rivers sisters—cousins all—at the end; Rochester’s impassioned proposal of love is followed by St. John’s pragmatic proposition. Foreshadowing is everywhere in the book, so that seemingly chance happenings gain added significance as the novel unfolds, and previous events are echoed in those that follow. Because of the novel’s artful structure and carefully chosen point of view, as well as the strong and fascinating character of Jane herself, Jane Eyre, if not a typical Victorian novel, remains a classic among English novels.
n Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë uses various characters to embody aspects of reason and passion, thereby establishing a tension between the two. In fact, it could be argued that these various characters are really aspects of her central character, Jane, and in turn, that Jane is a fictionalised version of Brontë herself. From this it could be argued that the tension between these two aspects really takes place only within her own head. Brontë is able to enact this tension through her characters and thus show dramatically the journey of a woman striving for balance within her nature.
A novel creates its own internal world through the language that it uses, and this fictional world may be quite independent from the real physical world in which we live. Writing in the style of an autobiography, Brontë distinguishes Jane Eyre, who quite clearly from the purely fictional worlds of Angria and Glasstown, locates her work within the world of Victorian England. But although Brontë's world is undoubtedly based on nineteenth-century society, it should be remembered that the world conjured in Jane Eyre is not reality: it is but a world constructed by Brontë in which to tell a story.
A novel based only on the mores and customs of Victorian society would surely hold limited appeal today, except as a historical document, yet Jane Eyre retains power and force even in a post-modern world, as shown by its continued popularity and the many TV and film versions it has inspired. Perhaps Jane Eyre retains such power and relevance because Charlotte fabricated the book from the cloth of her own psyche, her own passionate nature, and so, although our culture has changed drastically since the book was written, the insights into human nature which Brontë gave us remain.
Taking this view makes the characters in Jane Eyre seem denizens of Charlotte's own psyche. Some of them, such as the passionate Bertha and the cold St John, personify aspects of her character, her emotional and logical natures. Others, such as Brocklehurst and John Reed, which seem more two dimensional, could be viewed more as scenery, foils against which the main characters define themselves. Jane herself is Charlotte's most highly resolved character. Over the course of the book readers come to know every aspect of her intimately as she moves through Brontë's world. Readers also come to know her through her reflections, as she embodies aspects of the other characters. Charlotte seems to know Jane intimately, so intimately that it seems likely that Jane is Charlotte's avatar within her fictional world. If Brontë is Jane, it follows that the other characters which came from Brontë might also be aspects of Jane. Through these aspects we see a development of tension within Jane between emotional and logical natures, and this tension is played out in the events of the book.
Taking this argument further, if the book is seen as a reflection of Brontë's own psyche, the source of the various supernatural events described within the book must be Brontë herself. Thus she not only plays the main character in her story but also the supporting cast and the spiritual force which intervenes on Jane's behalf at crucial moments throughout. In this light Jane's meeting with her cousins, which many critics have seen as intolerably far-fetched suddenly makes sense. There are no coincidences in this book. Jane is kept from harm by the ever-present pen of her creator, just as Charlotte herself presumably felt protected and guided by her own protestant faith. Jane meets her cousins because Charlotte felt it was time for her to do so. No other explanation is required.
Passion and reason, their opposition and eventual reconciliation, serve as constant themes throughout the book. From Jane's first explosion of emotion when she rebels against John Reed, Jane is powerfully passionate. Just as Bertha's passion destroys Thornfield, Jane's passion, which destroys her ties to Gateshead, leaves the way clear for her progression to the next chapter of her life at Lowood. However, as Bertha's passion eventually proves fatal, it becomes clear that Jane must gain control over her passion or be destroyed.
We see the dangers of nature and passion untempered by reason in the scene in which Charlotte almost marries Rochester. Jane cannot 'see God for his creature' of whom she has 'made an idol.' If the God of the novel is Charlotte, and Jane is Charlotte's creature, we can see that in losing sight of God through overwhelming passion for Mr Rochester, Jane runs the risk of loosing herself, of losing sight of Charlotte who she embodies. In this case, passion nearly gains a victory over reason. Jane nearly looses her own personality in her overwhelming love. Only Brontë's intercession through the medium of the supernatural preserves her character from passionate dissolution in the arms of Rochester.
The opposite is true when Jane is tempted to marry St John. Jane longs 'to rush down the torrent of his [St John's] will into the gulf of his existence, and there to loose my own' Again Jane almost looses herself, however, this time reason is nearly the victor. Jane's passionate nature is nearly entrapped by St John's icy reason and self control. Once again Charlotte intercedes on her characters behalf, this time with a disembodied voice which directs her to return to Rochester, and saves her passionate nature from destruction. St John's death in India could be said to show the danger that Charlotte saw in icy reason without emotion. Conversely, Bertha's death in a conflagration of her own making shows the danger of the unthinking passion which Jane feels for Rochester. Thus, these two deaths could be said to represent the more subtle death of individuality, in which Jane risks loosing herself and her separate identity.
