By way of introduction, I should mention that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre holds a special place in my heart in a rather unique way: It may be my least favourite book in the entire English literary canon.
For what reason? Take your pick! Nearly all of the characters irk me in ways I cannot put into words, the storyline drags dismally, and the whole tale seems shrouded in a sort of feverish darkness. (Also, narrowing down your protagonist’s options for a husband between Rochester and St. John is nearly as dismal of a choice as when the USA had to opt for either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton.)
Never has a person tried so desperately to like a book as I have tried to like Jane Eyre… The first time I read it, I was 16 years old and reading it as part of a bargain. I had a good friend who was a reader and had never read The Lord of the Rings, possibly my favourite book of all time. She told me that she’d read it if I read a few of her favourite books: the Eragon series and Jane Eyre. I don’t think either of us particularly enjoyed the other’s suggestions — I don’t know if she ever even got through LOTR, and I passionately disliked both Eragon and Jane Eyre. I had wanted to enjoy it for my friend’s sake, but much to my chagrin, I could not.
A few years later, once I’d mellowed out a little, I decided to give JE another chance — it was a classic after all, and I probably ought to like it. Undoubtedly, I was just too young to appreciate its nuance the first time. Alas, I came to the same distressing conclusion: I simply did not like the book! Halfway through my university degree, I determined to give it one more chance in a 19th century literature class. After all, I reasoned, surely studying the literary aspects would help me to understand why it is such a well-loved and revered classic.
Sadly, the third swing struck out, too. I doubt I’ll ever read JE again, and will likely go to my grave still baffled at how many people legitimately enjoy the story and its characters. However, I have finally come to a place of grudging respect for it, thanks to a nearly 4,000 word essay I wrote as part of my third attempt to give it a chance. (Told you I tried desperately hard.) That essay is presented as follows, because it actually is quite interesting and I’m rather proud of it. Hopefully you enjoy it, even if you’re not a Jane Eyre fan.
(And if you are a Jane Eyre fan, please do comment and explain to me why you like this book so much!)
Now without further ado,
Connections and Character: Landscape in Jane Eyre
There is a moment in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in which Jane, as the narrator, asks her reader to imagine a new chapter in the novel as the curtain going up after a scene change in a play. There is a short description of the room where Jane is sitting, and then the play continues, with dialogue, character, and emotion being the chief items of importance. Many scholars and critics of Jane Eyre seem to take this note to the reader to heart, treating the book almost as though it were a play, quickly glancing over each new set before settling into the continuing action. No doubt this is still an effective way to read the story, but the difference between a novel and play lies in the very thing that is overlooked in the former and omitted in the latter: landscape. Though landscape in Jane Eyre is usually only considered when focussing on the quintessential Gothic elements of the book, its plays a much more involved role than simply setting the iconic scene; it is every bit as important to the story as the dialogue, plot, and characters are. Paying close attention to landscape in Jane Eyre allows readers a deeper understanding of the story by seeing how it aids Jane’s personal development in crucial moments as she matures, illustrates her feelings and responses towards various situations in her life, and offers a potent means of describing the nature of several characters in the story, including Jane herself.
Jane’s life is influenced by a fascination with landscape from nearly the first moment the reader begins to know her. She introduces herself almost instantly as reading a book, Bewick’s History of British Birds – hardly a stirring title. But what she seems to love in the book is not necessarily the descriptions of the birds themselves, but the places which they inhabit, “the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with ‘the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space’” (Brontë 64). Jane finds herself fascinated by the “strangely impressive” landscapes she encounters, and her imagination feeds not on pictures of birds as one might expect from the title of the book, but rather on the “vignettes…[from] the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking” (64, 65). Jane’s solace and happiness even at the outset of the book is absorbed with stark, wild, almost desolate landscapes. A few pages and chapters later, Jane also shows a fascination with tales from Gulliver’s Travels, the content of which she conceives as “a narrative of facts,” sure that she can one day access the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians through their lands, which she considers “solid parts of the earth’s surface” (78). To young Jane, landscapes are the connections to other places, realms, and realities. Though the definition of fairies, imps, and elves may vary according to imagination, the landscapes in which they live are within the mind’s grasp; Jane herself, disappointed at not being able to find any of these elves, “at length made up [her] mind to the sad truth that they were all gone out of England to some savage country, where the woods were wilder and thicker, and the population more scant” (78). Thus, it is not difficult to see how Jane’s character is heavily influenced by the concept of place, specifically natural landscape, and how she is especially drawn to those which are wild, strange, and far off, as they are a means of accessing a different or otherworldly place or people.
