Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte makes use of nature imagery throughout
"Jane Eyre," and comments on both the human relationship
with the outdoors and human nature. The Oxford Reference
Dictionary defines "nature" as "1. the phenomena of the
physical world as a whole . . . 2. a thing's essential
qualities; a person's or animal's innate character . . . 4.
vital force, functions, or needs." We will see how "Jane
Eyre" comments on all of these.
Several nature imagery run throughout the novel, one of
which is the image of a stormy sea. After Jane saves
Rochester's life, she gives us the following metaphor of
their relationship: "Till morning dawned I was tossed on a
buoyant but unquiet sea . . . I thought sometimes I saw
beyond its wild waters a shore . . . now and then a
freshening gale, wakened by hope, bore my spirit
triumphantly towards the bourne: but . . . a counteracting
breeze blew off land, and continually drove me back." The
gale is all the forces that prevent Jane's union with
Rochester. Later, Brontė, whether it be intentional or not,
conjures up the image of a buoyant sea when Rochester says
of Jane: "Your habitual expression in those days, Jane, was
. . . not buoyant." In fact, it is this buoyancy of Jane's
relationship with Rochester that keeps Jane afloat at her
time of crisis in the heath:
"Why do I struggle to retain a valueless life? Because I
know, or believe, Mr. Rochester is living."
Another recurrent image is Brontė's treatment of Birds. We
first witness Jane's fascination when she reads Bewick's
History of British Birds as a child. She reads of
"death-white realms" and "'the solitary rocks and
promontories'" of sea-fowl. We quickly see how Jane
identifies with the bird. For her it is a form of escape,
the idea of flying above the toils of every day life.
Several times the narrator talks of feeding birds crumbs.
Perhaps Brontė is telling us that this idea of escape is no
more than a fantasy-one cannot escape when one must return
for basic sustenance. The link between Jane and birds is
strengthened by the way Brontė adumbrates poor nutrition at
Lowood through a bird who is described as "a little hungry
Brontė brings the buoyant sea image and the bird imagery
together in the passage describing the first painting of
Jane's that Rochester examines. This painting depicts a
turbulent sea with a sunken ship, and on the mast perches a
cormorant with a gold bracelet in its mouth, apparently
taken from a drowning body. While the imagery is perhaps
too imprecise to afford an exact interpretation, a possible
explanation can be derived from the context of previous
treatments of these themes. The sea is surely a metaphor
for Rochester and Jane's relationship, as we have already
seen. Rochester is often described as a "dark" and
dangerous man, which fits the likeness of a cormorant; it
is therefore likely that Brontė sees him as the sea bird.
As we shall see later, Jane goes through a sort of symbolic
death, so it makes sense for her to represent the drowned
corpse. The gold bracelet can be the purity and innocence
of the old Jane that Rochester managed to capture before
she left him.
Having established some of the nature images in "Jane
Eyre," we can now look at the natural cornerstone of the
novel: the passage between her flight from Thornfield and
her acceptance into Morton.
In leaving Thornfield, Jane has severed all her
connections; she has cut through any umbilical cord. She
narrates: "Not a tie holds me to human society at this
moment." After only taking a small parcel with her from
Thornfield, she leaves even that in the coach she rents.
Gone are all references to Rochester, or even her past
life. A "sensible" heroine might have gone to find her
uncle, but Jane needed to leave her old life behind.
Jane is seeking a return to the womb of mother nature: "I
have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will
seek her breast and ask repose." We see how she seeks
protection as she searches for a resting place: "I struck
straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply
furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark
growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a
moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down
under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag
protected my head: the sky was over that." In fact, the
entire countryside around Whitecross is a sort of
encompassing womb: "a north-midland shire . . . ridged with
mountain: this I see. There are great moors behind and on
each hand of me; there are waves of mountains far beyond
that deep valley at my feet."
It is the moon, part of nature, that sends Jane away from
Thornfield. Jane narrates: "birds were faithful to their
mates." Seeing herself as unfaithful, Jane is seeking an
existence in nature where everything is simpler. Brontė was
surely not aware of the large number of species of bird
that practice polygamy. While this fact is intrinsically
wholly irrelevant to the novel, it makes one ponder whether
nature is really so simple and perfect.
