Charlotte Bronte makes frequent use of symbolism in Jane Eyre. A number of repeated images are utilized, partially as a means to bring together a narrative of immense generic variety. The following analysis focuses on Bronte’s use of fire and ice imagery, exploring the symbolic attributes of these images, and how they are employed in several scenes throughout the text. The excerpts are from the Oxford World’s Classics 2000 edition of the novel.
There is a dichotomy in the narrative between the representations of fire and ice. Fire is frequently associated with passion and rebellion, evident in the following extract, where the young protagonist reflects on the state of her mind after she has railed against her aunt’s mistreatment: “A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring, would have been a meet emblem of my mind when I accused and menaced Mrs. Reed” (1, 4, p.37). Yet when the fire has died down, the same ridge is described as being “black and blasted after the flames are dead” (1, 4, pp.37-8). Coldness is often associated with isolation and desolation in the text.
Jane feels angry towards her aunt due to the woman’s unjust treatment of her. From the first chapter she is shown to be isolated from the Reed household. Images of fire and ice are invoked in this scene where the protagonist sits alone at her casement window. She is excluded from the rest of her adoptive family and the warmth of the fireside. Bronte describes only panes of glass “protecting, but not separating” (1,1, p.8) her heroine from the cold and windy November afternoon.
The ‘death-white realms’ depicted in the illustrations of Bewick’s History of British Birds, of which Jane is reading, further serve to exemplify the icy imagery and elaborate on the coldness theme. These pictures are also significant in that they foreshadow certain events much later in the story, including Jane’s lonely wanderings around the Yorkshire moors after her flight from Thornfield. The “forlorn regions of dreary space” (1, 1, p.8) amplify the protagonist’s own sense of desolation and her desire for a home which accepts her.
Whereas ice imagery is used to symbolize Jane’s own inner sense of loneliness and desolation, fire is figuratively employed to illustrate the heroine’s rage at her maltreatment. When she is locked in the red-room, Jane observes how the room is chilly due to its fireplace being seldom used. She describes herself growing “by degrees cold as a stone” (1, 2, p.16). When she awakens in the nursery at the beginning of the next chapter, she relates “a terrible red glare, crossed with thick black bars” (1, 3, p.18) to the reader. Although it transpires that this is only the nursery fire, when this section is viewed alongside the previous scene, where the protagonist brooded on her situation within the Reed household, it becomes apparent that this is an early instance of Bronte using images of fire to portray her heroine’s anger.
At Gateshead, Jane’s rage culminates with her outburst against Mrs. Reed, prior to being sent to Lowood School, and although she subsequently learns to restrain her ardent nature, the theme of anger against injustice and its expression through fire, continues throughout the narrative, albeit at a more subdued level. When Jane is working as a governess, an important section relates her pacing backwards and forwards along Thornfield’s third storey, reflecting on her restless disposition. In this scene fiery imagery is associated with ambition, as Jane feels restricted by her current vocation.
The nature of Bronte’s descriptions of her heroine’s environment is frequently determined by Jane’s emotional states. A scene which aptly illustrates this quality occurs after Jane learns that Rochester is already married. Whilst contemplating the midsummer prospect from her bedroom window at Thornfield she relates how “ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hay-field and corn-field lay a frozen shroud” (2, 11, p.295). The heroine’s dejected state of mind is outwardly represented through Bronte’s wintry symbolism. Her descriptions recall the snowy Arctic wastes of Bewick’s book.
Several readings of Bronte’s novel, especially those which have adopted a feminist standpoint, have identified a thematic connection between the heroine and Rochester’s mad wife. They consider Bertha to be the physical manifestation of Jane’s psychological rage. Bertha’s deranged violence is literally expressed with fire, both when she attempts to set fire to Rochester’s bed, and when she burns down Thornfield. This contrasts sharply with Jane, whose rage is expressed through figurative depictions of fire.
As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that there is a juxtaposition of passion and reason. Fire and ice imagery play a symbolic role in the representation of these qualities. Jane’s two potential suitors, Rochester and St. John, are juxtaposed in the qualities that they embody. Rochester is closely aligned with fire, with his impassioned and reckless nature, whereas St. John is likened to ice, with his disposition of cool reasoning and emotional detachment.
Jane undergoes an intense mental turmoil regarding her feelings for Rochester after she has discovered he is already married. When she agonizes over either accepting his offer as mistress, or departing Thornfield, she describes how it felt like “a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning!” (3, 1, p.315). At this stage in the story Bronte implies that it would be inappropriate for Jane to accept Rochester’s current proposal. The narrative suggests that Rochester must redeem his dissolute position if he and Jane are to marry. The physical damage he suffers through his attempts to save Bertha could be viewed as him undergoing a baptism of fire. Jane and Rochester’s final union therefore could be regarded as a resolving of passion and reason.