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A Close Analysis of "Jane Eyre"

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Major Concerns:
Major concerns in Bronte’s Jane Eyre include social class, gender roles and patriarchy, powerlessness and injustice, the supernatural, religion, and education.

Bronte uses the narrator of Jane Eyre to formulate a critical view of social class in the 19th century. Bronte positions those characters that endorse the social hierarchy, such as Blanche Ingram, Mr Brocklehurst and the Reeds in a negative light, illustrating to the reader that characters who endorse the social hierarchy are not good people and generally aren’t rewarded. Through Jane, the social hierarchy is challenged, as is the view that wealth equated to superiority and good character.

Under the umbrella of social class, Bronte addresses themes such as Gender roles and patriarchy, and powerlessness and injustice.

Some 19th century critics saw Jane Eyre as a feminist manifesto. Through Jane, Bronte exerts feminine power and independence, and when Jane and Rochester are finally married, they do so as equals, with Jane Eyre “her own mistress”. She not only differentiates between wealth and independence, but claims that she will not depend on him. It can be said that by the end of the novel, gender roles are somewhat reversed, with Rochester depending on Jane to “be his eyes and his hands”. Through Jane, Bronte expresses the notion that “women feel just as men do”, and expresses that a woman cannot live a life of “stagnation” and “rigid restraint”. These views express feminism at a time when “feminism” was unheard of. Throughout the novel, Jane must escape from a dominant male figure who attempts to harm her or force her to abandon her morals or ignore her feelings. Each male figure in the novel seems to be, at some level, oppressive and controlling, trying to exert male power over Jane as a woman. This can be seen as representative of a patriarchal society in which women were expected to know their place. The fact that Bronte challenges this patriarchal society through the character of Jane makes the novel scathing and critical of the role of women in the 19th century. Jane fights back against the sadistic John Reed, escapes the religious hypocrisy and forced starvation endured at the hands of Mr Brocklehurst, refuses to be Rochester’s mistress although he threatens her with violence, denies St John Rivers a loveless marriage and the prospect of rape, and finally marries Rochester as his equal, although it can even be said that he now depends upon her. Her exertion of power against these male figures represents an opposing view to that which was common at the time.

Not only can Jane Eyre be seen as a feminist manifesto, but more broadly a novel of power to the oppressed class. Jane challenges the notion that poverty is a criminal offense, noting that some of the best people were destitute and deprived. She gives a voice to those who are powerless by exerting her power over those who attempt to repress it. Her sense of justice is innate; she knows what is right and wrong and the reader sympathises with this, while Bronte simultaneously positions us to see the injustice exerted by the upper, ruling class. The characters within the novel who are powerless seem to be portrayed in a positive light, with the reader sympathising with the injustices they have been subjected to at the hands of the ruling class-(Helen Burns, Jane Eyre).

Religion and morality is also a theme recurrent within the novel, with Bronte producing a broad array of varying types of Christianity through different characters. Although these characters are all piously religious, their expression of religion is varying. Helen Burns is dictated by a meek and passive Christianity. She introduces Jane to the New Testament and to a more forgiving God, although believes that she must endure every punishment and injustice she receives on earth. Jane cannot adopt this passive form of Christianity, although she learns immensely from it, and thus is taught through Helen to control her passions when necessary. Mr Brocklehurst shows a hypocritical form of evangelical Christianity, and by portraying him in a negative light, Bronte suggests criticism of this form of religion. Brocklehurst endorses a god who only mortifies the flesh of the poor, while casting a blind eye to the luxuries of the rich. He contradicts his own philosophies and is shaped by Bronte into a disagreeable character. St Johns version of religion is similar to Helens. His somewhat dire Chartist Teachings make him hard and cold. He refuses emotional fulfilment in order to achieve moral duty. Jane, however, cannot live such an emotionally unsustained life. She doesn’t abandon morality, spirituality, or faith in a Christian God, however she differentiates herself from her religious beliefs and although she is faithful, she stands independent from her religion.

The theme of the supernatural provides a gothic undercurrent throughout the novel, and Bronte uses it to create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. There are only one and possibly two unexplainable supernatural occurrences in the novel, however, and most apparently supernatural things are revealed as natural occurrences. Bronte explains the supernatural with natural causes, and this makes the occurrences more sinister as they seem to occur in the real world, rather than in a fantasy world of ghosts and vampires.

Education also plays a significant role in the novel, as it provides characters without money and the consequent power with a means to better themselves, and is highly valued by Bronte though Janes character. It provides the sole route for someone of a poor background to improve their prospects and elevate their character. It also provides Jane with a kind of safe haven, separating her from the adversity of her society.

