Study Guide

Jane Eyre Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Charlotte Brontë

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Red-Room

The red-room, once the bedroom of Jane’s Uncle Reed, was (we’re sure you remember) the chamber in which he died. Locked in the red-room, believing that her uncle’s ghost is manifesting, Jane experiences a moment of extreme trauma leading to hysteria. So let’s think about this: Jane’s Aunt, an older woman who is supposed to be like a foster mother to her but is more like an evil stepmother, locks Jane into a room that’s entirely decorated in red with a little bit of white, and Jane panics when she thinks that an older male relative’s ghost might be invading the room. Hmm, we’re not going to have to go too far to do some psychoanalyzing here, are we? For example, on the most extreme end, you could claim that the red-room is like a womb, and Aunt Reed is infantilizing Jane and forcing her back into the womb to be born again with, needless to say, a new attitude. (If this is the case, of course it’s alarming when a male relative invades the womb, right?) We know, we know, that sounds a little silly, but when you think about it, it actually makes a little sense. Some less-wacky interpretations: that the red-room is a space in which the purity and innocence of childhood (the white bits) meet the intense and bitter emotions that come with unpleasant life experience – anger, fear, and anxiety (the red bits). Think of Jane as "seeing red" at this moment. Alternatively, you can think about the red-room experience as part of the indescribable trauma of suffering; remember, Jane loses consciousness because she can hardly deal with it, and she can never quite verbalize what the problem is (besides the possibility of a ghost). Whenever Jane suffers in the future, it will take her, emotionally, back to the red-room.

Gross Porridge

That’s a symbol? Yep, sure is. There are two important moments when really nasty porridge figures in Jane’s life. The first is at Lowood, when Jane arrives and, along with the other girls, is served burnt porridge for breakfast. It’s so disgusting that nobody can eat it, and Miss Temple ends up giving the girls an extra meal during the day to make up for it, which pisses off Mr. Brocklehurst. The second is during Jane’s period of homeless wandering, when a woman and a little girl tending a pig give Jane a bowl of cold, hard, congealed porridge that the pig wouldn’t eat. So what does it symbolize? Well, basically, a level of humility and subjection that’s unnatural for anyone to attain. Mr. Brocklehurst thinks that, if the girls are served inedible porridge, they should either (a) eat it and be grateful anyway and "mortify the flesh" or (b) go hungry and use the opportunity to "mortify the flesh." We can tell, however, that he’s never missed a meal in his life and that either of those options is a cruel martyrdom, not a real opportunity for spiritual growth. When Jane is forced to take the congealed porridge and be grateful for it later in the novel, we realize she’s been brought down to the very low level that someone like Mr. Brocklehurst (or Mrs. Reed!) wanted her to occupy. We’re meant, of course, to be quite alarmed about this.

Fire

The most important fires in Jane Eyre are Bertha’s two acts of arson: the first at the end of Book I (Chapter 15), when Bertha sets fire to Rochester’s bedclothes, and the second at the end of Book III (Chapter 10), when Jane learns that Bertha managed to burn down Thornfield by setting fire to what was once Jane’s bedroom. She’s a real pyromaniac, that Bertha. Anyway, let’s repeat that first one in case you missed it: Bertha sets fire to Rochester’s bedclothes. Since we know that one of the main problems in Bertha and Rochester’s marriage was that, even though she was beautiful and attractive – Rochester tells us that she was "in the style of Blanche Ingram" – she had a rapacious sexual appetite. She was "unchaste" and "dragged" Rochester through "hideous and degrading agonies." To translate that out of the polite nineteenth-century jargon, she cheated on him a bunch and everybody knew about it. The sexual desire Rochester originally felt for Bertha, the sexual attention she drew from a crowd of admiring men, and her affairs – all of this sets his bed on fire, nudge, nudge. Jane extinguishes the literal flames only to kindle new ones of a metaphorical kind!

When, much later, Bertha takes her pyro tendencies to Jane’s bedroom, she seems to be objecting directly to Jane’s own sexual interest in Rochester – but also, perhaps, transferring her highly-sexed nature to Jane. Don’t forget that Jane calls herself "fire" when she’s talking to St. John Rivers – one more thing she and Bertha actually have in common. Bertha’s arson also symbolizes her using the power of sexuality to destroy Rochester’s home; Thornfield actually burning down is a real-world parallel to its metaphorical burning – Jane’s abandonment of Rochester after his desire for her caused him to attempt bigamy.

