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Gothic Themes in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Portrait of Charlotte Brontë
At its heart, Gothic fiction is a combination of horror and romance, often following a young female protagonist through a journey of self discovery and personal maturation à la the bildungsroman plot sequence. It is riddled with gloomy settings and a suspenseful atmosphere touched by mysterious goings-on and a wide variety of specific motifs I will be exploring with regards to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This novel comes at a time (the middle of the 19th century) when Gothic fiction was falling out of fashion. As such, we find in Jane Eyre a much more toned down Gothic experience when compared to earlier authors such as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. In effect, this exploration of Gothic themes in Jane Eyre is predicated not only on their occurrence in the novel, but also on their relatively subtle nature and rational padding. Furthermore, a major aspect of the charm of the novel is that it is not an easy-to-categorize genre piece. Rather than consider it to be an example of Gothic fiction, it is more accurate to consider Jane Eyre a unique and timeless novel with many elements of Gothic fiction.
Setting is arguably the lifeblood of any Gothic novel. The setting in Jane Eyre is touched with Gothic elements right from the very beginning. In the first paragraph we are introduced to the world Jane lives on a “leafless” and “sombre” rainy day. This desolate location generates a gloomy and chilling mood typical of the Gothic genre. The first few months of Jane’s stay at Lowood are also exemplary of this both in terms of the dismal weather as well as the school itself. The religious edifice is a common staple of the Gothic setting and under the propriety of the staunchly religious Mr. Brocklehurst, it is easy to see Lowood as such. However, public outrage following the typhus outbreak that wiped out many of the students prompted swift action from the country to reform school regulations and significantly reduce Brocklehurst’s authority, thereby greatly diminishing the orthodox religiosity of the setting and emphasising Jane’s secular academic development. Furthermore, we come to learn throughout the novel that the weather is not so much an agent to emphasize Gothic gloom and dreariness as it is a reflection of Jane’s own personal state of affairs. Her initial joy upon learning that she is to be wed to Mr. Rochester brings an abrupt change to the otherwise gloomy weather: “I was not surprised, when I ran down into the hall, to see that a brilliant June morning had succeeded to the tempest of the night; and to feel, through the open glass door, the breathing of fresh and fragrant breeze. Nature must be gladsome when I was so happy” (296). Jane herself even acknowledges the relationship between the weather and herself. After discovering that she had narrowly escaped a sham marriage with Mr. Rochester and that his mad wife, Bertha, is locked up in a third-floor chamber in Thornfield, “a Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, today were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and fragrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. My hopes were all dead” (341). Jane goes on to ponder her despair and woe regarding this most unfortunate turn of events.No Gothic novel would be complete without mystery and suspense. There is no shortage thereof during Jane’s stay at Thornfield, where Jane finds herself faced with disturbing secrets and bizarre occurrences. More specifically, she has to contend with the curious laughter she hears from the third floor, Mr. Rochester’s bed being set on fire by some unknown assailant, the attack on Mr. Mason by someone who sucked the blood from his wound and her own night-time encounter with “the foul German spectre – the Vampyre” (327), who tore up and stomped on her wedding vail. It is not until much later that she learns Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s wife, if to blame for all of these occurrences, leaving her with a typically Gothic sense of suspense and mystery throughout almost her entire stay at Thornfield. Speaking of Bertha Mason, another Gothic trope is that of madness and aristocratic decay, something that Bertha seamlessly exemplifies as a raving madwoman, despite her privileged extraction.
The cornerstone of any Gothic narrative is the supernatural. As a child living at Gateshead, Jane is occasionally locked in the “red room” as punishment for her perceived insolence. This is an otherwise unused room in which Mr. Reed had died nine years before. Jane is gripped with fear and later insists to have been “shut up in a room where there is a ghost, till after dark” (20). It is however implied that Jane merely imagines the ghostly presence in the room and is adept at not letting herself become entirely overcome with fear. There is talk of ghosts upon Jane’s arrival at Thornfield, but Mrs. Fairfax is quick to assure her that there are no legends or stories of the kind with reference to Thornfield and that the passed patrons of the house “rest tranquilly in their graves now” (118). Bertha Mason takes on a somewhat supernatural presence, first roaming unseen about the house at night and appearing to Jane as she sleeps in her room in order to tear her veil, appearing to be “the foul German spectre...”, however, Jane eventually learns of her existence definitively and all supernatural connotations dissipate. There is, however, one logically unexplainable supernatural occurrence of note toward the end of the novel. One night at Moor House, Jane inexplicably hears someone calling her name from afar. It is not until her reunion with Mr. Rochester that she learns it was he who had called to her on that very night and that he had heard her response as well. However, Jane is quick to withhold the matter rather than discuss it at length: “The coincidence struck me as too awful and inexplicable to be communicated or discussed. If I told anything, my tale would be such as much necessarily make a profound impression on the mind of my hearer: and that mind, yet from its sufferings too prone to gloom, needed not the deeper shade of the supernatural. I kept these things then, and pondered them in my heart” (520). It seems that the supernatural does have a presence in Jane’s world, but she also demonstrates the ability to personally come to terms with it rather than become hopelessly entwined in it.
Finally we come to Jane herself, who partially exemplifies the Gothic trope of the virginal maiden. Through her youth, innocence, kindness and virtuosity, Jane certainly does tick off many of the necessary boxes for this trope, but she lacks a certain frailty. The Gothic maiden is infamous for her extremely delicate sensibilities, being highly prone to fainting. However, Jane is of a sturdier stock waiting hours with the wounded Mr. Mason, largely unfazed by the sight of blood. After Mr. Rochester asks her how she responds to the sight of blood, Jane replies: “‘I think I shall not [turn sick]: I have never been tried yet.’ I felt a thrill while I answered him; but no coldness, and no faintness” (238). She is quick to pull herself together and react as needed when other stressful situations present themselves, such as her dousing of Mr. Rochester’s flaming bed.
Thus, while Jane Eyre may be riddled with Gothic tropes such as death, madness, mystery, suspense, the supernatural, etc., the novel itself does not firmly belong to the Gothic genre. The difference between Jane Eyre and the typical Gothic Novel is that the former is not defined by its Gothic themes, rather it employs them to flavor its own narrative as well as boost key plot points.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Austin: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1996.