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Motifs

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Fire and Ice

Fire and ice appear throughout Jane Eyre. The former represents Jane’s passions, anger, and spirit, while the latter symbolizes the oppressive forces trying to extinguish Jane’s vitality. Fire is also a metaphor for Jane, as the narrative repeatedly associates her with images of fire, brightness, and warmth. In Chapter 4, she likens her mind to “a ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring.” We can recognize Jane’s kindred spirits by their similar links to fire; thus we read of Rochester’s “flaming and flashing” eyes (Chapter 26). After he has been blinded, his face is compared to “a lamp quenched, waiting to be relit” (Chapter 37).

Images of ice and cold, often appearing in association with barren landscapes or seascapes, symbolize emotional desolation, loneliness, or even death. The “death-white realms” of the arctic that Bewick describes in his History of British Birds parallel Jane’s physical and spiritual isolation at Gateshead (Chapter 1). Lowood’s freezing temperatures—for example, the frozen pitchers of water that greet the girls each morning—mirror Jane’s sense of psychological exile. After the interrupted wedding to Rochester, Jane describes her state of mind: “A Christmas frost had come at mid-summer: a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hay-field and corn-field lay a frozen shroud . . . and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and fragrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. My hopes were all dead. . . .” (Chapter 26). Finally, at Moor House, St. John’s frigidity and stiffness are established through comparisons with ice and cold rock. Jane writes: “By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind. . . . I fell under a freezing spell” (Chapter 34). When St. John proposes marriage to Jane, she concludes that “[a]s his curate, his comrade, all would be right. . . . But as his wife—at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked—forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital—this would be unendurable” (Chapter 34).

Substitute Mothers

Poet and critic Adrienne Rich has noted that Jane encounters a series of nurturing and strong women on whom she can model herself, or to whom she can look for comfort and guidance: these women serve as mother-figures to the orphaned Jane.

The first such figure that Jane encounters is the servant Bessie, who soothes Jane after her trauma in the red-room and teaches her to find comfort in stories and songs. At Lowood, Jane meets Miss Temple, who has no power in the world at large, but possesses great spiritual strength and charm. Not only does she shelter Jane from pain, she also encourages her intellectual development. Of Miss Temple, Jane writes: “she had stood by me in the stead of mother, governess, and latterly, companion” (Chapter 10). Jane also finds a comforting model in Helen Burns, whose lessons in stamina teach Jane about self-worth and the power of faith.

After Jane and Rochester’s wedding is cancelled, Jane finds comfort in the moon, which appears to her in a dream as a symbol of the matriarchal spirit. Jane sees the moon as “a white human form” shining in the sky, “inclining a glorious brow earthward.” She tells us: “It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart—“My daughter, flee temptation.” Jane answers, “Mother, I will” (Chapter 27). Waking from the dream, Jane leaves Thornfield.

Jane finds two additional mother-figures in the characters of Diana and Mary Rivers. Rich points out that the sisters bear the names of the pagan and Christian versions of “the Great Goddess”: Diana, the Virgin huntress, and Mary, the Virgin Mother. Unmarried and independent, the Rivers sisters love learning and reciting poetry and live as intellectual equals with their brother St. John.

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What does Jane struggle with throughout Jane Eyre?
The balance between obligation and happiness
The practice of self-negation that Helen taught her
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