Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Showcase Gothic: Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte's classic Victorian Gothic masterpiece, Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847, continues to enchant and delight modern readers. One aspect in particular which makes this novel relatable is its heroine, the original "plain Jane". Not particularly beautiful, particularly, clever, or particularly good, Jane is a normal if highly intelligent and fanciful woman dealing with extraordinary events, and readers respond to her because of her very normalcy. In this blog posting, I intend to shine the spotlight on this novel, offering a wide array of information, resources, and activities for teachers, students and laypersons.

Image credit: Double-click on the image and it will open up the website from which the picture was taken.

Summary of the Novel

In addition to being a Gothic romance, Jane Eyre is also something of a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. The novel begins with Jane, an orphan, living with her uncle's wife and children and trying her best to avoid being tortured by these relations more than is absolutely necessary. Following a particularly harrowing encounter with her aunt, Jane is sent away to boarding school, where she is educated and eventually becomes a teacher. Wanting more, she posts an advertisement for a private teaching position and finds herself employed at Thornfield, a gothic manor, where she is in charge of the education of a young girl named Adele Varens. Life at Thornfield quickly becomes routine and, although pleasant, fairly dull, until Jane encounters a stranger one day who turns out to be Edward Rochester - Adele's guardian and Jane's employer. Rochester (No spring chicken or Adonis himself) becomes smitten with Jane despite her physical plainness as a result of her mind, and more so when one night she rescues him from a mysterious fire set to his bed while he is in it. Strangely, despite evidence of his feelings for Jane, Rochester chooses to leave Thornfield and when he returns, it is with a party of house guests, a young woman among them with whom he seems to be carrying on a flirtation. One of these guests is inexplicably stabbed in the arm in the middle of the night, yet another mysterious occurrence at Thornfield...

But, life goes on. Rochester tells Jane he is going to marry the young woman, and against his objections Jane returns to her childhood "home" briefly when her aunt has a stroke, and learns that she is to inherit her uncle's fortune. Upon her aunt's death she returns to Thornfield, where Rochester reveals that he was only trying to incite jealousy within her and thereby secure her affections for him; he then proposes marriage. A third strange incident - a mysterious woman who comes into Jane's room at night and rips her wedding veil in two - causes Jane to question the marriage idea (who can blame her?) At the wedding ceremony, Rochester is called out as an unavailably married man - and he admits this is true! His wife is mentally insane and he keeps her locked away in the attic of Thornfield (the "madwoman in the attic"). It is she who has been perpetrating the fires and personal attacks in the manor. Desperate to keep her, Rochester proposes that he and Jane run off to the South of France and live together anyway. Jane leaves Thornfield rather than give in to his indecent proposal.

In fairly short order, Jane's money runs out and she finds herself starving and homeless. She is taken in by a clergyman and his sisters and given another position teaching at a charity school. Through a strange reversal of fortune, Jane's uncle Eyre, whom she has never met, dies and leaves her a fortune; stranger still, it turns out the clergyman and his sisters who so kindly took her in are her cousins; she has family! He is planning a missionary trip to India and asks Jane to marry him and come along, but she refuses to marry him because he doesn't love her and she still loves Rochester. She has a premonition that something is amiss with Rochester, and returns to Thornfield only to find that the manor has burned to the ground (Rochester's pyromanic wife has finally managed to accomplish her mad goal, and threw herself from the roof of the house as it burned, thus committing suicide.) Which, of course, leaves Rochester free to marry...but he has lost a hand and his eyesight in the fire and doesn't think Jane is up for it anymore. Jane rallies and marries him anyway, completing her path to fully-realized womanhood and self-realization by giving birth to their son - whom as it happens Rochester is able to see, miraculously regaining vision in one of his eyes in time for the occasion.

Summary credit: summary is my own.

Gothic Elements in the Novel

The most prevalent Gothic elements in this novel are:

  • a setting in a castle, ancestral family home, vault or crypt.
  • a damsel (or 2, or 3!) in distress.
  • unexplainable events.
  • an unrequited love, or illicit love affair or romance.
  • an atmosphere of suspense and/or terror
However, Bronte is not one to mindlessly follow the crowd! She also turns some of the traditional elements of Gothic literature on their head:

  • The "supernatural being" turns out to be a very human, albeit insane, woman.
  • There is no ancient prophecy foretelling doom. Instead, there is a secret letter from Jane's uncle foretelling wealth and prosperity. Also, Rochester, disguised as a fortune teller, tells Jane's "fortune", again neglecting the gloom and doom part.
  • The book takes place in England and there's nothing particularly exotic about the setting.
  • Most interestingly of all, although Rochester rather lords it over Jane, at least in the beginning of their acquaintance, it is women, and not men, who tyrannize Jane throughout the novel, in particular her aunt and Bertha, Rochester's mad wife.
Gothic elements adapted from:

A Brief Biography of Charlotte Bronte
(Abridged from the Victorian Web)
Available on-line:

Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816, the third daughter of the Rev. Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria. Her sisters Emily and Anne were born in 1818 and 1820.

In 1824 the four eldest Brontë daughters were enrolled as pupils at the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge. The following year Maria and Elizabeth, the two eldest daughters, became ill, left school and died. Charlotte and Emily were brought home.

