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Clouds in a Tumbler: a Literary Analysis of Jane Eyre
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner... the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.” p. 3
Those blessed beings who have lived in the moody English countryside for many years may not understand the thrill these words initiate on the skin of a victim of the sunny modern world. “Clouds so sombre” and “rain so penetrating,” “chilly afternoons” and “raw twilight” have become the stuff of legends, and we know instinctively that this is the beginning of a good legend, for every ancient heroine must first be caught in the storm to be rescued from it later.
Her story is told in the first person, but without the self-indulgent or conceited focus that most stories told in the first-person struggle with. It is a fictional autobiography, taking the reader from Jane’s childhood living in her step-aunt’s home, through her youth at a poor boarding school, her employment as a governess for Mr. Rochester’s ward, to the circumstances surrounding her sudden departure from the service of Mr. Rochester and the circumstances bringing her back again. As she grows in maturity through storm-tossed scenes and days laden with the slow-moving fog of loneliness, she gains fortitude in the conviction of God’s ultimate goodness in spite of what the reader may consider to be her dreary life. And in the end, we realize that there have been many instances of God’s goodness in her life: a friend provided in an unlikely place, an occupation given to keep her mind alert and heart content, a home and family when she had none, and eventually a husband to love and be loved by.
In one sense, Jane Eyre’s story is appealing because she is not an unusual woman. Her outward appearance is plain and simple. We do not find in her any great brilliance of personality or heroic nature, but merely a quiet consistency of habit and action governed by good sense and a desire to please. We like her because we feel that we would have done the same in her situation --or we would have liked to-- and we read her reflections as we might read our own thoughts --if we had the same depth of perception and lucidity of mind.
The heavy story clouds first gather when we find the child Jane Eyre hiding in a window seat with a book. No one would have found much in this part of the story if the child Jane Eyre had been sanctified. Yet no one would have read further if she had stayed that way.
“I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child--though equally dependent and friendless--Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently; her children would have entertained for me more of the cordiality of fellow-feeling; the servants would have been less prone to make me the scapegoat of the nursery.” p. 13
She was sent to a boarding school when her aunt decided she was a dishonest child because of her sullen depth and impish ways. Her real faults, had anyone cared to cure them, were far from the ones she was accused of. She was bitter, moody, and vengeful, which was perhaps the result of her intense desire for justice and need for compassion. After Jane spent many years at the Lowood charity school, both as pupil then as teacher, she was gentler, stabler, and rich with a truer, less self-focused perspective of life and of herself. She had matured, no longer taking personal offense as when she was a child, but now could control her emotions by what she knew to be right. Others began to look to her for guidance and a listening ear. Much of this was due to the influence of the head schoolmistress, Miss Temple.
“I had imbibed from her something of her nature and much of her habits: more harmonious thoughts: what seemed better regulated feelings had become the inmates of my mind. I had given in allegiance to duty and order; I was quiet; I believed I was content: to the eyes of others, usually even to my own, I appeared a disciplined and subdued character.” p. 88
When Miss Temple got married and left the school, Jane, who had stayed at the school only because she had thrived under Miss Temple’s influence, decided it was time to look for a new position. She wrote a letter advertising her services and received a reply from a housekeeper of a place called Thornfield, a place some hundred miles distant. She was to be the governess of a little French girl who was the ward of a Mr. Rochester, who was currently overseas.
Her work here was not hard, yet it did employ her intellect and make her useful, and Jane felt she had finally found a home and a family. Adele, her young pupil, showed a learnable temperament, and though the girl delighted in trivialities, she soon was influenced by the stability and gentleness of her teacher, and showed marked improvement, which delighted Jane. Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, became Jane’s companion in the evenings, and they spent many hours by the fireside. Her company was pleasant, though not particularly enlivening, and Jane grew tired of the limited experience and variety of her surroundings. She had not yet met Mr. Rochester.
One late afternoon, glad for an excuse to get out of the mansion, Jane volunteered to take a letter for Mrs. Fairfax to the nearby town. The night fell sooner than she realized, and she halted by a small gully and contemplated turning around. The moonlight suddenly revealed a man on a horse galloping in her direction. She sat quietly and let him pass, musing about fancies of her own. The horse suddenly slipped and tumbled the man and himself onto the ground. Jane approached to see if she could help. The man was tall and dark, not handsome, but of a burly, hearty build. He was frustrated with the accident, seemed to have some bad pain in his leg, and spent some minutes untangling himself from his horse while swearing and trying to stand up. Jane was not intimidated as she would have been had he been a lighthearted, cultivated, or handsome man, but stood patiently nearby until the man determined that he needed her shoulder to assist him onto his horse again. He found out her name and occupation, then rode on. After she arrived home, she heard from the servants that the master of the house, Mr. Rochester, had arrived in her absence and had suffered a small mishap on the road. This was the man she had met on the road. She was curious now about what sort of a person he could be, but did not see him again until a few nights had passed and he asked for her to be brought to the parlor in the evening to meet him.
