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Themes in Jane Eyre
Analysis of some key themes and essays on them to help you generate ideas.
The clearest example of imprisonment in the novel is that of Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife, who is brought back to England from Jamaica to “a secret inner cabinet...a goblin’s cell”. There she has Grace Poole as her “keeper”, but Grace’s tendency to drink, and Bertha’s “cunning and malignant nature”, mean she frequently escapes, once, setting fire to Rochester’s room, then ripping Jane’s bridal veil, and looming over the terrified Jane like a vampire. Finally she sets fire to Jane’s empty bedroom and the fire consumes all of Thornfield, killing Bertha herself, and crippling Rochester.
But imprisonment arrives earlier in the novel, when Jane is confined to the red room, a place of terror for her, causing Jane to tell the doctor: “it was cruel to shut me up alone without – so cruel that I think I shall never forget it.” This is a clear link between Rochester’s two wives. But the wider imprisonment for Jane is her orphaned state, leaving her to be brought up among bullying vicious cousins and an unloving aunt.
The school at Lowood [where “discipline prevailed”] with its inedible food, its beatings and humiliations, its repetitive teaching methods, its rigid religious approach, a place where “semi-starvation and neglected colds” spread disease and death – this too is a prison, as cruel as any in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby.
For a discussion of how marriage too may be viewed as a kind of imprisonment, see below.
Very early in the story, Jane entertains herself with Gothic images – “the fiend pinning down the thief’s pack...was an object of terror. So was the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock.” These are thrilling and fascinating, but they soon succeed to real terror when Jane is shut in the red room, the room in which her uncle died. Her imagination runs riot but the fear is real enough – “so cruel that I think I will never forget it,” Jane says.
There is a similar pattern in the Thornfield section, where elements such as: ghostly “demoniac” laughter; “something [that] gurgled and moaned”; Bertha sucking the blood from her brother’s arm; “the foul German spectre – the vampire” – all these contribute to the Gothic flavour of the novel. They are also chillingly described, in that the reader, like Jane herself, does not understand what is causing them. [One film version of this much-filmed book omitted these elements completely, thereby removing from the story much of its atmosphere]. But the novel is not truly Gothic, since none of these events are supernatural. In fact their true horror lies in the historical truth that Rochester could not be divorced, and therefore is impelled to plan a bigamous marriage.
Family & Marriage
Jane is an orphan. She is brought up by her dead uncle’s wife, Mrs Reed, Jane’s aunt by marriage only. Her three cousins, especially the odious John Reed, bully and torment her. Her experience of family is one of neglect and emotional torment. She later learns that Mrs Reed tells her uncle, Jane Eyre, that she is dead of typhus, because she “could not endure” that Jane “be placed in a state of ease and comfort” through inheriting her uncle’s wealth. But it isn’t lack of money Jane holds against Mrs Reed, it is lack of love. She tells her dying aunt: “Many a time, as a little child, I should have been glad to love you if you would have let me...” And even in her final moments, Mrs Reed cannot bring herself to kiss Jane.
When Jane goes to school at Lowood, she does at least make friends with Helen Burns and with the admirable Miss Temple. But Helen dies (of consumption like all of Charlotte Bronte’s sisters) and Miss Temple marries.
Jane does not expect family affection when she arrives in Thornfield. But with Adela – a kind of orphan herself – Jane becomes a mother-figure, and she experiences mature, adult love for Rochester.
The terrible discovery of his existing marriage forces Jane to flee, and for a time, at Marsh End, she does find a family amongst Rivers and his sisters, which in fact turns out to be related to her. More importantly they show her affection. However Jane does not mistake affection for true love. She rejects Rivers’ proposal, because, although she feels bereft in the world, she will not enter into a loveless, asexual marriage, any more than she would accept a sexual, fake marriage as Rochester’s mistress.
Jane has to wait until the very concluding chapters of the novel to find a real family, when she finally marries Rochester, and bears his son.
Tragically, Charlotte Bronte, who came from one of the most extraordinary families in literary history, who saw her brother and two remaining sisters die within 10 months of one another, died herself, aged 38, with her unborn child, from complications arising during early pregnancy.