Yet though Jane is fascinated by imagined landscape, though delving into a book seems to be her favourite pastime, her desired place to sit in order to read her books is in the window seat, where she can “at intervals, while turning over the leaves of [her] book… stud[y] the aspect of that winter afternoon,” or look out at the horizons of her real world as well (64). The concept of Jane sitting at the window is a crucial one for connecting her with nature, as the panes of glass are “protecting, but not separating” her from the outdoors (64). The horizons that she can see from these window seats are important as well, as they often intimate her attitude towards each particular dwelling in which she finds herself. At Gateshead, for instance, she describes the view as “an empty field where no sheep were feeding, where the short grass was nipped and blanched,” a landscape where she finds “no pleasure,” just as she finds the house to be lonely and devoid of pleasure, warm life, and nourishment (97). Once she leaves Gateshead and lives instead at Lowood school, Jane describes the garden there as “a wide enclosure, surrounded with walls so high as to exclude every glimpse of prospect” (108). It is clear that Jane initially feels somewhat trapped at the school, but even when she has lived at the school for eight years, the trapped feeling has not gone away. Wondering what the future holds, Jane looks out of a window and realizes her situation by looking at the horizon: “there was the garden; there were the skirts of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon. My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks: it was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock and heath seemed prison-ground, exile limits” (151). Brontë depicts this scene so that the reader’s imagination adds layer upon layer to the landscape, filling it in with the immediate details and then gazing further and further as Jane herself does – essentially seeing through Jane’s eyes. This is a turning point in Jane’s character, since her comprehension of the distance and the yearning to go physically beyond it is what prompts Jane to tire “of the routine of eight years in one afternoon,” to leave Lowood, and to seek a new dwelling somewhere else (151).
Once at Thornfield, Jane yet again does not seem initially fully content, and continues her characteristic habit of gazing out at the horizon. She frequently goes to the attic and looks out at “sequestered field and hill, and along dim skyline… then [longs] for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life” (178). Now, gazing out at the landscape around Thornfield, Jane realizes her desire more concretely, that she wants a spark of liveliness and interest in her life. When Rochester arrives at Thornfield, Jane once again “walked to the window, but nothing was to be seen thence: twilight and snow-flakes together thickened the air and hid the very shrubs on the lawn” (189). This time she is unable to yearn for another horizon past her own; she has no need to desire a far-off life, for Rochester has brought that life to her. She leaves the window, “let[s] down the curtain,” and is summoned to formally meet Rochester downstairs. Here, it is the noticeable absence of a concrete landscape to prompt longing which ushers in the next turning point of Jane’s life, coming to know and love Rochester.
Yet even though this is the end of Jane’s window gazing, the landscape continues to play an important role in enhancing the reader’s understanding of Jane’s true feelings towards her situation. When she has fallen in love with Rochester and thinks he will marry Blanche Ingram, she resents the idea of going to Ireland since the sea will separate the two of them, physically forcing them apart. Later on, when she is ready to marry Rochester herself but finds out that he already has a wife, Jane feels uncomfortable and almost trapped by him. Rochester tries to use a physical change of scene to put Jane at ease, attempting to give them both an escape from the situation by proposing a “place I have in the south of France: a white-walled villa on the shores of the Mediterranean. There you shall live a happy, and guarded, and most innocent life” (394). Here, just as with Ireland, Rochester again uses the ocean as a motif for separation from Thornfield. However, the way Brontë words Rochester’s solution suggests that it would not be out of place to draw a parallel between his French villa and the white-walled garden at Lowood, the school where Jane learned to speak French. Since the emotions accompanying Jane’s description of the Lowood garden were those of being trapped and enclosed with no clear future, it is not unreasonable to apply the same feelings to her current situation; and just as with Lowood, Jane now makes up her mind to leave in search of a new servitude. This time, however, she has no destination and simply needs to go “in the contrary direction to Millcote… not one glance was to be cast back; not even one forward” (412). The lack of a clear direction or an aim, which up to this point in the story has been provided by longing for a distant horizon, leaves the reader feeling as lost and isolated as Jane does. The landscape must change once more, but it is now completely unknown, both to Jane and the reader.
