Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
As the influential feminist critics, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan D. Gubar, have argued in The Madwoman in the Attic, this ‘red-room’ scene captures the tone and concerns of Jane Eyre in miniature. We’ve got the essence of the entire novel in some of its very first pages, even if we don’t know it yet.
This excerpt is from early in the novel when Jane is locked up by her aunt as punishment for fighting her bullying cousin, John. After reacting angrily to the ‘violent tyrannies’, Jane is imprisoned by hostile people who refuse to accept her intelligence and her personhood. Though she’s still a child, she forms very absolute character assessments and sees the world and its unfairness with total clarity: that is why she is so threatening to those with power. Over the course of the novel she must constantly tread this line: between being true to herself, the ‘strange little figure’ in the mirror, on the one hand, and conforming to the demands of a patriarchal society, on the other. How can a woman with limited resources break free in the nineteenth century, and make the case for what she deserves? What does it mean to use her voice? When will she stop feeling trapped?
When Jane Eyre was published in 1847 under the male pen name ‘Currer Bell’, a contemporary critic, Elizabeth Rigby, saw it as unacceptably rebellious, identifying within it, ‘the tone of the mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home’. Jane Eyre was apparently the product of a defiant, transgressive, and radical imagination—something that aligned Charlotte Brontë, in spirit at least, with a nineteenth-century working-class movement to secure voting rights for all men (Chartism). It was literature at its most unsettling.
This scene is equally important for its stylistic features. When Jane says she is writing ‘at the distance of—I will not say how many years’, she draws attention to the fact this isn’t happening in real time. Instead, the novel is a Bildungsroman, a life-story narrated by a character from a position of maturity. This means it is telling us something about the workings of Jane’s memory. What’s more, it has been constructed and crafted: Jane is making conscious decisions about what she does (or doesn’t) tell her reader. Quoting the ‘red-room’ scene to illustrate his point, George Henry Lewes, the partner of contemporary female writer, George Eliot, praised the novel for having ‘reality stamped upon almost every part’—including in its detailed descriptions of ‘houses, rooms, and furniture’. Jane Eyre is extremely attentive to setting. It considers how a character’s precise observations about her surroundings can reveal something about both her broad sense of self and more immediate state of mind. But if the ‘red-room’ scene gives us a glimpse of Brontë’s powers of realist description, it is also striking for its overt uses of the Gothic (death, faded grandeur, threatening weather, darkness, and the supernatural). This becomes even more pronounced as the novel continues: it’s a rich blend of realism, melodrama, and the supernatural. Jane Eyre works at all of these different levels, and that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating and continually relevant.
Some themes and questions to consider
- Narration: What do you think about how the story of Jane Eyre is told? – You might know the famous line from later in this novel: “Reader, I married him”, where Jane addresses the reader directly. Do you think this style of speaking straight to the reader works, or does it disrupt the narrative?
- Setting: What do you make of the way space is described here? Can characters be defined by their surroundings? Or vice versa?
- Trapped: you might think about the many ways that Jane experiences confinement here, and also how she imagines freedom. And why do you think it’s significant that the room is red?
Jane, an orphaned child living with her maternal uncle’s family after his death, to the family’s great annoyance, has finally defended herself against the cruelty of her cousin John Reed. She is being punished for the transgression.
“What we tell you is for your good,” added Bessie, in no harsh voice, “you should try to be useful and pleasant, then, perhaps, you would have a home here; but if you become passionate and rude, Missis will send you away, I am sure.”
“Besides,” said Miss Abbot, “God will punish her: He might strike her dead in the midst of her tantrums, and then where would she go? Come, Bessie, we will leave her: I wouldn’t have her heart for anything. Say your prayers, Miss Eyre, when you are by yourself; for if you don’t repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney and fetch you away.”
They went, shutting the door, and locking it behind them.
The red-room was a square chamber, very seldom slept in, I might say never, indeed, unless when a chance influx of visitors at Gateshead Hall rendered it necessary to turn to account all the accommodation it contained: yet it was one of the largest and stateliest chambers in the mansion. A bed supported on massive pillars of mahogany, hung with curtains of deep red damask, stood out like a tabernacle in the centre; the two large windows, with their blinds always drawn down, were half shrouded in festoons and falls of similar drapery; the carpet was red; the table at the foot of the bed was covered with a crimson cloth; the walls were a soft fawn colour with a blush of pink in it; the wardrobe, the toilet-table, the chairs were of darkly polished old mahogany. Out of these deep surrounding shades rose high, and glared white, the piled-up mattresses and pillows of the bed, spread with a snowy Marseilles counterpane. Scarcely less prominent was an ample cushioned easy-chair near the head of the bed, also white, with a footstool before it; and looking, as I thought, like a pale throne.
This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchen; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered. The house-maid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the mirrors and the furniture a week’s quiet dust: and Mrs. Reed herself, at far intervals, visited it to review the contents of a certain secret drawer in the wardrobe, where were stored divers parchments, her jewel-casket, and a miniature of her deceased husband; and in those last words lies the secret of the red-room—the spell which kept it so lonely in spite of its grandeur.
