Monday, July 25, 2011

How key themes and issues are signilled at the outset of Jane Eyre

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The Bildungsroman, a novel that details the growth and development of a main character through several periods of life, began as a German genre in the seventeenth century, but by the mid eighteen hundreds it had become firmly established in England as well. Such important Victorian novels as Great Expectations, base themselves on this form, which continues as an important literary sub-genre even today. The Bildungsroman typically told the story of a man growing from boyhood to adulthood. Charlotte Bront�s appropriation of the form for her heroine, represents one of the many ways in which her novel, Jane Eyre, challenges the accepted Victorian conceptions of gender hierarchy, making the statement that a womans inner development merits as much attention and analysis as that of a man. Through a careful reading of Chapter one, this essay will attempt to suggest ways in which, in the light of my understanding of the novel; key themes and issues are signalled at the novel’s outset.

The novel opens on a dreary November afternoon at Gateshead, the home of the wealthy Reed family. A young girl, Jane Eyre sits in the drawing room reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Janes aunt, Mrs Reed, has forbidden her niece to play with her cousins Eliza, Georgiana, and the bullying John. John Reed goes looking for Jane and finds her sitting at the window seat. He sits himself in an armchair and gestures for Jane to come and stand before him. He starts chiding Jane for being a lowly orphan who is only permitted to live with the Reeds because of his mothers charity. After asking Jane what she was doing and reminding her that she is not allowed to read his books, he hurls a book at Jane, pushing her to the end of her patience. “…Not at first aware what was his intention; but when I saw him lift and poise the book and stand in act to hurl it, I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm not soon enough, however; the volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it. The cut bled, the pain was sharp my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded. Wicked and cruel boy! I said. You are like a murderer--you are like a slave-driver--you are like the Roman emperors! (C. Bront�, Jane Eyre, Hertforshire Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1, p5-6).

Jane erupts and the two cousins fight, “He ran headlong at me I felt him grasp my hair and my shoulder he had closed with a desperate thing. I really saw in him a tyrant, a murderer. I felt a drop or two of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering these sensations for the time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort. I dont very well know what I did with my hands, but he called me Rat! Rat! and bellowed out aloud” (Bront�, p5). Mrs. Reed holds Jane responsible for the scuffle and sends her to the red-room - the frightening chamber in which her Uncle Reed died, as punishment.

From chapter one, the reader can see how Bront� establishes Janes character through her confrontations with John and Mrs. Reed, in which Janes good-hearted but strong-willed determination and integrity become apparent. This chapter along with chapter two also establishes the novels mood. Beginning with Janes experience in the red-room in chapter two, the reader senses a palpable atmosphere of mystery and the supernatural. Like Emily Bront�s Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre draws a great deal of its stylistic inspiration from the Gothic novels that were in vogue during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These books depicted remote, desolate landscapes, crumbling ruins, and supernatural events, all of which were designed to create a sense of psychological suspense and horror. While Jane Eyre is certainly not a horror novel, its intellectually ambitious criticisms of society make it far more than a typical Gothic romance, it is Bront�s employment of Gothic conventions that gives her novel popular as well as intellectual appeal.

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From the beginning, Jane Eyre explores and challenges the social preconceptions of nineteenth-century Victorian society. Themes of social class, gender relations, and injustice predominate throughout. Jane Eyre begins her story as an orphan raised by a wealthy and cultivated family, and this ambiguous social standing motivates much of the novels internal tension and conflict. Janes education and semi-aristocratic lifestyle are those of the upper class, but she has no money. As a penniless orphan forced to live on the charity of others, Jane is a kind of second-class citizen. In some ways she is below even the servants, who certainly have no obligation to treat her respectfully. The tensions of this contradiction emerge in the very first chapter of the novel, when Jane suffers teasing and punishment at the hands of John Reed and his hateful mother. Janes banishment to the red-room exemplifies her inferior position with regard to the rest of the members of the Reed household.

The red-room is the first in a series of literal and metaphorical imprisonments in the novel. Although Janes imprisonment in the red-room is real, she will encounter spiritual, intellectual, and emotional imprisonment throughout the book. Chapter one suggests that the rigid Victorian hierarchies of social class and gender will pose challenges to her freedom of movement and personal growth, and corrupt morals and religion will also constitute menaces to her ability to realise her dreams for herself. Jane will even come to fear ‘enslavement’ to her own passions. At the same time, the red-room is also symbolic of Janes feeling of isolation with respect to every community she is ‘locked in’, but she is also, in a sense, ‘locked out’. Again, class and gender hierarchies will contribute to Janes sense of exile. For example, her position as a governess at Thornfield once again situates her in a strange borderland between the upper class and the servant class, so that she feels part of neither group.

Throughout the novel, Jane struggles continually to achieve equality and to overcome oppression. In addition to class hierarchy, she must fight against patriarchal domination, against those who believe women to be inferior to men and try to treat them as such. This issue is clearly signalled in chapter one when John Reed says, You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemens children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamas expense. Now, Ill teach you to rummage my bookshelves for they ARE mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows” (Bront�, p5).

Images of ice and cold are also signalled at the novel’s outset. These images often appear in association with barren landscapes or seascapes, and they symbolise emotional desolation, loneliness, or even death. …The solitary rocks and promontories; the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space, that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold; “Of these death-white realms” (Bront�, p). The description of the arctic that Bewick describes in his History of British Birds parallel Janes physical and spiritual isolation at Gateshead, “I formed an idea of my own shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through childrens brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking” (Bront�, p).

Although only explained in chapter two, the red room is what ends chapter one, Take her away to the red-room, and lock her in there. Four hands were immediately laid upon me, and I was borne upstairs” (Bront�, p6). From the end of the chapter one, it is suggested that the red-room is viewed as a symbol of what Jane must overcome in her struggles to find freedom, happiness, and a sense of belonging. In the red-room, Janes position of exile and imprisonment first becomes clear. Although Jane is eventually freed from the room, she continues to be socially ostracised, financially trapped, and excluded from love; her sense of independence and her freedom of self-expression are constantly threatened.

The red-rooms importance as a symbol continues throughout the novel. It reappears as a memory whenever Jane makes a connection between her current situation and that first feeling of being ridiculed. Thus she recalls the room when she is humiliated at Lowood. She also thinks of the room on the night that she decides to leave Thornfield after Rochester has tried to convince her to become an undignified mistress. Her destitute condition upon her departure from Thornfield also threatens emotional and intellectual imprisonment, as does St. John’s marriage proposal. Only after Jane has asserted herself, gained financial independence, and found a spiritual family, which turns out to be her real family, can she wed Rochester and find freedom in and through marriage.

The development of Jane Eyre’s character is central to the novel and this is seen from chapter one. Jane possesses a sense of her self-worth and dignity, a commitment to justice and principle, a trust in God, and a passionate disposition. From a young girl, as I have shown in chapter one, she is forced to contend with oppression, inequality, and hardship. Although she meets with a series of individuals who threaten her autonomy, Jane repeatedly succeeds at asserting herself and maintains her principles of justice, human dignity, and morality.


1. Bront�, C. Jane Eyre. Hertfordshire Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1.

. Campbell, S. Charlotte Bront� Jane Eyre. London Penguin Books, 188.

. Gregor, I. The Bront�’s A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey Prentice-Hall, Inc, Englewood Cliffs, 170.

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