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Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre opens at dreary Gateshead Hall, where the orphaned title character is compelled to live with her wealthy aunt. Here the young Jane appears reserved and unusual, a girl who says she can be “happy at least in my way” (9), implying that her brand of happiness is different than the traditional, and whom the reader does not yet understand. As the novel goes on, Jane migrates to a series of locations that help develop her true character. The settings of Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, and finally Ferndean Manor shape Jane and eventually give rise to her true independence.
Bronte opens the novel in Gateshead Hall, where Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, imprisons Jane temporarily in the manor’s “Red Room.” The description of this room is more detailed than of any other at Gateshead: “This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchens; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered” (14). The room is like Jane’s personality at this point in the novel – isolated and morose. Jane’s distance from her family members, humorless existence, and cold attitude toward Mrs. Reed when she finally confronts her are qualities that reflect her surroundings.
When Jane migrates to Lowood she leaves childhood behind. Initially she remains isolated at Lowood, but the description of the place and her reaction to it are not so gloomy: “…The building spread far.—with many windows, and lights burning in some; we went up a broad, pebbly path, splashing wet, and were admitted at a door; then the servant led me through a passage into a room with a fire, where she left me alone” (42). Though left alone in a foreign place, Jane accepts the solitude without fear – a sign of maturity. Conditions at Lowood are poor and daily life tightly structured, and Jane is able to conform to her surroundings because she does not yet have a clear self identity. We have seen only glimmers of her tough, independent character by this point, as when she confronts Mrs. Reed.
At Lowood, Jane meets her first real friend, Helen Burns. While Jane is still impulsive and short-tempered, Helen is patient and accepting, with strong morals and religious conviction. For example, Jane comments fiercely on the way a certain teacher punished Helen: “And if I were in your place I should dislike her: I should resist her; if she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose” (55). Helen replies calmly to Jane’s outburst: “It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you—and, besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil” (55). Though Helen dies soon thereafter, it is clear that her presence at Lowood made a strong impression on Jane and calmed her fiery tendencies.
The novel’s next setting is Thornfield, where Jane is hired as governess and where her greatest character development takes place. The way Bronte describes Jane’s arrival at Thornfield shows that the place will be transformative: “I followed her across a square hall with high doors all around: she ushered me into a room, whose double illumination of fire and candle at first dazzled me, contrasting as it did with the darkness to which my eyes had been for two hours inured; when I could see, however, a cozy and agreeable picture presented itself to my view” (95). Jane’s brief visual impairment recalls the darker days from which she has emerged, the candle represents a brighter future, and the “cozy and agreeable picture” suggests just that – which, as the reader will learn, also stands for the infatuation with Rochester that will soon emerge.
The challenging, unusual relationship that develops between Jane and Rochester eventually forces Jane to let her guard down. He tells her to listen to the nightingale singing in the wood, and Jane states that
“In listening, I sobbed convulsively; for I could repress what I endured no longer. I was obliged to yield; and I was shaken from head to foot with acute distress. When I did speak, it was only to express an impetuous wish that I has never been born, or never come to Thornfield” (252). Finally Jane admits emotion to herself and recognizes the influence – good or bad – that one’s setting and relations can have upon her.
When Jane flees Thornfield she is at her weakest, alone and literally penniless. This temporary penury shows how relentlessly she seeks independence and refuses to settle for anything less than the utmost respect. When she sees Moor House for the first time, the description is no more promising than that of any other place Jane has lived: “Entering the gate and passing the shrubs, the silhouette of a house rose to view; black, low, and rather long: but the guiding light shone nowhere. All was obscurity” (331). Yet this time, the dark place turns out to hold family and fortune. Jane feels complete here, able to overcome old insecurities. She is finally rewarded for her goodness and helps teach the disadvantaged. Her stay at Moor House allows Jane to become a whole person, and to prepare her for meeting Rochester again, this time feeling like an equal.
Jane finds Rochester at Ferndean Manor. Bronte takes a page to describe the place, adding to the suspense of Jane’s situation. It is another dark, isolated place that hints not at Jane’s situation, this time, but at Rochester’s. Like the desolate manor, Rochester is now debilitated and despondent . Only Jane’s nurturing can revive him, putting the two on even ground for the first time. In one of the final passages, Jane describes her care for Rochester: “I caressed, in order to soothe him; but dared not. As he turned aside his face a minute, I saw a tear slide from under the sealed eyelid, and trickle down the manly cheek. My heart swelled” (444). Finally the two balance each other and truly love.
Each setting in Bronte’s novel shaped its heroine, as Jane gradually left isolation and repression to attain respect , love, and independence. Jane came fully into herself at Moor House and, once prepared, helped Rochester become his own best self at Ferndean. The darkness that characterizes each setting at some point finally dissipates, and one is left feeling that Jane has surely found her home.
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