Nature Imagery and Themes in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

Nature Imagery and Themes in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

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    Charlotte Bronte makes use of nature imagery throughout Jane Eyre, and comments on both the human relationship with the outdoors and human nature.  The Oxford Reference Dictionary defines "nature" as "1. the phenomena of the physical world as a whole . . . 2. a thing's essential qualities; a person's or animal's innate character . . . 4. vital force, functions, or needs."  We will see how "Jane Eyre" comments on all of these.

        Several natural themes run through the novel, one of which is the image of a stormy sea.  After Jane saves Rochester's life, she gives us the following metaphor of their relationship: "Till morning dawned I was tossed on a buoyant but unquiet sea . . . I thought sometimes I saw beyond its wild waters a shore . . . now and then a freshening gale, wakened by hope, bore my spirit triumphantly towards the bourne: but . . . a counteracting breeze blew off land, and continually drove me back."  The gale is all the forces that prevent Jane's union with Rochester.  Later, Brontë, whether it be intentional or not, conjures up the image of a buoyant sea when Rochester says of Jane: "Your habitual expression in those days, Jane, was . . .  not buoyant."  In fact, it is this buoyancy of Jane's relationship with Rochester that keeps Jane afloat at her time of crisis in the heath: "Why do I struggle to retain a valueless life? Because I know, or believe, Mr. Rochester is living."

 

        Another recurrent image is Brontë's treatment of Birds.  We first witness Jane's fascination when she reads Bewick's History of British Birds as a child.  She reads of "death-white realms" and "'the solitary rocks and promontories'" of sea-fowl.  We quickly see how Jane identifies with the bird.  For her it is a form of escape, the idea of flying above the toils of every day life.  Several times the narrator talks of feeding birds crumbs.  Perhaps Brontë is telling us that this idea of escape is no more than a fantasy -- one cannot escape when one must return for basic sustenance.  The link between Jane and birds is strengthened by the way Brontë adumbrates poor nutrition at Lowood through a bird who is described as "a little hungry robin."

        Brontë brings the buoyant sea theme and the bird theme together in the passage describing the first painting of Jane's that Rochester examines.

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  This painting depicts a turbulent sea with a sunken ship, and on the mast perches a cormorant with a gold bracelet in its mouth, apparently taken from a drowning body.  While the imagery is perhaps too imprecise to afford an exact interpretation, a possible explanation can be derived from the context of previous treatments of these themes.  The sea is surely a metaphor for Rochester and Jane's relationship, as we have already seen. Rochester is often described as a "dark" and dangerous man, which fits the likeness of a cormorant; it is therefore likely that Brontë sees him as the sea bird.  As we shall see later, Jane goes through a sort of symbolic death, so it makes sense for her to represent the drowned corpse.  The gold bracelet can be the purity and innocence of the old Jane that Rochester managed to capture before she left him.

 

        Having established some of the nature themes in "Jane Eyre," we can now look at the natural cornerstone of the novel: the passage between her flight from Thornfield and her acceptance into Morton. In leaving Thornfield, Jane has severed all her connections; she has cut through any umbilical cord.  She narrates: "Not a tie holds me to human society at this moment."  After only taking a small parcel with her from Thornfield, she leaves even that in the coach she rents.  Gone are all references to Rochester, or even her past life.  A "sensible" heroine might have gone to find her uncle, but Jane needed to leave her old life behind.

 

        Jane is seeking a return to the womb of mother nature: "I have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose."  We see how she seeks protection as she searches for a resting place: "I struck straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag protected my head: the sky was over that."  In fact, the entire countryside around Whitecross is a sort of encompassing womb: "a north-midland shire . . . ridged with mountain: this I see.  There are great moors behind and on each hand of me; there are waves of mountains far beyond that deep valley at my feet."

 

        It is the moon, part of nature, that sends Jane away from Thornfield.   Jane narrates: "birds were faithful to their mates."  Seeing herself as unfaithful, Jane is seeking an existence in nature where everything is simpler.  Brontë was surely not aware of the large number of species of bird that practice polygamy.  While this fact is intrinsically wholly irrelevant to the novel, it makes one ponder whether nature is really so simple and perfect.

 

        The concept of nature in "Jane Eyre" is reminiscent of Hegel's view of the world: the instantiation of God.  "The Lord is My Rock" is a popular Christian saying.  A rock implies a sense of strength, of support.  Yet a rock is also cold, inflexible, and unfeeling.  The second definition listed above for "nature" mentions a thing's "essential qualities," and this very definition implies a sense of inflexibility.  Jane's granite crag protects her without caring; the wild cattle that she fears are also part of nature. The hard strength of a rock is the very thing that makes it inflexible. Similarly, the precipitation that makes Jane happy as she leaves Thornfield, and the rain that is the life-force of everything in the heath, is the same precipitation that led her to narrate this passage: "But my night was wretched, my rest broken: the ground was damp . . . towards morning it rained; the whole of the following day was wet."  Just like a benevolent God, nature will accept Jane no matter what: "Nature seemed to me benign and good; I thought she loved me, outcast as I was."  Praying in the heather on her knees, Jane realizes that God is great: "Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had made: convinced I grew that neither earth should perish, nor one of the souls it treasured."