Colours & Imagery
As a punishment the young Jane is shut in the redroom. Red can be the colour of passion; it is also of course the colour of blood. It is clear from the very first pages of the novel that Jane, despite her fear, is far from cowed by this kind of treatment. When she passionately accuses Mrs Reed – “You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so...” – she feels her soul “expand...with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt.” Jane never forgets the injustice of the red room, but the experience feeds her passion for justice, which is accentuated by her sufferings at Lowood, and enables her to speak as an equal to Rochester. Jane mistrusts colour in clothing and appearance; the passion of her inner feelings is quite sufficient!
By contrast Jane sees Mr Brocklehurst as “a black pillar”. His self-righteous version of Christianity stresses the convenient importance of the after-life, so that he can happily starve the “charity-children” at Lowood School. To a child this “pillar” makes a forbidding contrast to the admired “temple” of the one teacher Jane finds to admire.
Rochester’s “great dog”, Pilot, is black and white, and for a second, Jane sees him as a supernatural creature until the “man, the human being, broke the spell at once.” The man of course is Rochester, who has “a dark face, with stern features.” She later notes “his broad and jetty eyebrows” – jet is a black stone – and many of the details of Rochester’s appearance seem frightening, even threatening, at first. Jane has to learn to see beyond the surface to appreciate his true nature, and she is able to do this because she talks to him as a free spirit, one who thinks for herself.
Blanche’s mother, the Dowager Lady Ingram, representative of the landowning class beginning to cede power in Britain as Charlotte Bronte was writing , wears “a crimson velvet robe, and a shawl-turban of some gold-wrought Indian fabric, their showy finery contrasting strongly with Jane’s Quaker-like attire. When Rochester wants to dress her up before the wedding, she resists. He wants to buy her “a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin,” but she “persuaded him to make an exchange in favour of a sober black satin and pearl-gray silk.” Jane asserts [in the tone of voice which makes the narration so memorable]: “I never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr Rochester.”
Equally St John Rivers is associated with “marble”, describing himself as “a cold, hard man”, and Jane, contemplating marriage with him, feels an “iron shroud” contract around her. Contrasted with the ice of his nature, Jane feels that were she to be his wife she would have “to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly, and never utter a cry.” She talks of her own feelings as an “imprisoned flame.”
When Jane finally sees Bertha she sees “a discoloured face” and when Rochester remarks that ghosts are usually pale, she replies “This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark.” Jane sees “the roll of the red eyes”, and all this swelling and engorgement of blood is highly sexual, reflecting Jane’s own passions, but deranged and out of control.
Towards the end of the novel Jane becomes rich, having inherited a fortune from her uncle John, who has lived in Madeira. Madeira was briefly a British colony, producing sugar. Thus, indirectly, it could be said, the money Jane inherits comes from the slave trade, since slaves had been used in Madeira during its colonial history.
A closer link is provided by Rochester, who marries Bertha, a Creole, in Jamaica. It is not clear in the novel if Bertha is white, black or of mixed race – all were possible under the term Creole. Rochester, knowing little of her, marries her under the influence of his father and elder brother. They are interested in the dowry of £30,000. Rochester then discovers that Berha’s mother is in a “lunatic asylum”, and his wife begins to exhibit similar tendencies. Her sexual promiscuity repels him, and finally drives her insane. It is probable she has syphilis, though the novel does not [could not in 1837] make that clear.
Jane pities Bertha when she learns the truth, although Bertha has terrified her to the point of unconsciousness. Some critics have seen these details as being “colonialist”, even racist, although Bertha could well be white. It’s interesting too that Rivers wants to be a missionary in India, a country with its own religions, which pre-date Christianity by more than a thousand years.
The most interesting response to this is the novel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, herself a white Creole. Published in 1966 it tells the story from Bertha’s point of view. Rhys wrote to a friend in 1958: “Take a look at Jane Eyre. That unfortunate death of a Creole! I’m fighting mad to write her story.” And write it she did, one great writer to another across the centuries, so that, post 1966, it is, arguably, not possible to read one novel without acknowledgement of the other.