In 1831 Charlotte became a pupil at the school at Roe Head, but she left school the following year to teach her sisters at home. She returned to Roe Head School in 1835 as a governess: for a time her sister Emily attended the same school as a pupil, but became homesick and returned home. Ann took her place from 1836 to 1837.

In 1838, Charlotte left Roe Head School. In 1839 she accepted a position as governess in the Sidgewick family, but left after three months and returned to Haworth. In 1841 she became governess in the White family, but left, once again, after nine months.

Upon her return to Haworth the three sisters, led by Charlotte, decided to open their own school. In 1842 Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to complete their studies. After a trip home to Haworth, Charlotte returned alone to Brussels, where she remained until 1844.

Upon her return home the sisters embarked upon their project for founding a school, which proved to be an abject failure: their advertisements did not elicit a single response from the public. The following year Charlotte discovered Emily's poems, and decided to publish a selection of the poems of all three sisters: 1846 brought the publication of their Poems, written under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Charlotte also completed The Professor, which was rejected for publication. The following year, however, Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Emily's WutheringHeights, and Ann's Agnes Grey were all published, still under the Bell pseudonyms.

In 1848 Charlotte and Ann revealed the true identities of the "Bells." In the same year their brother Branwell Brontë, an alcoholic and a drug addict, died, and Emily died shortly thereafter. Ann died the following year.

The Rev. A. B. Nicholls, curate of Haworth since 1845, proposed marriage to Charlotte in 1852. The Rev. Mr. Brontë objected violently, and Charlotte, who, though she may have pitied him, was in any case not in love with him, refused him. Nicholls left Haworth in the following year, the same in which Charlotte's Villette was published. By 1854, however, Mr. Brontë's opposition to the proposed marriage had weakened, and Charlotte and Nicholls became engaged. Nicholls returned as curate at Haworth, and they were married, though it seems clear that Charlotte, though she admired him, still did not love him.

In 1854 Charlotte, expecting a child, caught pneumonia. It was an illness which could have been cured, but she seems to have seized upon it (consciously or unconsciously) as an opportunity of ending her life, and after a lengthy and painful illness, she died, probably of dehydration.

Similarities Between Charlotte Bronte and Her Heroine, Jane Eyre:

(autobiographical elements in Jane Eyre)

1. Both lose loved ones to tuberculosis/consumption in school

  • Charlotte loses her older sisters
  • Jane loses her friend, Helen
2. Both become teachers at the school where they were formerly pupils:

  • Charlotte returns as teacher at Roe Head School
  • Jane stays on as teacher at Lowood school
3. Both seek and obtain new positions as private teachers:

  • Charlotte goes to the Sidgewick (and White) families
  • Jane goes to Rochester's ward, Adele Varens, at Thornfield
4. Both are proposed to by clergymen whom they respect but do not love:

  • Charlotte is proposed to by the Rev. A.B. Nicholls
  • Jane is proposed to by St. John Rivers
(Credit: this compilation of similarities is my own)

Major Themes in Jane Eyre
(The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but should provide a starting point for discussing or thinking about the novel's major themes and motifs)

  • Confinement versus freedom
  • Insanity
  • Illicit/forbidden love
  • Education as equalizer
  • Fantasy vs. reality
  • Religion/charity
  • Class consciousness
  • Wealth/portable property
  • Morality vs. desire
  • Supernatural elements
(Credit: This list is my own)

Jane Eyre on the Web:

A list of internet sources for further information

Victorian Web:

A comprehensive website devoted to all aspects of Victorian life and culture.

The Bronte sisters web:

A comprehensive search engine site from Japan with a number of links to biographical and critical sources for all three of the literary Bronte sisters.

A searchable online text of the novel.

A list of study questions arranged by chapter.

Jane Eyre: An Introduction:

Joyce Carol Oates' preface to the 1988 Bantam edition of the novel, also published as "Romance and Anti-Romance: From Bronte's Jane Eyre to Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea." Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter, 1985)

Jane Eyre Adaptations

(list from Wikipedia; I have no reason to believe it is erroneous, but take all wikipedia entries with a grain of salt, remembering it is an open-edited forum and not a scholarly one)

Jane Eyre has engendered numerous adaptations and related works inspired by the novel:

Silent film versions

  • Three adaptations entitled Jane Eyre were released; one in 1910, two in 1914.
  • 1915: Jane Eyre starring Louise Vale
  • 1915: A version was released called The Castle of Thornfield.
  • 1918: A version was released called Woman and Wife.
  • 1921: Jane Eyre starring Mabel Ballin
  • 1926: A version was made in Germany called Orphan of Lowood.

Sound film versions

Musical versions

  • A musical version with a book by John Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, with Marla Schaffel as Jane and James Stacy Barbour as Rochester, opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on December 10, 2000. It closed on June 10, 2001.
  • An opera version was written in 2000 by English composer Michael Berkeley, with a libretto by David Malouf. It was given its premiere by Music Theater Wales at the Cheltenham Festival.
  • Jane Eyre was played for the first time in Europe in Beveren, Belgium. It was given its premiere at the cultural centre "Ter Vesten".
  • The ballet "Jane," based on the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, was created in 2007, a Bullard/Tye production with music by Max Reger. Its world premiere was scheduled at the Civic Auditorium, Kalamazoo, Michigan, June 29 and 30, performed by the Kalamazoo Ballet Company, Therese Bullard, Director.

Television versions

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