Language and Style in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)

Introduction: Charlotte Bronte was an English novelist and poet who lived between 1816 and 1855. She could be described as a Victorian writer. Jane Eyre is her best-known work and focuses on the fate and plight of the woman in relation to the Victorian social and economic systems. Jane Eyre can be read as an autobiographical novel because some of the incidents it depicts mirror the personal experiences of its author, equally shared with the other two sisters, Emily and Anne. A good instance includes the education of a female child in Victorian England, the disease outbreak at Lowood school, the opening of a school by St. John Rivers for girls from poor background and the choice of Jane to run it, as well as Jane’s proposed marriage to St. John Rivers, a clergy man. All these events, in varying ways, capture some of the personal experiences of Charlotte and her sisters.

Jane Eyre as a Gothic Novel: Jane Eyre could also be read as a Gothic novel. The term gothic is usually associated with certain medieval buildings noted for their castle-like size, quaintness, pointed vaults, secret passage ways and haunted spaces. The gothic novel usually bases its setting on this building or the likes and can be defined as depicting strange supernatural occurrences, mysteries, horror and the presence of ghosts and ghastly deeds. Other characteristics of a gothic novel include the depiction of a villain who oppresses the vulnerable characters and the eventual rescue of these victims from their oppressors through a supernatural intervention that is nothing short of Deus ex machina.

Instances of the gothic elements in Jane Eyre can be gleaned from the red-room incidents. Gateshead itself gives the novel its gothic setting while the red room, based on Jane’s experiences in it, is haunted. Jane is locked in the red room after an altercation with Master John Reed. It does not help that Mr Reed had died in the red room. Bessie and Sarah’s whispered conversations reveal some of Jane Eyre’s weird visions while in the red-room: ‘Something passed her, all dressed in white, and vanished. . . A great black dog behind him. . . Three loud raps on the chamber door. . . A light in the churchyard just above the grave’. The person implied in this vision is the late Mr Reed. However, it must be pointed out that some of these dreaded events tend to stem from Jane’s imagination, which is what also makes Jane Eyre a deeply psychological novel.

The red room is equally described as animated or having a life of its own. For instance, the seat ‘riveted’, the bed ‘rose before me’. The antique origins of the furniture and other items in the room help to assign the room its gothic quality. Jane goes on to describe her haunted vision in the red room thus: ‘. . . and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half-fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers’.

The villains and other personages in the novel whose presence and actions help to heighten the gothic quality of Jane Eyre are Mrs Sarah Reed, Master John Reed, Mr Brocklehurst and Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Mr Rochester. Mrs Sarah Reed and John, with his sisters, Elizabeth and Georgiana, oppress Jane in Gateshead. Mr Brocklehurst oppresses Jane and the other unfortunate students at Lowood while Bertha Mason torments Jane and Mr Rochester at Thornfield. Jane’s oppression ends when she leaves Gateshead for Lowood, as well as when John and his mother, Mrs Reed, die. Bertha Mason’s presence destroys Jane and Mr Rochester’s happiness as their proposed marriage is stopped at the church during the wedding when a lawyer, Mr Briggs, raises an impediment to effect that Mr Rochester is still married as long as his mad wife, Bertha, is alive. They are released eventually but not after Bertha had burnt the whole of Thornfield to the ground, leading to her death, the crippling of Rochester in one hand and the loss of an eye. Jane equally suffers through being homeless after secretly leaving Thornfield because of the aborted marriage with Mr Rochester who had failed to disclose the existence of a previous marriage with the mad Bertha. Jane and Mr Rochester eventually get married and have a son as the novel draws to a close. 

Jane Eyre as a Romantic Novel: Vestiges of Romanticism could still be found in Jane Eyre. This is not surprising because the Victorian period began just a decade before the publication of Jane Eyre. Hence, it is possible the novel would retain some elements of Romanticism in its constitution. Romanticism is described in terms of the value of nature and all objects of nature, including all forms of otherness. The richness in the depiction of nature and the natural environment is a major feature in Jane Eyre. In some cases, these depictions are indicative of animism, an extreme Romantic quality where nature is seen to be alive and active.