While Brontë uses a specific idea of place to better describe Jane’s feeling of being trapped in her situation and in her love for Rochester, Brontë also uses landscape to illustrate Jane’s situation when St. John urges her to marry him later in the story. The conversation does not take place in a house, but in the beautiful landscape surrounding it, which Brontë describes in detail. But though it is described in a way that the reader understands it as beautiful, it is never explicitly stated as such; instead, Bronte has Jane speak of treading “soft turf, mossy fine and emerald green… the hills, meantime, shut us quite in; for the glen, towards its head, wound to their very core” (499). Though beautiful and potentially a solace, this landscape that Jane describes has an eerie hint to it, for it leads down an isolating, winding way. Usually when a horizon is described, it reaches only as far as Jane can physically see; this time, however, she appears to know exactly where the road ends up, even though the end is impossible to literally see. This unique moment in which Jane sees more of this road than she should be able to, suggests that in some sense, this path is allegorical to the one that Jane would be following if she chose to marry St. John. From this path, there would no hope of return; beautiful in its own right, but not warm or comforting, only long and isolating, taking her far away with no potential return. Interestingly, travelling to far-off lands was Jane’s original desire as a child, and she used to yearn for what lay beyond the horizon. However, Jane has changed at this point in the story; now, Rochester satisfies her desire for strange, new life, and there is no longer any joy for her in the prospect of exploring a land which will take her further away from him.
The allegorical nature of the landscape here continues through the rest of the scene. When St. John and Jane begin to argue, and St. John gets ready to convince her to marry him, “he leaned back against the crag behind him, folded his arms on his chest, and fixed his countenance, I saw he was prepared for a long and trying opposition” (501). St. John’s resolve is firm, as unmoveable as the very landscape that he leans against in confidence. His position is enhanced by his following remark asking Jane to lean on the Rock of Ages, to trust his judgment. However, the more Jane considers the situation and becomes convicted in her heart that she must not marry St. John, she too “rose up and stood before him, leaning [her] back against the rock,” standing her ground as immovably as he stands his (508). St. John then looks out towards the hills one last time before they both return home, retracing their steps and physically walking away from the path they might have trod together.
This scene between St. John and Jane is one of several that suggest a parallel or connection between landscapes and characters. Jane herself seems rather obsessed with “sketching a character” of those around her, figuratively as well as literally (173). When Jane describes characters to her readers, the descriptions often employ language reminiscent of landscapes. When she first meets Rochester, she relates the sound of his approach breaking the silence as “in a picture, the solid mass of a crag, or the rough boles of a great oak, drawn in dark and strong on the foreground, efface the aerial distance of azure hill, sunny horizon and blended clouds” (181). He is abrupt, unavoidable, and striking, but rather than using such adjectives, Jane calls to mind a landscape, letting the idea of the picture speak to Rochester’s character before the reader has even met him. Only a few pages later when she describes Rochester in more detail, his face is “dark, strong and stern,” similar to the bleak, hard landscape that surrounds their first meeting, and he disappears “like heath that in the wilderness / The wild wind whirls away,” evoking a picture of nature to portray a character (185). Jane also describes the character of Blanche Ingram like a landscape: “her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness” (264). This natural imagery allows the reader to see and better imagine the character of Blanche as easily as they might picture her physical features when Jane draws her portrait a few chapters earlier.
Though Jane draws many implicit parallels between characters and landscapes in her narrative, she draws a few explicit ones as well, quite literally. Almost all of her paintings are either portraits of those around her or depictions of landscapes she sees. But when Rochester first discovers Jane’s sketchbook, he finds a number of paintings that are a blend of portrait and landscape which are described in great detail for the reader. The Evening Star and Death are just two of these paintings, but each feature a definite figure that is integrated with and yet distinct from the landscape upon which it is painted. The paintings depict neither a person nor a place, but rather an essence, or, one might say, a character. Thus, Jane describes a person’s nature by using nature itself, evoking the earth and specific horizons or vistas which the reader may understand in order to give a distinct impression of the person’s essence.
Though Jane sketches the character of those around her by using landscape, she herself is connected to landscape as well. Rochester often calls Jane a fairy or an imp, strange and other-worldly, hearkening back to the wild landscapes she was obsessed with as a child. Jane herself assures Rochester that she is “naturally hard – very flinty… [with] divers rugged points in [her] character” (360). Such a description indeed seems to portray a landscape rather than a human being and draws a connection between Jane and the place “up where the moors spread and grey rocks are piled” (79). Like the moors, Jane is striking but not beautiful, rugged but soft. She is at once straightforward and full of hidden thoughts and feelings, like the flatness of the heath which covers a labyrinth of mysterious spaces to be explored. As Rochester keenly notes, she does not smile or laugh very often, but when she does it is pleasant, like a sudden patch of vibrant flowers on the muted colours of the moors. The moors are where Jane feels safe and at home, where she finds solace and protection. Even though Jane cannot survive completely alone on the moors and needs a human dwelling where she can be “protected, but not separated” from nature, the dwelling that she comes across is right up against the landscape and is aptly named Moor House (64). In fact, the inhabitants of Moor House are literally family to Jane, as she finds out later on that they are her blood cousins. Thus, Jane is intricately connected to the moors; they provide a haven for her, and it is only after dwelling on them that she comes into her own, and can return to Rochester as her “own mistress… an independent woman now” (536). In short, where Rochester’s nature is wild and Blanche Ingram’s nature is fallow, Jane’s is moorish: solitary, soothing, and strange.
