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Essay/Term paper: Charlotte bronte's jane eyre

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Composition

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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


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, Bront‰, 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 Bront‰'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 Bront‰ 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

Bront‰ adumbrates poor nutrition at Lowood through a bird who is described

as "a little hungry robin."

Bront‰ 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 Bront‰ 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. Bront‰ 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 Bront‰'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


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 Bront‰, 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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