Jane Eyre - Analysis of Nature
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 natural themes run through 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 robin."
Brontė brings the buoyant sea theme and the bird theme 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 themes 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
Unsurprisingly, given Brontė's strongly 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 oolite, the lias 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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