Other major themes in the text include appearance and foreignness and “the other”, a theme most prevalent within a Post-Colonial reading of the text.

Context: 19th Century England; a patriarchal society dominated by the wealthy. Women were dependent on a dominant male figure, and had no existence under law and under common law, nor were they entitled to any property or divorce rights. They could not vote or enter universities or the professions. The lower class were virtually powerless, with no say in their state of affairs. The future of the lower class lay in the hands of the wealthy, and money was the only claim to power and independence. People were often judged through the pseudoscience of “phrenology”, which suggested that one’s personal character could be evaluated based on the shape and size of facial features. This society was dominated by orthodox Christianity.

Jane Eyre can be read an endorsement of the Chartist movement of the 1840’s in which saw riots and petitions due to the appalling conditions of the working class brought on by Industrialisation and Capitalism. The Chartist movement saw the powerless working class demand equal rights and better conditions. Critics of the time saw Jane Eyre as “burning with moral Jacobinism”; a book screaming for power to the oppressed. It can be seen more broadly as endorsing “us, the English middle class.” Also seen as a “feminist manifesto”, Bronte uses the character of Jane to voice scathing criticisms of the patriarchal society and the position of women; a feminist view before the term feminism was even coined. Bronte’s radical views on social hierarchy, the position of women, and even the hypocrisy of some versions of Christianity challenged 19th century social norms and became an extremely controversial work of the times. In a modern context, Jane Eyre can be read from a post-colonial perspective with the main focus being on Bertha, and oppressed ‘Indian Creole’, the victim of England’s imperialism and colonisation; removed from her home country and forced to marry into a culture that she was not familiar with. Post-colonial critics argue that Bertha is “demonised by racist ideology”, locked up not because she was mad but because of her cultural differences. A post-colonial reading see’s Bertha as symbolic of the devastation and displacement caused by English colonialism, and thus the marriage of Jane and Rochester is “polluted by a queasy racism”. Whether a feminist manifesto, burning with chants for “power to the middle class”, or a highlighter of the devastation caused by English Colonialism, When released, Jane Eyre challenged the social norms that England held dear and caused widespread controversy, criticism, but also immense praise.

Setting: Set in the 19th century, the narrator, Jane finds herself in various locations which seem to be representative of different stages in her life. Bronte not only highlights the locations of Jane, but stresses the weather and nature Jane is surrounded by, as nature and weather are often reflective of Jane’s state of mind. Although always metaphorically “home” within herself, Jane finds herself isolated and out of place within the various locations she lives in at different stages of her life. These different stages are signified by a change in Jane’s surroundings; the five settings Jane finds herself in lay in parallel with stages in her life. Settings are always described with great attention to detail, and Bronte’s imagery provides the reader with a clear picture of the world Jane is surrounded by. “Architectural interiors are described with painstaking care to proportions, dimensions, window-spaces, and hearths”. This attention to detail creates a sense of reality within the various settings in which Jane finds herself, blanketing the reader in Jane’s surroundings. The authenticities of Jane’s different locations provide reality to the plot of the novel. At Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, and Ferndean, Jane is able to move freely from the confines of man-made buildings into the retreat of nature. Nature is regularly a refuge for Jane, and weather is often used to reflect her state of mind.

Characters in Jane Eyre are all viewed from her own perspective, with herself, the protagonist being the main character. This makes the reader unable to tell how the characters behave when outside of Jane’s presence. Jane faces various antagonists who attempt to suppress her or force her into going against her “self”. She must overcome these antagonists, all of which are male, and assert her independence and autonomy. An important aspect of characterisation in Jane Eyre is appearance; as characters seem to change in appearance as Janes opinion of them grows. Appearance is seen by Jane as active rather than passive, and as she begins to value someone more, their appearance seems to change.

-The Reeds-
The first antagonists Jane encounters are the Reeds, primarily John Reed, her sadistic and cruel cousin who leaves every bone in her body shaking at the sight of him. Violent and harsh, John Reed torments Jane, and becomes a character the reader has no sympathies for Mrs Reed, also unjust and dishonest, condemns Jane as a liar to Mr Brocklehurst, when in fact Mrs Reed is the deceitful one. Mrs Reed and John Reed represent the upper class exerting power in the form of wealth over the powerless lower class, represented by Jane. The Reeds are not rewarded for their actions, as Mrs Reed falls ill and dies, and John Reed “is thought to have committed suicide”.

