Complex and Contradictory
To the nineteenth century reader, Jane Eyre was something new in the field of fiction. It was totally unlike any other novel popular around that time. The novel’s exciting and melodramatic story, its vigorous characterization and unconventional treatment of characters, the convincing simplicity and sincerity of its narrative and its persistent moralizing all indicated a new point of departure in the art of the novel.
In what respects does Jane Eyre differ from the typical novel of the last century? The answer to this question leads us to a discussion of the art of Charlotte Brontë.
Jane Eyre is a strange and complex novel. It can only be characterized by using a number of paradoxical statements because the novel combines within its structure many contradictory features. We may characterize this novel as romantic and realistic, traditional and experimental, conventional and original, simple and complex, all at the same time. One reason of the enormous vitality of this strange novel is that the art of Miss Brontë forges into unity many disparate elements.
Let me explain what I mean. I said that it is romantic and realistic at the same time. It is essentially a romantic novel. Its basic theme is the power of love. It portrays the impact of passionate love of two human beings. Dr. Johnson commenting on the romantic dramas of the seventeenth century remarked that the aim of the writer of romantic plays was:
“to bring a lover, a lady and a rival into the fable, to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them with oppositions of interest, to harass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other …….. to distress them as nothing human was ever distressed, and to deliver them as nothing human was ever delivered.”
This observation may be transferred to the story of our novel. The plot of Jane Eyre has this melodramatic quality. More than this, there are improbable coincidences, mysterious events and echoes of preternatural life, such as ghostly laughter, omens and premonitions such as are to be usually found in the romantic novels of the Gothic variety.
But in spite of these romantic elements, we find that the novel is deeply anchored in the realities of experience. I referred already to the autobiographical elements in the book and also to the realistic picture of contemporary life in it. It is in the form of an autobiography. Indeed, it bore the following title when it was published in 1847. Jane Eyre: An autobiography: Edited by Currer Bell. The latter name was the pseudonym adopted by Charlotte Brontë. The story, told in the first person, traces the career of Jane Eyre from childhood to middle age. The events in the novel are specifically defined as regards both time and space. The locale of the events is the mid-counties of England. And the incidents are supposed to have taken place during the nineteenth century. There is, further a strain of persistent moralizing from the very beginning to the end.
Consider, next, her art of characterization and her depiction of the two major characters, Jane and Rochester. From one point of view they are romantic, from another point of view, they are thoroughly unromantic. Jane is portrayed as rebelliously independent and where love is involved she is thoroughly unconventional. Yet the novelist tells us that Jane’s is the portrait of a governess, disconnected, plain and poor. She is a strange figure to play the part of the heroine in so popular a novel. By her own confession:
A greater fool than Jane Eyre had never breathed the breath of life: a more fantastic idiot never surfeited herself on sweet lies and swallowed poison as if it were nectar, Her main delusion consists in “rejecting the real and rabidly devouring the ideal”. In presenting an ordinary governess Jane Eyre as the central personage in an extraordinary tale of passion and suffering, Miss Brontë is turning the tables on those novelists who portray beautiful and winsome heroines, but whose character, on closer analysis, will be found to be superficial and whole emotions tepid and insincere.
Mr. Rochester, the hero of the novel, is a study in contrast. In fact, he is the least heroic among the heroes to be met with in the major novels. As he is introduced to us in the early chapters of the novel, he is not distinguished by any of those qualities which the heroes of the traditional novels possess. He has neither remarkable powers of the body nor of the mind. With a spice of the devil in him, he is a weak imitation of a dissipated Byronic figure. Often moody, frequently unpredictable, he is enigmatic both in speech and conduct. He says.
“When fate wronged me, I had not the wisdom to remain cool. I turned desperate; then I degenerated” (Jane Eyre, chapter 14).
But this unheroic hero of the earlier part of the novel emerges at the end as an admirable figure. The degenerate Rochester becomes the regenerate Rochester, as we see him blind, an invalid, bravely facing his tragic destiny and secretly nursing his undying passion for Jane. This then is a major feature of the art of Charlotte Brontë. She takes the conventional and traditional material and reshapes and remoulds it into a totally new and significant pattern.
An analysis of the structure of the plot of Jane Eyre will reveal clearly her art of transforming the material of her novel. An ordinary story of a dissolute master’s passion for his governess has been moulded into a well-knit and unified plot which with unflagging attention engages the reader from beginning to end, Jane Eyre is never dull and always powerful. Here is the plot in a nutshell:
Jane begins with her earliest recollections. She engages our attention by the masterly picture of a strange and oppressed child. She is an orphan, unwanted dependent in the house of a cruel aunt……Jane rebels against the tyranny of her aunt. And at eight years of age she is transferred to a charity school, called Lowood where, too, life is oppressive to begin with. The puritan Mr. Brocklehurst who is the treasurer of the school subjects the inmates of the orphanage to needless severity in the name of religion. But soon the conditions change. A number of girls die on account of an epidemic-an enlightened committee of managers replaces Mr. Brocklehurst. Life becomes more easy. On the whole here Jane spends eight years in the school, six as a pupil and two as a teacher.