 

        Unsurprisingly, given Brontë's strongly anti-Church of England stance, Jane realizes at some level that this reliance on God is unsubstantiated: "But next day, Want came to me, pale and bare."  Nature and God have protected her from harm, providing meager shelter, warding off bulls and hunters, and giving her enough sustenance in the form of wild berries to keep her alive.  It is Jane's "nature," defined above as "vital force, functions, or needs," that drives her out of the heath.  In the end, it is towards humanity that she must turn.

 

        Nature is an unsatisfactory solution to Jane's travails.  It is neither kind nor unkind, just nor unjust.  Nature does not care about Jane. She was attracted to the heath because it would not turn her away; it was strong enough to keep her without needing anything in return.  But this isn't enough, and Jane is forced to seek sustenance in the town.  Here she encounters a different sort of nature: human nature.  As the shopkeeper and others coldly turn her away, we discover that human nature is weaker than nature.  However, there is one crucial advantage in human nature: it is flexible.  It is St. John and his sisters that finally provide the charity Jane so desperately needs.  They have bent what is established as human nature to help her.

 

        Making this claim raises the issue of the nature of St. John – has he a human nature, or is he so close to God that his nature is God-like? The answer is a bit of both.  St. John is filled with the same dispassionate caring that God's nature provided Jane in the heath: he will provide, a little, but he doesn't really care for her.  We get the feeling on the heath, as Jane stares into the vastness of space, that she is just one small part of nature, and that God will not pay attention to that level of detail.  Similarly, she says of St. John: "he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuing his own large views."  On the other hand, St. John exhibits definitely human characteristics, most obvious being the way he treats Jane after she refuses to marry him.  He claims not to be treating her badly, but he's lying to himself: "That night, after he had kissed his sisters, he thought proper to forget even to shake hands with me, but left the room in silence."  What is important here is that St. John is more human than God, and thus he and his sisters are able to help Jane.

 

        From the womb, Jane is reborn.  She sees the future as an "awful blank: something like the world when the deluge was gone by."  She takes a new name, Jane Elliott.  With a new family, new friends, and a new job, she is a new person.  And the changes go deeper than that.  The time she spent in the heath and the moors purged her, both physically and mentally.  Jane needed to purge, to destroy the old foundations before she could build anew.

 

        It is necessary to examine these scenes of nature in the context of the early to mid nineteenth-century.  This was of course the time of the Industrial Revolution, when as Robert Ferneaux Jordan put it, there was "a shift from the oolite, the lias and the sand to the coal measures. What had been the wooded hills of Yorkshire or Wales became, almost overnight, a land of squalid villages and black, roaring, crowded cities.  Villages and small country markets became the Birminghams and Glasgows that we know." They were draining the fens and the flats.  For Brontë, this posits the heath in "Jane Eyre" as something dated, the past more than the future. Jane therefore must leave it in order to remake herself.

 

        Another aspect of nineteenth-century England relevant to nature in "Jane Eyre" was the debate over evolution versus Creationism.  Though Darwin didn't release "On the Origin of Species" until 1859, the seeds were already being sown; indeed, there's speculation that Charles Darwin's grandfather adumbrated some of Charles' theories.  Lamark was the principle predecessor of Darwin in terms of evolutionary theory.  Though he turned out to be completely wrong, he and others provided opposition for the Creationists of the first half of the nineteenth century.  One of evolution's principles is "survival of the fittest," and this is exactly what happens to Jane in the heath.  Her old self is not strong enough, and must die.  The new Jane she is forging is a product of natural selection. In fact, Jane is echoing the victory of evolution over Creation by the fact that it is humans who save her, and not God.

 

Works Cited and Consulted

Beaty, Jerome. Misreading Jane Eyre. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1996.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1991

Bronte, Charlotte. "Charlotte Bronte's Letters". New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971.

David Lodge, Fire and Eyre: Charlotte Brontë's War of Earthly Elements

Gates, Barbara Timm, ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

 

Jane Eyre. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsborough, and Anna Paquin. 1996

 

Jane Eyre. Dir. Julian Aymes. Perf. Timothy Dalton, Zelah Clarke. 1983

 

Kadish, Doris. The Literature of Images: Narrative Landscape from Julie to Jane Eyre. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1986.

 

McLaughlin, M.B. "Past or Future Mindscapes: Pictures in Jane Eyre." Victorian Newsletter 41 (1972): 22-24.
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