Madness and Melancholy: Abnormal Psychology in the Works of Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre) Part III
In Jane Eyre, there are certainly instances of loneliness and depression. Like Crimsworth, Jane’s childhood is lonely and she suffers from a “habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, [and] forlorn depression” (Jane Eyre 13). Unlike Crimsworth, however, Jane is not afraid to feel things passionately. In fact, Jane Eyre is in many ways the opposite of The Professor in that it “puts the passion of the main character at the novel’s center and dramatizes the impact of her passion on her sentience and her conscious awareness” (Kearns 144).
The Red Room
Throughout the course of the novel, Jane does have to learn to curb her passion, but she does not do so to the extent that Crimsworth does. Before Jane comes to this point, she goes through a traumatic experience in the red room, where she experiences intense waves of desperation, fear, and depression. While Crimsworth’s experiences with hypochondria cause him to draw his emotions within himself and to become aloof, Jane’s time in the red room results in her becoming less timid and more passionate, which helps her gain some purchase against the feelings of depression she has struggled with throughout her childhood:
Before she was locked up in the “red room,” Jane was a timid and nervous child who tried to gain the favor of others, but while in the room, she examines the condition in which she is placed and asks herself why she is always unjustly accused and condemned . . . After awakening in the “red room,” Jane is no longer a timid child, crushed by powerlessness. She no longer resignedly tolerates unfair treatment. She begins to assert herself; she fights off Johns violence and tells Mrs. Reed what she thinks of her with sharp words. (Enomoto 250)
When Jane Eyre and William Crimsworth go through similar bursts of emotion, they prove that they are very different in their characteristics: Crimsworth’s spontaneous burst of uncharacteristic emotion leads to depression, while Jane’s sudden burst of emotion – albeit that of fear instead of passion – yields determination.
Although Jane’s terrifying time in the red room is traumatic to the young girl, the moment marks a drastic change in her psyche, and from that moment on, she grows up to be a passionate young woman, and the novel’s tone begins to change as well as “Jane the mature retrospective narrator sees that her younger self has grown in her ability to recognize the constants in her personality and control the variables, which she was able to do because she always understood that her mind was impressionable” (Kearns 144). As she begins to realize the importance of balancing her passion and constraint, she comes to the understanding that “if she correctly represents to herself the surfaces of events, she will have a much better chance of imprinting herself in the most constructive way” (144). This idea is an interesting mixture of two opposing mental states in the human mind, and it accurately represents the concepts of finding oneself and finding one’s place in society mentioned by Vichy.
Jane’s passion and the control that she exercises over that passion must be in balance with one another in order for Jane to be happy personally, and to find and truly be herself, as well as for her to be a true and functional part of the society that she lives in and to make her own way in that society. Charlotte Brontë’s unique understanding for the time of the importance of maintain one’s place in the world as well as being true to one’s self is exhibited strongly throughout all three volumes of Jane Eyre.
The Mad Wife
Jane’s depression does return violently after she discovers the truth about Mr. Rochester and his mad wife, as does the struggle between self and duty that she has striven to balance out over the course of the novel. It can only be expected, however, that Jane would struggle with her identity and prospects after having learned such shocking news and having her world ripped apart while standing at the altar, moments from becoming Mrs. Jane Rochester. She describes this horrific loss of selfhood, asking, “Where was the Jane Eyre of yesterday? – where was her life? – where were her prospects? Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman – almost a bride – was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects desolate” (Jane Eyre 252). A great wave of depression washes over her, and it is so great that it not only affects her mentally, but physically as well, which is also a common motif in the Brontë novels: the effect that depression has not only on the mind, but on the body as well.
