What is the meaning of Gateshead?
Gateshead is the grand house where Jane lives in the beginning of the novel as a poor dependent with her Aunt Reed and three cousins, Georgiana, Eliza, and John. Her aunt is incapable of loving her and favors her own children. The Reed children, especially John, know they can get away with tormenting Jane cruelly. In this cold, hostile environment, Jane is formed as a person who understands what it is to suffer and be despised. She develops some of the anger (critics Gilbert and Gubar, in Madwoman in the Attic, famously argue that the name Eyre means ire or anger) that causes her to hate injustice (Jane will later confront Mrs. Reed about her cruelty) and wonder about a woman's constricted place in Victorian society. Gateshead is also her gateway to Lowood School, another cruel place, designed as a charitable institution to humble girls of poor origin. Ironically, despite the humiliation and deprivation she experiences there, at Lowood Jane finds the friendship and love lacking at Gateshead.
Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that traces Jane’s physical and emotional development from childhood to adulthood. Although a romance occurs later in the novel, recognizing the purpose location serves within the story is paramount to understanding Jane’s journey of personal growth and discovery. Thus, the story’s five principle locations (Gateshead, Lowood School, Thornfield, Moor House, and Ferndean) function symbolically as stages in her physical and emotional growth: each contains trials or obstacles she must successfully navigate in order to attain self-actualization.
Gateshead, for instance, the lavish home of the Reeds, Jane’s aunt and cousins, initially functions as a symbol of oppression in young Jane’s life. Even the name, “Gateshead,” is suggestive of a portal--though whether an ingress or egress is entirely dependent upon Jane’s choices. Penniless and orphaned, Jane discovers the “gate” that should have opened upon a loving and comfortable life closed to her with cruel and indifferent finality. At Gateshead, Jane is tortured by her cousins and mistreated by her aunt, whose insults and punishments are intended to transform her into the model Victorian child: pious, quiet, and above all, unquestioningly obedient. When Mrs. Reed’s attempts only incite Jane’s rebellious nature and her last punishment induces a fit of hysteria, a “gate” of opportunity opens for the young ward. Remanded to the religious institution, Lowood, Jane discovers within its harsh confines the warmth and friendship denied to her by her family. Her experiences at Lowood—a name evoking an existential nadir (“low”) as well as dual intimations of both physical punishment and measuring gauge (“wood”)—allow her to grow into an accomplished young woman and teacher.