Now, she is interested in improving her career and advertises for a situation. She obtains one as the governess in Thornfield Hall. It belongs to Mr. Rochester who is a bachelor and much addicted to travelling. Consequently he is, more often than not, absent from the house. Jane finds Thornfield Hall a pleasing house to live in and the inmates, an old gentlewoman house- keeper and a young French child called Adele, are cordial to her. The servants are courteous. Adele is going to be Jane’s future pupil. Born of a French mother, she is reputed to be Mr. Rochester’s daughter. But in the midst of this pleasing environment, there is one discordant element which perplexes Jane. It is a strangely disturbing laughter frequently heard, especially at odd hours of the night, from some distant part of the house. In spite of Jane’s efforts she cannot trace its sources. She is now certain that in this peaceful and pleasant house, an inexplicable mystery lurks somewhere. A mystery there certainly is in the house though nothing reveals it. This sense of preternatural mystery comes with marvellous effect from the monotonous life all around.
Before long, Mr. Rochester arrives at Thornfield Hall. Dark in complexion, strong and large in build, he is painted initially as a repulsive figure. There is more in him of the highway man than of the hero. His manners are blunt and sarcastic. He is frank; but his frankness is offensive.
His presence at Thornfield Hall changes the atmosphere of the house. He occasionally sends for the child and the new governess, whom he finds to be a queer little one, to keep him company. She at once becomes his confidante and to her he confides all the sordid secrets (but one of his past life, his numerous love affairs and all.
His words are not refined and his behaviour to Jane is not polite. A girl of eighteen is hardly the right person to whom such secrets could be communicated. What is more astonishing is that Jane shows no disgust. Miss Brontë’s handling of this aspect of Rochester-Jane relationship has been seriously criticised. Furthermore, the passion of love on the part of an inexperienced girl like Jane for a capricious and eccentric brute is difficult to understand. Jane at once becomes attached to him whom she calls her master.
As some critics maintain, could it be that Miss Brontë lacked adequate knowledge of life itself. We cannot support such conclusions. It can easily be noted that the contrasts established between their respective characters and temperaments, between innocence on the one hand and dissolute corruption on the other, produces a powerful effect. Jane and Rochester act as foils to each other. The phenomenon of their love could superficially be understood on the basis of the principle that opposites attract each other.
But to continue the story:
A dreadful event strengthens the dawning love of Jane for Rochester. One night Jane is suddenly awakened by the sound of mysterious laughter close to her ears and the noise of someone trying to feel his way in the dark, on waking up she finds the passage full of smoke. She discovers that her master’s bed is enveloped in flames. By her timely exertions, he is saved.
Some days after this episode, Mr. Rochester returned to Thornfield from a visit to a neighbouring family with a large number of guests and a beautiful lady, Miss Blanche Ingram. She is obviously Rochestor’s fiancee. Jane shows no surprise and retires to her quiet role of governess. Jane in the meantime is called away to her aunt’s house on account of her illness for a short while. She returns to Thornfield after a month, all that time this rumour of the engagement between Rochester and Miss Ingram is kept only to try Jane’s love and character.
From now, the events move rapidly. One evening when they are together sitting on the roots of an old chestnut tree, Jane confesses her love to him Rochester gives up his mask, makes his declaration in turn and urges her to marry him. The wedding day is soon fixed.
Here, again, Miss Brontë has been criticized for portraying Jane as making the initial advances. It is argued that this is both untrue and unnatural. It is man and not woman who does the courting. We have an unrealistic situation. But let us not hasten to accuse Miss Brontë of ignorance. A studied unconventionality of treatment is here a part of her purpose.
Now. Jane begins to be troubled by mysterious omens. The very morning after their mutual declaration of love she learns that the old chestnut tree on whose roots they sat confessing their love has been struck by lightning and its trunk cleft into two from top to bottom. The night before the wedding day, a horrid shape enters her bedroom. It tries on her wedding veil, frightens Jane and after tearing the veil into two disappears. From here the story moves to the tragic climax and its final resolution in a happy ending.
The couple, unaccompanied and unassisted by any proceed to the church for the solemnization of the ceremony. At first, we meet there none besides the priest and his clerk. But as the ceremony proceeds and as the priest reads the usual charges a loud voice interrupts it announcing that the marriage cannot take place. There is a serious impediment. Mr. Rochester is already married and his wife is living in the house. It is she who attempted to burn him at night and two nights ago, frightened Jane and tore her veil. The strange and discordant laughter which frequently assailed Jane’s ears came from her.
This is a terrific climax. The joyous expectations of two lovers blighted forever right at the moment when consummation of bliss seemed to be near at hand.
Mr. Rochester explains the secret to Jane. Mrs. Rochester a mad, diabolical creature whom he had been tricked into espousing through the treachery of his father and brother.
