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The references to Roman figures in Jane Eyre are few but very effective. Charlotte Bronte uses allusions to Nero, Caligula, and Messalina that on the surface appear to be quite simple. However, with further investigation and analysis, it is very clear these simple references are anything but. The first Roman allusion occurs in chapter one in reference to John Reed. Comparing him to Nero and Caligula serves many functions. First, it illustrates just how cruel he is in the eyes of Jane. Second, it foreshadows numerous things about John Reed including his early demise, his frivolous spending, and his lascivious behavior. Another Roman reference occurs much later in the novel. When Rochester is describing the terrible time he went through in finding a wife, he makes a reference to Messalina. The reference alludes to the type of wife Bertha was, and insinuates she was promiscuous. The easily glanced over allusions tell a great deal about the characters they refer to.
The first Roman allusion occurs in chapter one, during Jane’s confrontation with John Reed. After catching her reading a book, he reminds her that she is only a dependant and not of the same class as himself, and that she ought " . . . not live with gentlemen’s children . . ." (23; ch. 1). Then, he picks up the book and throws it against her head, causing her to fall, hit her head, and start bleeding. Young Jane shouts, "Wicked and cruel boy! You are like a murderer – you are like a slave-driver – you are like the Roman emperors!" (23; ch. 1) Jane then tells the reader: "I had read Goldsmith’s ‘History of Rome,’ and had formed my opinion of Nero, Caligula, etc. Also, I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud" (23; ch. 1). It is those "parallels" that are vital to understanding Bronte’s reference to Roman emperors, and specifically Nero and Caligula. Comparing John Reed to those figures is a shorthand way of saying a lot about his character, and more importantly, it is a clue to what is to become of him.
Goldsmith’s account of Nero and Caligula is important in understanding why John Reed is likened to them. According to Goldsmith, Caligula was arrogant, greedy, and cruel (365). He had many vices and hurt everyone around him.
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Jane, having read Goldsmith’s book, finds many similarities between John and the cruel emperors. John is very pompous. He is similar to Caligula, whose " . . . vanity and profusion soon gave rise to other [cruelties], which were more atrocious, as they sprang from less powerful motives" (Goldsmith 366). Jane has clearly studied Goldsmith’s account of Caligula and Nero, and feels her cousin is synonymous with them. John’s striking Jane with the book has no justification. He is angry to find a "dependant" reading things he himself did not or could not read being " . . . not quick either of vision or conception" (22; ch. 1). He is not in school, and it appears the only thing he can do with a book is to throw it. This act, however, helps further explain his being likened to Caligula. Looking at the situation from any perspective, having a book thrown at a ten-year-old child’s head is cruel. However, looking at it through Jane’s perspective, having a book thrown at her from across the room is probably the harshest and most vile thing she can imagine. She is hurt, she is cut, and she is bleeding. What’s worse, however, is she has done nothing to warrant such behavior. These Roman references, within the context of the scene, are very important in understanding the situation. However, in regards to future events in the novel, they are much more important.
Comparing John Reed to Caligula and Nero foreshadows the excessive spending that eventually leads to his downfall. The first time John Reed’s conduct with money is discussed occurs when Bessie visits Jane at Lowood. She informs Jane about the current condition of the Reed family and lets her know that "Mr. John’s conduct does not please [Mrs. Reed] – he spends a deal of money" (99; ch. 10). This type of behavior is consistent with Nero and Caligula. In fact, " . . . after reigning about a year, Caligula found his revenues totally exhausted" (Goldsmith 371). Clearly, as the eldest son, he has now begun to exercise some control over the family wealth. Unfortunately, he has not made much of himself; Bessie explains he was expelled from college and is not much of a man at all (99; ch. 10). This event appears to be the beginning of the end for his pitiable life.
The last time John Reed is mentioned in the novel helps to fully explain Bronte’s earlier references to Nero and Caligula. While working for Rochester, Jane received a sudden visit from Mrs. Reed’s coachman, who informs her that John Reed is dead (222; ch. 21). Keeping in mind the earlier references to Caligula and Nero, this news is not shocking. He was not doing well for a while, and according to the coachman:
He could not do worse: he ruined his health and his estate amongst the worst men and the worst women. He got into debt and into jail: his mother helped him twice, but as soon as he was free he returned to his old companions and habits. His head was not strong: the knaves he lived amongst fooled him beyond anything I ever heard. (222; ch. 21)
This event was foreshadowed in chapter one of the novel when John Reed was compared to Caligula and Nero. Both rulers had harmed many people and spent a lot of money; their deaths were inevitable. They had both exhausted the patience of people who were of closest relations to them. In fact, Goldsmith even regarded Nero’s death as a blessing, and says that even in death, he was a " . . . ghastly spectacle of innoxious tyranny" (413). He then highlights Rome’s "rejoicing" upon his death (Goldsmith 414). Similarly, John Reed had worn out his mother’s kindness. She had helped him numerous times, but her patience and money had run out. It is believed that John, like Nero, took his own life. Just as the Roman emperors fell because of their misuse of power and money, so did John Reed. However, John Reed is not the only character criticized or compared to a corrupt Roman figure.
