In the passage from Jane Eyre in which Jane describes the scene around her and contrasting that view with her previous surroundings, she comments that "The chamber looked such a bright little place to me... that my spirits rose at the view. Externals have a great effect on the young: I thought a fairer era of life was beginning for me" (Brontë, 105). Thus Jane indicates that her outside surroundings create a sense of hope, they cause her interior to mirror her exterior. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, characters increasingly focused on emotions, imagination, and direct, personal experience of the world. Readers increasingly valued characters who expressed how they saw the external world from their own personal perspectives. This new approach stemmed from the sentimentalist school of ethics. The idea that sympathy, "the imaginative understanding of the natures of others, and the power of putting ourselves in their place, is the faculty on which virtue depends." is at the heart of a technique that John Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin, a nineteenth-century essayist and critic, proposed that the role of art, or writing, is to present things "'as they appear to mankind'...The truth conveyed by the pathetic fallacy is phenomenological truth, the truth of experience, the truth as it appears to the experiencing subject" (Landow, "Ruskin's Pathetic Fallacy"). More specifically, Ruskin presented the idea that "considered in relation to the interior state of the speaker the pathetic (or emotional) fallacy tells the truth, for by presenting the world as experienced by a man under the influence of powerful emotion, this device can tell us much about the inner life of another" (Landow). Thus when Jane observes of her room

The chamber looked such a bright little place to me as the sun shone in between the gay blue chintz window curtains, showing papered walls and a carpeted floor, so unlike the bare planks and stained plaster of Lowood, that my spirits rose at the view, (Brontë, 105-06)

she is presenting her exterior world as an expression of the "powerful emotion," hope, that has been cultivated within.

At other points throughout the book, the external scenes surrounding Jane give some insight as to what is happening internally. In the very first chapter, Jane is reading about the history of British birds. She is particularly interested in the passages about the

haunts of seafowl; of 'the solitary rocks and promontories' by them only inhabited... Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia...of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own... The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking. (Brontë, 21)

The words and imagery that Jane use in describing loneliness and desolation allow the reader to realize that Jane is not simply fascinated by cold, desolate places, but that she herself feels as though she is in a cold desolate place. In the Reed household, she feels like a "rock standing alone," a "broken boat stranded on a desolate coast." Pathetic fallacy is a technique that Brontë uses throughout the book.

The characters in The Pickwick Papers , however, appear in contrast to Jane Eyre. The Pickwickians seem to view the world simply as it is externally represented, at least in the beginning. As Dickens explains in the introduction,

it has been observed of Mr. Pickwick, that there is a decided change in his character, as these pages proceed, and that he becomes more good and more sensible...in real life the peculiarities and oddities of a man who has anything whimsical about him, generally impress us first, and that it is not until we are better acquainted with him that we usually begin to look below these superficial traits, and to know the better part of him. (Dickens, 51)

Pickwick becomes more "sensible" after he goes to debtor's prison and experiences the "power of putting ourselves in [another's] place." He gains a knowledge of the world that does not allow him the possibility of continuing to be "whimsical," for he has now experienced, at least to a certain degree, some of the hardships of life. His new perspective comes from the powerful emotion of empathy, showing us an interior side to Pickwick. During his stay in prison, Pickwick's surroundings lead him to such desperation that he proclaims "'My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room.' And Mr. Pickwick steadfastly adhered to this determination... His health was beginning to suffer from the closeness of the confinement" (Dickens, 737). From this point on, the "superficial traits" recede to some degree. By the end of the novel, we, as readers, get a glimpse of an inner, more conflicted mind of Pickwick through his descriptions of the world around him.

In a scene near the end of the book, Pickwick travels to Birmingham to break the news of his friend Winkle's marriage to Winkle's father. Pickwick looks out the window of the carriage as they approach the town and gives the following description:

The straggling cottages by the road-side, the dingy hue of every object visible, the murky atmosphere, the paths of cinders and brick-dust, the deep-red glow of furnace fires in the distance, the volumes of dense smoke issuing heavily forth from high toppling chimneys, blackening and obscuring everything around; the glare of distant lights, and ponderous waggons which toiled along the road, laden with clashing rods of iron, or piled with heavy good. (Dickens, 801)

Pickwick's description of Birmingham mirrors the internal turmoil to which he has recently been exposed. He uses the words "ponderous" and "toiling," words which could also be used to describe his time in jail. He describes the smoke as "obscuring everything," and the houses as "straggling." Although Pickwick's life remains remarkably free from emotional and mental toil, his experience with the penal system and his current journey to inform Winkle's father of a marriage of which he will certainly disapprove "obscur[e]" his characteristic joviality and leave Pickwick "straggling." Pickwick's thoughts of taking on a new lifestyle, a lifestyle that posits him as an aging man rather than the eternally juvenile figure which we see throughout the novel, have added another weight to his mind. The prospect of making such a significant change is reflected in the adjectives used to describe the town- "ponderous," "obscuring everything." The town is an embodiment of Pickwick's inner conflict.

By the end of The Pickwick Papers , pathetic fallacy becomes much more prominent, whereas in Jane Eyre, it is a technique that is used from the beginning. Such a technique requires a connection between the reader and the character, a feeling that the interior of the character is something that we as readers can, and desire to, understand. Creating the "power of putting ourselves in their place" is encouraged by the idea that such an action is virtuous. In the increasingly impersonal world of Victorian England, the act of being able to place oneself in someone else's place, especially someone from a completely different class background, became not only a virtuous act, but also an act of democratization, an act of equalization. The creation of a class system, which came with the decline of feudalism, quickly led to the stratification of society. Large gaps developed among different groups of people which very few individuals made an attempt to bridge. The use of a technique that would allow someone to understand another person of a completely different background was a way of bridging the gaps that had arisen. Although neither Brontë nor Dickens use pathetic fallacy for such political reasons, other authors did use this technique as a political act of democratization.


Victorian Web Overview Charlotte Brontë

Last modified 1996