In what ways does Jane Eyre demonstrate and deviate from the gothic romance tradition?

While Jane Eyre is undoubtedly inspired by the gothic romance tradition, its subversions of gothic archetypes and more Victorian social concerns distinguish it from earlier gothic fiction.

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Charlotte Brontë was heavily influenced by the gothic romance tradition when she wrote Jane Eyre. Popularized in the late-eighteenth century and lingering into the early decades of the nineteenth, the gothic novel emphasized suspense, passion, horror, and the supernatural. These novels were often set in the past, usually the middle ages, and commonly dealt with the way the horrors of the past can haunt the present. Common character archetypes within gothic novels included the virginal heroine, the sexually menacing male villain, and the brooding Byronic hero.

By the time Brontë penned Jane Eyre, the heyday of the gothic novel had long since passed, peaking with novels such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818. Jane Eyre itself is undoubtedly gothic, with its horrific elements such as the eerie sequence in the Red Room or the frightening figure of Bertha Mason, as well as its subdued supernatural elements like the implied mental link between Jane and Rochester at the end of the novel; however, it also possesses many differences from the older variants of gothic romance.

The novel subverts many gothic tropes and archetypes. Rochester initially resembles both the Byronic hero and the villainous lecher with his passionate intensity and the implicit threat to Jane's virtue in his desire to make her his mistress. However, unlike the Byronic hero, who is usually damned (literally or symbolically), Rochester is redeemed by both humbling circumstances and Jane's love. Jane also subverts the gothic heroine archetype by being allowed a more complicated character arc: she must come into her own as a person in order to be both liberated from the shadows of her tragic past and able to unite with Rochester as his equal. This more psychologically realistic dimension of Jane Eyre separates it from traditional gothic material.

It must also be remembered that Jane Eyre is a Victorian novel and this distinction brings about most of the differences between Brontë's book and her Romantic era predecessors. Romantic gothic novels were interested in the natural world, critiquing institutions such as organized religion, and emphasizing irrationality in response to the Enlightenment. Victorian novels reacted to the big questions of their own age, such as class conflicts, the question of what a woman's place should be in a changing world, and the effects of industrialization. Jane Eyre focuses heavily on Jane's perception of her identity as both a woman and an orphan looking for a home of her own, marking the novel as quite distinct from the works of earlier gothic romance such as The Castle of Otranto or Ann Radcliffe's novels.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 28, 2020
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