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A Curious Scene
In Volume II of Jane Eyre, a mysterious “gipsy” enters Thornfield and demands to read the fortunes of just the “young and single ladies” in the room (193). After some debate, the wealthy guests of Mr. Rochester agree to this request. After all of the eligible guests have their fortunes told, the gypsy requests to read the last lady in the room: Jane. Jane is skeptical and untrusting of the gypsy, who seems to have great insight into Jane’s life and who interrogates Jane in order to discover her most personal thoughts and feelings. She eventually discovers that the gypsy is not a true fortune-teller but rather Mr. Rochester in disguise. This article will argue that this scene allows Mr. Rochester, through cross-dressing as a gypsy, to reach a level of intimacy with Jane that would otherwise be impossible due to the changes in gender dynamics and social class as well as 19th-century views towards gypsies.
The most apparent advantage that Mr. Rochester gains by cross-dressing is the change in gender dynamics. During the Victorian era, respectable men and women were barely allowed to touch one another, even if they were courting. A woman was not allowed to be alone with a man: a Victorian guide to courtship etiquette states, “In the house, as might be expected, they were never left alone; and in a walk, a third party always accompanied them,” (Bogue 30). Thus, obtaining a private room with Jane in order to discuss her personal thoughts and wishes would be quite improper for a male character such as Mr. Rochester, especially since Jane is his governess. As a gypsy woman, Rochester acquires the freedom to ask about Jane’s “secret [hopes],” “interest in…the company who occupy the sofas,” and whether there is one specific “face who [Jane] studies” (198). Women were allowed to converse about love interests between one another, and Rochester clearly takes advantage of this opportunity. Jane, however, deftly avoids giving the gypsy any direct answers due to her modesty and awareness of the unlikelihood of romance between the two.
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When Mr. Rochester dresses as a gypsy, he also takes on a significantly lower social ranking: he transforms from a wealthy, respectable, and educated man into a poor beggar. Jane, although still far more respectable than a gypsy, can relate to this character in many ways. For most of her life, Jane has been a lone wanderer without any true family. She has traveled from her aunt’s house, in which she was made to feel like an outsider, to Lowood, where her closest friend dies, and finally to Thornfield Hall. Gypsies, likewise, were known to be independent wanderers with no true attachments. Although Jane is in no way a gypsy, she can relate to this character on many levels and thus is more disposed to speak her thoughts freely with her. Mr. Rochester, on the other hand, is Jane’s employer. Earlier in the novel, Jane reminds herself: “You have nothing to do with the master of Thornfield, further than to receive the salary he gives you…He is not of your order: keep to your caste,” (162). Although Mr. Rochester may not wish this, Jane is clearly quite aware of their class differences. The character of the gypsy allows Mr. Rochester to overcome this barrier while conversing with Jane.
The question remains: why could Mr. Rochester not simply pretend to be a poor beggar woman? To understand why Mr. Rochester needed to dress specifically as a gypsy, we must first understand the views regarding gypsies in the Victorian era. Gypsies occupied an unusual place in society, known as homeless wanderers. In literature especially, they have been said to represent “liberation, excitement, danger, and the free expression of sexuality,” (Blair 141). In 19th century Britain, these ideas were not accepted in typical society. The Gypsy character can then be seen as an escape from the limitations of this society; a way for Mr. Rochester to free himself from not just the wealthy male archetype but rather proper society in general. He may thus make more direct, bold, and provoking comments than was proper for one to make: he says to Jane, “You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly,” (196). He also directly inquires as to her opinion of “the master of the house,” (198), a question so forward that a stranger would be unlikely to ask it. Thus, the gypsy is unique in not just gender and social class, but also as a character itself. This special role allows Mr. Rochester to inquire into Jane’s thoughts on a much more intimate level than would otherwise be possible.
Blair, Kirstie. “Gypsies and Lesbian Desire.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 50, 2004, pp. 141–166., www-jstor-org.dartmouth.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/4149276.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A7fea820a3b9e9155174e11bb029e4f3d.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Bogue, David. The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony. 1852.