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Jane Eyre Character Studies
Learn more about the main characters in Jane Eyre by looking at their profiles and relevant essays
Jane’s strength of character is severely tested in the first part of the novel. An orphan, brought up by an aunt who is not a blood relation, amongst cousins who are, she is bullied and unjustly punished in the very first chapter. What is immediately notable is her ability to stand up for herself. When the 14 year old John Reed strikes her [Jane is 10] and throws a heavy book, causing her to cut her head against the door, her response is to call him a “Wicked and cruel boy”, and to tell him he is “like a murderer...like a slave-driver...like the Roman emperors!” For this she is sent to the fearful red-room. Jane’s exceptional tone of voice – and she narrates the novel – is captured when she reflects of the Reeds: “If they did not love me, in fact, as little did I love them.”
She is not afraid to reply honestly to a religious hypocrite like Mr Brocklehurst, nor to accuse her aunt with the memorable words that sum up her childhood: “You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity.” Jane is far from sentimental but she knows that to be unloved is as bad as to be starved.
Jane shows similar qualities when she is sent to Lowood. And this passion for justice extends to her relationship with Rochester. Her appearance – Rochester describes her as being like a nun “quaint, quiet, grave and simple” – belies her frankness and gift for words. Jane soon shows her employer the truth of her own thought: “If he expects me to talk for the mere sake of talking and showing off...” [as Blanche will later do] “he will find he has addressed himself to the wrong person.” And Rochester falls in love with Jane precisely because she does not simper or flirt. Even though she calls him “master”, this is a marriage of equals.
Jane ironically applies the same strength of mind against Rochester when, after it is revealed that he is already married, he tries to persuade her to become his mistress. She has to resist what she yearns for. A conventional Victorian heroine would instantly dismiss such a suggestion, but Jane is far from conventional. She turns her back on what she most wants: “a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles”, she might be, but it would still be a kind of paradise. Later, she will resist the icy embrace of the fanatical Rivers. Once again it would be easier to give in; she is alone in the world, not knowing then if Rochester is even alive. But she will not acquiesce to a loveless marriage, any more than she would to a false one.
In the end, Jane comes through all her trials and marries the man she loves, achieving wealth and happiness. No one, however, could say that life was made easy for her, and of course, Rochester by then is partially blind and crippled. The confessional tone of the novel, and indeed its warmth and humanity, are reinforced by Charlotte Bronte’s narrative method, whereby Jane addresses the reader directly more than 30 times, the most famous of course being, “Reader, I married him.”
Rochester’s first appearance seems almost supernatural – preceded by “a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head” – but this romantic arrival is somewhat undercut by the “lion” being a dog, and Rochester falling from his horse at the sight of Jane, and having to lean on her to walk. He does, however, look impressive, “enveloped in a riding cloak, fur collared and steel clasped”, more like a Byronic hero than a 19th century landowner. His stern, brusque interrogation of Jane, quickly reveals that she does not fear him and that she will speak frankly – she tells him he isn’t handsome – and he soon admits that “Not three in three thousand raw schoolgirl-governesses would have answered me as you have just done.”
He is a good deal older than the very young Jane – “He might almost be your father,” Mrs Fairfax remarks when she hears of the planned marriage – and his experience of life is clearly different. But Jane’s courage and honesty encourage him to tell her frankly about his liaison in Paris with Adela’s mother. Their relationship deepens when Jane saves Rochester from the fire started in his bedroom by Bertha. And it is Jane he turns to for help when Bertha savagely attacks her brother, Mason. He leaves Jane with the wounded Mason, within feet of the deranged Bertha, knowing he can trust her despite her fear. What he does not do, of course, is tell her the truth about his first wife; he dare not because he is falling in love with Jane, and he knows that Jane will only accept him, as a husband. So his first marriage must remain secret.
The section of the novel in which he associates with his aristocratic peers – who can scarcely bring themselves to glance at the plain governess – is his way of testing Jane, and perhaps himself. It confirms for him that his feelings for Jane are genuine, unlike the artificial, insincere, property-based relationship he has with the beautiful Blanche Ingram.
When, through Mason’s intervention, he finds the truth revealed about Bertha, and that he cannot marry Jane, he applies the very considerable force of his personality to making Jane accept the role of mistress.
