Jane Eyre: Fairytale and realism

Professor John Bowen explains how Charlotte Brontë combines fairytale, Gothic techniques and realism to give Jane Eyre its unique power. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.

So, Jane Eyre in lots of ways, borrows from fairytales and folktales, so in some ways, Jane's story is like a Cinderella story – she's somebody who, she's low and she's despised and her richer relatives think nothing of her, but by the end of the story, she's married the handsome prince and he's not quite as handsome as he was at the beginning of the book. But still, it's got all those elements in it, but at the same time, it's also got another story which is the Bluebeard story, so Bluebeard is a man who keeps marrying a procession of virgin brides and killing them and then the last one in the sequence opens the cupboard door and finds the bodies of the previous wives. And, of course, Jane Eyre finds a secret hidden away in the house too of the previous wife – while she's not dead, but she's mad and deeply disturbing and distressing figure in the book. But you see the way that she draws on those two stories, but then also brings them together with much more realistic elements, you know the lack of food, the quite realistic descriptions of the school that she went to – they're all there in the early scenes and it's that brilliant bringing together of those two very different elements I think that so powers those novels and gives them this kind of both a deeply realistic sense, but also this mythical kind of power that enables them to speak to so many different places and times.

I think what Gothic enables them to bring to the novel, is a way of extending the emotional range and the kind of questions that it raises. So, theirs is a much more psychological Gothic in a way, so that it's a way of exploring strange states of mind, of not being sure of who you are, of uncanny moments and this is something called the New Gothic, which is this much more psychological kind, not in which the scary things are necessarily outside yourself, but somehow they're deep within yourself. So, one of the most interesting of those Gothic uses is the way that there's a lot of insecurity about identity in Jane Eyre. So, if you think early on, you know, when she's put in the red room, it becomes from being a quite naturalistic or realistic kind of place, something much stranger and weirder than that – it's like death, it's like the deepest kind of fears in your unconscious mind somehow come to haunt Jane at that moment and it is a novel with a lot of haunting in it. There's that moment when Jane seems to communicate telepathically with Rochester and when she calls out to him, she cries out to him, but also you see it in the characters too, so that there's a way in which although Bertha Mason is in some ways the opposite of Jane, she's also uncannily and strangely linked to her as well and that, I think, is something that draws quite deeply on Gothic tradition – the way that identity is never simple or stable or belongs uniquely to you and that constantly you might find doubles, or projections, or hauntings, or ghosts of yourself, popping up all over the place within the world. You remember the first time Jane Eyre meets Rochester – it's on a lonely road at night and he seems like a supernatural presence. It's like a Gytrash – well Charlotte Brontë learned about the Gytrash here in this very house and so already at the first meeting of two realistic modern people, he's already haunted by the possibility that there might be some supernatural force, something beyond them, just at the edge of their consciousness.

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