What roles do the symbols of ice and fire play in Jane Eyre? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost's image of fire as desire and passion is certainly in line with Bronte's use of fire, but ice in Jane Eyre represents not hatred, but reason. Nevertheless, as in the poem, both fire as pure passion and ice as pure reason are destructive.

From the beginning, Jane Eyre's inner spirit is fiery, as in Chapter 4 she perceives her "inner landscape" as "a ridge of lighted heath." Prior to this, in Chapter 3 Bessie comes to the Red Room where Jane has been contained on the morrow of the next day, telling her not to cry, but Jane narrates,  

She might as well have said to the fire, “don't burn!” but how could she divine the morbid suffering to which I was a prey?

It is this passionate nature which sustains Jane during her time at Lowood, a most restrictive school, led by a strict and sadistic Calvinist, Mr. Lloyd who asks Jane what hell is, and she replies, "A pit full of fire."  And well her passions may seem to Jane as she is punished at Lockwood when she makes objection, is called a liar, and is also subsequently punished.

After she is hired as a governess for Adele at Thornfield, Jane witnesses passion out of control in the form of Bertha, who sets fire one night to Jane's bed. Eventually, Bertha's passion destroys Thornfield after she is able to ignite the entire house. But, Mr. Rochester experiences a "baptism by fire," a cleansing and attaining of a balance as fire burns away his unreasoning passion when Bertha destroys his home.

As a counterpoint to the unruly and passionate Rochester, St. John Rivers is characterized as a passionless Calvinist; he is "reserved" and "abstracted" in nature; icy reason and emotionless self-control rule him. He offers marriage to Jane, but only as a passionless partnership as a missionary, for he deprecates her as being under "the most powerful hold" of "human emotions and sympathies." St. John himself is under the hold of inexorable principle; in Chapter 31, he rejects the lovely Miss Oliver even though, as Jane observes, his "eye melts with sudden fire." It is as though he is a automaton as St. John refuses her offer to visit her father. As he walks away, Jane watches him never look back as Miss Oliver turns twice to look after him, who has rejected an opportunity for passion and love. Later, he explains to Jane that he is "a cold, hard, ambitious man" for whom "reason, and not feeling" is his guide. And, as he departs, Jane notices that "it was beginning to snow."

In the end, Jane senses that if she were to marry St. John, the passionless life with him would kill her. As he continues to pressure her to marry him, Jane hears a voice calling her; "I am coming," she returns, running to the gate. The next morning, Jane sets out on her journey, a journey that unites her with Mr. Rochester, whom she tells of St. John's prposal,

"He is good and great, but severe; and, for me, cold as an iceberg....He has no indulgence for me, no fondness."

With Mr. Rochester, however, Jane's fire of emotions is joined with that of his. She has heard his passionate call, he her reply, and they are married.