Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre predates her final novel, Villette, by six years, yet the two works are quite closely related and grapple with some of the same narrative issues. Numerous similarities persist between Jane Eyre and Villette’s Lucy Snowe: both lack homes and families, both become teachers, both fall in love with men who challenge and frustrate them, and both appeal frequently to the reader, to name only a few. Despite parallels in the plots of their lives and the forms of their narratives, the two narrators appear to differ immensely: Jane seems astoundingly strong, rational, reliable, and honest next to the fragile, neurotic, distrustful and reticent Lucy. Yet an early passage from Jane Eyre, in which the character Jane only half-recognizes her own mirrored image and the narrator Jane privileges a description of furniture over a description of herself, presages strikingly similar moments in Villette, indicating, perhaps, an underlying emotional chaos and an impulse to withhold or manipulate lurking within our seemingly reliable narrator.
This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchens; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered. The housemaid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the mirrors and the furniture a week’s quiet dust; and Mrs. Reed herself, at far intervals, visited it to review the contents of a certain secret drawer in the wardrobe, where were stored divers parchments, her jewel-casket, and a miniature of her deceased husband; and in those last words lies the secret of the red-room: — the spell which kept it so lonely in spite of its grandeur . . .
My seat, to which Bessie and the bitter Miss Abbot had left me riveted, was a low ottoman near the marble chimney-piece; the bed rose before me; to my right hand there was the high, dark wardrobe, with subdued, broken reflections varying the gloss of its pannels (sic); to my left were the muffled windows; a great looking-glass between them repeated the vacant majesty of the bed and room. I was not quite sure whether they had locked the door; and, when I dared move, I got up, and went to see. Alas! yes: no jail was ever more secure. Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality; and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming up out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travelers. I returned to my stool. [Chapter II, 72-73'
Jane’s account of her childhood “jail” mirrors Rochester’s account of her adult self: “You are cold; because you are alone: no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick; because the best of feelings, the highest and the sweetest given to man, keeps far away from you. You are silly; because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach; nor will you stir one step to meet it where it waits you” (XIX, 277). Both Jane and the room are untouched by fire, isolated from social contact, and cursed with a “spell” that keeps friends and feeling at bay. Why does Jane’s prison appear so like herself? Does Jane feel her own demeanor to be a lonely prison, comparable to the forced dwelling of her youth? In which case, why take such pride in her own manner of speech? Do Rochester’s words linger in Jane-the-narrator’s mind and affect her description of the past, or does her past experience shape the way she presents her master’s words?
Whatever the answers to the previous questions, it seems we must acknowledge the adult narrator’s influence over and effect upon the child-character’s story. Indeed, the narrator knows things in the passage that the child couldn’t possibly — for example, the contents of the secret drawer. And yet, in this section, the narrator does not qualify her statements as she does later in her description of Bessie:
Bessie Lee must, I think, have been a girl of good natural capacity; for she was smart in all she did, and had a remarkable knack of narrative: so, at least, I judge from the impression made on me by her nursery tales. She was pretty, too, if my recollections of her face and person are correct. I remember her as a slim young woman. [I.IV, 87]
Why the narrative inconsistency? Why present her own subjective, impassioned experiences with such certainty and then insistently qualify a very simple description of a minor character?
When Jane recounts the sight of herself as a “strange little figure . . . like one of the tiny phantoms, half fair, half imp,” her own vague features — glittering eyes, white face and arms — fade away among an effusive description of “the effect of a real spirit.” This is the closest we come to a physical description of our narrator, and it stands in stark contrast to Jane self-proclaimed plainness.
Why must Jane describe herself only from a perspective “colder and darker . . . than in reality”? Should her imp-like appearance undermine her simple, straightforward, logical adult speech?
Is Jane the narrator inviting us to seek a “depth” beneath her narrative, to turn our own “fascinated glance” beyond her words to a more dynamic character?
Is this a quiet subversion of the traditional forms that we expect a trustworthy narrative to take?
If we read “depth” from the mirror’s reflection, should we take equal heed of the wardrobe’s dark, foreboding “broken reflections”?
In I Know That You Know That I Know George Butte writes, “Jane is initially monstrous because she is a woman writing and, even more subversively, a woman writing her own life,” which demands the creation of an alternate self (201). Is Jane’s fairy image meant to offer a more benign, less monstrous version of this second self?
What effect does that self-splitting have on a narrative that is already split (between youth and adulthood, between character and narrator, between duty and emotion, etc.)?
What do we make of Jane’s similarity to her surroundings? The room’s quietness, secrecy, loneliness, as well as the furniture’s lowness, muffledness, and vacancy, could all stand in as descriptions of our protagonist.
Does she lack individuality and, as a result, come to reflect the objects around her? Or does the intensity of her smothered spirit so exceed her little body that it gets transferred to the rooms she inhabits?
Is her life shaped by the places she occupies, or does the fact of her occupation change the rooms?
Last modified 8 February 2010