The novel Jane Eyre takes its heroine through several stages from her childhood to her happy existence as Mr. Rochester’s wife. Her story can be divided into four fairly neat parts:
- her early childhood spent at her Aunt Reed’s house, Gateshead Hall and her subsequent life at Lowood School;
- her journey to Thornfield, her meeting Mr. Rochester, and the growth of a relationship with him that alters her personality and her whole future;
- her desperate flight from Thornfield and its master and her life with the Rivers family which results in an involvement with St. John Rivers; and
- her return to Thornfield, her discovery of the disaster that has overtaken the house and Mr. Rochester and her journey to Ferndean where she is finally united with a blind and broken Mr. Rochester.
A Study of Inter-Relationships
In order to understand Jane’s relationship with both Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers, we must first consider how she has become the kind of person she is, what influences have worked upon her, and what needs, emotional and spiritual, arising from the circumstances of her early life express themselves and seek an out-let in her friendship with these two men.
As the novel opens we see, on a cold winter day, an orphaned Jane who has been thrown upon the mercy of her Aunt Reed, trying to hide herself unsuccessfully from her cousins who torment and bully her. Mrs. Reed, regards her as a burden and her cousins force her to realize her position as a dependent poor relation, little better than a servant. She is not only; “kept at a distance until she tried to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner, something lighter, franker, more natural as it were.” (Jane Eyre chapter 1). She is beaten by John Reed and then unjustly punished by being locked up in the red room. We are, therefore, almost at once, introduced to the discord between Jane and the Reeds, the source of her insecurity, her loneliness, her desire for love and affection, her need for a home and family and kind relations. Jane feels physically inferior to her cousins. We hear throughout the novel of this constant awareness of her insignificant appearance. At Gateshead Hall it is against Georgiana’s doll-like beauty that she is judged and judges herself; at Thornfield she sees in Blanche Ingram’s height and dark majesty a complete and destructive contrast to her own exterior; finally in Rosamund Oliver she meets the last of those women who bring out her sense of inferiority. In the last part of the novel there is no woman who can disturb Jane’s tranquility, or rouse her fears. She is sure Rochester values her for what she is.
The episode of the red room indicates how nervous, sensitive, tense and frightened Jane is, how highly wrought her imagination is. Her imagination colours, and to a certain extent, distorts everything she sees. She is sure the unused room is haunted by the ghost of her uncle Reed and the gleam of a lantern outside drives her to batter hysterically at the locked door before she falls unconscious (At Thornfield, this too vivid imagination misleads her into believing that Mr. Rochester finds Blanche Ingram attractive). When she recovers consciousness after fainting in the red room, her eyes fall on the doctor and she has a ‘soothing conviction of protection and security.’ She feels ‘sheltered and protected’.
To sum up, what Gateshead Hall does to Jane is to make her know what it is to be an orphan, unwanted and poor, without protection, shelter or friends. She has been disregarded, despised, cruelly and unjustly treated with no one showing any interest in, or consideration for, her feelings. Here she has not known affection or kindness.
Miss Temple and Helen
The shift to Lowood Orphanage only stresses her poverty and her dependence on the charity of others. The children are subjected to cold and hunger, they are constantly reminded that they are unwanted, every, effort is made to crush their spirit and humiliate their pride. The hypocrisy of Mrs. Reed is repeated here in the character of Mr. Brocklehurst who appears to Jane, a black pillar, rigid and hard. Lowood School, now even has its compensations. Jane’s desire for knowledge is satisfied and her conscience, a sense of rectitude, awakened and strengthened. In Miss Temple and Helen Burns, Jane at last meets two individuals she can respect, admire and love. Helen teaches Jane the value of a true humility and the love of God. Helen judges her own actions harshly by a set of standards that belong to an ideal order, yet she insists on the need for charity in one’s dealings with others. She condemns no one, however harshly they treat her. Jane incapable of such detachment is both attracted and irritated by Helen’s attitude. It is much later that Jane learns to forgive those who have ill-treated her. Jane does, however, as she grows up in the school, acquire some of Helen’s self-control and restraint, though she remains outspoken and emotional. Helen instils in Jane the idea of God, of a moral order outside the immediate world in which they exist. To Helen heaven offers the compensation she needs for her sufferings on earth. While Helen represents an other-worldly religious attitude, Miss Temple is the embodiment, as her name suggests, of a sane kindly power, active and benign, intervening against evil men such as Brocklehurst.
