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The Supernatural in "Jane Eyre"
Supernatural ghosts and other paranormal entities are scattered throughout Jane Eyre. In a novel that is otherwise realistic, these elements of the supernatural are quite strange. However, these paranormal events are nearly always given a rational explanation, making it easy for the reader to overlook the otherwise bizarre occurrences. The ghost in the red room, for example, may be explained by “a gleam from a lantern, carried by someone across the lawn,” (Brontë 21). The monster in Mr. Rochester’s attic is discovered to actually be his wife. These ghastly figures thus lose their supernatural qualities and become mundane and less threatening—in a sense, they are repressed. Jane, similarly, is repressed. Her passions and personhood are forcibly hidden as she grows older and learns how women of her class must act and appear. Simultaneously, the supernatural elements of the story are manifestations of Jane’s true desires before they are forcibly repressed by rationality. Nevertheless, they allow Jane to recognize and often act on her desires: a revelation of sorts. When the paranormal is not repressed—namely, the ending of the novel in which Jane hears Mr. Rochester’s voice calling her away from Moor House and there is no explanation other than it being “the deeper shade of the supernatural,” (516)—Jane gains her freedom as well, and she makes her own choice to live her true life alongside Mr. Rochester.
In the opening scene of Jane Eyre, young Jane experiences a fit of passion when her cousin John Reed bullies her. Jane loses her temper, calling John a “tyrant” and “slave-driver” (13-14) and is sent to the red room by Mrs. Reed as a form of punishment. Mrs. Reed deems Jane’s fit “repulsive” (22), later declaring Jane’s passionate tendencies to be a fault that must be corrected (45). This is the first time in the novel at which Jane’s passion is labeled as a negative trait; something that needs to be fixed or hidden.
As Jane is locked in the red room, she begins to mull over the reasons for her punishment, and contemplates: “All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so…” (19). She believes that a better child in her position would have been endured “more complacently,” (19) at Gateshead. Jane thus begins to consider the repression of her passion, and whether it may serve her better to act in a more obedient manner. Almost immediately after Jane begins to have these thoughts, she perceives her uncle’s ghost: at first, she “endeavors to be firm” (20) and thus maintain the repression of her passion. Yet seconds later, she experiences “a herald of some coming vision from another world,” (21). Jane immediately feels “oppressed, suffocated,” (21), a description that both describes her physical reaction to the ghost and her mental state at Gateshead. The ghost’s appearance causes her to overlook her former determination to stay calm; she recognizes her oppression and “utter[s] a wild, involuntary cry,” (21) against it.
Jane’s thoughts of her uncle and the subsequent appearance of his ghost remind Jane of her treatment at Gateshead and allow her to form the decision to leave it rather than to attempt to correct herself for the Reeds. After Jane shrieks, she “[rushes] to the door and [shakes] the lock in desperate effort,” (21). She attempts to flee the red room, but really, she desires to flee Gateshead. Indeed, she soon is able to: Jane’s fit allows her to see a doctor, who in turn offers her the possibility of attending school. Soon after, Jane departs for Lowood. Thus, her uncle’s ghost allows Jane to recognize and vocalize her desire to leave Gateshead.
Older Jane, however, recognizes that the ghost was “in all likelihood” just “a gleam from a lantern, carried by someone across the lawn,” (Brontë 21). Jane’s older self feels the need to repress the supernatural, just as much as Mrs. Reed and Bessie do after Jane screams. They see Jane as “a precocious actress” (22) rather than a young girl having an actual paranormal communication. Yet, Jane still does not completely refute the supernatural: she says that in all likelihood the ghost was just a reflection of light, but she never irrevocably denies its existence. This indicates that Jane’s passion and belief in her uncle ghost are repressed, but perhaps not gone. She recognizes that she cannot publicly justify to the reader that she believes she saw a ghost, for as she learns from Helen Burns at Lowood, she may do well to “forget…the passionate emotions [Mrs. Reed’s severity] excited,” (69).
As Jane grows older, she begins to follow Helen and Mrs. Temple’s teachings and learns to control her emotions and passion; in other words, repress her true self. She says: “I had given in allegiance to duty and order; I was quiet; I believed I was content: to the eyes of others, usually even to my own, I appeared a disciplined and subdued characters,” (100). Even here, Jane says that she believed she was content, yet this implies that she was not truly content. Indeed, how can one be content when they are constantly repressing their true self?
Jane soon leaves Lowood to become a governess at Thornfield Hall. Not long after her arrival, Jane begins to hear laughs and murmurs coming from the floor above. Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that it is likely just Grace Poole, who “sews in one of these rooms,” (126). Jane, however, finds the laugh “tragic” and “preternatural,” (127), later describing it as “demoniac…goblin-laughter,” (173). This language encourages the reader to believe something supernatural, such as a ghost or goblin, is living on the third floor.
The series of events following the moans and murmurs that Jane hears reinforces this belief: Mr. Rochester’s curtains are set ablaze in the night and Mr. Mason is physically attacked. The latter brings forth the image of a vampire: Mr. Mason is soaked in blood and has a “ghastly countenance…blue, still lips,” (243). His wound “was not done with a knife” but rather with “teeth,” (245). Mr. Mason even says: “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart,” (246). Jane’s own experience soon after fortifies her belief in the existence of a supernatural being in Thornfield Hall. In her room at night, she sees “a woman, tall and large…Fearful and ghastly” that reminds Jane of “the foul German spectre—the vampire,” (326-327). The woman takes Jane’s veil, dons it, and then proceeds to rip it in half.
