Jane Eyre: Revolutionary Gothic
The traditionally masculine and radically admirable traits of Jane Eyre are inspiration enough to want to analyze Charlotte Bronte’s literary technique in her novel of the same name. But despite her exceptionally strong qualities and extraordinary life, Jane Eyre’s story is represented through some of the most classic techniques in gothic literature. Charlotte Bronte’s presentation of rational gothic, through the developing themes of isolationism and the loose ends of mystery, coexist beautifully within a revolutionary story of love and self-realization. Her adaptation of gothic story-telling, which feels as if it were inspired by previous gothic novels such as the Mysteries of Udolpho, is so progressive and original that it reads as if there were two separate story lines within one book.
Isolation is one of the most terrifying and fear-inducing concepts in the human experience, and has been a gothic literature go-to since the beginning of gothic literature. Isolation continues to be a strong-running theme in film and literature today, and Charlotte Bronte’s novel is no exception. Jane Eyre begins by establishing early the isolation of its main character, the young Jane Eyre, who is also the narrator. Jane is an orphan, (similar to Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho) described throughout the novel as plain and physically unremarkable, with no commonalities in character or manner to the indifferent aunt and malicious cousins with whom she resides. Because of her lack of resources and bloodline with her aunt, she is treated as almost less than human. Her experience there can be summarized in the excerpt, “From every enjoyment I was, of course, excluded.” (p. 24) She is later discharged to a charity school for girls, a bleak and oppressive hall distant from established society, where she spends eight years of her adolescence essentially in confinement. Her only friend, Helen, dies of an illness exacerbated by the lack of resources and indifference that define this setting. The distinctive characteristics of this young heroine, however, begin to re-mold our perception of loss and isolation as she continues to grow in mind, body, and soul, and chooses to spend her next couple of years remaining at the school, in order to improve its circumstances through teaching. The reader is later prompted to reflect on this concept again, through the eyes of Mr. Rochester as he remarks, “Eight years! You must be tenacious of life. I thought half the time in such a place would have done up any constitution!” (p. 128) In fact, it is the tenacity of Jane’s character that perpetuates this theme throughout the plot, as is Bronte’s unique gothic design. Jane’s fortitude and confident nature could not be justified, in print or otherwise, without the struggle and acceptance of adversity and a uniquely unyielding disposition from childhood. It is therefore a seemingly natural union of Jane and isolation; of segregation and a remarkably strong (and sometimes odd) character, that mold the gothic concepts of the story. Jane’s own words depict this union in her ironic perception of her situation: “I stood lonely enough, but to that feeling of isolation I was accustomed: it did not oppress me much.” (p.66) and again, “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” (p. 342) This progressive depiction of a confident, intelligent, creative, and level-headed woman was groundbreaking writing in comparison with previous gothic literature such as The Castle of Otronto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Monk (and is still done too infrequently today.) Jane Eyre developed a mystery and mystery’s first heroine, all in one story.
Secondary to the chilling theme of isolation, the mysteries and unanswered questions of Jane Eyre create an eery climate in which the characters and plot continue to develop. Throughout Jane’s experiences, the reader gets the impression that the secondary characters know things that they are keeping from Jane. This can be seen in examples from Mrs. Fairfax in her multitude of ambiguous revelations about Mr. Rochester, including her description of his peculiar nature, “ -it is not easy to describe- nothing striking, but you feel it when he speaks to you: you cannot always be sure whether he is in jest or earnest, whether he is pleased or the contrary: you don’t thoroughly understand him, in short” (p. 110) and again in her warning to Jane about marrying him: “It is an old saying that ‘all that not gold that glitters’ and in this case I do fear there will be something found to be different to what either you or I expect.” (p. 285). Mrs. Fairfax’s position concerning the knowledge of Mr. Rochester’s insane wife, who is housed in secret at Thornfield Hall, is never directly revealed and therefore many more of her statements throughout the story can be interpreted with ominous double meanings. Staunchly on the knowingly deceptive side of the Bertha Mason story is Grace Poole, who’s character and position remain as haunting and mysterious as the sinister laugh that seems to follow her through Jane’s story. The laugh, the reader later realizes, is much more likely the laugh of a hidden lunatic than it is the drunken laugh of Grace Poole, though neither Grace, nor Mrs. Fairfax, nor any of the servants explain or even directly acknowledge this detail despite Jane’s acute awareness and curiosity of it. A sprinkling of other small mysterious events throughout the story, including the fire of Mr. Rochester’s bed curtains followed by the retention of Grace Poole, the torn wedding veil, Mr. Mason’s relevance and the circumstances of his attack, and the vaguely addressed explanation of Jane’s heritage, keep the plot exciting and puzzling until their reconciliations at the end. These events, however, were matched in weirdness by the mystery of the character and bizarre manners of Mr. Rochester throughout his entire revelation and his courtship with Jane. His continued reference to our dear heroine as an “otherwordly” entity, as he describes her as “elfish” (p. 133) “witch, sorceress” (p. 158) and “a dream or a shade” (p. 262) only adds to the mysterious nature of his affection and true opinion of her. It is up until the very realization that he is a married man that mystery continues to shroud his character, intentions, and the setting of Thornfield Hall.
Worth a short mention, though not a predominant theme in this story, is the literary usage of “The Fair Unknown” character. That character, of course, would be Jane Eyre, but Charlotte Bronte does that her own way. Jane fits this character with all the modesty that she possesses in person, as she never amounts to anything hugely significant. However, given the modesty of her character and the misfortune that Jane has seen, inheriting 20,000 pounds from a locally famous uncle who never lost hope that you were alive is probably qualification enough for the title. Supplement this idea with the remembrance that Jane is an orphan, and her lineage is semi-murky to her, especially after her aunt and benefactress writes her only living biological relative and tells him that Jane is dead. Jane also spends the story proving herself worthy, as her integrity and strength of character never let her become anything less than true to herself. Charlotte Bronte made the “fair unknown” technique fresh and unique because she painted her fair unknown as a female, with unwavering heroic attributes and strength that readers of all genders and ages would have been able to admire.
Charlotte Bronte’s adaptation of gothic technique, Jane Eyre, was a literary gift to its readers in 1847 and is still a culturally relevant inspiration today. This book was the most sophisticated and intricate piece of gothic literature in its time. From the eery, yet beautiful, depictions of Lowood School and Thornfield Hall, to the mysterious nature and events of the loving Mr. Rochester, Bronte takes her readers on an emotional journey between romance and horror through the eyes of Jane Eyre. Though tolerant, modest, and patient, she doesn’t forget to remind us that the real “monsters” are the people that surround us.