From both these Jane learns the existence of attitudes, ideas which have been meaningless when adopted and uttered by people she could not trust or love. It is in Lowood, therefore, that she gains the kind of moral strength to withstand the temptation of giving in to Rochester’s need of her. She acquires not only self-control in Lowood but also a rightness of instinct and purpose which makes it impossible for her to offend either against principle or judgment. Miss Temple not only educates Jane but imbues her with her own kindliness of spirit, her indignation at wrong done to others.
Jane’s character is shaped and formed by her experiences at Gateshead hall and Lowood. Her life with her aunt leaves her starved for attention and her capacity to give love and help has lain unused. Her relationship with Rochester is based on this past; Lowood has filled her with a vague idealism which responds easily to St. John Rivers especially since she meets him soon after escaping from Rochester’s very human and earthly demands on her.
It is now possible to consider Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers. The novel presents Jane’s narrative of the events of her life and it is, therefore, through Jane’s eyes that we see the people and incidents that are brought before us. Since Jane is candid we know enough about her to understand her prejudices, her sympathies and antipathies. Jane is both intelligent and sensitive. The narrowness of her range of experience does not, therefore, form any great obstacle to her understanding and judgment of people. Her imagination, however, does lead her astray and she takes a long time to realize that she can be loved and cherished as she does not easily get over her sense of inferiority. Let us now take a closer look at the second and third parts of the novel.
Jane leaves Lowood for her first encounter with the world outside with a sense of release, “the charms of adventure’ and ‘the glow of pride’ sweetening a very natural fear and uncertainty. Fear soon becomes the predominant feeling as she moves further and further from Lowood. When she arrives at Thornfield Mrs. Fairfax quietens her fears and the house on her very first night seems to her ‘a safe haven’ for which she offers up her gratitude to heaven. In the morning she has the feeling of a ‘fairer era of life opening before her.’ It is in this frame of mind that she learns that her new employer is not Mrs. Fairfax but Mr. Rochester. From the former’s answers to her questions she builds up an image of her unknown master, that he likes his own way, that he is a just and liberal landlord, but by and large she is disappointed in her curiosity as Mrs. Fairfax is not observant or perceptive.
Jane’s Relationship with Mr. Rochester
It is three months after her arrival at Thornfield that she meets Mr. Rochester. Her account of this first meeting is filled with a sense of the strange and mysterious; it has about it the air of preternatural as she herself would have put it. Her peaceful walk is disturbed by the tramp of a horse’s hooves and her mind is suddenly filled with fairy tales so that when a large dog and a horse and rider appear she is almost willing to believe this is something out of Bessie’s stories till she tells herself that it is only a traveler. The horse slips and falls throwing its rider and as he heaves himself up Jane sees Mr. Rochester for the first time though at this meeting she does not know who he is. As she looks at the ‘dark face with stern features and a heavy brow’, his angry, frustrated frown, she is aware that she does not fear this man, she is merely a little shy. She offers to help him, something she would not have done, she tells us, had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentlemen. Her exact words are
“That a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, is fascination; but had I met these qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have instinctively known that they neither had, nor could have, sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 12).
It is the fact that Rochester is not beautiful or gallant that makes Jane feel at ease with him from this moment. But more than his appearance, what makes an impression on Jane is the fact that she is useful to him. He needs and asks for help, which she is only too willing to give. In all her life she has not really been able to use her capacity for love, affection or usefulness and all her life she has desperately wanted an outlet of some kind for her generous impulses. Jane is delighted with what he is able to do “transitory though the deed was, it was yet an active thing and I was weary of an existence, all passive,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 12). Her memory now holds a new face dissimilar to all the other images it holds “firstly because it was masculine, secondly because it was dark, strong and stern.” (Jane Eyre, chapter 12).
The rest of this second part of the novel Jane Eyre is devoted to the slow but momentous change in the heroine’s life that turns her from a diffident, shy, unloved girl into a gay, impertinent, lively young woman sure of herself and her power over the man she loves. This change is the product of her relationship with Mr. Rochester. Jane refers to him almost all through the book as “her master” but there is nothing servile or subservient about her attitude and it is precisely her frank, straightforward, truthful manner of expressing her opinions, her avoidance of deceit or deviousness, her self-respect and rectitude of mind that attract her employer. She is everything he has given up hope of finding, a woman who is at once intelligent and innocent, witty but not malicious, honest and direct as a child, impulsive and natural, unaffected but disciplined.
