Campus News

English Faculty Research Leads to "New Readings of Jane Eyre"

Story posted December 04, 2000

The English Departmentís recent faculty colloquium featured three professorsí "New Readings of Jane Eyre." Terri Nickel, Judith Sanders, and Aviva Briefel spoke about how their recent research has shaped their understanding of Charlotte Bronteís 1847 novel.

Professor Nickel has been examining the design of interior spaces in the novel. What comes to light, she explains, is how Jane uses interiors and household goods to assess the world, and shape her sense of herself.

Nickel pointed to Janeís detailed descriptions of the places she inhabits. Jane feels alienated at Gateshead, and is frightened by the ghostlike quality of the Red Room. Bronteís narration often takes the form of a "tour," as when Mrs. Fairfax shows the new governess around Thornfield Hall. Thornfield, Jane observes, is neglected and needs reforming (perhaps like its master, Edward Rochester). When a freezing, starving Jane wanders the countryside after leaving Rochester, she finds potential sanctuary in Marsh End. Despite being on the verge of collapse or even death, she still observes (and enumerates) the furnishings of the room she sees through the window: the sanded floor, the walnut dresser, the pewter plates. Finally, there is Ferndean, which requires cleaning up and furnishing upon Janeís reconciliation with Rochester.

When Jane receives her fortune (a bequest from a distant, unknown uncle), she has "a Martha Stewart moment," says Nickel. She dives into redecorating Marsh End, despite being merely a guest there. This action points to Janeís desire to attain a feeling of personal authority. She is laying claim to her status, and reaffirming who she is, by taking control of the furnishings that surround her.

Nickel also discussed the "politics of wood." Note how Gateshead, which sparks feelings of terror and exclusion in Jane, is decorated in mahogany, a dark wood largely imported at the time from the West Indies. Thornfield, which Jane comes to consider her home, contains mostly oak, a native, British wood. Jane feels "degraded" by the white pine in the schoolroom at Morton. Ironically, when she redecorates Marsh End, she chooses the same items (mahogany, red upholstery) which decorated Gateshead.

Judith Sanders looks at Jane Eyre and asks the question, "Why is this realistic novel so unrealistic?" She points out how frequently coincidence drives the plot (Jane just happens to wind up at Marsh End, and becomes the house guest of long-lost cousins; Richard Mason just happens to be with Uncle John Eyre when Janeís letter arrives announcing her plan to marry Rochester, Masonís brother-in-law). Why do these deus ex machina devices appear so frequently throughout the novel? Sandersí recent research into trauma theory offers an answer.

Trauma theory examines how people deal with, talk about, and overcome traumatic pain. This, she says, is how Jane Eyre is narrated. Trauma shatters assumptions about life. It ruptures internal narratives that help us define ourselves and our place in the world. A victim of trauma must process the experience in order to heal. The narrative of Jane Eyre is the title characterís method of processing her trauma and attempting to heal.

The novel opens with trauma: John Reed throws a book at Jane, cutting her forehead. The bleeding child is then imprisoned in the Red Room, and suffers a fit. Her life at the time is defined by these traumas: she is imprisoned by poverty and alienated by the family. But can pain be overcome only by miracles? Perhaps this is the explanation for the wealth of coincidences in the novel. Jane is freed from poverty by money left her by a previously unknown uncle. She is freed from her orphan status when she begs at the door of the Rivers family, who turn out to be related to her as well.

Aviva Briefel has been studying cinematic representations of the novel (some 40 dramatizations of Jane Eyre, including a musical currently on Broadway, exist). What happens when the novelís narrative shifts to a visual medium?

In her own time, hearing a small theater was staging Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte couldnít imagine how the characters would be represented, especially the mad wife Bertha, who remains veiled in mystery during her scenes in the book. It is the novelís famous scene revealing Bertha on which Briefel focused. From a narrative standpoint, the importance of the revelation is enormous. Yet the character remains shrouded in mystery: she is kept locked behind a secret door covered over with a tapestry; she runs back and forth in deep shadow like a wild animal; her dark, grizzled hair obscures her face like a mane; her purple face and eyes of "red balls" are barely human.

How has film dealt with this scene? The most famous film version, from 1944, starred Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Filmed in black-and-white, the shadows of Thornfield Hall are deep, the concealment of the wife dark and mysterious. The revelation of Bertha is even more "veiled" in the film than it is in the novel. When Rochester enters the room, the audienceís point of view remains outside. The struggle between Rochester and the madwoman is seen only as a shadow projected on a wall. Rochester yells, "Look at the difference" between Bertha and Jane, yet the audience never sees Bertha at all.

A recent version of Jane Eyre that aired on cable TVís A&E network during the 1990s, starring Samantha Morton as Jane, depicts this scene very differently. In this version the viewer is brought right into the madwomanís room, and Bertha is seen clearly. The scene between Rochester and his mad wife is played more tenderly, the wife portrayed with sympathy. Unlike the scene in the 1944 version (and the book), Rochester demonstrates protectiveness and affection toward his wife. Why was the scene filmed so differently than it is written in the book, where Bertha is described as a fiendish animal, rising on its hind-feet? Merely a different directorís vision? Or could it be evidence of todayís more knowledgeable view of mental illness compared to the less enlightened days of the mid-nineteenth century?

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