Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Charlotte Brontë, in the work’s original subtitle, describes Jane Eyre as an autobiography. This idea is reinforced to the reader through Jane’s consistent, strong narrative voice and through the structure chosen by the author. Jane Eyre may also be considered a bildungsroman, a work that traces a character’s spiritual, personal, or moral growth. Like a traditional autobiography, Jane Eyre begins at the furthest reaches of Jane’s memory and progresses through what she considers to be all the major events of her life.
Naturally, since Jane is the one relating her own story, her reliability as a narrator is called into question. Though Jane appears sincerely honest, she is not omniscient, and she cannot be expected to narrate her own life or describe herself with absolute objectivity. Brontë takes advantage of this natural unreliability, enabling readers to see through Jane’s commentary of other characters, the areas where Jane is mistaken about herself, her qualities, and her potential.
As in Wuthering Heights, the work of the author's sister Emily Brontë, there are strong Gothic elements at work in Jane Eyre, although unlike in Wuthering Heights, much of what is suggested to be supernatural in Jane Eyre is later explained away. Though Bertha is not in fact a vampire or a ghost, there are strong Gothic overtones in what Bertha herself represents and in the pervasive sense of mystery that cultivates suspense throughout the novel.
Thornfield, with its many shuttered rooms and its secretive attics, adheres to the Gothic trope of a maze-like house or castle that functions as a representation of its owner—in this case, the enigmatic Mr. Rochester. Even the name of the house, Thornfield, suggests that Jane is picking her way carefully through a thorny problem as she seeks to get to the bottom of the mysterious events that transpire at the house.
Bertha, at the heart of the house and the heart of the mystery, is not only Mr. Rochester's secret wife but also the answer to many of Jane’s internal questions about the man she has fallen in love with. The Gothic preoccupation with what is concealed and what lies beneath is apparent in the novel’s focus on Mr. Rochester’s often perplexing behavior and his tendency to obfuscate himself, sometimes literally. The Gothic tradition of using landscapes to shape an atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty is also utilized in this novel, as Jane moves between a number of gloomy and isolated locations surrounded by moors and marshes—places in which people might easily become lost, both literally and figuratively.
Jane Eyre is replete with symbolism and allegory, leaving readers to constantly tease out what is being discussed beneath the surface. Jane Eyre greatly rewards feminist readings in particular, which encourage readers to question the shifting power dynamic between Jane and Mr. Rochester, as well as the symbolism of the passionate Bertha’s imprisonment.
In her early life, Jane is forced by Mrs. Reed into the “red room,” a punishment that terrifies her all the more because she is convinced that she is “haunted” in the red room by the ghost of a long-dead man. She does not want to be unjustly confined to this space and treated like a child on the orders of her wicked aunt, and it’s difficult to ignore the parallels between the experience of a young Jane and Bertha Mason, who is locked in the attic by a man who, like Mrs. Reed, insists that his charge is an uncontrollable monster. The justice of Bertha’s confinement is ultimately left open to debate, for if Jane is occasionally an unreliable narrator, the deceptive...
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Mr. Rochester must be trusted still less.
Jane herself identifies the commonalities between herself, Mr. Rochester, and Bertha: she recognizes the vein of “fire” that runs in their personalities and resolves to turn herself to ice to do the right thing and leave Mr. Rochester. One wonders whether in Bertha’s oppressed position, the independent and self-possessed Jane, might, too, have gone mad.
At the end of the novel, it is Bertha’s “fire” which razes Thornfield to the ground, her repressed passion finally escaping as a destructive force. Notably, it is only after both the house and Mr. Rochester have been ruined by this fire that Jane and Mr. Rochester can meet as social and spiritual equals. While Jane has acquired personal wealth and confidence during their separation, Mr. Rochester has been maimed and lost his home—perhaps both a divine punishment and form of atonement for his earlier treatment of his wife and Jane.