Their relationship cannot be understood unless we take into account the circumstances of Mr. Rochester’s own life, his unfortunate past. He is himself very similar to Jane in his generosity and openness. His capacity for love has been thwarted by his first marriage to a mad and vicious woman and his subsequent experiences with women who sought him for his wealth and used him to further their own designs has merely convinced him that all women are rapacious, greedy, unloving and unfaithful, incapable of either decency or regard for others. In Jane he finds a woman with a sense of duty to her charge Adele, someone who thinks first of him and then of herself, a person to whom wealth is less important than her emotions, her emotions less important than her principle. Jane, like him, trusts her instincts but she acts with a formidable and admirable self-control that upholds the “dictates of conscience”.
This part of the novel consists of a record of a series of episodes each indicating a step in the development of their relationship and their awareness of their dependence on and need for each other. Jane saves Mr. Rochester when his bed is mysteriously set on fire and his debts to her gradually accumulate. While his manner towards her is sometimes domineering she is aware only of his acceptance of their equality. Jane after saving Rochester from a horrible death is filled with a delirium of joy. She knows she is in love with Mr. Rochester. The arrival of Blanche Ingram fills her with despair and she tries to reason herself into a sane despair by setting against a picture of this beautiful aristocratic woman her own portrait a governess, disconnected poor and plain. But this is a blasphemy against nature, this effort to kill her feelings. While she repeats to herself that they are, forever, sundered, she yet knows that while she breathes and thinks, she must love him. As she watches Rochester and Miss Ingram she becomes certain that Blanche cannot charm him because she was neither good nor noble, was not endowed with force, fervour, kindness or sense. Her state was one of “ceaseless excitation and ruthless restraint,”(Jane Eyre, chapter 18).
When, masquerading as a gypsy woman, he describes Jane’s character, one sees what it is he has found in this young woman that makes her different from the Blanche Ingrams of this world, “her eye shines like dew”, her face “looks soft and full of feeling, it mocks, it is full of laughter, or it is sad, it shows pride and reserve. The mouth is mobile and flexible it was never intended for silence. The forehead declares the power of reason, the claims of conscience.” (Jane Eyre, chapter 19). But it is very soon after this scene when he has all but disclosed his feelings to her that he learns of the arrival of Mr. Mason.
The attack on Mr. Mason makes Rochester once again seek Jane’s aid. But he does not tell her who the mad woman is and continues to talk in riddles after Mason’s departure. Jane goes back to make her peace with her dying aunt still in the belief that Mr. Rochester is affianced to Blanche Ingram. As she returns. she has a presentiment that she will not be with Rochester for very long and she must make the most of her time with him. She thinks that she will have to leave him because Adele will be sent to school when. Rochester marries Blanche. She returns quietly, unobtrusively and steals into Mr. Rochester’s presence and is overjoyed at his pleasure at seeing her again, at his reproaches over her long absence of a whole month. His smile she describes as the real sunshine of feeling that is shed over her. As she turns to enter the house she thanks him and tells him that wherever he is, is her home, her only home.
It is on a midsummer’s eve in a garden filled with the evening sacrifice of incense offered up by sweetbriar and southernwood, jasmine-’pink and rose that Rochester finally asks Jane to be his wife and she agrees to give him her gratitude and devotion, but ominously that night the great horse-chestnut tree in the orchard is struck by lightning, a warning Rochester ignores and Jane does not understand.
Jane, realizing the peril she stands in if she yields to soft scenes, refuses to sink into a bathos of sentiment and decides to keep Rochester at a distance. Her task she finds a difficult one-her future husband was becoming her whole world, more than the world, almost her hope of heaven.
“He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not in those days, see God for his creature; of whom I had made an idol.”(Jane Eyre, chapter 24).
For this sin she pays heavily and so does Mr. Rochester for ignoring the laws of man and his religion in contemplating a second marriage while his first wife still lived. Jane on her wedding day discovers the secret of Thornfield Hall and having heard her master’s confession, refuses to listen to his pleading and forces herself to leave him. It is because she is afraid that if she gives in to him he will very soon lose all respect for her, quite as much as her knowledge that an unlawful life with him is morally wrong that makes her run away from Thornfield.