Bronte also highlights Jane’s deep connection to the physical world by using landscape to bring her to revelations of truth, and even the divine. In some ways it seems like a stretch to claim that the natural world can communicate truth or allow for a recognition of the spiritual, but as Jennifer Gribble puts it in her article on imagination in Jane Eyre,“it is essential to Charlotte Brontë’s intent…that she should attempt to blur such distinctions between the observer and the scene and to make the world of nature contiguous with the human mind” (Gribble 290). The key idea in this definition is that the human mind can somehow be influenced by nature in such a way that it is able to realize new things of which it was previously unaware. These moments are generally turning points for Jane in the story and mark stages where she grows up, especially when considering the novel as a bildungsroman, a story in which the protagonist progresses from adolescence to adulthood following a “pattern of personal growth” (Baldick 39). In Jane Eyre, these crucial moments of personal growth come through the revelation of landscape.
The first such instance is at Lowood, prior to Helen passing away. Jane has been out playing all day, and then looks at the many aspects of the beautiful evening, “noting these things and enjoying them as a child might, when it entered [her] mind, as it had never done before: – ‘…This world is pleasant – it would be dreary to be called from it, and to have to go who knows where?” (Brontë 144). This moment is highly significant for Jane: one minute she is childlike with simple thoughts and pleasures in mind, the next minute she has lost that naivety and comprehended death. Jane suddenly understands the implications of what is happening to Helen, realizing that she is dying. Such a turning point in the story is crucial to Jane’s character and maturation, but it does not come about through a conversation or the aftermath of someone’s death; Jane lands on this truth through the landscape, once again reinforcing her character’s connection to nature.
Jane experiences one other potent revelation through nature when she is out on the moors after having run away from Thornfield. In this instance, Jane is hurting as much as she possibly can be, and though nature offers her shelter, she still finds herself utterly “worn out with…torture of thought” (416). But as she looks up at the sky stretching out over the moors, she reflects that “we feel [God’s] presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us: and it is in the unclouded night-sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence” (416). Jane’s struggle with her idolization of Rochester is ultimately banished by her conviction that “he was God’s, and by God would he be guarded,” a realization that comes to her only through looking at the night horizon, in the solitude and safety of the moors (416). Though Jane initially runs to the moors to “ask repose” of Nature, which “seemed to [her] benign and good,” it is not nature in and of itself which comforts her, but it is through nature that she realizes the overwhelming presence, peace, and benevolence of God (415). It is entirely plausible that in writing this scene, Brontë was thinking of Psalm 19:1-3: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. / Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. / There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard” (KJV). This would be an ironic and striking reversal of Jane’s childhood sentiment that “Psalms are not interesting,” indicating yet again that Jane has reached another stage of maturation at this crucial moment; and once again, this revelation comes not from a conversation or event, but through a landscape (92). Perhaps Jane’s other-worldliness, her fairy or elf-like qualities, stem from the fact that she seems to connect with the spiritual world through the physical one.
Landscape and place in Jane Eyre are far from simply inert background; rather, they are a means of connecting all aspects of the book to one another, and also connecting the reader to the story in a more nuanced and subtle fashion. Jane herself is obsessed with landscape from the onset, as it is the way in which she seeks to find a connection to strange and far-off places. Landscape, specifically horizons, often serve as a way of illustrating Jane’s situation and prompt a change of scenery, both figuratively and literally. Similarly, character itself is intrinsically linked to landscape in Jane Eyre. This can be seen explicitly in Jane’s drawings and implicitly in her descriptions and portrayals of the characters of those around her, like Rochester and Blanche Ingram. Jane’s own character is not exempt from such a parallel, as she is deeply connected to the moors. Finally, as she grows up, Jane’s strong relationship with landscape acts as a catalyst for connecting her to deep truths such as death, and later even brings her to a truer understanding of God. Clearly, then, landscape plays a crucial role in Jane Eyre, and by considering the significance of descriptions of place throughout the story, the reader may gain significantly deeper insight into Charlotte Brontë’s classic tale.
Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literay Terms. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard Nemesvari. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1999. Print.
Gribble, Jennifer. “Jane Eyre’s Imagination.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 23, no. 3, 1968, pp. 279–293. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2932556.
The Holy Bible. The King James Bible Online: 2018.