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Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester is marked by uncertainty in equality and independence in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Using the Gothic elements of disguise in the gypsy scenes, Mr. Rochester assumes an ambiguous role of gender and class inferiority. By breaking gender barriers, Mr. Rochester finds a way to come out of his shell, speak his true feelings about Jane’s character, and overcome restrictive obstacles placed by social barriers in the 19th century world of the Victorian novel. Mr. Rochester disguises himself, blurring class and gender lines. This is necessary to efface Jane and Mr. Rochester’s differences in order for them to have a more honest relationship.
In the Victorian period gypsies were looked down upon, and their role in society ambiguous. In accordance with characters of Gothic fiction and Gothic themes, the gypsy woman’s entrance is unexplainable and supernatural. Masquerading as a gypsy woman, Mr. Rochester wields a magical power over not only Jane, but the rest of the guests as well. Under this disguise, he controls the emotions of the young single women present. This scene also reveals how much he dictates Jane’s emotions. When it is Jane’s turn to see the gypsy, she is not frightened, but rather, interested in and excited by the hype. Unlike the rest of the guests, Jane Eyre is skeptical of the gypsy’s authenticity, although when she enters the dream-like state, it appears she believes Mr. Rochester’s disguise of both his gender and class.
The sinister Gothic elements of Jane Eyre are abundant throughout the story, but especially rampant in the gypsy scene. Peculiar things happen behind closed doors at Thornfield Manor. Disguise, the color red, the strange gypsy, and the elements of darkness and fire all add to the auras of paranormal mystery. The allure of what cannot be seen, of disguise and secrecy, is explored as the strange but enticing Sybil draws in the female guests present at the Manor. Her origin is unknown and her dress peculiar; she delights the single women one by one behind closed doors, except for Miss Ingram who receives unwanted information.
Dressed as an “ugly old creature… almost as black as a crock,” the guests perceive Mr. Rochester as a “real sorceress” (Bronte, 164). Once Mr. Rochester is in disguise, he is able to share an intimate setting with the females of the party when their fortunes are revealed in this otherwise conservative society. In this element of the Gothic, Mr. Rochester’s disguise brings the party to frenzy—excitement overwhelms the guests as “mystery, animation, expectation rose to full flow” (164). Even Jane, usually emotionally subdued in the company of these high-class society members is “glad of the unexpected opportunity to gratify [her] much-excited curiosity” (166). The thrill of this surprise guest invokes fearfulness and awe in the room, common themes of the Gothic. The party guests are unaccustomed to associating with people of the same class as the woman at the door.
There are issues of class ambiguity from the beginning. The gypsy’s comfort in a setting more grand than what a street gypsy would be accustomed to and her brashness in confronting Jane, a woman of higher social status than she, is surprising. When Jane enters the library, she notices the gypsy’s confidence as the old woman is “seated snugly” and confronts Jane with a “bold and direct gaze” (167). Here, Mr. Rochester puts himself in a social status he is unfamiliar with, although he plays the role with ease. The gypsy character is almost too at ease though, making Mr. Rochester’s class disguise inauthentic. He cannot let go of his class status—he is too naturally invested in it at this point in the novel, a characteristic also seen when Mr. Rochester overwhelms Jane when he tries to dress her up like a doll in fine jewels and gowns in preparation for their wedding (Chapter 24). Jane is not weighed down from status incongruity when Mr. Rochester decreases his stature from the male role and master of the house to a lowly street woman. Thus, through a shifting of status roles, Jane is not less powerful financially. Their roles are recalibrated as Jane gives Mr. Rochester money as opposed to being given money by him. Ultimately, this recalibration is necessary to the success of them having a true relationship.
The eerie setting perfectly fits the strange situation of Gothic format, while also highlighting social differences. Jane is young and beautiful compared to the old and ugly cloaked hag. Jane watches as “she stirred the fire, so that a ripple of light broke from the disturbed coal: the glare, however, as she sat, only threw her face into deeper shadow: mine, it illumined” (168). Jane’s face is “illumined” and the gypsy’s face in a “deeper shadow” (168). The juxtaposition of light and dark correlate with the social differences set up in this scene, but, later Jane kneels before the gypsy, setting up another disparity. This back and forth adds to the ambiguity already present. The social roles between Jane, Mr. Rochester, and the gypsy are skewed and since they are fluid depending on the scenario, dependencies and questions of equality between them are unclear. Mr. Rochester invokes an identity of lower class in his gypsy costume, but there is blurriness in his depictions, suggesting he still cannot let go of his class status, making his role as a gypsy inauthentic. Social position boundaries are too tightly set for Mr. Rochester’s disguise to be taken seriously, and Jane’s feelings about her position as a woman and as hired help in Mr. Rochester’s manor make her very aware to the power implications of their situation.