The depiction of animals like dogs in the novel and how they are cared for and valued is indicative of Romanticism. An instance is Pilot, Mr Rochester’s dog. Mr St. John Rivers also has a dog by name Old Carlo. Vestiges of Romanticism can be seen in the expression; ‘He [Mr Rochester] strayed down a walk edged with box, with apple trees, pear trees, and cherry trees on one side, and a border on the other full of all sorts of old-fashioned flowers, stocks, sweet-williams, primroses, pansies, mingled with southernwood, sweet-briar, and various fragrant herbs’.

The creative process that characterises Jane’s paintings is Romantic just like what the paintings portray. The process mimics Plato’s idea of art as an imitation of reality. Jane says the paintings formed in her mind and she hoped to represent them exactly on the paper except that this is not always the case, as the painting becomes ‘a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived’. Jane’s three paintings depict nature or aspects of nature: the first painting depicts ‘cloud low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea.’ The second painting depicts the ‘dim peak of a hill’, ‘the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky’. This is an instance of art within art. It also describes the idea of an artist’s work as the shadow of his/her thought. This alludes to or reminds one of the creative process of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. As it was with ‘Kubla Khan’, Jane had succeeded in painting a picture of a realistic setting which she had never set her eyes on. It is Mr Rochester who recognises the picture as Latmos, a mountain in Turkey. Jane painted the picture based on a vision that formed in her mind. This is an instance of intuition and spiritism informing art, which is an important quality of Romanticism.

Jane Eyre as a Victorian Novel: The novel depicts the Victorian moral, social and economic systems which the characterisation of Jane mostly opposes. Marriage, for instance, was based on class and social station. It was meant to lead to social and economic uplift of the individual, which is why it is ironic that Mr Rochester wants to marry Jane who is beneath his social station instead of marrying Mrs Blanche Ingram, whom he says is after his money. Hence, once Mr Rochester lies to Ingram that his wealth is not secure or genuine, she abandons him.

In the Victorian period, one’s class was determined not only by birth, but also by economic circumstances. At Gateshead, Jane is looked down upon by Mrs Reed and her children – John, Elizabeth and Georgiana – because she does not have money or any relations but rather depends on Mrs Reed for her upkeep. John tells Jane that she is supposed to beg as her parents died poor and left her no money. He does not even allow Jane to read the books in the house.

Jane attends Lowood school meant for poor and orphan children because of her social station. It should be noted that Mrs Reed’s and Mr Brocklehurst’s children do not attend such a school. However, it should also be borne in mind that one could lift oneself up through education in the Victorian period, just as Jane does. After her education at Lowood, Jane becomes a teacher there and later serves as a governess in Mr Rochester’s house, teaching Adèle Varens, Mr Rochester’s ward.

Jane’s class and status shift once she comes into an inheritance left behind for her by her uncle, Mr John Eyre. She is now rich and more compatible with Mr Rochester and so could marry as equals. Jane’s morality is impeccable though not strictly religious. She wants to marry for love, not for money and social elevation as was the practice of her time. She chooses love and individualism by accepting to marry Rochester and rejecting St. John Rivers’ marriage proposal who wants her to follow him to India to serve as missionary’s wife.

Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman: The Bildungsroman has a German origin and refers to the novel of growth and education. It usually depicts the hero, a young, innocent and even naïve, person undertaking both a physical and, most importantly, a psychological trip or journey and follows the character’s development from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to maturity. The growth is usually effected through education, formal or informal, or both. This description fits the eponymous heroine, Jane Eyre, who is depicted as growing from being the ten-year-old girl in Gateshead to the girl in Lowood who undergoes a mental transformation to become a teacher and later a governess at Thornfield. She then becomes the eighteen-year-old woman who desires a marriage relationship with her master. The fact that the novel follows Jane as she grows in life makes it a good example of a bildungsroman novel.

