Monday, 8 September 2014

Fairy Story Elements in Jane Eyre

[This is an adapted version of an assignment written for a course on the nineteenth-century novel]

Genre can be broadly characterised as a means of categorising stylistic similarities which manage readers’ expectations within and between texts (see M. H. Abrams, 1999, p.108).  Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre combines and modulates a number of genres, but generic elements are subtly interwoven so that rarely does one predominate over others for long, nor do they at any time descend to pastiche.  Even in the case of the novel’s Gothic aspect, the most obvious of its generic borrowings, these are more realistic than they might be in such obvious examples as The Mysteries of Udolpho (Ann Radcliffe, 1966 [1794]).  Instead genres play against each other, reinforcing and undermining reader expectations and enriching the characterisation of Jane.

Delia da Sousa Correa (2000, p.97ff) outlines the variety of ‘high’ and ‘low’ genres present in the novel and explores their interplay.  She notes that Jane Eyre is variously Bildungsroman, a ‘novel of education’ and development; fictional autobiography; realist social commentary; romance; governess novel; plea for equality (though in a more restrained mode than the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft); even at points a novel of religious and ethical debate, in addition to those elements that are Gothic and melodramatic.  As Correa points out, the admixture of genres suggests ‘multiple potential developments for Jane’s story’ (Correa, 2000, p.98).  When we set off with Jane on her journey we cannot be sure what direction it will take, leaving her character development less constrained than it would be if the novel were confined to a single narrative style, with its attendant set of expectations.  These generic devices are one means whereby Brontë generates, as Michael Mason discusses in another context, an ‘unconscious response, on our part, to powerful cues’ (Mason, 1996, p.xxii)

The Gothic tropes are easily noted, but there are other aspects which work to show the complexities of Jane and her situation, reinforcing its strangeness.  A more subtle contribution than the Gothic elements is made by the consistent use of fairy story features to underpin Jane’s trajectory.  The central example is the association of Jane with elves, fairies and spirits of the earth (variations on the word ‘green’ recur frequently throughout the novel).  This strand links Jane and Rochester from their first meeting, when Rochester falls from his horse upon coming across Jane sitting on a stile moments after Jane, hearing his horse in the distance, was put in mind of stories of the ‘Gytrash’, ‘a North-of-England spirit’ (Brontë, 1996, p.128).  Gilbert and Gubar characterise this encounter as “a fairytale meeting” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, p.351).  Recalling it, Rochester casts the memory into fantasy terms, jocularly claiming, after suggesting that he had considered asking if Jane had ‘bewitched’ his horse, that he had thought that Jane was ‘waiting for your people when you sat on that stile’ (p.139).  In response to the question ‘For whom, sir?’ he continues: ‘For the men in green’, (ibid.) thus explicitly linking her with fairy folk, and implicitly accusing her of the ability to bewitch him.  In true folkloric fashion she finds herself in a place of enchantment, Thornfield, though in a reversal of Rochester’s teasing claims she discovers that he has bewitched her.  Rochester usually uses such language patronisingly, and its repetition invests Jane subliminally with a feyness that counterpoints the more typical emphasis in the book on her down-to-earth practicality and common sense, enriching her character.

The stile, that staple of country furniture hitherto associated with Jane, later becomes associated with Rochester himself.  Upon her return from Gateshead after the death of Mrs Reed, Jane encounters him sitting on a stile, writing.  Yet unlike with Jane, this does not confer an ethereal quality on him, the association with the fairy folk thus being cast in gendered terms.  Upon seeing her, and learning that her aunt is dead, he notes that she has not come by carriage ‘like a common mortal’, but arrived ‘just as if you were a dream or a shade’ ( p.275).  He then connects her explicitly with death and the Afterlife: ‘She comes from the other world – from the abode of people who are dead … If I dared, I’d touch you, to see if you are substance or shadow, you elf!’  (ibid.) A couple of weeks later he describes the encounter to Adèle, referring initially obliquely to Jane as the other participant: ‘It was a fairy, and come from Elf-land,’ and then he says that ‘Mademoiselle is a fairy’ ( p.300). Adèle dismisses his ‘Contes de fée’ [fairy stories] as the product of ‘un vrai menteur’ [a true liar], herself speaking truer than she realises.  It is ironic that as a child Jane had dismissed the existence of elves as less plausible even than Gulliver’s Travels: ‘as to the elves, having sought them in vain … I had at length made up my mind to the sad truth that they were all gone out of England to some savage country…’ (p.28).  It is she who is herself now identified with them by Rochester.

A witchcraft/sorcery motif also links Rochester and Jane.  When Jane saves Rochester from a fiery death in bed by throwing water, Rochester in his confusion asks, ‘In the name of all the elves in Christendom, is that Jane Eyre? … What have you done with me, witch, sorceress?’ (p.169)  This is not said in his usual jocular fashion, making it an honest indicator of Rochester’s sense of her power over him.  But similar vocabulary is used of Rochester.  When he masquerades as a gypsy woman he is described as a ‘real sorceress’ by Frederick Lynn (p.217), while Miss Ingram refuses to believe that he is a ‘genuine witch’ (p.219) and Jane snorts that his ‘witch’s skill is rather at fault sometimes’ (p.225).  Bertha is also woven into this set of witch references: when Jane returns to Thornfield after the fire and enquires what had happened, she is told that the fire was set by Bertha, ‘who was as cunning as a witch’ (p.475), cunning in a way that Jane is not; Bertha’s is a different type of witchcraft entirely, one with disastrous consequences.  Jane, Rochester and Bertha are linked in a chain which can be broken only by Bertha’s death.

