N. B. This article originally appeared in the British Columbia English Teachers' Association (BCTELA) quarterly journal Update in the September/October, 1985, issue (pp. 5-6); it is based on a paper that Professor Rosengarten gave at the BCETA conference the previous spring. Since the novel Jane Eyre had recently been added to the academic English 12 curriculum in the province, teachers were eagerly looking for both resources and approaches.
Though biographical approaches are not fashionable these days, a good way to begin discussion of Jane Eyre is to provide students with some facts about the author, to show that the sources of the narrator's experiences and strong personality lie in Charlotte Brontë's personal history. Points worth emphasizing in relation to Jane Eyre include the early death of Charlotte's mother, leaving the family in the care of a somewhat remote father and a crotchety aunt (all Charlotte's novels have parentless heroines); her experiences at the Clergy Daughters' school at Cowan Bridge [Yorkshire], thinly veiled in the novel as Lowood Institution; her attempts to make a living as a governess in wealthy families; and her suppressed (and possibly unconscious) passion for Constantine Heger, her tempestuous and irascible teacher in Brussels. Students would also be interested to learn about the imaginary worlds created by the Brontës as children; Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne collaborated for many years on the production of chronicles of romance and adventure for their own amusement. Charlotte's favourite character in the stories was Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Zamorna, a romantic hero compounded of her reading in Gothic novels and the poetry of Byron. Zamorna is a clear forerunner of Edward Fairfax Rochester.
For teaching purposes, Jane Eyre conveniently breaks down into five sections: Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, and Ferndean, each section representing a new phase in Jane's experience and development. It's worth spending some time on the first two sections: a) they establish the protagonist's character very clearly (intense, imaginative, passionate, rebellious, independent˝yet yearning for warmth and affection, seeking acceptance and an out let for her feelings); b) these early chapters prepare us for the struggles that Jane will undergo later, the conflicts between spirit and flesh, duty and desire, denial and fulfilment; c) they also establish the theme of the outsider, the free spirit struggling for recognition and self- respect in the face of rejection by a class-ridden and money-oriented society. The Gateshead chapters can be used to introduce the concept of narrative point-of-view. Of special interest is the author's ability to re-create the child's vision of the world; ask students to pick out passages they think successfully convey the child's perception, and have them explain their choices.
The Lowood section can be dealt with in part as a realistic, if somewhat heightened, account of life in many charitable or religious schools in the first part of the 19th century (cf. Dickens' description of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby). Students would probably enjoy Mrs. Gaskell's scathing account of Lowood's real-life original, the Clergy Daughters' school run by a fiercely evangelical clergyman similar in some respects to Mr. Brocklehurst. This section is important also for its introduction of the theme of Christian love and forgiveness; the contrast between Mr. Brocklehurst's hypocritical zeal and Helen Burns' spiritual strength and humility is an important lesson for Jane, bearing fruit in her subsequent forgiveness of Mrs. Reed.
The Thornfield episode, with its elements of suspense, sexual conflict, and occasional violence, has obvious appeal for most adolescent readers. It is dominated by Rochester; students might be asked to define those features of his character and conduct that make him the Romantic Hero par excellence. Milton's Satan and Byron's Lara are probably his most illustrious antecedents, and offer useful parallels. The section is important also in developing the theme of spiritual equality regardless of social rank; not a new theme (cf. Chaucer's treatment of "gentilesse" in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"), but asserted with unusual force here, leading some readers to see Jane (and her creator) in feminist terms. Jane's aggressively independent nature certainly seemed unwomanly (and unChristian) to some of her contemporaries, if one goes by early reviews. This part of the novel also brings to a climax the theme of moral conflict: Jane's struggle between passion and principle, the flesh and the spirit. Some attention should be paid to poor Bertha, who embodies the irrational abandonment of self to appetite, and whose fiery passions eventually find literal expression. (For a more sympathetic view of Bertha, see Jean Rhys' novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which relates the story of her meeting with Rochester in the West Indies.) The Thornfield chapters are useful, too, for discussions of setting as dramatic accompaniment to, reflection of, or comment upon the action; e.g., Thornfield Hall as an expression of its master's personality; or the violent storm that erupts at the time of Rochester's proposal to Jane, seemingly as a reflection of divine disapproval.