Setting:  Jane Eyre is set in the England of the late18th and 19th centuries. The work captures the zeitgeists or the ethos of both Romanticism and Victorianism. The specific place setting of the novel includes Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Whitcross, Moorland or Marsh End and Ferndean. These are the major stations in Jane’s travails in life. At Gateshead, Jane lives with Mrs Sarah Reed and her children. Then she leaves for Lowood for her education after falling out with the Reeds. Upon the completion of her education at Lowood, she remains as a teacher there until Mrs Fairfax offers her a job as a governess at Thornfield. When things fall apart at Thornfield following the ill-fated marriage between Mr Rochester and Jane, Jane leaves Thornfield and wanders around Whitcross and Morton areas of town until she is accommodated by the Rivers at Marsh End in Moor House, where she stays with Hannah, the maid, and Mary and Diana, the two sisters of St. John Rivers. It would later be revealed that they are Jane’s relations. St. John offers Jane a job as a mistress at Morton school built out of the benevolence of Miss Oliver who loves St. John but who would not reciprocate the love because of his commitment to priesthood. Jane accepts the offer and moves to Morton and stays there until it is revealed that Uncle John Eyre had left her a fortune worth twenty thousand pounds. Jane shares the money equally with her three cousins – Mr John Rivers, Mary and Diana. She rejects Mr Rivers’ marriage offer and goes off to see Mr Rochester at Thornfield, only to meet it in ruins. She then gathers that Mr Rochester had moved to Ferndean in London, where she goes to meet him. There they get married and settle down to a long, happy and contented life.

Point of View: Jane Eyre is written from the first-person narrative point of view. The narrator is Jane and she relates her story – a story about love and life in Victorian England. In the second paragraph of the novel, Jane writes: ‘I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight. . .’. The excerpt exemplifies the narrative viewpoint of the novel.

Another aspect of the narrative viewpoint in Jane Eyre is intrusive narration denoted by the authorial voice breaking through the narrative parameters to directly address the reader. There are many examples of intrusive narration in Jane Eyre. A good instance is when the author comments on her art thus: ‘A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote’. This is significant because it is the opening statement in chapter eleven of the novel.

 Even though the novel is narrated from the first-person viewpoint, there are instances of stream of consciousness. This can be seen when Jane muses on what working for Mrs Fairfax would look like: ‘I suppose,’ thought I, ‘judging from the plainness of the servant and carriage, Mrs Fairfax is not a very dashing person: so much the better; I never lived amongst fine people but once, and I was very miserable with them.’ She is, of course, referring to the Reeds.

Subject Matter: Jane is the subject matter of the novel. It is her story; the story of an orphan girl in a highly stratified society. The story also depicts her dynamic characterisation, her resilience and resistance to oppression, her rebellious spirit that fights back and refuses to be oppressed, her hopes that are dashed, her suffering and her eventual triumph. Hence, Jane Eyre should be read as a tragic story that ends happily for its two heroes – Jane and her Mr Rochester.

Language and Style: The language of Jane Eyre is lucid and could be understood by the average reader. Like most Victorian novels, Jane Eyre is predominated with periodic sentences and hypotactic expressions. This is what the reader encounters from the first sentence in the novel: ‘We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the winter wind had brought with it clouds, sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question’. The novel makes use of many French words which are glossed at the end of the novel.

Allusion: There is a preponderance of literary and historical allusions in Jane Eyre. An instance of literary allusion is when Jane describes the contents of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and why she likes it better than the other books on fairy tales. It is interesting that Jane considers Gulliver’s Travels a factual story. In Jane Eyre, Mr Brocklehurst is described as black, tall and rigid which equally fits the description of Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Another instance of literary allusion is seen in the statement ‘. . . after life’s fitful fever they sleep well’ made by Jane quoting William Shakespeare’s Macbeth after Mrs Fairfax had said that the Rochester family led a violent life.

 Jane describes Mr Rochester’s physical features in ways that fit the description of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times. Jane writes; ‘. . . his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair’. When Mr Mason is seriously attacked and wounded by Bertha, his sister, Mr Rochester refers to the wound as a scratch and promises to fetch the surgeon. This is an instance of meiosis and alludes to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio refers to the mortal wound he receives from Tybalt as ‘a scratch’.