Jane describes the dark place she has come to in both heart and body in heartfelt detail, which reveals the author’s own understanding of depression as an actual condition rather than just sadness: “My eyes were covered and closed: eddying darkness seemed to swim round me, and reflection came in as black and confused a flow. Self-abandoned, relaxed, and effortless, I seemed to have laid me down in the dried-up bed of a great river . . . I lay faint, longing to be dead” (Jane Eyre 253). Like Crimsworth, Jane also feels a hurt and pain so deeply that it causes her to wish for death. In Jane’s case, however, this pain is much more understandable than Crimsworth’s, considering that she comes to this state after having losing her love at the altar, while Crimsworth comes to his state by getting engaged to his love. Physically, Jane goes on to describe how her she was “dizzy” and “feeble,” and her “sight was dim.” She recounts how she “could not soon recover” and she falls, feeling faint and weak, but thankfully, she is caught by an equally distraught Mr. Rochester.
Jane’s determination to stay true to her faith and her duty to God and to society causes her to restrain her emotions and passion drastically, and she feels like she is not only abandoning herself, but Mr. Rochester as well. She warns the reader, “Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised in that hour left my lips: for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love” (Jane Eyre 274).
The Spiritual Power of the Mind
Later on, after she has left Thornfield and is trying to find a place to take shelter for the night, she acknowledges that “in all likelihood, though, I should die before morning. And why cannot I reconcile myself to the prospect of death? Why do I struggle to retain a valueless life? Because I know, or believe, Mr. Rochester is still living: and then, to die of want and cold, is a fate to which nature cannot submit passively” (Jane Eyre 281). A part of Jane, it seems, truly yearns for the grave because her misery is so great, but she cannot resign herself to death. When she questions why this is, she comes to the conclusion that it is because that Mr. Rochester is still alive, and she cannot imagine dying while he is still alive. Jane’s view of the possibility of her own death is intriguing, for she does not fear her own demise like many women in similar Gothic novels. It is true that at times she expresses the wish to be dead, but “she always reacts vigorously against the negative moments and never really considers the possibility of her own death” (Howells 164-165). Jane’s strength of character, heart, and psyche, along with her strong moral standings, give her the ability to endure even through the midst of darkness, and to rise out of it. She manages to not only find her own friends and family, but she also is able to get a job as a school teacher with St. John’s help.
Although she always misses Mr. Rochester, and she often feels melancholy in the time following her departure from Thornfield, Jane is still able to sustain a life for herself. Even more impressive, when faced with the decision whether she should go to India with St. John or stay where she is, she remains true to herself and refuses despite having been worn down by St. John to accept his offer and become his wife.
She does, however, come very close to accepting his proposal, but she is stopped when she hears “a voice somewhere cry – ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’” (Jane Eyre 357). The voice of Edward Rochester calls out to her, stopping her from agreeing to marry St. John and causing her to return to Thornfield as quickly as she can. This is an odd scene, and while it can be and often is associated with the supernatural, Coral Ann Howells theorizes that what is generally looked upon simply as divine interference can be explained in a mixture of psychological phenomenon with the divine. She says that “the telepathic communication is set within a curious psycho-spiritual context of passionate feeling and Christian prayer” (168).
The idea that intense emotions and deep psychological bonds can actually be “so intensified by desperation that passion itself effects a momentary release from the limitations of self into that invisible world ‘which is around us, for it is everywhere’” (168) can certainly be seen as a far-fetched assumption, but Charlotte Brontë excelled through her characters’ deep passions and intense emotions at identifying the mind as a powerful entity, with the ability to cause actual physical illness, delusions, and perhaps even, under extreme circumstances, and coupled with a bit of “spiritual communion with God” (168), temporary telepathic connections. This instance is an oddity in the psychology of Jane Eyre, but it is still worth considering as an example of how aware that Charlotte Brontë was of the power that the human mind possesses.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1848. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.
Enomoto, Yoshiko. “Breaking out of Despair: Higuchi Ichiyô and Charlotte Brontë.” Comparative Literature Studies. 24.3 (1987): 251-263. Web. 21 April 2013.
Howells, Coral Ann. Love, Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: The Althone Press: University of London, 1978.
Kearns, Michael S. Metaphors of Mind in Fiction and Psychology. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987.