Jane Eyre and the Macabre

It’s difficult to pin down Jane Eyre. I mean that both in reference to the character and to the book itself. Jane Eyre (the person) straddles the line of servant and victorian noble, while Jane Eyre (the book) straddles genres. It’s part Gothic, part Romance, part fictional autobiography. The book can not seem to decide what it wants to be, just like the main character. Clever, Brontë, I see what you did there.
Now, it is very apparent how the romantic and autobiographic elements play into the narrative. The entirety of the novel is written as an autobiographical tale from Jane’s perspective and a large part of the novel is dedicated to her romance with Mr. Rochester. Personally, however, I am much more interested in how Brontë incorporated the gothic elements into her story. Partially because it is still to early in the year for me to funnel my macabre fascination into halloween decorating, but mostly because I have just recently completed Wuthering Heights, written by none other than Charlotte Bronte’s own sister, Emily. I have had an ongoing fascination regarding why Jane Eyre became so popular while Wuthering Heights withered in comparison. The two were written and released very close together and many people believed at the beginning that they had been written by the same person. Now, this topic is a very complicated one and so deserves it’s own full discussion, but I do think it had something to do with the differing in application of gothic elements. Wuthering Heights, of course, was much more heavy-handed in it’s use of all things dark and spooky, but I argue that Charlotte is the more creative of the two in regards to how she incorporates it into other elements of the narrative.
Charlotte Bonte is fantastic at using imagery to set a mood. She brings you in and makes you sit in the tension of the world she has painted. Part of this is the limited first person perspective — we are learning at the same time as Jane, and so whenever she feels uneasy, we also feel the tension. The most obvious example is the scene at the end of chapter twenty where Jane is left with an injured Mason as the mysterious figure that attacked him is just next door. Jane is left with what seems only a single lit candle. She describes the room as a terrified person would, seeing Mason himself as “eyes now shut,  now opening, now wandering through the room, now fixed on me, and ever glazed with the dulness of horror”. Now, I know from that description that I would not want those eyes looking anywhere near me. She continues about the room, turning particular care onto the image of Christ and the twelve apostles. She goes about, describing some in detail and others not, as the light flickers in and away from their faces, describing Judas’s face in particular as “[growing] out of the panel and seemed gathering life and threatening a revelation of the arch-traitor — of Satan himself — in his subordinate’s form”. Now, I highly doubt that Judas is literally about to jump out and get her, but the thing making noise in the next room just might. She is terrified, and so we the audience are also terrified. It is very effective.
I really enjoy how Charlotte uses the gothic is to subtly undercut romantic ideals. For example: Rochester, the main male love interest, meets the heroine as he rides in on a horse. Pretty classic romance there, except that his entrance does not excite nor entice the ever wary Jane. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the first image she (and we) get is that of his dog — a great spectre of a beast that she at first mistakes as an evil spirit. When Rochester does appear shortly thereafter, it is his voice and not his appearance that reaches her first. Then the valiant steed proceeds to buck its rider onto the ground, breaking Rochester’s leg in the process. The scene up to this point is rather eerie — we don’t know what to make of Rochester or his hellhound, but we can assume that he holds some importance on account of his grandiose entrance. Then he hits the ground and the spell is immediately broken. The scene thereafter is actually pretty mundane: the conversation they have is based firmly at the task at hand, although the manner in which he speaks to Jane is very telling of his character. This pretty much sums up Rochester’s interactions with Jane — equal parts mysterious and mundane. The fact that he can so seamlessly transition between normal and near psychotic behavior so quickly and easily left me uneasy, and I have spent much of the novel wondering if Rochester was going to pull a page out of The Shining and attempt to hack our heroine to bits for discovering his secret in the attic. I know he won’t, simply because Jane must still be alive to write this ‘autobiography’ later in life, but the idea still leaves my stomach turning every time he enters the scene.

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