Peggy Ann Garner as Jane Eyre in the 1943 film adaptation
Very Short Reflections on Jane Eyre
Almost from the first page of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë raises questions of substance and insubstance, fantasy and reality. Indeed, the distinctions which are drawn between Jane and her first antagonist, John Reed, place the issue of substance squarely at the center of the first chapter as the first body described in the book is not the diminutive one of Jane, but the “large and stout” one of John, whose “thick lineaments. . . heavy limbs and large extremities” (8-9) are overwhelming in their corporality, particularly in opposition to the girl whose presence we only really know through her thoughts to this point in the novel. John Reed is not the only antagonist whose physical presence is the basic fact of his existence; when Jane first meets Mr. Brocklehurst, she apprehends him not as a man, but as a solid, physical—even architectural—presence, a “black pillar. . . [a] sable-clad shape standing erect” whose “grim face was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital” (24). Mr. Brocklehurst’s physicality is even more dominating than John’s, as in subjugates his animacy in its solidity. Jane is, of course, contrasted with these figures in her diminutive stature, which, even as an adult, lends her a waif-like presence.¹ However, these descriptions of intense corporality highlight a more interesting distinction, not between size, but between presence and absence, by throwing into relief Jane’s liminal self-conception, by which she places herself constantly on the border of fantasy and incorporeality.
The first image we receive of her is not actually of herself, but of her reflection in the red room’s looking-glass, so that her physicality is distanced from herself, unlike the physicality of John Reed which constitutes his entire being. Jane sees herself as a “strange little figure” that has “the effect of a real spirit. . . like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented” (12). In this description of her image in her reflection, Jane blends the real and the unreal, bringing the spirits of lore into the real world, giving them substance in herself. She goes in to say that she feels that she is “like nobody there” (13), an interesting phrasing for though she literally means she is unlike the rest of the family, it also conveys a sense of absence, extending the ghostliness she saw in her reflection to her real being in the world where, indeed, she is often treated as if she were not there.
When, in the first chapter, she is dismissed from the presence of the family, she does not merely leave the room, but she “shrine[s] [herself] in double retirement” (7), cocooning herself within the curtains round the window-seat so that when John enters the room it is as if she were not there. The curtained space occupies a liminal position—both on the edge of the family and the edge of the house—which seems particularly generative of fantasy (and indeed, Jane tends to like sitting in windows). Jane combines her reading with the dark winter outside the window to paint “shadowy” vignettes steeped in the language of fantasy and legend. Jane attempts to negate her own physical existence by hiding and steeping herself in fantasy, raising the question of the relation between reality and fantasy, substance and phantom in the first two pages.
The images that she imagines in the window seat, though perhaps easily forgotten in the aftermath of her fight with John, have resonances throughout the rest of the book, particularly in that the first instance of the word “phantom” appears in them: “two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms” (8). Phantom only appears four times in the novel, but each of its instances is particularly significant: it is the word she uses to describe her own image in the red-room, that she gives the “baby-phantom” (160) which recurs in her dreams before the death of the eminently substantial John Reed, and that she applies to Rochester the night before their wedding, when she tells him that “everything in life seems unreal” and he is “the most phantom-like of all” (202).
To follow this question of substance all the way through the book (particularly to the scene of her return in which Rochester asks her if she is human and not a passing shadow and she is forced to assure him of her “substantiality” (317)) would result in a much longer essay than I’m writing at the moment, but suffice it to say that, even from the first few chapters, questions of substance, fantasy, and phantom are central to understanding Jane and Jane’s conception of herself. When Rochester and Jane first encounter one another on the road, both think of the other as something out of faerie. For Jane, the spell the image Rochester’s horse upon the frozen road makes is broken by the presence of the man; the fantastic image reflects more on her imaginative capacity than upon her conception of Rochester. But throughout the book, Rochester conceives of Jane as a spirit out of legend, accusing her of felling his horse by some magic, even after they have spoken to one another. Throughout the text he calls her “changeling,” “sprite,” “elf,” always locating her somewhere on the border of reality, of substance, and especially placing her being not in corporality, but in something on the edge of fantasy and imagination, a place of shadow and phantom.²
- When later Mr. Brocklehurst forces her to stand upon a stool in the middle of the Lowood schoolroom, greatly increasing her physical presence, Jane is desperately uncomfortable, ripped from the liminality of her small stature.
I don’t have space at all to treat this subject fully—the more I looked into it the more I found evidence of its pervasiveness in the text—but I wanted to make note of a different angle on the idea of fantasy and fairy-tale in the text that I didn’t mention at all; that is, that there is a certain way in which the narrative logic of the book seems to me to operate on something of a fairy-tale register in that Jane and all the “good” characters are so completely vindicated, while those who antagonize her—the Reeds, Blanche Ingram—are punished or at least corrected (there is also something of the Cinderella narrative-arc in Jane Eyre). In this vein, there are many characters in the novel who fall into a fairy-tale good/bad dichotomy (Helen Burns, Miss Temple, the Rivers sisters versus the Reeds, Mr. Brocklehurst), in a way that most of the characters in the works of Emily and Anne seem to resist (though there are some characters, notably in Ann, of course who are all bad (Arthur Huntingdon, the Bloomfields), most fall somewhere between good and bad (Heathcliff, Cathy, Edgar, Nelly, Ellen, Gilbert, Rosalie Murray)). I’m not quite sure what to make of this, nor am I sure how it would bear out, but it seemed worthy of note, given the subject of my other reflections.