Reading and Re-Reading Jane Eyre, by third-year literature student Megan Sales

I bought my copy of Jane Eyre nearly twelve years ago. I distinctly remember buying the book from a charity shop. The cover intrigued me, and the raised eyebrows of the cashier followed with the comment it “may not be appropriate” for my age made me eager to read it.

A Passionate Heroine

The one thing I will forever love about this novel is Jane’s passion, her refusal to bow down to values she disagrees with. Throughout my studies I have continuously returned to this novel, The first time I was exploring the Gothic in the Brontë’s work, The second time I was considering Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea and their relationship to the literary canon.

Both times I looked at this novel I explored insanity as a concept. In the 1840s, the idea of ‘moral management’ was emerging – an attempt at rehabilitating mentally ill people back into society. People were also interested in the idea of inherited diseases.

I found that the Gothic elements in Jane Eyre harnessed society’s anxieties about mental illness. When I was thinking about Jane Eyre and the canon I ended up considering  the agency of the male characters. These two angles intertwined, as I later found out, through  the concept of the Female Gothic. The Female Gothic uses Gothic conventions to present the way in which society enables the mistreatment and oppression of women. Once married, women underwent a ‘civil death’ losing what little agency they once held to their husbands. This can be seen within Jane Eyre where we can see those anxieties presented through the parallels between Jane and Bertha.

Oppression and Insanity

In one assignment, I explored oppression leading to insanity. Jane herself comments “I was oppressed” when she describes the fits, visions and eventual “unconsciousness” that ensued from being trapped in the Red Room. There is an apparent parallel between Jane’s Red Room and  the attic that Bertha inhabits. Both rooms were used as a form of imprisonment and both rooms resulted in violent actions. From one night in the Red Room Jane was subject to fits, visions, and unconsciousness.

Violence is something that directly links the two. Rochester describes Bertha’s “…violent and unreasonable temper…”  and at the start of the novel “violence” is used to describe Jane. That “unconsciousness” that follows lends a sympathetic light to Bertha. If one night imprisoned can induce that in Jane, what could many years do to Bertha? How conscious is she of her own actions?

The question of consciousness raises the issue of sanity. This is something that is continually explored within the novel but more specifically at one point when Bertha visits Jane’s room and tears the wedding veil. I mentioned the idea of a ‘civil death’ that incurs after marriage above, and this idea enhances the symbolic relevance of the wedding veil. It represents both the start and end, as Rochester himself comments “…perhaps [it] brought back vague reminiscences of her own bridal days.”

Bertha’s sanity is revealed in the sense that she takes her resentment of her situation out on the item that was the start of it all. Furthermore, the veil acts as a forewarning for Jane. Bertha does not directly harm Jane, presenting as a self-aware woman. We can see this again Bertha attacks two people within the novel, her husband, and her brother. These are the two men who hold agency over her life, so her attacks reveal her awareness of that oppression.

A book for all seasons

I do believe I will never tire of this novel, forever finding new ways to look at it and explore it.  Brontë presents the Female Gothic  through the oppressive treatment of both women, the difference being between the two that Jane undergoes a form of ‘moral management’ at Lowood and breaks out of her room never to return.