Discuss the use of symbolism in Jane Eyre.
In Jane Eyre fire and ice are key symbols. On a number of instances in the first three chapters, Jane mentions that "the room was chill," and "I sat wrapped before the hearth." In Chapter 3, she wakes from a nightmare, but is consoled when she reckonizes the "red glare" as the fire in her own bedroom. Then, in Chapter 4, Jane likens her mind to "a ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring." Of course, these symbols recur throughout Bronte's novel.
Fire is a symbol of Jane's passionate, fiercely independent nature, while ice is symbolic of the forces against her such as Brocklehurst and the horrible Lowood School where the freezing temperatures chill the girls who are ill-dressed for them. Each morning the frozen pitchers of water "greet" them. After her wedding to Mr. Rochester is interrupted by the objections of Briggs, a solicitor of Richard Mason, Rochester's brother-in-law, Jane describes her mental state in Chapter 26:
A Christmas frost had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hafield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, today were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods...now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine forests in wintry Norway. My hopes were all dead....they lay stark, chill, livid corpses...I looked at my love...which he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle....
Before she leaves Rochester, Jane decides she "must be ice and rock to him." Unfortunately, it is an icy nature that Jane encounters after she leaves Rochester. For, in Chapter 34 when the icy, reserved St. John proposes to Jane, she concludes that if she marries him she would be
Always restrained and always checked--forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it turn burn inwardly and never utter a cry....this would be--unendurable.
Fire also symbolizes cleansing. After the fire that leaves Mr. Rochester a widower but blind, his soul has been purged of its corruption as some critics perceive Bertha as symbolic of what Jane's surrender to Rochester earlier could have brought about. A humbled, but better man it is that Jane can finally marry after the fire destroys the mansion and Bertha.
It is interesting, too, that the red room mentioned above as symbolic to the young Jane also reappears significantly throughout the novel as Jane makes connections between how she felt in that room with a current experience. For instance, at Lowood School Jane recalls this red room, a room of anger, fear, and anxiety, when she is humiliated by Mr. Brocklehurst. Also, she recalls this room on the night she decides to leave Mr. Rochester after their marriage is foiled. Here again red can represent fire, for only after the fire at Thornfield does she rid herself of the haunting memory of the red room.
The day after Mr. Rochester proposes to Jane under the chestnut tree, this same tree is struck by lightning in the night. This splintered tree is symbolic of the split between Jane and Rochester, and it also symbolizes Mr. Rochester himself after the fire as he tells Jane he has no right to ask her to live with him since he is but a broken man.
Critics also perceive Bertha Rochester as a symbol with regard to Imperalistic Britain that "locks away" the other cultures that it has conquered. Others see Bertha as representative of the Victorian woman, who is trapped in her role as homemaker and mother. Her insanity serves as a warning to Jane to maintain her independence. Still others see Bertha as the id of Jane, the manifestation of her fiery nature. For, when Thornfield comes to represent a state of servitude, Bertha burns it to the ground. Since Jane often describes her nature as "fiery," and "a ridge of lighted heath," Bertha is the manifestation, contend critics, of Jane's inner self.
This isn't a particularly symbolic novel. It has some recurring themes, but it doesn't have many recurring symbols. In fact, I can really only think of one clearly symbolic element--the red room.
Jane is locked into the red room while staying with her Aunt Reed. This is a frightening and intimidating room for a child. It's a true red, the color of blood; and there's a mirror which distorts her image, like one of those amusement park wacky mirrors. Her uncle had died in this room, and of course the imagination of a child will run rampant with such material. The weather is stormy, adding to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation. She is locked into the room by her family, those who are supposed to love and care for her, and the entire episode is traumatic in every way.
This episode marks the moment of greatest ridicule and isolation between Jane and the rest of her world; and she re-visits this scene several more times at the most dramatic moments in her life. When she was publicly humiliated at the orphanage, she re-visited the red room in her dream. The night before she has determined to leave her Mr. Rochester, she does the same. These two events are indicative of the same helplessness and isolation she felt the night she spent in the red room.
Once she has struck out on her own, asserting her independence, she no longer has the dream--symbolic of her changed circumstances. Her financial and social standings did not change so much, but Jane no longer lived in isolation. She was accepted and connected, and she could shut the door, so to speak, on that room.
Perhaps a case could be made for Bertha, Rochester's mad wife, being a symbol of several kinds of things, but her presence is fairly limited and I'd hesitate to call her much of a symbol throughout the work.
Perhaps the places Jane lives, all of which have names (Lowood and Thornfield, for example), are a bit symbolic, as well. I tend to think of them more as imagery than symbols, though.