The Gothic in ‘Jane Eyre’

Gothic fiction primarily sought to be ‘anti-Enlightenment,’ and the antithesis of Christian, western ideas. It is mostly attributed to the Goths, a group of Germanic people who played a key role in the fall of Rome and the emergence of the Middle Ages. In literature, Gothic motifs and ideas are reflected in morality, architecture and character, just a name a few things. People debate whether ‘Jane Eyre’ falls on the Romantic side or the Gothic side, and in my view, there are definitely elements of both. For now, let us look at the Gothic.

Thornfield Hall screams Gothic, as its darkness and abnormality, in comparison to traditional British Victorian architecture is evident. Here are a few key words:

‘… long gallery…’

‘… vault-like air…’

‘… cheerless ideas of space and solitude…’

‘… eerie impression…’

‘… dark and spacious staircase…’

‘… long, cold gallery…’[1]

‘… stepped over the threshold…’[2]

‘… battlements…’[3]

… return to stagnation…’[4]

Well, Thornfield sounds like depression city. The long, winding corridors are a staple of Gothic fiction, as they hark to an inescapable fortress, echoing the haunted castles that can be seen in the early of Gothic novels, such as Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and Radcliffe’s ‘A Sicilian Romance.’ The whole of Thornfield is just quite large, and quite empty and devoid of life. The ornate galleries and staircases also echo the architecture of the Gothic castle, which also leads the reader to consider what Gothic creatures or figures reside inside it. The house represents more than just the Gothic home, but the Gothic realm in general. Jane notes this when she steps over the ‘threshold,’ as if into another territory. The coldness of the house show that it is devoid of love and warmth, which mirror Rochester’s personality. The presence of ‘battlements’ is pretty Gothic too, and paints Thornfield Hall as more of a castle or fortress than a stately home. It is trying to keep the outside world out, and the Gothic nature of it inside. The fact that Jane likens the whole house to some form of ‘stagnation’ is pretty revealing… and slightly insulting… The house is out of touch with the rest of the world, and is almost like the house that time has forgotten.

The Gothic figure that inhabits the halls of Thornfield is of course Bertha Mason. The woman is scary. We first get a glimpse of her when she tears Jane’s wedding veil, the night before Jane is set to marry Rochester. She appears as a ghost like figure that prophesises the failure of the marriage, and of course, it does not go ahead. I probably do not have to go into too much detail about how a ghost is Gothic, but again, it links to ideas that combat the rationalism that stemmed from the Enlightenment age. Jane is thoroughly frightened by Bertha, describing her as:

‘Fearful and ghastly to me – oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face – it was a savage face’[5]

We later learn that Bertha was brought up in Jamaica, and that her mother too went mad. For more on that, see Jean Rhys’ novel ‘Wide Sargasso Sea,’ and one of my other articles linked in the footnotes.[6] There’s some real racism here, and Bertha’s demeanour and description play to the idea that she is not civilised and westernised, like the rest of the Victorian characters. She therefore represents the ‘Other,’ which is a term that can broadly be applied to anything that opposes the norm. The colour of her skin and her nature does this, and aligns her Jamaican heritage with something that is monstrous and abnormal to characters such as Jane and Rochester. She is almost vampiric, especially when she attacks her brother with a knife, causing him to lose a great deal of blood. Critics argue that Bertha represents Jane’s alter ego, and together, they represent woman as a whole.[7] Linking to ideas of race, Bertha’s incarceration speaks about imperialism, and how white people and countries would seek to control other territories with the intention of expansion.[8] This really took off during Victoria’s reign.

‘… what it was, whether beast of human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’[9]

Not the kind of lady you want to meet on your wedding day. Bertha is described as animalistic and a savage, which again gives an insight into western views about people of different races and colour. Bertha is so nuts that she acts more like a ticked off lion than a human woman, which may be understandable as she has been shut away in Thornfield for several decades, with only a drunk attendant for company. The ability to shape shift is also a quality of the Gothic female, and by acting like an animal, Bertha does pull this off. By being Jane’s alter ego, Bertha basically represents the darkness within all people, and directly combats Jane’s capacity for good. This again is a classic Gothic theme, as the genre seeks to explore the inherent darkness within all humanity, and in this context, Bertha herself particularly focuses on madness. It is when we look at the character externally that more complex ideas of race and imperialism come into play, which, for Victorians, is akin to concepts such as the ‘Other,’ and this concept is at the heart of the Gothic in ‘Jane Eyre.’

Thanks for reading!

[1] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, (London: Penguin Classics, 2006) p. 116

[2] Ibid., p. 117.

[3] Ibid., p. 118.

[4] Ibid., p. 137.

[5] Ibid., p 327.


[7] Ibid., p. xxii.

[8] Ibid., p. xiv.

[9] Ibid., p. 338.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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