The 26th chapter of the novel which depicts these scenes is of the rarest intensity. Jane heroically struggles with her agony of desolation. Few novelists equal Miss Brontë in her power of description here. I am quoting one brief passage for instance:
Jane’s Predicament and her Transformation
“The whole consciousness of my life lorn, my love lost, my hope quenched, my faith death- struck, swayed full and high above me in one sullen mass. That bitter hour cannot be described; in truth, the waters came into my soul; I sank in deep mire: I felt no standing; I came into deep waters; the floods overflowed me”(Jane Eyre, Chapter 26).
Crisis transforms Jane from a common and ordinary governess into a heroine. Soon after this dreadful revelation. Mr. Rochester proposes to elope with her and live clandestinely in Europe and to share once more his life and live. But Jane resists this request. But she emerges unscathed from this fire of temptation both internal and external. Her character is stamped from this moment onwards. Miss Brontë has achieved the well-nigh impossible task of re-moulding a plain and poor governess into a tremendously fascinating and complex heroine. The rest of the story may be rapidly told, because the central purpose of the novelist has been nearly achieved by now.
Jane runs away from Thornfield and Rochester, leaving no trace behind. And through a series of improbable coincidences she is brought to the house of her cousin, St. John Rivers. Through his help she becomes a schoolmistress. And after the death of her uncle, Jane inherits a small fortune which she shares with her cousins. Eventually Mr. Rivers falls in love with her. At a very critical moment when she is about to accept his offer of marriage Jane is summoned by an imperious telepathic call “Jane, Jane, Jane,” This came from Rochester.
Jane hastens to Thornfield Hall. She learns that the house is in ruins. Some months ago, Mrs. Rochester had set fire to it and killed herself; Mr. Rochester, while attempting to save his wife, was blinded and injured.
So it is as a blind and invalided man that she meets Rochester again. He lives at the Manor House attended to by his loyal servants, John and his wife. The story at this stage is somewhat forced to produce a happy resolution. Jane rejoins her master and lover. They are married and not long after Mr. Rochester recovers his sight.
This bare outline does not do justice to the narrative vigour of Miss Brontë. The main events of the plot are masterly in conception and produce great effects.
The Novel as a Tale of Passion
This novel then does not present a story of adventure or of intrigue or of sentimental love. There is no place in it for depicting the comic contrasts of incongruous character. But the amazing vigour of the plot and the vitality of the novel are derived from the free expression of passion. It is the power of passion, which transforms all the characters and incidents in the novel. Miss Brontë’s criticism of Jane Austen is well known. She said the passions are perfectly unknown to Jane Austen. A passionate interest in life made her see it with more intensity than her contemporaries and her analysis of life is convincing by reason of its sincerity.
I referred to the criticism that Miss Brontë’s portrayal of Rochester-Jane relationship has been attacked, as revoltingly unconventional and unnatural. This is deliberate. She wants to bring to light the hidden world of woman’s natural instincts and her natural desires. Behind the mask of respectability and social and moral conventions, we suppress our passions and live emotionally stunted and spiritually starved lives. This factor is made the central theme of Jane Eyre. To be actually interested in life is to be aware of the tragic elements in it. Therefore, she avoids the comic in all her novels. Comedy and humour have their places, in the novel of manners, but not in a tale of passion.
Brontë’s prose style is also marked by the same passionate intensity. Consequently it becomes poetic. She does not merely describe an atmosphere or an emotion. She communicates them directly, whereas other writers describe love, she communicates it.
The mysterious and the supernatural elements in the novel are themselves explained by the principle of passion. What is miraculous to the ordinary mind is just the sympathy of nature with the spirit of man.
Down with superstition … This is not thy deception, not thy witchcraft; it is the work of nature, she was roused and did no miracle-but her best.
What appears as miraculous for the ordinary mind is nothing but nature at her best co-operating with man at his most intense state of feeling.
This is essentially a Wordsworth-like attitude to life. Indeed many critics have pointed out and rightly so, the similarities between Wordsworth’s theory of man and nature and those of Miss Brontë. There is also close similarity between their styles. She is in the field of the novel what Wordsworth is in poetry. We know that she was especially fond of Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude. It has been said that Charlotte and her sister Emily are the Wordsworth and Blake of the nineteenth century novel. It was Wordsworth’s poetic aim to idealize the real and to invest the lowly and the common with the halo of novelty. So does the art of Miss Brontë.
We have to ask finally whether the novel presents any moral? Is the central theme of the novel bigamy? Miss Brontë has again and again been attacked for espousing an ignoble cause, the cause of bigamy. Her sympathies seem to lie, at least, with the bigamous Rochester. But to urge such a conclusion is to misread the novel, misjudge its theme and to miss the power of its theme and to miss the power of its subtle art. If any theme is insistently proclaimed, it is the theme that love is a many-splendoured thing.