Themes in Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre deals extensively with conflicting themes of independence and service. Jane was an unloved orphan for much of her life and, in order to leave Lowood, must find employment. Her gender, however, prevents her from experiencing total independence.” Still, her employment at Thornfield affords her social mobility; as a governess since she has access to the aristocracy (Mr. Rochester). Her evolution as a character is greatly influenced by religion, the supernatural (hearing things, premonitions, ghosts, etc.), and her navigation of the extremes of passionate feeling versus cold judgment. Additional themes include the following:
Gender and oppression: Jane Eyre was initially published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, because Charlotte Bronte wanted to insure that the reception of her work would not be tainted by perceptions of her own gender. Within the novel we see Jane take similar steps to distance herself from the oppressive patriarchal structures of nineteenth century England. Jane demands respect, and her dialogue with Mr. Rochester demonstrates her belief that she and he should be considered equals.
Independence: Throughout the novel Jane seeks to develop her own identity, and to become an independent woman during a time when women were expected to rely on men. Orphaned at a young age, Jane was forced to become independent early on, and accepting the position at Thornfield was an important step forward in achieving further independence as an adult.
Love and passion: In a novel with a central romantic plot it should come as no surprise that love and passion are primary themes of the text. Jane lives a passionate life, and this theme is connected to the theme of independence because her passion leads her to eschew certain societal standards or customs in pursuit of her own independence. The value Jane places on passion can also be seen with the differences between her two suitors.
Themes Examples in Jane Eyre:
"red-room..." See in text (Chapter I)
The red-room symbolizes two important themes: stifling oppression and Jane’s own suppressed passions. The traumatizing experience of the red-room will haunt Jane throughout the novel as she struggles to become an independent woman.
"a little toad..." See in text (Chapter III)
The maids of Gateshead dismiss Jane solely based on their opinion that she is not pretty. The deception of physical appearances is a theme that recurs throughout the novel. Note which characters are described as good-looking and which are not, as beauty does not always correlate with benevolence.
"I am merely telling the truth..." See in text (Chapter XII)
The theme of truth is an important one in the novel. Jane strives to live a truthful life, sticking to her beliefs and doing what she believes to be the right and moral, even if that goes against her own desires.
"bird through the close-set bars of a cage..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Jane Eyre was considered a radical, feminist novel when it was first published, and many of the issues it deals with are still relevant. Images of birds appear throughout the novel as a symbol of Jane’s feelings of, as a woman, being trapped, desiring freedom and independence.
"I am a judge of physiognomy..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Notice how Blanche uses physiognomy as justification for her class snobbery. Jane does not have any sinister motives like Blanche, but Jane is just more attuned to matters of appearance after being overlooked throughout her life.
"a flock of white plumy birds..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Throughout the story, Brontë uses bird metaphors as a symbol to represent Jane’s desire for freedom from the social constraints that being a woman entails. Despite their wealth, beauty, and luxury goods, the women here are also compared to birds, suggesting that a woman will be metaphorically caged no matter her social standing.
"Mother Bunches..." See in text (Chapter XVIII)
A “Mother Bunch” is a strong ale and can also be used in reference to a messy and untidy-looking woman who serves it. The term has a slightly derogatory connotation and reveals the upper class’s negative view of Romani people (“gypsies”) or any culture outside of their own.
"Ariel..." See in text (Chapter XX)
Ariel is a magical spirit from The Tempest who aids his master, Prospero, by whispering things to him and other characters. Jane’s allusion indicates her solitary state, her feelings of loneliness, that pervades the novel. Despite this, Jane has been able to persevere through hard times, independently managing her struggles.
"the equality of disembodied souls..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
This phrase, first spoken by Helen Burns, reminds Jane of her friend's everlasting faith. Mrs. Reed's terminal illness evokes this memory and allows Jane to forgive her aunt's previous behavior. This statement combines two major motifs that are apparent throughout the novel: equality and religion.
"a force turned me round..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
In some respects, Jane Eyre is also a Gothic novel. While many of the supernatural elements seem fairy tale-like, some are more related to horror, like the secret of the woman in the attic or this ghostly “force” that controls Jane. Rochester’s air of mystery and darkness is a large part of why Jane is drawn to him, giving their relationship a mystic quality.
"half of it split away..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
This ominous occurrence adds to the Gothic tone of the novel, and its natural subject matter is very much in the Romantic style. Brontë uses pathetic fallacy, where nature mirrors human emotions or interactions, to foreshadow a separation or break.
"For the world's judgment..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
The Romantic theme of individualism appears again but this time in Rochester. He relates his conflicted situation of wanting to marry Jane despite social norms as a conflict of him against the world, the masses against his single person.
"Hercules and Samson with their charmers..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
Both Hercules (from Greek mythology) and Samson (from the Bible) were men who were deceived and betrayed by women. The theme of illusory appearances is emphasized again as Jane jokes that her appearance may be just as deceiving as those of women like Blanche Ingram.
"when we have been married a year and a day..." See in text (Chapter XXV)
The “year and a day” rule is commonly associated with the pagan custom of “handfasting.” It is like a trial marriage where couples would enter a union for a year and a day. After that period, they could decide to split up or enter a more permanent marriage. Rochester referring to a non-Christian ritual is suspicious and matches the already sinister and mysterious tone of the paragraph. Whoever or whatever he is hiding in the attic is unholy or otherwise malevolent, contrasting against Jane’s Christian values.