We soon find out that rather than a frightening and mysterious paranormal entity, the ghastly creature is a repressed woman: Mr. Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife, Bertha. Bertha mirrors Jane’s own repression and anxieties in many ways. In Bertha’s case, her passion and entire being are repressed physically—she is literally locked in an attic. Jane, too, is physically repressed in a sense: she has very little money and due to her class and gender is unable to move as freely as she may wish. We see Mr. Rochester come and go from Thornfield as he pleases, but both Bertha and Jane are more or less confined to the building. Similarly, both Bertha and Jane long for freedom. Bertha frequently escapes from the attic to take revenge on those who have kept her locked up, while Jane starts to long for freedom as Mr. Rochester begins to exercise his control over her, by dressing Jane in “satin and lace…roses in her hair…a priceless veil,” (299).
Bertha also mirrors Jane’s repressed passions, and in doing so she acts out Jane’s innermost desires and allows Jane to act on them. As Mr. Rochester dresses Jane like “an ape in a harlequin’s jacket,” (299) and overlooks Jane’s requests for a simple wedding, Jane begins to have doubts about their marriage. She feels “feverish” and “anxious” (317-318) regarding their union, and Bertha acts out Jane’s innermost desire to end their engagement when she enters Jane’s room at night. As Jane watches Bertha’s reflection in the dark mirror, wearing Jane’s veil, Jane sees her own reflection too: the reflection of what she could become. Jane, like Bertha, is passionate. Both women are given animalistic traits—Bertha is a “strange wild animal,” a “clothed hyena” (338) while Jane is a “wild frantic bird” (293) according to Mr. Rochester. The two women are both repressed by the patriarchy. If Mr. Rochester went to such lengths to control and repress Bertha’s true nature and passion, what could he do to Jane? Bertha’s subsequent tearing of the veil may then represent the tearing of Jane and Mr. Rochester’s union.
When Bertha is revealed to Jane, Bertha physically attacks Mr. Rochester. She is “a big woman” who shows “virile force” and she “grapple[s] his throat viciously, and [lays] her teeth to his cheek,” (338). Jane is unable to truly confront Mr. Rochester, even verbally, and instead she simply flees Thornfield Hall. Bertha thus acts out Jane’s repressed desire to attack Mr. Rochester for lying to her and hiding his wife, as well as showing Jane that she cannot marry such a man.
The final paranormal occurrence in Jane Eyre happens near the end of the novel, when Jane is considering St. John’s marriage proposal. Despite having turned St. John away initially, Jane begins to appear as if she is considering his proposal. Jane clearly does not desire to marry St. John; she says: “I believe I must say yes—and yet I shudder. Alas! If I join St. John, I abandon half myself: if I go to India, I go to premature death,” (466). Just as St. John appears to be successfully coaxing Jane into a union, Jane feels her “heart beat fast and thick…The feeling was not like an electric shock, but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling…I heard a voice somewhere cry – ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ – nothing more,” (483). Jane believes this to be Mr. Rochester’s voice, and she sees a spectre rise up. She then “[breaks] from St. John,” (484), both physically walking away from him but also refusing his proposal. Jane soon leaves Moor House. The supernatural voice that came to Jane allows her to fully recognize her inability to be in such a loveless marriage, and thus her need to refuse St. John.
Unlike the previous supernatural occurrences, this one is left unexplained. Mr. Rochester says that he did indeed call out Jane’s name at the same hour she heard it. Jane describes this as “too awful and inexplicable to be communicated or discussed…a deeper shade of the supernatural” and leaves it at that (516). There is no mundane, rational explanation for this activity. The supernatural is free to exist without the necessity of repressing it; although Jane does not wish to discuss it further, she does not deny its existence. Jane, too, is no longer repressed. Although some may argue that her decision to return to Mr. Rochester rather than, say, live alone as an independent woman, is a sign that she is still not truly free or able to express her passions. Yet, Jane makes her own decision to do what she believes will give her the greatest happiness. Jane says that “All [her] confidence is bestowed upon him…we are precisely suited in character,” (519). One may infer, then, that Jane no longer hides herself or her passions from Mr. Rochester. Just as the supernatural is free to exist unrepressed, Jane is able to live freely too.
The Supernatural in Contemporary Works
The supernatural and references to it are not uncommon in otherwise ‘realistic’ Victorian literature. Many of Brontë’s other novels, as well as those of her sisters, invoke or directly mention the paranormal. Contemporary authors such as Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle do as well; from the ghostly Miss Havisham to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Often these forms of the supernatural are used to conjure fear and an air of mystery, but in Jane Eyre they serve an additional purpose. Charlotte Brontë cleverly uses the supernatural to reflect our protagonist’s repression but also her innermost thoughts and desires. The ghost of Jane’s uncle incites her to leave Gateshead Hall, while Bertha’s vampiric appearances show Jane the repression she may face if she marries Mr. Rochester. Ultimately, the supernatural calls Jane away from a loveless marriage with St. John and back towards a humbled Mr. Rochester. The supernatural haunts Jane, following her and constantly reminding her of her true desires, for better or for worse. Ultimately, when Jane is no longer forced to repress the supernatural, she too can be free.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Penguin Classics, 2006.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.