Symbolism in Jane Eyre
Table of Contents
There certainly are symbolic elements in the novel Jane Eyre, and the number of such elements is quite large. We find symbolism in the very opening pages of the novel. The manner, in which the environment of Gateshead-hall has been described, has something symbolic about it. Charlotte Bronte has here created the atmosphere of a cheerless November out of doors and a correspondingly wretched emotional climate for the unloved ten-year-old girl inside the house.
Symbolism of Books
The books which this girl, namely Jane Eyre, is fond of reading and which again have a symbolic significance. The first books Bewick’s History of British Birds. This book acquaints the ten-year-old girl with images of storm, shipwreck, disaster, Arctic desolation, Alpine heights, death and mysterious evil. These images symbolically express Jane’s own bewildered sense of what life is like, because these images correspond to her predicament in the house of the Reed family. These images symbolically convey to us the painful fact that the girl Jane is cruelly oppressed both physically and morally, and that she, in her state of isolation, is experiencing a keen sense of injustice.
The second book is Gulliver‘s Travels which symbolically shows that there are other kinds of life in the world to which perhaps Jane would be able to escape from her present abode.
The third book namely the Arabian Nights, introduces Jane to the idea of magic, and to the idea that magic powers can transform the conditions of life. These three books symbolically represent the particular aspects of the life of the imagination in which the girl Jane is interested. In this connection, we may note that
Symbolism of Jane’s Paintings
Then there is something symbolic about Jane’s showing to Mr. Rochester some of her drawings and paintings. She tells him that to have painted these pictures had given her one of the keenest pleasures of her life. These paintings originated mainly from her imagination and her inner life, and they may therefore be regarded as fresh versions of the old images from Bewick: namely the images of the Polar regions, the cruel sea, shipwreck, isolation, death, and despair. Although, as a governess at Thornfield Hall, Jane acquires at once a function, dignity, and affection, and also something like a home, she is yet dissatisfied. Looking through the gates, and gazing from the roof of this mansion, she feels restless because of her desire for a fuller life.
Symbolism of Jane’s First Meeting with Rochester
Mr. Rochester appears, in mid-winter, in circumstances which are thrilling to both him and Jane. The scene of their first meeting (as strangers not knowing each other’s identity) is symbolic. Mr. Rochester cannot get home without leaning on Jane’s shoulder; and it is through her that he has hurt himself by slipping on the ice. In due course, he will try to persuade her into a bigamous marriage, with disastrous consequences.
The Symbolic of Chestnut Tree
Thornfield Hall itself serves a symbolic function. There is, in the garden close this mansion, a majestic tree which is struck by lightning and badly damaged during the night preceding the day on which Mr. Rochester is to marry Jane. The blasted tree symbolically presents the coming disaster in the lives of both Jane and Mr. Rochester. Later in the novel, Mr. Rochester, having become blind and crippled says to Jane:
“I am no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard.”
Jane’s Choice of the Flesh at Thornfield Hall
When Jane leaves Lowood School, she is only a raw girl, in spite of her contact with the spiritual side of human nature through the saintly Helen Burns, and in spite of her contact with the fleshy through Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst. The greater thing in life from her point of view is to be loved by somebody. When such a novice is placed in certain circumstances which offer a choice between the spirit and the flesh, between the spiritual aspirations and the yearnings of the flesh, she would choose that which is more tempting at the moment. At Thornfield Hall she comes into contact with Mr. Rochester who, though not a handsome man, has something magnetic and irresistible about him. Jane is tempted to respond to her yearnings of the flesh; and she therefore falls deeply in love with this man in spite of the big difference between their ages.
Jane’s Escape from the Temptations of the Flesh
There is, however, a serious obstacle in the way of the fulfilment of this love. Behind Mr. Rochester is Bertha, his mad wife. Mr. Rochester symbolizes uncontrolled physical passion; and, uncontrolled passion here is accompanied with the menacing figure of complete degeneracy and madness. And madness only means a loss of control. After the broken marriage ceremony, the mad woman and all she represents stand as a barrier between the lovers. Mr. Rochester urges Jane to live with him as his mistress but she resists the temptation. Her struggle is a hard one, she is unwilling to go with Rochester. But at last she flees from unrestrained physical passion with all its grossness.
Symbolism of the Conflict Between the Flesh and the Spirit
To Jane is now offered another alternative which is the rejection of life, and a journey into asceticism with St. John Rivers. It is an episode surrounded by improbabilities. The ascetic St. John Rivers serves as a most powerful symbol. Jane has to decide whether. bewildered and hurt by her experience with Mr. Rochester, she should deny the world and all that it has to offer. Should she leave the physical side of life completely and should she enter a loveless marriage ? The struggle is long and hard, and it is no less intense than that symbolized by her life at Thornfield Hall.
Thus is the novel, Jane Eyre a new contribution to English fiction. We must be willing to accept this novel as a profound, spiritual experience, expressed in the most adequate symbolism, a symbolism which, if divorced Tom its emotion, is as improbable as all poetic symbols. And it is through an acceptance of the novel in these terms that a truer appreciation of it is possible. In this novel, fiction has become poetry by virtue of its use of symbolism.