When Jane resists and runs away, “he sought her as if she had been the most precious thing he had in the world...and he grew savage – quite savage on his disappointment”, Jane is told by the innkeeper near Thornfield. It is become commonplace to regard Rochester as crippled, symbolically castrated, by the fire which kills Bertha, but, as Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out, he is “no less masculine than before” and a son is born, who will inherit the wealth of both his parents.
Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, is clearly linked to Jane, his second wife. And she is often seen as a kind of shadow version of the narrator. Jane is locked in the red room; Bertha in a cell guarded by Grace Poole. Bertha’s presence in the novel, before Jane actually sees her in Chapter 25, is one of manic laughter, a “snarling canine noise”; she is the “something [that] gurgled and moaned” outside Jane’s door. She appears when Jane and Rochester seem closest – for example, after he confides in Jane in Chapter 15, or when he removes his gypsy disguise in Chapter 19.
Her most dramatic appearance comes in Chapter 25, when she enters Jane’s room the night before the “wedding”, poses with the bridal veil looking in a mirror and thus becoming for a second Jane herself, tears it in two, and when “her lurid visage flamed over” Jane, causes the terrified Jane to pass out. Here Jane sees her “red eyes” and “purple” face, as like “the foul German spectre – the vampire.” And indeed, her brother, Mason, says: “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart.”
All this imagery serves to dehumanize Bertha, culminating in Jane’s clearest sight of her, when Rochester reveals her existence after the abortive marriage service: “...a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours.”
When Rochester tells her the story of his marriage, Jane pities Bertha, saying “she cannot help being mad”. Rochester’s story of being legally tied to “a nature the most grave, impure, depraved I ever saw”, suggests that Bertha has late-stage syphilis, an untreatable sexually transmitted disease at that time. We do not hear Bertha’s story [until Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea – see Colonialism] and it is easy to see her as a warning about unbridled female sexual desire. But Charlotte Bronte makes it clear that Jane’s love for Rochester is passionate and sensual, and that she rejects Rivers because he offers sex as the inevitable by-product of marriage, even though he has no sexual feelings himself. [See Family & Marriage]
Rivers shows compassion towards the destitute Jane when she has fled from Thornfield. However, the way in which a particular evangelical type of Christianity dominates his life, has more in common with Mr Brocklehurst than it does with Rochester. Jane finds in his preaching “a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness”, and such is his obsession with “the sect of Jesus” which he is “sworn to spread”, that he suppresses his own feelings about Miss Oliver and wants Jane to come with him to India, as missionaries to a country with many older religions of its own. He asks her to “come as my helpmeet and fellow-labourer”, hardly a romantic proposal, but one he reinforces by claiming “A missionary’s wife you must – shall be”. It is clear he wants Jane to go because she has the qualities he needs, but she must go as his wife for propriety’s sake. His “cold” nature which “no fervour infects” would, Jane knows, make him “scrupulously observe...all the forms of love” – i.e. force her to have sex with him – despite having no sexual or loving feelings towards her at all.
Jane rejects him for a long time, but she almost gives in, out of “duty”, when the sound of Rochester’s voice calling her name, recalls her to her true self, and she leaves the influence of Rivers for ever.
In the final paragraph of the novel, Rivers achieves consummation, not with Jane or any woman, but with his own version of the “Lord Jesus”!
Mrs Reed is Jane’s aunt by marriage, and her husband, Jane’s uncle, made her swear before he died to bring her up as one of her own. But Mrs Reed says of the infant Jane: “I hated it the first time I set my eyes on it”, and her own children are encouraged to bully and torment Jane. It is Mrs Reed who orders Jane to be shut in the red room, who sends her away to Lowood where children are half-starved and beaten to “render them hardy, patient, self-denying”, where Christian tenets are used as threats and heaven as a means of blackmail. She even extends her vendetta against Jane into her teenage years, telling John Eyre, Jane’s surviving uncle, that Jane is dead, and keeping John’s letter secret till on her deathbed. Jane tells her “I should have been glad to love you if you would have let me”, but Mrs Reed, even at the point of death, will not kiss her. Jane concludes, “she had ever hated me – dying , she must hate me still.”
Though a minor character, Mrs Reed’s inability to love Jane or even show her any affection is central to the emotional charge of the novel, and her wretched death, still making excuses for her even more wretched son, “too late...to make now the effort to change her habitual frame of mind”, is a good example of Charlotte Bronte’s lack of sentimentality, and her unsparing gaze into the stony heart of a society that victimised its own children.