Jane’s relationship with St. John Rivers
It is as an exhausted, broken, helpless, woman pleading for admission to his house that St. John Rivers finds Jane on his doorstep and shelters her. This particular relationship is almost entirely the reverse of that between Jane and Mr. Rochester and it is because Jane is afraid of the kind of emotions that have been aroused by Rochester that she is drawn to the fanatic idealism of St. John Rivers. He on his side finds her comfortable and sensible. There is no danger that he will be tempted from the path of duty or sacrifice by someone who is so plain. He finds her face sensible but not at all handsome and he is incapable of the least warmth of feeling for her. He is in every way the very opposite of Mr. Rochester. Where the latter is of middle height with broad shoulders Rivers is tall and slender; Rochester’s face is dark and stern, irregular and not beautiful; Rivers face is Greek, very pure in outline with quite a straight classic nose, quite an Athenian mouth and chin, it is a harmonious face; Mr. Rochester’s eyes and brow and hair are black while St. John’s eyes are large and blue, his forehead colourless as ivory, partially streaked over by careless locks of fair hair. The contrast between the appearance of the two men is exactly paralleled by the dissimilarity in their characters. Mr. Rochester’s incapacity to govern his impulsive nature is set against the self-control of St. John who will not give way to his feelings for Rosamund Oliver. Rochester has an innate gaiety of spirit that manifests itself in his conversations with Jane, an enjoyment of life that is not destroyed by his experiences, Sr. John’s sermon, Jane finds, is filled with bitterness, an absence of gentleness and it is an expression of a Calvinistic faith convinced of imminent doom.
It is inevitable that Jane flying from Rochester is soon bound to Rivers this time by the bonds of gratitude, forged by his charity. He exploits his power to influence her to sacrifice herself to a higher cause than self. But he really does not understand her at all. He sees nothing of her needs and while his influence over her is great she feels imprisoned by him. While in Rochester’s presence her spirit finds itself liberated, set free, St. John Rivers took away her liberty of mind, “his praise and notice were more restraining than his indifference”. Her vivacity she knew gave pleasure to Mr. Rochester, but St. John she was sure regarded it with distaste. “I was so fully aware that only serious moods and occupations were acceptable that in his presence every effort to sustain or follow any other became vain; I fell under a freezing spell,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 34). Contrast this with the image of real sunshine she uses in describing Mr. Rochester’s smile. While she is perfectly capable of controlling Rochester’s moods she finds herself obeying St. John Rivers like an automaton— “When he said ‘go’ I went, come’, I came do this, I did it. But I did not love my servitude,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 34). There is something cold and chilling about Rivers and she feels she is fettered. Her desire to please him, she feels, involves disowning half her faculties, wresting her tastes from their original bent, forcing herself to the adoption of pursuits for which she had no natural vocation.
“He wanted to train me for an elevation I could never reach; it racked me hourly to aspire to the standard he uplifted. The thing was as impossible as to mould my irregular features to his correct and classic pattern, to give to my changeable green eyes the sea-blue tint and solemn lustre of his own,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 34).
It is not strange that the merciless demands made upon her, the life he wants her to lead, seems an iron shroud from which she wants to escape. When she seriously contemplates a future as his wife she realises that what she feels for him is a neophyte’s respect and submission to his hierophant. When he speaks of love she is revolted at the thought and tells him so. To him she appears violent and unfeminine at times. His zeal in his cause is one thing she finds magnetic. Her veneration for him when she listens to his praise of self-sacrifice takes her rushing headlong down the torrent of his will. She, however, realizes that as it would have been an error of principle to yield to Mr. Rochester so now it would be an error of judgment to yield to St. John Rivers. The mysterious summons of Mr. Rochester’s voice calling her in the night breaks the spell St. John Rivers seems to have cast over her and she finds she now has the power to command him.
Jane’s return to the ruins of Thornfield Hall and her reunion with Rochester which ends in their marriage are recounted in the fourth and concluding section of the novel. But no new light is thrown on the Jane Rochester relationship. Mr. Rochester in this part of the book is no longer the strong protective figure of the earlier part of the story, neither is Jane the diffident girl seeking protection any more. Rochester, when he is sure Jane has been restored to him, is grateful to Providence and he thanks his Maker for her return. To Jane a marriage which offends neither man nor God is a blessing. She and her husband have truly only one c.
This novel, Jane Eyre, is so constructed as to deliberately set off the Jane-Rochester relationship against the Jane—St. John relationship. It is clear that Charlotte Brontë sees in the first a warm human attachment, which is a form of liberty while in the other she sees a loss of individuality that is not the right choice for a person like Jane. Her method, therefore, allows the sets of relationships to illuminate and judge each other.