Academic | Essay Contest
Presentiments, Sympathies, and Signs: Surrealist Elements in Jane Eyre
Here is a novel so broad in its influences and execution that a literary critic is prone to circle it indefinitely, like an experienced thief wandering the grounds of an art museum in search of the easiest means of entrance, and becoming hopeless by degrees. One must be content to select a single route of approach, and accept that it will not grant access to all the text's treasures, though it may still prove highly profitable. One such route lies in the observation that Charlotte Brontë's memorable protagonist is portrayed, with varying subtlety, as living on a plane of existence somehow higher than that in which the rest of humanity labors. This is most clearly seen in the inexplicable, improbable, and supernatural happenings which befall Jane, almost invariably fortuitously, at various episodes in the novel. They enhance her love for the volatile Mr. Rochester, enhance the love she receives from him in return, provide her with the strength to escape a state of oppression at multiple critical junctures, and ultimately make her sublime married life possible.
The first occasion which suggests this trend is young Jane's traumatizing imprisonment in the Red Room. Fuming over the Reeds' injustices, she speculates on the possibility of her dead uncle and protector returning to her side. She quickly changes her mind"this idea, consolatory in theory, [she] felt would be terrible if realized"but when a vivid hallucination descends upon and overwhelms her nonetheless, it becomes clear that otherworldly powers are intent on introducing themselves to her life (10-11). In this case, they initiate the chain of events which culminates in Jane leaving the abuses of Gateshead behind.
Jane's time at Lowood School, however, after an unpromising start, passes predictably, routinely, rather unemotionally, and entirely devoid of fantastical incidents (which provides a striking contrast to life at Thornfield). The tale of the springtime pandemic is tinged with occasional eerie surrealism, but Jane herself admits that practically nothing of note occurs at the school between the death of Helen Burns and Jane's revelation (eight years later) that she cannot bear to stay longer (75). On the occasion of that revelation, however, there is another proto-paranormal incident: when Jane despondently wonders how to procure a new domestic situation, "replies [rise] smooth and prompt" from a literal voice in her head which provides sound advice (78).
Once our heroine is settled in Mr. Rochester's home, she gradually begins to manifest an aura of surreality, especially in the presence of her new master. As a result, her relationship with that man is lent a measure of profundity and significance. To sample the deep catalog of illustrative examples, consider the extra-sensory nature of Jane and Mr. Rochester's interactions. The pair often communicates without words, through glances and intuition"Mr. Rochester had sometimes read my unspoken thoughts with an acumen to [Jane] incomprehensible" (232)and each seems peculiarly adept at sensing the other's presence. While wandering the manor grounds, Jane deduces that her beloved is approaching based on the odor of his cigar, and wishing to be alone, conceals herself, only to be promptly discovered: Mr. Rochester walks directly to her hiding place, turns his back, and identifies Jane's presence without sight or sound (235-6). Mr. Rochester, it seems, is aware of Jane's mildly-superhuman nature: he even turns it into a vehicle for endearment when he fondly explains to Adéle that her governess is a moon-dwelling fairy (253-4). A series of subtle details such as this amass over the course of the pair's growing intimacy and suggest that Jane's day-to-day existence is more vibrant, colorful and sensational than the typical human can boasteven the weather changes with her temperament, on special occasions (243-4, 262, 272). These themes are all magnificently reinforced by a brief return visit to Gateshead, where Jane witnesses each of the surviving Reeds deeply engaged in conducting bitter, petty, wasted existences. The vengeful matriarch curses Jane to her dying day, while rigid Eliza and insipid Georgiana break the silence of their home only to excoriate each other viciously across the sitting room (223-7).
In due time, paranormal incidents assert a considerable measure of control over the novel's plot, beginning with a series of intense visions which result in Jane's self-imposed exile from Thornfield. First, in two traumatizing dreams, Mr. Rochester abandons Jane and a child, and Jane beholds the mansion as a desolate ruin, anticipating its destruction at the hands of Bertha Mason (267). These disturbing images plant seeds of uncertainty in Jane's mind, and when the existence of Bertha comes to light, an unconscious visit from "Mother" (a mysterious "white human form") persuades Jane to uphold her principles and refuse Mr. Rochester's extramarital advances (304). Jane proceeds to travel in a random direction and blunder near-death onto the doorstep of a compassionate man, whose remote home is inhabited by (somewhat improbably) Jane's last living relatives. Coincidences pile up like so much driftwood, yet Jane's earnest, fastidious narrative style hardly wavers, and so we are inclined (and often content) to play along. We learn to accept that Jane is, as it were, playing by a different set of rules, which can coexist with the mundane laws that govern the behavior of the common person.
Many of the strange events to which Jane is a party are at some point rationally resolved (i.e. Bertha was the intruder who rent Jane's wedding veil) and others certainly have logical explanations, but the scene at Moor House in which Jane and her estranged lover participate in a telepathic conversation is left untouched by the hand of reason: an outright challenge to the reader's sensibilities. In a classic deus ex machina, Jane is moments from succumbing to St. John Rivers' inexhaustible but self-destructive will, and Mr. Rochester is (as we later learn) in a wretched, desolate condition; their love is in grave danger of going unconsummated forever, and so an anonymous otherworldly benefactor steps in to reconcile the situation. The couple is, therefore, quite explicitly shown to transcend normal earthly concerns, as we also see in the closing chapters. They end the novel in the midst of a timeless, utopic, carefree life: Jane bears a child, a humble Mr. Rochester recovers his sight, and the subject of mortality is left quite alone.
"Presentiments are strange things!" Jane declares while recalling her time at Thornfield, "and so are sympathies; and so are signs... I never laughed at presentiments in my life, because I have had strange ones of my own. Sympathies, I believe, exist... whose workings baffle mortal comprehension" (207-8). This musing alludes to Jane's firsthand experience of a blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, which the attentive reader will be quick to affirm. Just as Brontë's intricate novel eludes classification and defied the literary traditions of the time, so the life of the protagonist virtually overflows the bounds of reality. These confines are insufficient to contain the prodigious sum of Jane's passions and activities, and when her happiness is threatened by obstacles of one worldnamely, oursshe is lifted safely over them by agents of another.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. New York: Bantam, 1988.