-Mr Brocklehurst-
Mr Brocklehurst, the hypocritically religious headmaster of Lowood School torments Jane by declaring her as a liar to the pupils and teachers at Lowood, publically shaming her in the very place she strives to be accepted. While preaching of mortification in the Lowood girls, Brocklehurst allows his own family to enjoy various extravagances and indulgences, thus contradicting his own teachings and philosophies. He is unjust, and although considered by society to be a philanthropic benefactor of a kind and generous nature, Brocklehurst is in fact cruel and condescending. This negative portrayal of such a “benefactor” is a criticism by Bronte of the wealthy upper class. Although generally thought of by society as generous, she paints a picture of anything BUT generosity in the character of Brocklehurst. Ms Temple, also encountered at Lowood School, is Mr Brocklehurst’s foil; generous and kind, she provides a maternal figure for Jane and clears her of Brocklehurst’s accusations.

-Mr Rochester-
Mr Rochester is a typical Byronic hero. Proud, moody, and somewhat cynical, he has distaste for social institutions and pities himself regarding his marriage to Bertha Mason. He is self-critical and regrets his past libertinism; coincidentally Lord Byron himself was a well know Libertine. Rochester’s past is tainted with immoral actions and illegitimate mistresses. He is somewhat rebellious, abrupt, and rude, although also educated, perceptive, seductive, and affectionate. Jane’s narrative voice often associates him with images of warmth and fire, making him akin to her “incendiary” self. Although craggy and generally not thought of as attractive, Jane’s opinion of his appearance heightens as her feelings for him grow. Rochester, although wealthy, plans on going against social conventions and committing bigamy by marrying Jane. Following his passions rather than moral correctness, he proves himself to be morally inferior to Jane, who refuses to commit to a false union. At the end of the novel, however, Rochester is humbled physically and emotionally, and he and Jane are united as equals in the eyes of society as well as in the eyes of the reader after Jane inherits a significant sum of money. When finally married, it can even be said that gender roles are reversed, as Rochester now depends upon Jane to be his eyes and his hands.

-Helen Burns-
Helen Burns is an important character. She becomes Jane’s first friend, and her religious and moral ideals influence Jane for the rest of the novel. Helen is passive and sombre; a victim of unjust cruelty, she chooses to accept her position and is submissive to those who exert their power over her. Helens “love your enemy” philosophy and Christian humility plant in Jane a means to control her passions throughout later chapters in the novel. Although victimised, Helen remains virtuous and forgiving, obedient and calm. Helen Burns is Jane’s ultimate foil; While Helen is accepting of her oppression, Jane fights it. While Helen is content with a reverent faith that will see her through life’s hardships, Jane must assert her “self” as coming before her religious beliefs. Jane is active; Helen is passive. Helen is compliant; Jane is resistant. Helen is somewhat angelic and almost too good for this world. She teaches Jane to control her urges to fight up against her positions.

-St John Rivers-
St John is the austere evangelic Calvinist, who proposes to Jane for purely practical religious reasons; he believes she would make a good missionaries wife to accompany him on a religious journey to India. His version of Christianity seems to dominate his entire life, and his feelings and passions are sacrificed in order to uphold his Christian moral principles. Stoic and detached from emotional fulfilment, St John provides Jane with the realisation that she cannot be emotionally starved by participating in a loveless marriage. St John is often associated with rock, ice, and snow; a stark opposite to the fiery themes associated with both Rochester and Jane. Devoutly dedication to his morals, St John denies himself a love of the local beauty, Rosamond Oliver. This form of all-encompassing Christianity, Jane cannot be a part of. Although remaining faithful and spiritual, Jane asserts independence from her religion.

-Jane Eyre-
The main character and the protagonist, Jane Eyre, is intelligent and sophisticated, and these traits are expressed by Bronte through the educated way that Jane conveys her ideas, thoughts, and experiences to the reader. Her sense of moral correctness is innate; she seems to have an awareness of what is right and wrong from a young age, and stands up to John Reed at just ten, with the knowledge that her treatment is unjust. Passionate and set in her beliefs, It is natural for Jane to fight up against the things she believes are “wrong. She learns to control her passions, however her integrity remains strong, and her thoughts and opinions never waver at the influence of other characters. Often associated with incendiary themes, Jane, although always attempting to appear calm and composed, is passionate and warm at heart. She is unable to live a life deprived of all emotional fulfilment; however she cannot commit herself to a life of moral incorrectness. Jane is honest and affectionate toward the reader however her self-presentation may not be entirely accurate, as she always portrays herself as “plain” although other characters speak of her “beauty”. For Jane, liberating passions would be sacrificing dignity and integrity for the sake of feelings. It is important for Jane to be autonomous; “her own mistress”. She often analyses her own thoughts, and is able to critically judge her actions and reflect upon herself; she has a high level of self-awareness. Although she is often ostracised, Jane is always “at home” within herself.

