Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Bertha Mason

Bertha Mason is a complex presence in Jane Eyre. She impedes Jane’s happiness, but she also catalyses the growth of Jane’s self-understanding. The mystery surrounding Bertha establishes suspense and terror to the plot and the atmosphere. Further, Bertha serves as a remnant and reminder of Rochester’s youthful libertinism.

Yet Bertha can also be interpreted as a symbol. Some critics have read her as a statement about the way Britain feared and psychologically “locked away” the other cultures it encountered at the height of its imperialism. Others have seen her as a symbolic representation of the “trapped” Victorian wife, who is expected never to travel or work outside the house and becomes ever more frenzied as she finds no outlet for her frustration and anxiety. Within the story, then, Bertha’s insanity could serve as a warning to Jane of what complete surrender to Rochester could bring about.

One could also see Bertha as a manifestation of Jane’s subconscious feelings—specifically, of her rage against oppressive social and gender norms. Jane declares her love for Rochester, but she also secretly fears marriage to him and feels the need to rage against the imprisonment it could become for her. Jane never manifests this fear or anger, but Bertha does. Thus Bertha tears up the bridal veil, and it is Bertha’s existence that indeed stops the wedding from going forth. And, when Thornfield comes to represent a state of servitude and submission for Jane, Bertha burns it to the ground. Throughout the novel, Jane describes her inner spirit as fiery, her inner landscape as a “ridge of lighted heath” (Chapter 4). Bertha seems to be the outward manifestation of Jane’s interior fire. Bertha expresses the feelings that Jane must keep in check.

The Red-Room

The red-room can be viewed as a symbol of what Jane must overcome in her struggles to find freedom, happiness, and a sense of belonging. In the red-room, Jane’s position of exile and imprisonment first becomes clear. Although Jane is eventually freed from the room, she continues to be socially ostracized, financially trapped, and excluded from love; her sense of independence and her freedom of self-expression are constantly threatened.

The red-room’s importance as a symbol continues throughout the novel. It reappears as a memory whenever Jane makes a connection between her current situation and that first feeling of being ridiculed. Thus she recalls the room when she is humiliated at Lowood. She also thinks of the room on the night that she decides to leave Thornfield after Rochester has tried to convince her to become an undignified mistress. Her destitute condition upon her departure from Thornfield also threatens emotional and intellectual imprisonment, as does St. John’s marriage proposal. Only after Jane has asserted herself, gained financial independence, and found a spiritual family—which turns out to be her real family—can she wed Rochester and find freedom in and through marriage.

The Split Chestnut Tree

The split chestnut tree in the orchard at Thornfield Hall symbolizes both the eventual breaking off of Jane and Rochester’s marriage and the atypical nature of their relationship at the end of the novel. The large tree, which rests in an Eden-like grove, bears witness to Rochester’s marriage proposal and Jane’s acceptance only to be struck by lightning during a harsh storm later that same night. This destruction, along with the ominous mood that the wind and rain establish, suggests that the marriage is doomed to fail. The idyllic quality of the orchard and the strength of the old tree, both of which represent the couple’s hopes for their relationship, quickly disappear. Although the reader is unaware of Bertha Mason at this point in the novel, the fiery lightning strike even speaks to the role that her presence plays in the breaking off of their engagement. 

An alternative reading of the split chestnut tree suggests that it serves as a representation of the dramatic changes that will ultimately befall their relationship once Rochester loses his vision in Bertha’s fire. Much like the tree, Jane and Rochester are very different individuals and have a new dynamic by the end of the novel. Jane must fill the role of caretaker and provider to support her husband rather than the other way around. Rochester even goes so far as to compare himself to the tree, claiming in Chapter 37 that his disability renders him “no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard.” The fact that this detail reoccurs so late in the novel speaks to its significance as a symbol for the myriad changes and challenges the couple will face.