Mr. Reed had been dead nine years: it was in this chamber he breathed his last; here he lay in state; hence his coffin was borne by the undertaker’s men; and, since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion.
My seat, to which Bessie and the bitter Miss Abbot had left me riveted, was a low ottoman near the marble chimney-piece; the bed rose before me; to my right hand there was the high, dark wardrobe, with subdued, broken reflections varying the gloss of its panels; to my left were the muffled windows; a great looking-glass between them repeated the vacant majesty of the bed and room. I was not quite sure whether they had locked the door; and when I dared move, I got up and went to see. Alas! yes: no jail was ever more secure. Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers. I returned to my stool.
Superstition was with me at that moment; but it was not yet her hour for complete victory: my blood was still warm; the mood of the revolted slave was still bracing me with its bitter vigour; I had to stem a rapid rush of retrospective thought before I quailed to the dismal present.
All John Reed’s violent tyrannies, all his sisters’ proud indifference, all his mother’s aversion, all the servants’ partiality, turned up in my disturbed mind like a dark deposit in a turbid well. Why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, for ever condemned? Why could I never please? Why was it useless to try to win any one’s favour? Eliza, who was headstrong and selfish, was respected. Georgiana, who had a spoiled temper, a very acrid spite, a captious and insolent carriage, was universally indulged. Her beauty, her pink cheeks and golden curls, seemed to give delight to all who looked at her, and to purchase indemnity for every fault. John no one thwarted, much less punished; though he twisted the necks of the pigeons, killed the little pea-chicks, set the dogs at the sheep, stripped the hothouse vines of their fruit, and broke the buds off the choicest plants in the conservatory: he called his mother “old girl,” too; sometimes reviled her for her dark skin, similar to his own; bluntly disregarded her wishes; not unfrequently tore and spoiled her silk attire; and he was still “her own darling.” I dared commit no fault: I strove to fulfil every duty; and I was termed naughty and tiresome, sullen and sneaking, from morning to noon, and from noon to night.
My head still ached and bled with the blow and fall I had received: no one had reproved John for wantonly striking me; and because I had turned against him to avert farther irrational violence, I was loaded with general opprobrium.
“Unjust!—unjust!” said my reason, forced by the agonising stimulus into precocious though transitory power: and Resolve, equally wrought up, instigated some strange expedient to achieve escape from insupportable oppression—as running away, or, if that could not be effected, never eating or drinking more, and letting myself die.
What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection! Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question—why I thus suffered; now, at the distance of—I will not say how many years, I see it clearly.
I was a discord in Gateshead Hall: I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children, or her chosen vassalage. If they did not love me, in fact, as little did I love them. They were not bound to regard with affection a thing that could not sympathise with one amongst them; a heterogeneous thing, opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt of their judgment. I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child—though equally dependent and friendless—Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently; her children would have entertained for me more of the cordiality of fellow-feeling; the servants would have been less prone to make me the scapegoat of the nursery.
Daylight began to forsake the red-room; it was past four o’clock, and the beclouded afternoon was tending to drear twilight. I heard the rain still beating continuously on the staircase window, and the wind howling in the grove behind the hall; I grew by degrees cold as a stone, and then my courage sank. My habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression, fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire. All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so; what thought had I been but just conceiving of starving myself to death? That certainly was a crime: and was I fit to die? Or was the vault under the chancel of Gateshead Church an inviting bourne? In such vault I had been told did Mr. Reed lie buried; and led by this thought to recall his idea, I dwelt on it with gathering dread. I could not remember him; but I knew that he was my own uncle—my mother’s brother—that he had taken me when a parentless infant to his house; and that in his last moments he had required a promise of Mrs. Reed that she would rear and maintain me as one of her own children. Mrs. Reed probably considered she had kept this promise; and so she had, I dare say, as well as her nature would permit her; but how could she really like an interloper not of her race, and unconnected with her, after her husband’s death, by any tie? It must have been most irksome to find herself bound by a hard-wrung pledge to stand in the stead of a parent to a strange child she could not love, and to see an uncongenial alien permanently intruded on her own family group.
A singular notion dawned upon me. I doubted not—never doubted—that if Mr. Reed had been alive he would have treated me kindly; and now, as I sat looking at the white bed and overshadowed walls—occasionally also turning a fascinated eye towards the dimly gleaning mirror—I began to recall what I had heard of dead men, troubled in their graves by the violation of their last wishes, revisiting the earth to punish the perjured and avenge the oppressed; and I thought Mr. Reed’s spirit, harassed by the wrongs of his sister’s child, might quit its abode—whether in the church vault or in the unknown world of the departed—and rise before me in this chamber. I wiped my tears and hushed my sobs, fearful lest any sign of violent grief might waken a preternatural voice to comfort me, or elicit from the gloom some haloed face, bending over me with strange pity. This idea, consolatory in theory, I felt would be terrible if realised: with all my might I endeavoured to stifle it—I endeavoured to be firm. Shaking my hair from my eyes, I lifted my head and tried to look boldly round the dark room; at this moment a light gleamed on the wall. Was it, I asked myself, a ray from the moon penetrating some aperture in the blind? No; moonlight was still, and this stirred; while I gazed, it glided up to the ceiling and quivered over my head. I can now conjecture readily that this streak of light was, in all likelihood, a gleam from a lantern carried by some one across the lawn: but then, prepared as my mind was for horror, shaken as my nerves were by agitation, I thought the swift darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world. My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort. Steps came running along the outer passage; the key turned, Bessie and Abbot entered.