He often asked her to come into the parlor to talk to him after that, and she was fascinated by his character and felt that she could understand him very well. His abruptness of manner and demanding ways suited her. Here was no tactful flattery or wearisome deference. His character became her study as she watched his expressions and listened to his unabashed and vehement speeches. Here was a mind she could explore; its changeful passions intrigued her, and its many experiences in the world added to her small share of cultivated knowledge. He, in turn, was also studying her character, as he admitted to her later:
“Impatiently I waited for the evening, when I might summon you into my presence. An unusual--to me--a perfectly new character I suspected was yours: I desired to search it deeper, and know it better. You entered the room with a look and air at once shy and independent: you were quaintly dressed--much as you are now. I made you talk: ere long I found you full of strange contrasts. Your garb and manner were restricted by rule: your air was often diffident, and altogether that of one refined by nature, but absolutely unused to society, and a good deal afraid of making herself disadvantageously conspicuous by some solecism or blunder; yet when addressed, you lifted a keen, a daring, and a glowing eye to your interlocutor’s face: there was penetration and power in each glance you gave; when plied by lose questions, you found ready and round answers.” p. 340
She never tired of their conversations, and found she was hopefully anticipating each time she would see him and speak with him. He was similar to her, yet different. He loved to talk, and he communicated his feelings and thoughts with abandon. Jane loved to listen, and gave grave and wise advice when she was pressed, and Mr. Rochester seemed to jump at every hint of changing expression or empathy in her face. She soon figured out that he had suffered many great disappointments and errors in his life, much as she had herself. Though she was half his age, she had an advantage which he did not: a life habituated and steadied by moral principle. The effects of outward circumstances on Jane’s inner life were like a steady rain on a wide field: always receiving placidly “whate’r my God ordains is right.” Mr. Rochester’s circumstances created a different storm on his inward soul. These effects were like the vindictive torrent that raged and rebelled against ship and hearth but then soon were banished by parted clouds and equally passionate, though now cheerful sun. Jane was content in his presence and felt time pass quickly and pleasantly. She named those hours spent conversing with him the happiest hours of her life.
She had never analyzed her feelings for him until there came a change in the dynamics of society at the Rochester home, and Jane suddenly became jealous of her master’s love. A young, charming, beautiful lady and her family came to stay at Mr. Rochester’s home as his guests. Rochester requested Jane to be present as part of the party in the parlor with his guests, though she cringed from the company so foreign and unwanted to her, and suffered daily as she watched Mr. Rochester and the social beauty showing marked attention to each other, and each daily singling the other out as their future spouse by word and look. The entire household expected Rochester to announce his engagement any day, but eventually the guests left and no engagement had been announced. Jane Eyre suffered. Her sufferings were not wholly selfish, however, for she was concerned for Mr. Rochester’s happiness as well. He seemed blind to this woman’s faults. The woman was only interested in his fortune, and her temperament was haughty, cruel, and shallow. Jane knew instinctively that this woman would not be able to make Mr. Rochester happy.
Now Jane was ashamed at herself for having been controlled by her feelings. Several times in Mr. Rochester’s look and manner Jane had thought she detected a tenderness and devotion to herself, and she had heard him say many times that she was his closest confidante and understood him better than any other person. Yet perhaps that was not enough for Mr. Rochester, and a wife must be more.
Meanwhile, a dark secret had been penetrating the hallways of the old mansion and Jane knew something was being hidden from her. Demoniac laughter echoed from the upper story of the house and always seemed to be surrounding the person of an old and ugly woman, Grace Poole, who was said do sewing work in the top rooms of the old house. Her door was always closed, and Jane didn’t often venture into that part of the house until the mystery began to climax and Mr. Rochester required her aid. One night she heard the strange laughter in the hallway outside her door, and soon after smelt a burning odor. She pulled on her night robe and followed the smell to Mr. Rochester’s door. Alarmed, she opened his door and found the curtains around his bed on fire. She called to him to come out and succeeded in dousing some of the flames with the water in a wash basin. Mr. Rochester was unhurt and put out the rest of the fire with more water. He was strangely silent about the incident, and told Jane that she must keep it a secret for his sake. He acknowledged, under her questioning, that Grace Poole was partly to blame, but he would not send her away or declare her the guilty party. On another occasion, Jane was awakened by a man’s desperate calls for help. This man, a guest of Mr. Rochester’s, had been stabbed, bitten, and scratched almost to death. Jane was summoned by Mr. Rochester to sit with the man and absorb the blood with a sponge while Rochester fetched a surgeon. Jane was the only one in the household whom Rochester called upon for help. Again, Jane was requested to keep it a secret, and again she suspected the strange servant, Grace Poole.
Jane’s steadfast character and devotion is eventually rewarded by the blessing of hearing Mr. Rochester declare that he had loved her and admired her since that first night on the cloudy moors when they met, and his goal during the wearisome hours in the drawing room with the other young woman had been to stir Jane into jealousy to see if she could love him. But the dark secret that had been hidden at Rochester’s mansion, Thornfield, was destined to reveal itself on the wedding day and keep Jane from marrying her master. She was once again cast upon the mercy of strangers as she flees a tempting situation to do what is morally right. Like the Biblical prophets, she too was cast on the mercy of the wild hills, and finds her heavenly master has all in control.
“Worn out with this torture of thought, I rose to my knees. Night was come, and her planets were risen: a safe, still night; too serene for the companionship of fear. We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest sale spread before us: and it is the unclouded night-sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence. I had risen to my knees to pray for Mr. Rochester. Looking up, I, with tear-dimmed eyes, saw the mighty Milky-way. Remembering what it was--what countless systems there swept space like a soft trace of light--I felt the might and strength of God. Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had made: convinced I grew that neither earth should perish, nor one of the souls it treasured. I turned my prayer to thanksgiving: the Source of Life was also the Saviour of spirits.” p. 352
Further than this I will not reveal, for you must traverse the stormy moors yourself, sit with Mr. Rochester by the fireside and penetrate his countenance with your understanding eyes, walk the hallways haunted by laughter and gather your cloak about you as you venture forth from your home into the frosty moors, fleeing and pursuing love. It does not do justice to Charlotte Bronte’s story to bare all her carefully concealed mysteries of the heart in one brief paragraph, so you will do well to read the story yourself. Suffice it to say that other beautiful things take place and happy thoughts effuse the conclusion, scowling clouds clear and a seraphic countenance is revealed at last. Stormy weather does not stay long in one place-- not even in historical, romantic England, though we enjoyed it while it lasted.