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Jane Eyre essay

Free essay example:

Is Jane Eyre anything more than a superior, if idiosyncratic, Mills and Boon Romance?

The guidelines for writing a Mills and Boon Romance novel state certain criteria, including that it should:

…deal with the love between a man and woman, a love that is resolved happily in the end.  The emphasis is on the shattering power of that love to change lives, to develop character, to transform perception… Any situation may be used – from those that confront concerns such as divorce, affairs, illegitimacy or the problems of materialism, to those bordering on fairy tales.[1]

On first reading the novel it would seem that Jane Eyre does contain some of these characteristics: the incredible romantic attraction between Jane and Mr Rochester; their subsequent love affair; Jane’s disinheritance and ultimate retrieval of her legacy; their marriage at the termination of the novel.  However, Jane Eyre cannot be seen merely as a Romance, and it is the idiosyncrasies in the style in which it is written which characterise it as something distinctly unique in terms of Victorian literature.

Jane Eyre was written in 1948 and can be said to fall under the genre of the Victorian Governess novel.  These novels explore the concerns of the middle-class woman in employment in the nineteenth-century.  At the onset of the novel we know that Jane is an outsider in the house of her cousins: she is socially excluded from their lives.  Therefore she is of a lower social status.  This theme is continued when Jane becomes a governess and through this medium Bronte is able to chart the development of Jane’s development and also focus on her social position.  Boumelha reinforces this when she points out that there are several references to slavery in conjunction with Jane’s predicament, she states that they allude to:

…the slaveries of paid work as a governess and of dependence as a mistress.[2]

  Jane represents the classless individuals in society; they are neither aristocrats nor paupers.  The upper echelons of society perceive her as a threat to their authority, a view shared by Kim Reynolds and Nicola Humble, they state that:

The governess is threatening at first because she is déclassé, and therefore represents the ever-present possibility of a loss of social status: and second, because she is an outsider established at the heart of the family.[3]

However, Jane is an outsider before she becomes a governess; she is an orphan, something which generally only happened to the lower ranks of society.  This device of orphanhood is quite common in Victorian literature and reflects not only social realism, but also enables Bronte to chart Jane’s struggle for survival in a patriarchal world.  According to Kim Reynolds and Nicola Humble:

        …the orphan became an emblem which, when decoded,

is seen to be fraught with radical implications.  The first of these is centred on the orphan-heroine’s freedom to act, and to work.[4]

  Her persecution at the hands of John Reed symbolises her unhappy childhood at Gateshead Hall:

All John Reed’s violent tyrannies, all his sisters’ proud indifference, all his mother’s aversion, all the servant’s partiality, turned up in my disturbed mind like a dark deposit in a turbid well.[5]

Marxist readings of the novel concur with this, and state that there is a social frame underpinning the story.  Jane’s individual will is contrasted with the conservatism of the bourgeoisie and conflicting ideologies are a characteristic of the novel.                

The beginning of the novel can be said to be fairly autobiographical and contains some elements which correspond to events in Bronte’s own life.  There are clear parallels between Jane and Charlotte.  For example, Jane’s schooldays at Lowood are accurately portrayed and can be said to be similar to Charlotte’s own schooldays at Cowan Bridge.  Elizabeth Gaskell states that the descriptions of life at Lowood contain details from Bronte’s school and even certain characters are based upon real people, when she says:

I need hardly say, that Helen Burns is an exact transcript of Maria Bronte as Charlotte’s wonderful power of reproducing character could give.[6]

And, despite Charlotte’s insistence that she would not have based Lowood so closely on her own school if she had known these comparisons would be made, this does not detract from the realism it adds to the novel, enhancing its credibility as something other than pure romantic fiction.