Humour: Humour is a device deployed by authors to achieve comic or hilarious effects in literature through words or actions. Humour abounds in Jane Eyre. It is humorous how Jane tries to steal away from the garden in Thornfield when she discovers Mr Rochester’s presence, not knowing that Mr Rochester had already espied her. Humour is also seen when Mr Rochester teases Jane about using tricks to get home instead of sending for a carriage while returning from visiting Mrs Reed at Gateshead before Mrs Reed died. He playfully refers to Jane as a ghost, a tag he is fond of using to address Jane. It is humorous how Mr Rochester tries to retrieve the money he had given to Jane so as to ensure her returning to Gateshead after visiting the ailing Mrs Reed.

 John Reed lacks Romantic attributes and it explains why he is cruel to animals. The novel, through the device of dark humour, explains how John ‘. . . twisted the necks of the pigeons, killed the little pea-chicks [and] set the dogs at the sheep. . .’. It is laughable how Jane, as a child, believes that poor people do not have the means to be kind, which explains her decision not to leave Gateshead to stay with a distant relative described as poor. It is equally hilarious how Jane tells Mr Brocklehurst that to avoid going to hell, she must keep in good health and not die. For Jane, then, death is synonymous with hell. One of Jane’s disappointing experiences at Lowood is the bad food served to the students on many occasions. Students are unable to eat the porridge when it is burnt and, hence, badly cooked. On this particular occasion, the authorial voice makes an antithetical and paradoxical statement that is nothing but humorous: ‘. . . breakfast was over, and none had breakfasted’.   

Irony: Irony is a device that expresses meanings in opposites. When Mr Lloyd asks why Jane is crying, Bessie lies that it could be because Jane could not go out with Mrs Reed. This is ironic because neither Jane nor Mrs Reed would have wanted to keep each other’s company at Gateshead as they were at loggerheads. It is equally ironic that Mr Brocklehurst sees Mrs Reed as Jane’s ‘excellent benefactress’. Irony also manifests when the wife and two daughters of Mrs Brocklehurst visit Lowood dressed luxuriously. But Mr Brocklehurst insists that all the girls at Lowood should dress moderately. It is sadly ironic that when there is an outbreak of typhus at Lowood, Mr Brocklehurst and his family refuse to visit the school for fear of contracting the disease. It is also humorous because his absence allows Miss Maria Temple, the school’s superintendent, to increase the students’ food ration without being questioned by Mr Brocklehurst, as he can no longer easily scrutinise the accounts. It is ironic that Grace Poole is blamed for the mysterious attempt to set Mr Rochester’s room ablaze. The reader would later learn that it was actually Bertha who did the deed. Verbal irony is seen when Jane tells Mr Rochester that she is fine when actually she is love sick.

Foreshadowing: Also called prefigurement, foreshadowing refers to a word, a remark or an event that points to a future occurrence in a literary work. An instance of foreshadowing is seen in the sudden change in weather when Jane arrives newly at Lowood. The author writes that ‘Rain, wind, and darkness filled the air’ which is an omen that foreshadows all the tragic events that Jane would experience at Lowood; the false accusation from Mr Brocklehurst, the terrible food, the cruelty of the seniors, the typhus outbreak, the many deaths it recorded and the demise of her dear friend, Helen Burns. Foreshadowing is seen in how Mr Rochester prefers outdoors to the house which Jane says is an excellent mansion but which he sees as ruins. This word foreshadows the eventual destruction of Thornfield by fire which turns it to a ruin where no one lives. Shortly before the day of the marriage, Jane has a dream in which Thornfield has become a ‘dreary ruin, the retreat of bats and owls’.

The dream that Jane has about a child implies trouble and it prefigures the death of Bessie’s child. Dreams, it must be noted, usually denote future events in literature. Note the storm that immediately follows Jane’s acceptance of Mr Rochester’s marriage proposal. It is an omen that prefigures the disruption of the marriage later in the novel when it is revealed that Mr Rochester has a wife alive. Mrs Fairfax’s warning to Jane about the proposed marriage to Mr Rochester is an instance of foreshadowing, apart from stemming from her belief that the duo are socially incompatible. She tells Jane that ‘all is not gold that glitters’, a poetic way of expressing her pessimism towards the marriage.  

