decorated initial 'T' he theme of social and physical marginalization abounds in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and we see that Jane occupies a distinct position of physical marginality throughout the course of the novel. From the outset, we view the young Jane as a character on the fringe of two worlds when Brontë depicts her as the girl in the window, propped between the glass and the curtains, between the dreary and almost gothic images of the natural, external world and the perhaps more frightening reality that exists within Gateshead Hall. From her stay at Gateshead to her occupation as a governess at Thornfield, to her time at Marsh End, and finally to her reunion with Mr. Rochester at Ferndean, Jane never leaves her station as a woman who remains on the outskirts of society. At least, we can say, that even after her marriage to Rochester, Jane never joins the sort of upper-class parade depicted in XVII, and, in fact, it is perhaps safe to say that we can never assign an exact class status to the character of Jane Eyre even by the end of the novel. It seems, in fact, that Jane Eyre is a work which differs slightly from other novels classified within the Bildungsroman genre, for the character's admission into a defined society or social order remains unclear. Unlike David Copperfield, for example, Jane does not exactly gain an easy admittance into society through the act of marriage. Nevertheless, Brontë's treatment of social isolation is certainly different from Dickens' which often depicts social ostrasization as an awful and, at times, unjust burden. In fact, Jane's experience of social and physical isolation changes drastically throughout the novel and certainly accounts for one of the major shifts which takes place in Jane's overall character development. Let us take Jane's isolation in the red room in chapter II and then juxtapose it with an account of her life at Ferndean at the end of the novel:

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 seldom entered . the housemaid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the mirrors and 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 a high, dark wardrobe, with subdued, broken reflections varying the gloss of its panels; 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 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 . . . [11]

Jane's descriptions of the red room speak of it as a sort of large royal tomb which is also parallel to a kind of alternate universe or hell of sorts. Everything about the room speaks to its deathlike qualities: its ghost, its dust, its cold temperature, and even its very color. This above kind of isolation, often paralleled with the fate of Bertha Mason who becomes the iconographic "woman in the attic," acts as an antithesis of Jane's sanctuary at Ferndean. In fact, we see the later depictions of the orchard / garden at Thornfield (211 etc.) and of Rochester and Jane's Ferndean not merely as physically isolated places, but also as Eden-like enclosures which become representative of Jane's moral ascension and perhaps even Rochester's resurrection at the end of the novel. Rochester, who undergoes a symbolic moral purification in the fire at Thornfield and perhaps is even absolved for his sins when he gains back half of his sight at the end of the novel, can be aligned with the figure of Adam just as Jane asserts herself as a clear descendent of Eve when she states in chapter XXXVIII:

I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest — blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am; ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. [384]

Thus Jane's society at the end of the novel exists within the shared solitude and isolation of her marriage to Rochester. Many feminist critics have opposed this conclusion, stating that Jane can only attain Mr. Rochester once he has become a kind of damaged good. Nevertheless, Brontë plays with certain tropes, or Victorian representations, of femininity early on in the novel which all seem to dissipate as the story progresses and as Jane matures. For example, Jane ultimately loses her window position, a state reflective of the cloistered Victorian woman who contemplatively looks out onto the external world.

Furthermore, we could construe Jane's focus on the mirror in the above scene from the red room as being not only representative of a certain self-realization but also as an image which plays into the typical Victorian Venus mirror complex. How then does Jane change in order to achieve Brontë's ideals of both femininity and Christian morality? And can we see Jane's time at Marsh End and her interactions with John Rivers as a moral turning point for Jane in the novel? Also, is it simply Jane's attitude which metamorphoses, or is there an actual distinction between the isolation or social marginalization which Jane experiences at the beginning and the end of the novel? If there is a distinction between these two forms of isolation, is it simply dependent upon the Jane's sacrificial attitude towards the character of Rochester, or is Brontë placing a moral marker on a certain kind of social marginalization? (Think, if you have read them, of Brontë's critical responses to W.M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair). Finally, Jane refers to her relationship with Rochester as a type of small society in itself (384).

Does Jane's microcosmic society, in fact, sufficiently account for a certain kind of ultimate absorption into society characteristic of the Bildungsroman genre? Or is Brontë simply adding a twist to the Bildungsroman novel by referring to a more spiritual or divine order, hierarchically more important than that of society, to which the matured Jane has been admitted?


Victorian Overview Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre Discussion questions for Jane Eyre

Last modified 2 February 2004