It is interesting to note that Bertha is portrayed as being ugly, 'a vampyre', a 'clothed hyena' whilst St John is uncommonly handsome. This fits with Brontë's use of fire and ice imagery to symbolise reason and passion. Ice may be hewn into any form, where it will remain, fixed and perfect as long as it stays frozen. Fire on the other hand can be hard to control. It cannot be moulded into exact shapes, it is constantly changing, and if unchecked will consume the ground on which it burns, leaving black cinders and ash, just as Bertha is blackened and swollen. This use of imagery gives us an interesting paradox, since much of the book seems to concern Jane's attempt to reconcile her passionate and reasonable natures. When ice and fire are combined the result is warm slush, hardly a suitable metaphor for a desirable state of being. One or the other, perhaps both must be destroyed. For how then can there be a reconciliation between the two?
Throughout the book Charlotte provides Jane with a number of mentors, each of whom provides her with a piece of the puzzle. The first is Brocklehurst. His Calvinistic philosophy teaches the mortification of the flesh as the way to obtain balance. By crushing Jane's physical body, he hopes to burn excess passion out of her, leaving a balance in which reason may be the ultimate victor. However, this method, like all other false or incomplete doctrines presented in Jane Eyre ultimately ends in death. Typhoid comes to Lowood and Brontë punishes Brocklehurst with shame and scandal. Interestingly, Brocklehurst's philosophy is re-enacted for Rochester when his pride and unreasoning passion is burnt out of him in the fire at Thornfield. Rochester flesh is mortified as he looses an eye and a hand. Through this somewhat drastic method, Rochester, who becomes a more suitable match for Jane, perhaps somehow attains a balance of his own.
Helen Burns seems to offer Jane another method by which tension may be resolved. She shows Jane that she can release her negative emotions, and make them less destructive through forgiveness, and that, by loving her enemies her hatred and anger may fade. We see this philosophy in action when Jane visits her dying aunt and is able to forgive her. She receives a just reward for this kindly act, the knowledge of an uncle living in the East Indies. However, Helens selfless acceptance of all the crimes perpetrated against her does nothing to change those crimes, or to deter their repetition. Had Helen been at Gateshead rather than Jane she would never have escaped. Helen's beliefs prove to be only an incomplete part of a whole, and so, she too dies.
At the end of many trials Charlotte permits Jane to return at last to her lover. It is a wiser Jane, and also perhaps a wiser Charlotte who welcomes this happy event. At this point it seems that the tension between reason and passion should have been resolved. However, this is not the case. There is no sense of any realistic resolution of tension between Jane's reasoning and passionate natures. Perhaps Jane could have attained logical emotion, or emotional logic, or to extend the Brontë's fire and ice metaphor, some sort of interplay between the two like sunlight glinting on the sea or torches focussed through a crystal lens. Instead, Jane and Rochester live in 'perfect concord', their happiness is complete. They feel no passion or intrigue, only a warm sentimentality that seems wholly out of place in a book which has traversed such a vast ranges of emotion. Instead of fire and ice, Charlotte gives us warm slush. Perhaps she never resolved the tension between reason and passion for herself, and so was unable to write convincingly about it. Maybe, because of this she simply tacked on the happiest ending she could contrive, or maybe she wrote what she hoped to gain for herself, without understanding how she could get it. As an account of one woman's journey of spiritual growth, whether Jane's or Charlottes, Jane Eyre succedes admirably. However, in the arrival it fails. Perhaps this is because at the time she wrote the book, Charlotte herself hadn't found happiness with a partner. Whatever the reason, the ending remains profoundly unsatisfying, and the weakest element of the book.
Jane Eyre may be seen in a postmodernist light as an expression of Charlotte Brontë's own character. The players she peoples her world with seem to be aspects of herself, and Jane seems to represent her totality. Throughout the book a tension is established between the forces of reason, championed by St John, and those of passion, headed by Bertha. This tension exists within Jane's head, and also presumably within Charlotte's, but Brontë uses the medium of the novel to play out this conflict among all her characters, and so brings it out into the light. Eventually the champions, Bertha and St John are killed off, symbolising the danger Brontë saw in taking either of these paths to the exclusion of the other, and also symbolising the less obvious death that Jane risks, that of loss of self, either by surrendering to Rochester, or to St John.
The perveyors of incomplete solutions to this conflict are also killed. Brocklehurst, dies symbolically when he is removed from his position as headmaster of Lowood, Helen Burns dies of consumption. At the end of the story, the tension which Brontë has built up between reason and passion is not satisfactorily resolved, which weakens the ending somewhat, however Jane Eyre succeeds because it is taken directly from a young woman's psyche. It speaks to us today because it takes its inspirations from an internal reality that has remained constant.
Allott, Mirriam ed. Jane Eyre and Villette, a selection of critical essays. London: Macmillan Press, 1973.
Last modified 2000