In Charlotte Brontë’s bildungsroman novel, Jane Eyre, we follow the character’s journey from childhood into adulthood. The essence of the story is summed up by the well-known metaphor in chapter 23:
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
The structure of the novel offers a perspective where the ‘adult Jane’ reflects on her younger self. John Reed’s taunting leads to Jane being confined in the “red room” and him labelling her a “dependent”. Also, Rochester unveils a shocking truth to Jane on their wedding day: he’s already married to Bertha. Throughout the novel, Brontë masterfully crafts a protagonist who consistently embodies justice.
Our main character experiences challenge, heartache and subjection to the Victorian class, gender and social system. The young Jane Eyre is presented as bright, strong-willed and independent. Her encounters cause her to become even more resilient. Difficult and traumatic experiences lead her to defy societal expectations of the time. In the first ten chapters focusing on Jane’s early life, Jane narrates, “I was a discord in Gateshead Hall…I felt like nobody there.” The word “nobody” emphasises just how alone Jane often was.
In the novel, Jane moves from place to place, with each time structurally symbolising the next hurdle.
Helen Burns stands in stark contrast with Mr Brocklehurst to illustrate two distinct and different views of religion: Helen personifies evangelical Christianity, which is presented with compassion and patience. Jane hears the advice Helen often gives through her dialogue. For example:
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity…”Helen
However, one might argue that Brontë demonstrates the consequences faced by a young girl of the era who ‘accepts’ a submissive lifestyle, like Helen (who ultimately dies).. On the other hand, Brontë perhaps wanted to show Helen as angel-like to honour her younger sister Maria, who died young (it is known Helen’s character was similar to Brontë’s real sister).
Lastly, Helen’s death (from tuberculosis) functions as another marker of Jane’s loss and suffering in the novel. It also shows the sweeping nature of illness that Brontë and her sisters experienced at the time – and lived in fear of.
Whilst these two are minor characters in Jane Eyre’s childhood, their purpose is to show different attitudes of Victorian punishment and views towards children. Abbott is much harsher, believing Jane is evil, whereas Bessie is much more sympathetic.
Mrs Reed symbolises hypocrisy, support of a patriarchal system, and cruelty to children of the time. It is both hypocritical and unpleasant that Mrs Reed treats Jane with such cruelty while placing her own children (especially her son John) on a pedestal.
Jane Eyre narrates:
“Mrs Reed, impatient of my now frantic anguish and wild sobs, abruptly thrust me back and locked me back in.”
The semantic field of trauma is shown through phrases like “anguish” “sobs’ and “locked me…”
The headteacher of Lowood School represents the hypocrisy and misapplied Christianity of the Victorian era. In the novel, religion serves as a source of comfort for Helen but becomes a tool of control in Brocklehurst’s hands.
This headteacher tries to frighten Jane and the other students at his school, by asking the ten-year-old girl, “Do you know where the wicked go after death?” Later, he also humiliates Jane by standing her on the stool and exclaiming, “this girl – is a liar!” Mr Brocklehurst is used as a catalyst, motivating Jane to stand up for what is true and right (she was wrongly accused).
Edward Fairfax Rochester is a symbol of the Byronic hero – passionate, mysterious and moody. Searching for some kind of transformation, Rochester wants Jane to be like an “angel” to him – pure and pleasing. However, Jane perhaps voices Brontë’s own rejection of gender stereotypes of the era. Jane morally guides Rochester, and is not willing to marry him until he has atoned for his former behaviour, and been stripped of his materialism.
Like Jane, readers are led to believe that Rochester is likable, but needs some sort of transformation. As she reflects:
“I thought there were excellent materials in him, though, for the present, they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled.”Jane Eyre
Symbolically, he loses a hand and is blinded when Bertha sets fire to Thornfield; only then is Jane willing to fully embrace the relationship. The reader might feel more satisfied by the end that the young ‘dependent’ Jane now ironically has Rochester (originally a symbol of wealth, status and a patriarchal society) depending on her.
Rochester’s wife, Bertha Mason, is dehumansied; she represents female oppression and a lack of understanding of mental health in Victorian times (for women in particular). She is described often with animal imagery, as a “clothed hyena”, and is later referred to as “it” in chapter 26.
Remarkably, the character has been held captive by Rochester in an upstairs attic to “hide her away”. Symbolically, she sets fire to the bed, indicating lack of intimacy with Rochester. Also, she sets fire to the house at the end, showing either desperation or achieving an act of agency (choice-making). In many ways, Brontë’s novel can be read as an early feminist text.