The sexual temptations offered by Rochester are contrasted in the Moor House section by the cold spirituality of St. John Rivers (a helpful assignment here is a comparison-contrast essay). In the interests of serving God, he represses his own human feelings (note the Rosamund Oliver business), and wants Jane to do the same. He represents the extremes of denial, self-sacrifice, dedication to the spirit; in rejecting him, Jane chooses the path of life˝a life in which passion and principle are reconciled, through her happy marriage with Rochester. The final scenes at Ferndean show the achievement of this reconciliation; Rochester, now maimed (divine retribution? See Matthew 5:29, 30), repents his former life, and Jane can find fulfilment in loving service to a master who now depends on her.
Despite its episodic nature, Jane Eyre does have thematic and structural unity, created in various ways: through the continuous development of Jane's character and the revelation of her inner struggles; through recurring themes, some of which have been outlined above; through repeated motifs, symbols, and images (the workings of the supernatural, portentous dreams, patterns of light and dark, oppositions of warmth and cold, etc.); through parallels and contrasts in character (e. g., the Reeds at Gateshead/the Rivers family at Moor House; Rochester/St. John Rivers; Helen Burns/St. John Rivers; Blanche Ingram/Jane herself); and through patterns in plot structure (e. g., the workings of Providence at several crucial stages in Jane's life; the parallel temptations facing Jane at Thornfield and Moor House; Jane's search for happiness as a kind of spiritual journey in which she must overcome a series of trials and obstacles like Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress). Students might also be encouraged to look at fairy-tale analogues of the novel's plot: e. g., the stories of Cinderella, Bluebeard, or the Ugly Duckling.
There are several film versions of Jane Eyre [and a several more have been made since the writing of this article in 1985]. My own favourite is the 1943 production with Orson Welles as Rochester, Joan Fontaine as Jane, and Elizabeth Taylor as an improbably healthy and pretty Helen Burns. Sadly, the screenplay (co-authored by Aldous Huxley) cuts out the whole of the Moor House section, but it preserves the Gothic mood of the novel better than other [pre-1985] versions. A comparison of film and novel would certainly provoke some lively discussion. [Ed. Note: Though not readily accessible, John Brougham's 1856b adaptation of the novel, printed as Number 400 in the Dicks' Standard Plays series, would be interesting as the subject of a readers' theatre.]
The earliest account of the Brontë family, and in many ways still the best, despite its errors and omissions, is Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life Charlotte Brontë, commissioned by Charlotte's father soon after her death; the Penguin edition edited by Alan Shelston has an excellent introduction. A useful supplement to the Life is Margaret's Lane's The Brontë Story. The best modern biography is Winifred Gerin's Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius. For the early reviews, see The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, ed. Miriam Allott. Good discussions of the novel include R. B. Martin's The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Brontë's Novels; Kathleen Tillotson's Novels of the Eighteen-Forties; David Lodge's chapter on "Fire and Eyre: Charlotte Brontë's War of Earthly Elements," in his Language of Fiction. [Ed. Note: Almost a bible to Feminist critics of the work of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Jane Austen is Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979).] The best paperback edition of Jane Eyre is edited by Margaret Smith, published in the World's Classics series by Oxford University Press; its introduction and notes are first-rate. A comprehensive survey of Charlotte Brontë's life and writings may be found in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 21 (Victorian Novels before 1885): 25-54 [Ed. Note: This well-illustrated article was written by Professor Rosengarten himself.].
Last modified June 12, 2002
Last modified June 12, 2002