Jane Eyre Themes & Motifs

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will explore themes and motifs in Charlotte Bronte's ''Jane Eyre.'' We will focus especially on three themes related to growth: the red room, Rochester's physical loss, and the cleansing frigidity of St. John Rivers.

Jane Eyre as a Growth Narrative

Jane Eyre is a classic example of the bildungsroman, which is a growth narrative. In fact, the novel is one of the earliest instances of this genre and was followed by similar texts like Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. The growth narrative, as you might expect, follows the life of a specific character, charting the progress of his/her learning and describing successes and failures along the way. Charlotte Bronte writes Jane Eyre in the first person, meaning that the narrator is Jane herself.

The Red Room at Gateshead Hall

At the beginning of the novel, Jane lives with relatives at Gateshead Hall. She is very unhappy: 'I was like nobody there.' One day, she gets in trouble for striking her cousin and is locked away in a 'red room.' The experience echoes an earlier scene when she finds peace and solitude from her cruel family behind a curtain: 'I mounted a window seat . . . and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.'

In both cases, the theme of red is important to Jane's development in the novel. Red is a color of both passion and rage. Jane has plenty of both but must learn to accept the former and to tame the latter. The red room experience sets the stage for the rest of the novel, which charts Jane's movement from precocious girl to mature woman. In addition, the red room suggests fire, which connects her to Bertha Mason, as we'll see below.

The Madwoman in the Attic

Jane eventually finds work as a governess at Thornfield Hall, the estate of the mysterious figure, Rochester. Jane begins to pick away at Rochester's rough exterior, and we see sparks of love. However, we learn that Rochester has kept his 'mad' wife secretly locked away in his attic. He had married his wife, Bertha, during work in the Caribbean, and brought her back to England. Her mental state declined to the point that she had to be imprisoned in a 'wild beast's den--a goblin's cell.' Bertha regularly tries to escape, and at one point sets Rochester's room on fire. This scene suggests that Bertha, as a madwoman, is connected to fire. Also, both Jane and Bertha are locked away in rooms meant to control their personal fire.

Rochester's Physical Loss

Jane leaves after Rochester reveals his secret. One day, during her time away, Bertha escapes and sets the house on fire again. This time, it can't be extinguished. In a failed attempt to save her, Rochester loses his hand and is temporary blinded. Disability subdues Rochester's passions, and Jane returns to nurse him and rekindle their love. Like Jane, Rochester must embark on a growth narrative. The difference is that Jane transforms due to experience, and Rochester only changes when faced with physical and sensory loss.

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