Ice

If you’ve read Frankenstein, then you know that, where there’s fire, there’s also ice! (OK, you could learn that from Robert Frost, too.) Anyway, not only does Jane take special interest in the images of birds in arctic landscapes when she’s reading Bewick’s British Birds as a child, as an adult she draws a fantasy landscape filled with ice and snow that seems to have special meaning for her. When she decides that she has to leave Rochester, she tells herself that she "must be ice and rock to him" instead of letting him know that she returns his passion. Of course, the iciest of the characters isn’t Jane herself, but St. John Rivers, who has an "ice of reserve" and claims that "no fervour infects" him. (Later, Jane tells Rochester that St. John is "cold as an iceberg.") Jane’s fascination with ice seems to be the result of her hotheaded nature – she herself may seem cold, but she’s actually incredibly fiery and passionate, and she gets really angry about injustice. As a result, she’s mesmerized by all things frozen and icy, because she can’t be that way. Her one attempt at icy behavior – rejecting Rochester – results in her meeting St. John, who shows her just how undesirable a cold-hearted approach to the world really is. In fact, St. John’s lack of passion seems almost immoral.

The Splintered Chestnut Tree

The day after Rochester proposes to Jane under "the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the orchard," that same tree gets "struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away" (2.8.119). It can’t be a good omen to have something that’s whole get violently split in half right after two people sitting beside it decide to unite themselves. The real question is whether the tree represents Jane and Rochester or just Rochester. If the tree represents the two of them and their union, then the half that gets split away is Jane, who is driven away from Rochester by her own desire to avoid temptation. But much later in the novel, Rochester compares himself to the splintered tree and Jane to a new plant: "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?" (3.11.109) The point is not to make you choose between these two interpretations of the symbol, but to suggest that they coexist: the tree represents Rochester, but also Rochester and Jane together, because Rochester can’t be himself without her, and because he’ll never recover completely from the trauma of their separation (just like the tree will never be the same after getting struck by lightning).

"The Madwoman in the Attic"

The phrase "the madwoman in the attic" is the invention of two famous feminist literary critics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who wrote a book with that title in 1979. (See "Brain Snacks" for more on the book.) The phrase, of course, refers specifically to Bertha Mason, Rochester’s sometime wife, now an insane prisoner locked in the attic of his house with Grace Poole for a nursemaid. Gilbert and Gubar develop a critical theory about this "madwoman in the attic" figure: she represents all the subverted rage and pain experienced by the female author of the text (in this case, Charlotte Brontë). Bertha can be locked away, kept secret, and labeled as insane, but nobody can deny her intensity or power: she’s sexually potent, wicked smart, and absolutely ruthless. Nobody can kill her, either, because she seems to be invincible – in this novel, of course, she chooses to commit suicide. If Bertha is representative of Charlotte, then what might it mean for Charlotte to kill off her evil doppelgänger as she’s writing?

Drawing Portraits

Jane draws four crucial portraits over the course of the novel: one of herself, one of what she imagines Blanche Ingram will look like, one of Rochester, and one of Rosamond Oliver. The first two she draws at the same time so that she can compare them and remind herself how plain and pathetic she is. The one of Rochester she draws almost unconsciously while back at Gateshead caring for the dying Mrs. Reed. (After all, if you don’t have a snapshot of your sweetie on your cell phone, then sketching his portrait is probably the best you can do.) Rosamond Oliver’s picture she tries to use to get St. John to admit his feelings for that woman. Jane’s ability to capture likenesses of herself and those around her reminds us of her flair for narrative description and for penetrating analyses of the people she knows. In the plot of the novel, Jane may be sketching actual portraits – but in the text of the novel, she sketches those portraits, too, just in a more active sense. Jane’s artistic skill reminds us of her storytelling abilities and of the careful crafting that goes into her tale – perhaps a craft that’s sometimes rather crafty and even a bit misleading.

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