"pass through a fair scene to the scaffold..." See in text (Chapter XXVII)
In this context, “scaffold” refers to a platform where criminals stand while they await execution. Despite the beauty that surrounds Jane at Thornfield as she covertly escapes, Jane’s mind is occupied by the great pain she faces leaving Rochester, the man she loves. Again, Jane is uninterested in what is physically beautiful while more important matters present themselves.
"“No; you shall tear yourself away; none shall help you: you shall, yourself, pluck out your right eye: yourself cut off your right hand: your heart shall be the victim; and you, the priest, to transfix it.”..." See in text (Chapter XXVII)
In true Gothic fashion, Jane hears this quote from Matthew 5:27-32 about adultery from some spectral voice in her head. Her worries about nearly committing adultery manifest as one of the several supernatural occurrences in the novel. She allows her mind to be deluded by her own fears and anxieties, and this is one of the few instances where Jane’s reliability as a narrator is questionable.
"I have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose...." See in text (Chapter XXVIII)
Because Brontë uses first person narration, the reader has access to all of Jane’s thoughts. We are confined to Jane’s headspace and can only access the outside world through her lens. Jane’s feelings of isolation are thus more easily communicated to the reader. Romantic characters often find solace from this sort of isolation in nature, as Jane does in this passage. Romantic authors also tended to glorify nature, reflected in the god-like way it’s depicted, as well as the capitalization of “Nature”.
"which passeth all understanding..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Jane references something that is beyond the physical world again, but the tone is not as dark here. She has access to a “peace” that transcends human understanding,but does not seek to explain it the way St. John does. As she has continually shown, Jane is not caught up in arbitrary details, but she is focused on the greater effects and the bigger picture.
"“The air was mild, the dew was balm”..." See in text (Chapter XXXI)
This quote is drawn from two separate lines a Sir Walter Scott’s poem which deals with basic Romantic themes, as well as the theme of loyalty to one’s homeland. Jane goes on to discuss Rochester and the problems her absence from him may cause, suggesting that being with Rochester is her homeland, where she belongs. Notice how Jane continues to understand her life experiences in terms of literature.
"In spite of his Christian stoicism..." See in text (Chapter XXXII)
Despite St. John’s attempts to seem unemotional, his appearance betrays his inner feelings. This passage shows how Brontë continually explores of the relationship between one’s appearance and the true, inner self. Previously, Jane had been critical of others’ appearances because they covered their true character with lavish clothing and jewelry. She is more sympathetic towards St. John here because the distinction between inside and outside becomes becomes less concrete.
"from indigence to wealth..." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
Jane’s story continues to resemble basic fairy tale plots. Her rags-to-riches story is similar to “Cinderella,” and even “Sleeping Beauty” since Jane discovers her social status is higher than she initially thought. These stories are widely recognized, so Jane’s plight seems familiar, and it becomes easier to sympathize with her character. Another implication of this is that the plot seems predictable.
"violent, unfeminine, and untrue..." See in text (Chapter XXXV)
Brontë’s word choice deliberately reflects aspects of Jane’s development over the course of this Bildungsroman. “[V]iolent” refers to Jane’s combative nature as a child and at Lowood, a trait she’s grown out of. As a woman in a restrictive society, Jane has had to battle what it means to be feminine. She doesn’t want to simply marry and settle down. Jane has also had to discern truth throughout the novel, as she finds it’s often hidden behind false appearances. These themes of femininity and truth are developed throughout the novel.
"“Which are none, sir, to me. I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.”..." See in text (Chapter XXXVII)
Jane, who was always Mr. Rochester's social inferior, feels comfortable marrying him now because he is dependent. His physical disability feminizes him, leveling the playing field so Jane is his equal. Female autonomy is subtly addressed, here; Jane, who has spent the entirety of the novel pursuing liberty, learns that an autonomous life is not one without obligation. Instead, freedom comes from choosing one's obligations.
"do you think I feared him in his blind ferocity?..." See in text (Chapter XXXVII)
Rochester’s physical disabilities also allow him and Jane to become equals. Jane was worried about marrying Rochester because she did not want to become dependent on her husband. Rochester must now rely on Jane for support. This transfer of dependency, this change in gender roles, was received as a fairly feminist idea in Victorian England.
"sightless Samson..." See in text (Chapter XXXVII)
Jane alludes to the Old Testament, where Delilah cut Samson’s hair and consequently causes him to lose his strength and go blind. Throughout the novel, Brontë has criticized those who rely too heavily on sight or appearances. In mythology and literature, the blind are often granted a metaphorical “sight,” one that allows them to see things beyond the physical world. By blinding Rochester, Brontë suggests that since he is now deprived of the constant consciousness of appearance that sight entails, he can now “see” his wrongdoings.
"Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!..." See in text (Chapter XXXVIII)
Brontë ends with quotes from St. John and Jane to contrast his view of happiness with Jane’s. Whereas St. John finds fulfilment in missionary work and serving God, Jane recognizes the importance of love in a marriage. Turning down missionary work and dedicating her life to God was not an act of defiance against God and Christianity. Jane does not believe one must be extremely religious; rather, having faith is enough to be a good Christian.
"take up his cross, and follow me...." See in text (Chapter XXXVIII)
Note how in these last couple of chapters, the tone is heavily religious even within the context of the novel’s many Biblical allusions. The fire at Thornfield that gave Rochester so many injuries caused him to be reborn--like a phoenix from the ashes. He turns to religion as a sort of born-again Christian, which allows him and Jane to share a spiritual connection.