In what ways is Jane Eyre influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel? What do the Gothic elements contribute to the novel?
The Gothic tradition utilizes elements such as supernatural encounters, remote locations, complicated family histories, ancient manor houses, dark secrets, and mysteries to create an atmosphere of suspense and terror, and the plot of Jane Eyre includes most of these elements. Lowood, Moor House, and Thornfield are all remote locations, and Thornfield, like Gateshead, is also an ancient manor house. Both Rochester and Jane possess complicated family histories—Rochester’s hidden wife, Bertha, is the dark secret at the novel’s core. The exposure of Bertha is one of the most important moments in the novel, and the mystery surrounding her is the main source of the novel’s suspense.
Other Gothic occurrences include: Jane’s encounter with the ghost of her late Uncle Reed in the red-room; the moment of supernatural communication between Jane and Rochester when she hears his voice calling her across the misty heath from miles and miles away; and Jane’s mistaking Rochester’s dog, Pilot, for a “Gytrash,” a spirit of North England that manifests itself as a horse or dog.
Although Brontë’s use of Gothic elements heightens her reader’s interest and adds to the emotional and philosophical tensions of the book, most of the seemingly supernatural occurrences are actually explained as the story progresses. It seems that many of the Gothic elements serve to anticipate and elevate the importance of the plot’s turning points.
What do the names mean in Jane Eyre? Some names to consider include: Jane Eyre, Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Reed, Rivers, Miss Temple, and Ferndean.
Of course, there are many possible ways to address this question. The following answer includes only a few of the ways the names in Jane Eyre can be interpreted.
The name “Jane Eyre” elicits many associations. The contrast between Jane’s first name—with its traditional association with “plainness”—and the names of the novel’s well-born women (Blanche, Eliza, Georgiana, Diana, Rosamond) highlights Jane’s lack of status, but it also emphasizes her lack of pretense. Jane’s last name has many possible interpretations, none of which mutually excludes the other. “Eyre” is an archaic spelling for “air,” and throughout the book, Jane is linked to the spiritual or ethereal as she drifts, windlike, from one location to the next. In French, “aire” refers to a bird’s nesting place, among other things. Jane is compared to a bird repeatedly throughout the novel, and she often uses her imagination as a “nesting-place” of sorts, a private realm where she can feel secure. In medieval times, “eyre” also signified circuit-traveling judges. Perhaps Jane’s name is meant to bring attention to her role as a careful evaluator of all that she sees, and to the importance that she attaches to justice. “Eyre” also sounds like “heir,” and its other homophone—“err”—could certainly be interpreted to be meaningful, especially to feminist and religious critics who take issue with Jane’s actions!
Place names also seem to be symbolic. Jane’s story begins at “Gateshead.” From there, she moves to the bosky darkness and spiritual abyss of “Lowood.” At Thornfield, she must fight her way through the stings of many emotional and psychological thorns (or, as many critics argue, wear “a crown of thorns” like Jesus Christ). Jane first tastes true freedom of movement in the open spaces surrounding Moor House, while Ferndean is the home where her love can grow fertile. Thus in Chapter 37 Rochester says to Jane, “I am no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard. . . . And what right would that ruin have to bid a budding woodbine cover its decay with freshness?” Jane replies, “You are no ruin, sir—no lightning-struck tree: you are green and vigorous. Plants will grow about your roots, whether you ask them or not, because they take delight in your bountiful shadow; and as they grow they will lean towards you, and wind round you, because your strength offers them so safe a prop.”
1. Discuss Jane as a narrator and as a character. What sort of voice does she have? How does she represent her own actions? Does she seem to be a trustworthy storyteller, or does Brontë require us to read between the lines of her narrative? In light of the fact that people who treat Jane cruelly (John Reed, Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst) all seem to come to unhappy endings, what role does Jane play as the novel’s moral center?
2. In what ways might Jane Eyre be considered a feminist novel? What points does the novel make about the treatment and position of women in Victorian society? With particular attention to the book’s treatment of marriage, is there any way in which it might be considered anti-feminist?
3. What role does Jane’s ambiguous social position play in determining the conflict of her story? What larger points, if any, does the novel make about social class? Does the book criticize or reinforce existing Victorian social prejudices? Consider the treatment of Jane as a governess, but also of the other servants in the book, along with Jane’s attitude toward her impoverished students at Morton.
4. Compare and contrast some of the characters who serve as foils throughout Jane Eyre: Blanche to Jane, St. John to Rochester, and, perhaps, Bertha to Jane. Also think about the points of comparison between the Reed and Rivers families. How do these contrasts aid the development of the book’s themes?