The concept of nature in "Jane Eyre" is reminiscent of
Hegel's view of the world: the instantiation of God. "The
Lord is My Rock" is a popular Christian saying. A rock
implies a sense of strength, of support. Yet a rock is also
cold, inflexible, and unfeeling. The second definition
listed above for "nature" mentions a thing's "essential
qualities," and this very definition implies a sense of
inflexibility. Jane's granite crag protects her without
caring; the wild cattle that she fears are also part of
nature. The hard strength of a rock is the very thing that
makes it inflexible. Similarly, the precipitation that
makes Jane happy as she leaves Thornfield, and the rain
that is the life-force of everything in the heath, is the
same precipitation that led her to narrate this passage:
"But my night was wretched, my rest broken: the ground was
damp . . . towards morning it rained; the whole of the
following day was wet." Just like a benevolent God, nature
will accept Jane no matter what: "Nature seemed to me
benign and good; I thought she loved me, outcast as I was."
Praying in the heather on her knees, Jane realizes that God
is great: "Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had
made: convinced I grew that neither earth should perish,
nor one of the souls it treasured."
Unsurprisingly, given Brontė's strong anti-Church of
England stance, Jane realizes at some level that this
reliance on God is unsubstantiated: "But next day, Want
came to me, pale and bare." Nature and God have protected
her from harm, providing meager shelter, warding off bulls
and hunters, and giving her enough sustenance in the form
of wild berries to keep her alive. It is Jane's "nature,"
defined above as "vital force, functions, or needs," that
drives her out of the heath. In the end, it is towards
humanity that she must turn.
Nature is an unsatisfactory solution to Jane's travails. It
is neither kind nor unkind, just nor unjust. Nature does
not care about Jane. She was attracted to the heath because
it would not turn her away; it was strong enough to keep
her without needing anything in return. But this isn't
enough, and Jane is forced to seek sustenance in the town.
Here she encounters a different sort of nature: human
nature. As the shopkeeper and others coldly turn her away,
we discover that human nature is weaker than nature.
However, there is one crucial advantage in human nature: it
is flexible. It is St. John and his sisters that finally
provide the charity Jane so desperately needs. They have
bent what is established as human nature to help her.
Making this claim raises the issue of the nature of St.
John-has he a human nature, or is he so close to God that
his nature is God-like? The answer is a bit of both. St.
John is filled with the same dispassionate caring that
God's nature provided Jane in the heath: he will provide, a
little, but he doesn't really care for her. We get the
feeling on the heath, as Jane stares into the vastness of
space, that she is just one small part of nature, and that
God will not pay attention to that level of detail.
Similarly, she says of St. John: "he forgets, pitilessly,
the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuing his
own large views." On the other hand, St. John exhibits
definitely human characteristics, most obvious being the
way he treats Jane after she refuses to marry him. He
claims not to be treating her badly, but he's lying to
himself: "That night, after he had kissed his sisters, he
thought proper to forget even to shake hands with me, but
left the room in silence." What is important here is that
St. John is more human than God, and thus he and his
sisters are able to help Jane.
From the womb, Jane is reborn. She sees the future as an
"awful blank: something like the world when the deluge was
gone by." She takes a new name, Jane Elliott. With a new
family, new friends, and a new job, she is a new person.
And the changes go deeper than that. The time she spent in
the heath and the moors purged her, both physically and
mentally. Jane needed to purge, to destroy the old
foundations before she could build anew.
It is necessary to examine these scenes of nature in the
context of the early to mid nineteenth-century. This was of
course the time of the Industrial Revolution, when as
Robert Ferneaux Jordan put it, there was "a shift from the
polite, the liras and the sand to the coal measures. What
had been the wooded hills of Yorkshire or Wales became,
almost overnight, a land of squalid villages and black,
roaring, crowded cities. Villages and small country markets
became the Birminghams and Glasgows that we know." They
were draining the fens and the flats. For Brontė, this
posits the heath in "Jane Eyre" as something dated, the
past more than the future. Jane therefore must leave it in
order to remake herself.
Another aspect of nineteenth-century England relevant to
nature in "Jane Eyre" was the debate over evolution versus
Creationism. Though Darwin didn't release "On the Origin of
Species" until 1859, the seeds were already being sown;
indeed, there's speculation that Charles Darwin's
grandfather adumbrated some of Charles' theories. Lamark
was the principle predecessor of Darwin in terms of
evolutionary theory. Though he turned out to be completely
wrong, he and others provided opposition for the
Creationists of the first half of the nineteenth century.
One of evolution's principles is "survival of the fittest,"
and this is exactly what happens to Jane in the heath. Her
old self is not strong enough, and must die. The new Jane
she is forging is a product of natural selection. In fact,
Jane is echoing the victory of evolution over Creation by
the fact that it is humans who save her, and not God.
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