Jane’s situation in Chapter 17 manifests the uncomfortable position of governesses. Jane, forced to sit in the drawing room during Rochester’s party, must endure Blanche Ingram’s comments to her mother about the nature of governesses—“half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi.” (“Incubi” is the plural of “incubus,” an oppressive or nightmarish burden.)
By this stage of the story, the narrative has begun to focus increasingly on the potential relationship between Jane and Rochester. Blanche’s presence, which threatens the possibility of a union between the two, adds tension to the plot. Blanche is not only a competitor for Jane, she is also a foil to her, as the two women differ in every respect. Jane Eyre never seems to possess the degree of romantic tension that runs throughout Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights because the signs of Rochester’s affection for Jane are recognizable early on. The most telling tip-off occurs at the end of Chapter 17, when Rochester nearly calls Jane “my love” before biting his tongue. The tension surrounding Jane’s and Rochester’s relationship derives not from the question of whether Rochester loves Jane, but from whether he will be able to act upon his feelings. So far, two obstacles—Blanche and the dark secrets of Thornfield Hall—stand in Rochester’s way.
These obstacles, and the potential marriage that they impede, constitute the romantic plot of Jane Eyre. As in many romances, the norms of society and the protagonists’ conflicting personalities must either be changed or ignored in order for marriage to be possible. But Rochester’s dark past, most importantly his secret marriage to Bertha, adds a Gothic element to the story. Unlike the marriage plot, which leads toward the public, communal event of a wedding, the “Gothic plot” of Rochester’s struggle with his own past focuses on Rochester’s private consciousness. The physical world of Thornfield Hall reflects his interior state—the house, the landscape, and Bertha can all be seen as external manifestations of his dangerous secrets. These Gothic elements suggest that the story will lead to death or madness rather than the happy occasion of a wedding.
Disguised as a gypsy woman, Rochester wields an almost magical power over Jane, and the scene reveals how much he controls her emotions at this stage of the novel. He also controls the plot, and his masquerading as a gypsy woman allows him to overcome the obstacle Blanche poses. Like the game of charades the group plays earlier, Rochester’s disguised appearance suggests his disguised character. Mr. Mason’s unexplained wounds, like the earlier mysterious fire in Rochester’s bedroom, further the larger Gothic plot that will soon unfold. By allowing Jane upstairs to see Mason, Rochester seems to be inviting her to help cure the ills inflicted by Bertha, and he attempts for the first time to talk with Jane about his past as they take a walk together following Mason’s stabbing. Although he speaks to Jane about his determination to redeem himself, his references to a grave error and a dissipated youth suggest that Jane risks great danger not only by continuing to live at Thornfield but by falling in love with him. Her emotional welfare as well as her physical welfare may soon be in jeopardy. Adèle and Bertha already serve as living legacies of Rochester’s past licentiousness, and Jane could be next in line, as her prophetic dream seems to suggest.