Suspense: It is in suspense that Jane Eyre achieves most of its literary effects. The author is skillful at withholding valuable pieces of information from the reader which are only revealed at a later stage in the novel. This keeps the reader’s interest sustained in the novel till the end. In the novel, the reader is kept guessing about Jane’s life and her eventual prospects. The reader is kept wondering if Jane will marry Mr Rochester or if he will be married to Miss Blanche Ingram instead. When Jane leaves Thornfield, the reader is kept wondering what will become of her now that she is left to the elements. Another important point of suspense in the novel is the mystery surrounding the gothic laughter at Thornfield, the sinister attacks on Jane, Mr Rochester and his guests like Mr Mason. The reader would later learn that these attacks are carried out by Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Mr Rochester. The author withholds information about the relationship between Jane and the Rivers at Marsh End until later when it is revealed that they are cousins. Towards the end of the novel, the reader is left guessing if Jane would marry St. John Rivers or if she would marry Mr Rochester despite his loss of sight and an arm. The author equally keeps from us the fact that Thornfield had become desolate until Jane visits there.

Invectives: Invectives are poetic insults or abuses. Verbal abuse constitutes invectives in the novel. It should be noted how Mrs Reed eagerly agrees to send Jane to school so as to get rid of ‘such a tiresome, ill-conditioned child who always looked as if she were watching everybody, and scheming plots underhand’. Miss Abbot calls Jane ‘a little toad’. John Reed describes Jane as ‘a bad animal’. The highly conceited Miss Blanche Ingram kicks against Jane joining them for the charade or drama that they are about to perform during the nobles’ visit to Mr Rochester. She says that Jane ‘looks too stupid for any game of the sort’. Soon afterwards, Miss Ingram insults the young Adèle, referring to her as ‘you tiresome monkey!’

Symbolism: Jane is a symbol of will power and resistance to oppression. She is a dynamic character who rejects the stereotyping of women in her time. Her characterisation embodies and anticipates the feminist ethos of the modern period. The ‘half-blown rose’ that Mr Rochester gifts Jane is a symbol of the love the couple share in the novel. The kiss and the hugs that Mr Rochester accords Jane in the novel are signs of love and intimacy. The apparition that confronts Jane at Thornfield close to Jane’s wedding to Mr Rochester will turn out to be Bertha. She tears Jane’s wedding veil in two and tramples on it. This action is symbolic because it signifies that the wedding will be abortive.

Songs: Jane Eyre is a novel of songs. Songs convey the mood and the experiences of the characters in the novel. They also help to highlight the current themes being dramatised in the novel as the song is being sung. For instance, Bessie sings ‘In the time when we were gypsying. . .’ which is usually, for her, a happy song and Jane normally enjoys it. However, due to the extreme abuses and trauma that Jane is going through at the moment, she cannot enjoy the song. Thus, the author uses this situation to heighten Jane’s grief. Bessie equally sings a ballad that captures the mood of the moment, at least as perceived by Jane. The ballad has five stanzas, organised in quatrains with the rhyme scheme abab. The song describes the experience of a poor orphan similar to that of Jane Eyre. The song has the refrain ‘the poor orphan child’ mentioned at the end of each stanza like ‘God is a friend to the poor orphan child’.

Another significant song in the novel is the one Mr Rochester sings for Jane in the evening shortly before their ill-fated marriage. It is a twelve-stanza song about love, rendered in iambic tetrameter and trimeter, with the rhyme scheme abab. The song apparently mirrors the Jane-Rochester relationship in the story it tells. However, Jane rejects the final stanza of the song because it contains the idea of dying for love or with love – that is, the kind of love in which the lovers are prepared to die for and with each other. This final stanza generates a temporary quarrel and rift between Jane and Mr Rochester and, in the light of future events, proves Jane’s spiritual discernment as she was able to escape the tragedy in Thornfield which destroyed the building, took the life of Bertha and seriously injured Mr Rochester, by the rejecting the tragic clause in the love song.

Was this helpful?  

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!