Tone and Style/Narrative Voice/Structure
Bronte’s writing style is polished, accurate, and sophisticated. The use of long sentence structure enables Jane to elaborate on her ideas in elegant successions rather than short statements. This construction creates a sense of subtlety in Jane’s ideas. Meticulous description of everyday objects and experiences provides a world that is real, and tangible to the reader. The informal dialogue of minor characters provides another layer of reality to the text, and the attention Bronte pays to description of sound, taste, touch, and even architectural dimensions create a world that is active, and rich with aesthetic authenticity that appeals to all five of the senses, leaving the reader totally immersed in Jane’s world. The novel is constructed chronologically, following Jane from childhood to adulthood in first person retrospective prose. Through the character of Jane, Bronte addresses political and philosophical concerns regarding her own society, and although these views are “Jane’s”, fundamentally the political and philosophical undercurrent in the novel stems from Bronte herself through the way she has constructed Jane’s character. Bronte challenges social conventions through Jane’s character, and also challenges the conventions of the English languages in various instances by going against the standard sentence structure. Her style is somewhat “gothic-romantic”, hinting on supernatural occurrences throughout the novel, although in most instances explaining them with natural circumstances. The articulate description of enigmatic architecture and the sense of mystery and unrevealed knowledge entwined into the plot also contribute to the Gothic component of the text. The romantic element in the novel stems from Janes relationship with Rochester; also filled with suspense and false clues that leave the reader with a sense of tension and curiosity. As the novel is written in the first person perspective of Jane, the authorial tone becomes somewhat transparent as it is difficult to separate the attitude and voice of Jane from that of Bronte. Bronte constructs Jane’s narrative voice as friendly and confessional, developing an affectionate and personal relationship with the reader and Jane through Jane’s direct address of the “dear reader”. Moments of internal dialogue develop this personal relationship further, as the reader is allowed into Janes own mind. The reader feels like Jane’s personal confidant, bearing witness to secrets of her most internal self. The character of Jane retells her story to the reader in a retrospective manner, and we are reminded of this retrospective nature when the adult Jane is able to convey and reflect on past experiences from a wiser point of view, not only telling her story but providing snippets of reflective commentary on her own experiences. Although the reader is positioned to believe that Jane is an honest narrator, we can see through the voices of other characters that her depiction of herself may be untrue. Jane expresses to the reader her physical “plainness”, however Bronte has intentionally made other characters speak of Jane’s external beauty, showing that Jane’s self-portrayal may not be accurate. As the entire novel is conveyed through Jane’s perspective, it is difficult if not impossible to obtain the point of view of other characters. By changing the narrative voice to that of another character, the reader would be given a perhaps more accurate view of Jane herself, and changing the point of view could be an effective way of conveying Bronte’s stance on various themes through alternative eyes, thus creating a broader picture.

Key Images/Motifs:

Major motifs in Jane Eyre include the red-room, fire and ice, and the madwoman in the attic

The red-room plays a major role in Jane’s life, and there are various interpretations of its symbolic meaning. It can be seen as representative of what Jane must overcome in her struggle to overwhelm oppression, and may also signify her position of exile and imprisonment, and her exclusion from love and independence. Jane is metaphorically taken back to the red room every time she faces a traumatic or oppressive experience in her life.

The motifs of fire and ice are also significant; fire can be seen as representative of passion and sexuality. Jane usually associates herself with images of fire, and Rochester is also associated with these incendiary images, making them ‘akin’, while characters associated with ice, (St John) are not matched with Jane’s personality. Freezing weather is also representative of Jane’s state of mind at various points in the novel.

The Madwoman in the Attic is a very significant motif that can be interpreted in various different ways. From a feminist perspective Bertha can be seen as representing feminine rage and pain that 18th century English society suppressed. Parallels can be drawn between Bertha and Jane, with Bertha expressing Jane’s most intense emotions that she is unable to express. As a manifestation of Jane’s unspoken feelings, Bertha stands up against the suppression of female passion, sexuality, and rage by a patriarchal society. Perhaps symbolic of the trapped Victorian wife, Bertha may also have a role as a warning to Jane, and to the reader, regarding the suppression that becoming Rochester’s wife would entail. From a post-colonial perspective, Bertha represents the negative effects of English colonialism. As a West-Indian-Creole, Bertha has been brought to England against her will and introduced to a culture that she is not accustomed to. According to this post-colonial reading, Bertha Mason is locked away due to her cultural differences.

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