In the meantime, if Jane is identified with fairies and elves, and both she and Rochester with witches and sorcerers, Rochester is associated metaphorically with a much darker fairytale motif, that of Bluebeard (see Snodgrass, 2005, pp.33-34, for the history and influence of Charles Perrault’s ‘La Barbe Bleu’).  John Sutherland examines parallels between ‘Bluebeard’ and Jane Eyre, noting that by the 1840s the former ‘would have been among the best-known of fables (Sutherland, 2000, p.68).  When Mrs Fairfax is showing her over Thornfield, Jane finds herself in the corridor in which Bertha is imprisoned  It is ‘narrow, low, and dim … like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle’ (p.122), though at this point she does not realise the implication of her musings.  This melodramatic aura evokes a sense of mystery within Rochester’s home which increases in intensity, culminating in Bertha’s visit to Jane’s room (pp.316-8).

The misogynistic Bluebeard association might be thought to convey a sense of Rochester as a threat to Jane, yet because of the overriding romance genre expectations we do not read him in this way.  Bluebeard’s actions contain a degree of sadism, whereas Rochester’s act in confining his wife, it is implied, was humane, undermining the sense that Rochester is being self-serving by keeping her secret and is subjecting her to an injustice by her incarceration.  It may be, as Sutherland observes, that Brontë inverts the conclusion so that we feel sympathy, Rochester as ‘a Bluebeard who has wholly mended his ways’ (Sutherland, 2000, p.69), with little remembrance by the reader that his treatment of Bertha deserves censure.  Added to the implied sympathy for what he has endured through Bertha’s insanity and the sense that he married her under false pretenses, Brontë glosses over Rochester’s responsibility for injustice against Bertha and Jane by removing him from the narrative after his failed attempt at bigamy and only showing him again at his lowest ebb.  This structure of silence allows Jane to return to him, despite his past misdeeds and confessed sexual incontinence, yet still retain the reader’s approbation for her act, while for Rochester the slate is wiped clean with Bertha’s death and his penitential disabilities.

Related to the Gothic and fairy elements that work alongside the realism to deepen it is the uncanny, evoking an eerie, strange quality that does not necessarily conform to what we normally understand as natural laws (Correa, 2000, p.109).  It has a psychological aspect, involving such elements as clairvoyant visions and precognition.  Sometimes apparent paranormality is shown to be explainable, as when Jane becomes panicky while locked in the red room, or when Rochester makes his gypsy pronouncements.  Often, however, explanations are not so straightforward.  Jane refers to ‘Sympathies’ expressed at a distance ‘whose workings baffle mortal comprehension,’ suggesting a belief in the operation of the ‘higher phenomena’ of mesmerism, such as clairvoyance (p.248).

The most famous example of the uncanny is what Sutherland refers to as ‘Rochester’s celestial telegram’ (Sutherland, 1996, p.59), which occurs when Jane is being worn down by St. John’s persuasions to become his wife.  Suddenly she experiences a sharp feeling and hears a voice call her name three times, to which she replies: ‘”I am coming!” I cried. “Wait for me! Oh, I will come!”’  She then twice asks:  ‘“Where are you?”’ (p.467).  This could be a subjective hallucination, but it later transpires that Rochester in his despair had called her name thrice at the same time that Jane had heard it, and received a reply:  ‘“I am coming: wait for me”; and a moment after … the words – “Where are you?”’ (p.496). This veridical telepathic communication denotes a bond operating at a time of high emotion, one that saves Jane from marrying St. John and reunites her with her true love (Mason, 1996, p.xxix).  Sutherland notes that for Brontë this was not supernatural because she was convinced that such events had happened (Sutherland, 1996, p.60), and he suggests that Jane and Rochester had each self-induced a trance (with a candle and the moon respectively) at the same time. As with the novel’s fairy elements, such uncanny themes in the novel imply that there is a deeper meaning to reality than we see every day, one that links us both to kindred spirits and to unseen forces in the world.


Abrams, M.H. (1999) A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edition, Boston, Mass., Heinle & Heinle.

Brontë, C. (1996 [1847]) Jane Eyre, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Correa, D. S. (2000) ‘Jane Eyre and Genre’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Gilbert, S. M and Gubar, S. (1979) The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Mason, M. ‘Introduction’, in Brontë, C. (1996 [1847]) Jane Eyre, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Radcliffe, A. (1966 [1794])) The Mysteries of Udolpho, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Snodgrass, M. E (2005) Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature, New York, Facts on File.

Sutherland, J. (1996) Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Sutherland, J. (2000) Can Jane Eyre be Happy?: More Puzzles in Classic Fiction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.