Themes and Meanings
The main themes of the novel arise from the incompatibility of the couple, who come from cultures and domains remote from each other. Not long after their wedding, Antoinette asks Rochester if England, as a friend of hers had written, was “like a cold dark dream.” He answers, annoyed, “that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.” Antoinette asks how “rivers and mountains and the sea” can be unreal, and he responds by asking how “millions of people, their houses and their streets” can be unreal. The unreality of each other’s worlds and the consequences for their relationship are conveyed structurally by shifting the narration from Antoinette to Rochester and then to Antoinette again in the three sections of the novel.
The West Indies is established early as a place of menacing beauty. The garden at Coulibri Estate is depicted as the paradisiacal Garden of Eden that had “gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell.” The orchid’s tendrils snake down from the tree, and the child Antoinette says that she “never went near it.” Years later, the landscape overpowers Rochester, recently come from England: “Everything is too much.... Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger.” Irreality suffuses the latter half of the novel. In England, Antoinette is certain that the ship lost the way to England and that this world is made of cardboard.
Another structuring device contributing to the unreal aura is the dream that recurs to Antoinette three times: as a child, as a young woman, and at the end of the novel. The successive dreams add detail and specificity to the event in the first dream, in which she is walking in the forest and is being followed by someone who hates her but who keeps out of sight. At the end of the novel, the actual world and the dreamworld unite, and her weapon against the one who hates her is in the red of her dress, of the flamboyant tree, of the flames that burned the house at Coulibri, of the fireplace in her attic room, and of the candle igniting the curtains and carpets and walls of Thornfield Hall.