Bronte’s other Roman reference occurs much later in the novel when Rochester compares Bertha to Messalina. According to Goldsmith, Messalina was a horrible woman. She was ruthless and avarice, and " . . . she put no bounds to her enormities" (Goldsmith 386-87). She used her influence to further herself, and there were no "bounds" to how far she would go. Goldsmith synonymies her name with words like "insatiable," "lewd," and "vicious" (387). Most importantly, however, Goldsmith stresses her infamous adultery; her bigamy, her incessant lust, and her cruelty made her despised by most (Goldsmith 388-389). Therefore, Rochester’s comparison of Bertha to Messalina is severe. Because of its harshness, this allusion indicates numerous things about Bertha’s past and many potential causes for Rochester’s disgust.
After Jane discovered Rochester’s secret marriage, he had to explain everything and try to justify his actions. In defending himself, Rochester paints a very negative picture of his wife, Bertha. After they were married, he began to find many flaws in her. He tells Jane "I was not sure of the existence of one virtue in her nature: I had marked neither modesty, nor benevolence, nor candour, nor refinement in her mind or manners . . ." (301; ch. 27). She lacked a single virtuous quality. In fact, her very "nature" repulsed him, and he found " . . . her tastes obnoxious . . ." (302; ch. 27). He said that speaking to her was difficult because " . . . whatever topic [he] started, immediately received from her a turn at once coarse and trite, perverse and imbecile . . ." (302; ch. 27). This is the key to understanding why Rochester calls Bertha his "Indian Messalina" (307; ch. 27). Something in Bertha’s "obnoxious tastes" and "perverse" behaviors sickens Rochester.
Bronte never specifically states what these perversions are, leaving it to the reader to uncover what a reference to Messalina could mean.
There are many reasons for comparing Bertha to Messalina, but only one really explains Rochester’s repulsion. Bertha’s bad temperament, cruelty, and greed are all possible reasons. Another is knowing that Jane is well educated and comparing Bertha to Messalina, a woman whose name is synonymous with evil behavior, would earn Rochester pity from Jane (who has reason to dislike Bertha who’s an obstacle in her way). However, none of these reasons seem strong enough based on the language of the novel. Instead, Bertha’s sexuality appears to be the most likely reason that Rochester is so appalled by her. This is never made explicit in the text because according to Regina Barreca in "Coming and Going in Victorian Literature," "Victorian literature for the most part veils any sexual relation inside the domestic union and so readers must judge from the evidence of Taboo sexual behaviors provided by adulterous, or at the very least adventurous, figures" (3). In Victorian times, sex in general was not commonly written about and "Taboo sexual behaviors" were "veiled" to avoid public scrutiny. The way that Rochester describes Bertha shows that she must have been into uncommon sexual practices such as bestiality, lesbianism, or anal or oral sex. He describes her as "perverse." Perverse is a word associated with someone into disgusting or unorthodox behaviors. He also describes Bertha as a "wild beast," further indicating that he sees her as less than normal (305; ch. 27). It is never stated, and therefore a reader can only conjecture why Rochester is so disgusted by Bertha. However, all the diction seems to indicate that Bertha was a sexual deviant, and many present day views of Bertha see her as an adulteress, a hypersexual, and even an evil fairy.
The Roman allusions in Jane Eyre are very important because they are markers for the reader to be aware of. It is essential for a reader to realize that such references are not random. In the novel, the references provide vivid details about the characters and foreshadow events to come. Also, they allow the author to imply things that she may otherwise be unable to do so. Charlotte Bronte’s comparison of Bertha to Messalina, for example, helps allude to Bertha’s possible promiscuity without ever mentioning sex. This is very important, especially to a female author writing in a time when sex in literature was taboo. However, Bronte cleverly avoids breaking societal rules, and provides readers with allusions that make things more clear, but also leaves the reader wondering: Was Bertha really as corrupt as Messalina? Questions like this force a reader to investigate the text with greater detail and make the author’s words much more important.
Barreca, Regina. "Introduction: Coming and Going in Victorian Literature." Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. Ed. Regina Barreca. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 1-8.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford, 1996.
Goldsmith, Oliver. The History of Rome, from the Foundation of the City of Rome to the Destruction of the Western Empire. London, 1823.