“Miss Eyre, are you ill?” said Bessie.
“What a dreadful noise! it went quite through me!” exclaimed Abbot.
“Take me out! Let me go into the nursery!” was my cry.
“What for? Are you hurt? Have you seen something?” again demanded Bessie.
“Oh! I saw a light, and I thought a ghost would come.” I had now got hold of Bessie’s hand, and she did not snatch it from me.
“She has screamed out on purpose,” declared Abbot, in some disgust. “And what a scream! If she had been in great pain one would have excused it, but she only wanted to bring us all here: I know her naughty tricks.”
“What is all this?” demanded another voice peremptorily; and Mrs. Reed came along the corridor, her cap flying wide, her gown rustling stormily. “Abbot and Bessie, I believe I gave orders that Jane Eyre should be left in the red-room till I came to her myself.”
“Miss Jane screamed so loud, ma’am,” pleaded Bessie.
“Let her go,” was the only answer. “Loose Bessie’s hand, child: you cannot succeed in getting out by these means, be assured. I abhor artifice, particularly in children; it is my duty to show you that tricks will not answer: you will now stay here an hour longer, and it is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you then.”
“O aunt! have pity! Forgive me! I cannot endure it—let me be punished some other way! I shall be killed if—”
“Silence! This violence is all most repulsive:” and so, no doubt, she felt it. I was a precocious actress in her eyes; she sincerely looked on me as a compound of virulent passions, mean spirit, and dangerous duplicity.
Bessie and Abbot having retreated, Mrs. Reed, impatient of my now frantic anguish and wild sobs, abruptly thrust me back and locked me in, without farther parley. I heard her sweeping away; and soon after she was gone, I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene.
Find the full text of Jane Eyre at Project Gutenberg.
The Writer and her Family
Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë started conjuring and sharing stories very early in their lives. This shared creativity reached its extraordinary conclusion in the late 1840s, while the family was based in Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire: Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, was quickly followed by Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Charlotte’s second novel, Shirley (1849), was written in the shadow of tragedy, as Branwell, Emily, and Anne succumbed to tuberculosis. They died within months of each other. Charlotte went on to publish Villette in 1853; The Professor (1857), drafted before Jane Eyre, finally appeared in print after her own death.
‘The mood of the revolted slave was still bracing me with its bitter vigour’, Jane says. It might feel like a fleeting reference here, but the figure of the enslaved person haunts the novel. In fact, Jane Eyre is a good example of a much wider trend in Victorian literature: some of the best-known novels of this period register the existence of the colony and the plantation in ways that are troubling, surprising, and complex in turn. For a fascinating exploration of the geopolitical struggles in which the central characters of Jane Eyre are implicated, readers could turn to Wide Sargasso Sea, a 1966 historical novel by Jean Rhys that is largely set in Jamaica and Dominica. Jane Eyre continues to capture the imagination and invite new interpretations.
Charlotte Brontë resources from Great Writers Inspire
Introduction to Charlotte Brontë with links to videos, audio discussions and articles.
Jane Eyre translated: 57 languages show how different cultures interpret Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel
An article by Matthew Reynolds on translations of the novel. Find our more about the Prismatic Jane Eyre translation project.
The Victorian Gothic
An introduction to the Victorian Gothic genre from Great Writers Inspire.
The Madwoman in the Attic
Learn more about The Madwoman in the Attic as part of an introduction to feminist criticism by Great Writers Inspire.
Charlotte Brontë’s Literary Relationships with other Writing/Writers
Articles from The Victorian Web.
‘Jane’s Interior Design’ in Karen Chase’s book, Eros and Psyche
Read the Google preview of Chapter 3 of Chase’s book (‘Jane’s Interior Design’) in which she explains how ‘Few novels are as spatially articulate as Jane Eyre’.
The Brontë Cabinet
Excerpt about Charlotte, her sister Emily, and their different approaches to their writing, featuring discussion of their writing desks.
National Theatre Production of Jane Eyre
Watch clips from the play.
About the Contributor
Dr Ushashi Dasgupta is Associate Professor of English and the Jonathan and Julia Aisbitt Fellow at Pembroke College, where she teaches literatures in English from 1760 to the present day. Her research interests lie in nineteenth-century fiction. Her first book, Charles Dickens and the Properties of Fiction: The Lodger World, was published by Oxford University Press in May 2020.