The gypsy is deliberately presumptuous as she deals with Jane, telling her, “‘You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly’” (167). These harsh words juxtapose the laughter and gaiety the other women experienced before Jane’s turn with the gypsy, but Jane retorts back in her usual confident but careful manner demanding an explanation. Throughout the scene, the gypsy flirts with Jane, encourages her, and provokingly challenges her. The gypsy compliments Jane at the beginning, pointing out her uniqueness—“You could scarcely find me one” (a girl like Jane) (168). The gypsy encourages Jane by stressing Jane’s specialness and potential—“If you knew it, you are peculiarly situated: very near happiness; yes; within reach of it. The materials are all prepared; there only wants a movement to combine them” (168). Here, the gypsy is foreshadowing the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester.
Later, the gypsy states, “I wonder with what feelings you came to me tonight. I wonder what thoughts are busy in your heart during all the hours you sit in yonder room with the fine people flitting before you like shapes in a magic lantern” (186). The word “heart” indicates the gypsy wants to know more than what is going in on Jane’s platonic or passing thoughts. The gypsy wants to know how her heart feels, what her heart is passionate about, what she feels romantically. Here it seems like Mr. Rochester just wants to get inside Jane’s head, since she is so private and reserved. Although she has a passionate disposition, she cannot let her guard down in front of Mr. Rochester, and posing as a gypsy, it appears he wants to dig further into her psyche. Her feelings are important to her, and Mr. Rochester wants to know what is going on in her head—both ordinary thoughts, and thoughts of romance, as the word “heart” suggests. The gypsy describes the guests as “flitting” past her, noting their ephemeral state, whereas Jane is like a member of the house, a more permanent fixture than the guests, who include Blanche, the attractive socialite whom Mr. Rochester is scheduled to marry. Since “flitting” is transitory and he uses it to describe everyone except for Jane, he is revealing emotions through his disguise, hinting he may desire her stay to be more permanent. These flirtations betray Mr. Rochester’s attempts at femininity, since although he is trying to act as a gypsy woman, he still ends up flirting with Jane.
The dream-like state Jane had been in is broken once she fully realizes it was Mr. Rochester under the red cloak and black bonnet. She passes his test, admitting, “I had been on my guard almost from the beginning of the interview” (173). The word “guard” suggests a feeling of formality and discomfort, distancing her from the intimacy of the prior exchange. Mr. Rochester’s gender and class transformation in his gypsy-state should allow Jane a place to reveal things more freely than when confined by these barriers since she is in front of a stranger who will not pass judgment or reveal her thoughts, but cleverly, she does not completely expose herself, since many times, women feel more comfortable sharing more personal thoughts with other women, rather than men, and similarly, someone in a particular class status may have more in common with another person of that class status, making them more likely to be less on their “guard,” like Jane was.
The gypsy suggests it is chance that allows Jane’s good luck:
Your fortune is yet doubtful: when I examined your face, one trait contradicted another. Chance has meted you a measure of happiness: that I know. I knew it before I came here this evening. She has laid it carefully on one side for you. I saw her do it. It depends on yourself to stretch out your hand, and take it up; but whether you will do so, is the problem I study. 171
Here, the gypsy challenges Jane to rise up and grasp what chance has allowed her. After showing Jane what her potential is, the gypsy leaves it up to her to seize opportunity. Personifying chance proposes seriousness to the situation, since this chance is now in Jane’s power. The word “measure” indicates a limited amount, warning Jane that happiness is not handed out on a silver spoon, but that because of chance, an amount will be given to her if she chooses to “stretch out her hand” (171). The gypsy figure is concerned Jane will not take advantage of the happiness chance is allocating, saying it is a problem she “studies” (171). This word choice hints at the man beneath the cloak, one who has had opportunity to study Jane Eyre’s situation and disposition.
Rochester has his own agenda with each woman passing through the library doors. Miss Ingram comes out distressed, since Mr. Rochester knows she loves him for “his purse” (171). The other girls giggling and excited, are carefree and impressed with the gypsy’s knowledge of their pasts and secrets. With Jane, after he comes out of disguise, he confides in her and they warmly share their trust in each other, and their dependence on each other’s support. Rochester says, “‘I wish I were in a quiet island with only you: and trouble, and danger, and hideous recollections removed from me,’” and Jane replies, “‘I’d give my life to serve you” (174). This open declaration of devotions would not have been possible without Rochester first breaking down the social and gender barriers he carried out while under cover.
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