        The narration of the novel is written in the first person, seen entirely from the perspective of Jane – contrasting with popular romance novels, which are always written in the third person.  This use of “I” demands that the reader questions Jane’s motivation, for example, when she comments upon Rochester looking at her:

At last I looked up at the tardy speaker: he was looking eagerly at me.[7]

Therefore, the focus is on Jane even when Rochester wishes to mislead her.  Because we only have Jane’s perspective and not that of an omniscient narrator, this technique forces the reader to make assumptions regarding her character.  Is she vain and egocentric, flattering herself unnecessarily?  In the use of this narrative style, Bronte is allowing Jane to be a more three-dimensional and developed persona.  The technique of addressing the reader which Bronte employs also contrasts with typical third-person narration and heightens the realism.  It is as if Bronte is reaffirming to the reader that the novel is not just a romance, almost apologetically, when Jane says:

…oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth![8]

Feminist readings of the novel provide us with a different facet to its classification.  An article published in the journal “English Studies” states that the novel contains several references to the biblical story of Samson and Delilah.  For example, in Chapter 27, when Jane learns of Rochester’s previous marriage he wishes he could change the situation:

By God! I long to exert a fraction of Samson’s strength , and break the entanglement like tow.[9]

The parallel between Rochester and Samson is also evident at the end of the novel when his hair is emphasised.  Jane combs his hair and warns that she will pull it out if he does not sit still.[10] However, the article stresses that Jane is not a villain like Delilah – she does not return to face humiliation and punishment and is morally right.  It states:

Thus Bronte’s unorthodox use of the Samson and Delilah motif raises a number of questions concerning the role of women and their opportunity to shape their own lives.[11]

Jane is not the ideal romantic heroine.  She challenges the archetypal stereotyped Victorian female protagonist because she thinks for herself.  The novel emphasises her position as an individual who makes her own decisions.  She leaves Rochester after her discovering that he is already married – the attempted bigamy only detracts from the romance and further tarnishes his character – and comes back on her own terms as an independent woman.  Bronte also portrays Jane in opposition to the established patriarchal values of the day.  However, despite this, the male characters within the novel all appear to aid her in some way, and therefore some critics may disagree as to the validity of feminist readings of the novel.  Nevertheless, Jane does offer a feminist repost to patriarchal Christian values when she rejects St John Rivers.  Jane Eyre has been cited as the earliest feminist novel although Jane does not demand educational or intellectual equality but rather to be treated as an emotional equal.  This can be seen in Chapter 23 when she implores Rochester to recognise her as his equal on a spiritual level:

Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings?…I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!…it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal - as we are![12]

This desire for equality on an emotional level is a characteristic of the novel.  In Chapter 12 Jane says:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel…and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.[13]

In response to this R.B. Martin states that Bronte’s portrayal of “ladies” such as Blanche Ingram provides some insistence that women feel just as men do. He cites that Jane’s speech:

…is not propaganda for equal employment but for a recognition of women’s emotional nature.  The condemnation of women to a place apart results in the creation of empty, capricious women like Blanche Ingram, who tyrannise over men…and can only communicate in the language of outdated romantic fiction.[14]

Rochester does not conform to the role of hero as required by romantic fiction such as “Mills and Boon;” their male protagonists must be:

… breathtakingly attractive, larger-than-life heroes.[15]

Rochester contrasts with the conventional hero as he is cast in the mould of a Byronic hero.  Bronte’s central male protagonist does not conform to the conventions of a “romance” novel but rather displays the traits of the Romantic Movement’s key male practitioners.  Rochester’s character reflects the high Romantic tradition; he is petulant and irascible.  The novel contains elements of this “high” Romantic template and merges this with the “low” Romantic genre, which can be seen in the first person narration and autobiographical elements.  Rochester further enhances the realism of the novel.  His attempt to commit bigamy contrasts with the traditional plot of a romance novel.  This device also further enhances the realism by allowing Bronte to indirectly comment upon the British colonies, therefore providing social critique.  As Nancy Armstrong states:

British colonialism similarly disrupts conventional romance in Jane Eyre when Rochester’s house is found to contain an extra chamber hiding a wife he married for her fortune and brought home from the East Indies years ago.[16]

        The realism in the novel is juxtaposed with gothic and supernatural elements which provide a foil to the realism.  The description of the red room in Chapter two provides an air of suppressed sexual hysteria with its womb-like qualities.  This is complemented with a psychological aspect to the room.  This forces the reader to ask questions.  Does the redness reflect her suppressed madness?  Is the spectral vision a by-product of her mind?  However, this use of the gothic is not merely a device to heighten the suspense and make us question the central female protagonist’s sanity – such as in Henry James’ novel “Turn of the Screw.”  Bronte uses the gothic to foreshadow events and reflect Jane’s feelings and she continues this gothic theme throughout the novel.  When Mr. Rochester meets Jane for the first time there are insinuations that he sees her as a witch when he first meets her, he says:

When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse: I am not sure yet.[17]

Bronte incorporates these gothic elements into the realistic narrative framework.  The references to fairytales and almost vision-like dreams add to the subtexts which are developing throughout the novel and reflect Jane’s emotions.  The use of these “fantastic” devices, despite their being somewhat frightening at times, do have a purpose within the framework.  For example, when Jane hears a laugh at her door:

This was a demoniac laugh – low, suppressed, and deep – uttered, as it seemed, at the very keyhole of my chamber door.  The head of my bed was near the door, and I thought at first the goblin-laughter stood at my bedside.[18]

The impending danger at this point in the novel has an ulterior motive and later the reader realises that this supernatural element represents Rochester’s hidden past – but he cannot keep this skeleton locked in the cupboard and soon all is revealed.  This use of the supernatural also contrasts with the natural in the novel.  Rochester and Jane are equals; they have a common spiritual affinity which is highlighted by Bronte’s use of pathetic fallacy.  Nature appears to be in accord during their courtship.  When they each declare their love for one another in Chapter 23 it is Midsummer-eve and an idyllic setting for the romance to blossom.  However, this use of nature also foreshadows the end of their relationship when lightening strikes the horse-chestnut tree and splits it in half.  

        The ending of the novel has divided critical opinion as to whether Jane Eyre is purely romantic fiction.  At first reading it seems that Bronte has conformed to the conventions of the romance novel and provided a balanced and providential conclusion.  On more close inspection, however, it seems that the modern reader can glean a more satisfactory ending.  Yes Jane does return to her hero - a deformed and humbled representation of his former self – but Rochester’s blinding has been interpreted as a feminist retaliation.  Jane does accept patriarchal society ultimately and returns an independent woman and a lady, therefore the romantic and the vocational strands of the novel are satisfied conventionally.  The limitations of the narrative do not allow a more developed ending.  However, will Jane’s desires be satisfied?  The gothic element of the novel must be taken into consideration at the termination of the novel and it can be seen as a protest against the narrow limitations of the narrative.

        To conclude: Jane Eyre cannot be seen merely as a romance novel.  The alternative elements categorise it as something completely unique in terms of Victorian literature.  Bronte exhibits a dissatisfaction with conventional methods of writing in her approach.  The amalgamation of the gothic, fairy tale, romantic fiction, governess novel, autobiographical element and realistic approach within the narrative classify it as something distinctly unlike pure romance.  The novel’s social commentary has provided Marxist readings of the text and although not explicitly feminist the novel can be categorised as a pre-cursor to other novels which examine the role of woman in society more closely.  The infusion of the macabre with the mundane and the realistic with the supernatural, transcends even the seemingly conventional conclusion and provides the reader with infinitely more than a love story with a happy ending.      

[1] URL:Http://www.millsandboon.com.au/home.htm.

[2] Boumelha, P. (1990) Key Women Writers. Harvester Wheatsheaf. P62.

[3] Reynolds, K. & Humble, N. (1993) Victorian Heroines: Representations of Femininity in Nineteenth Century Literature and Art. Harvester Wheatsheaf. P123.

[4]Victorian Heroines P28.

[5] Bronte, C. (1847) Jane Eyre. Penguin Books. P18.

[6] Gaskell, E. (1996) The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Oxford University Press. P57.

[7]Jane Eyre P218.

[8]Jane Eyre. P111.

[9]Jane Eyre P300.

[10]Jane Eyre p433.

[11] Fjagesund, P. (1999) “Samson and Delilah: Chapter 37 of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.” English Studies, 5. P452.

[12]Jane Eyre P251.

[13]Jane Eyre P111.

[14] Martin, R.B. (1996) Charlotte Bronte’s Novels: The Accents of Persuasion. New York: Norton. P93.

[15] URL: http://romance.net.htm

[16] Armstrong, N. (1987) Desire and Domestic Fiction:A Political History of the Novel. Oxford University Press. P177.

[17]Jane Eyre. P123.

[18]Jane Eyre. P149.

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