We must first distinguish between the above options. ‘Landscape’ seems more restrictive to terms of geography than ‘environment’, which, as the focus of this essay, I am interpreting as referring to physical surroundings and their effect in creating intangible environmental aspects of the social, spiritual, and atmospheric. Ostensibly this could include certain elements of landscape, and I will be discussing some brief relevant descriptions in the context of environment as a more holistic concept.
So to what purpose does Bronti?? put her description of environment in Jane Eyre? According to Delia da Sousa Correa, we are made aware from the offset of the novel of the ‘intense relationship… between the description of external conditions and the portrayal of individual thoughts and feelings’ which ‘establishes Jane’s consciousness at the centre of the narrative’. How each ‘external description conveys Jane’s… feelings’ and also how they foreshadow later events and settings.
Bronti??’s use of imagery and symbolism in her description of environment is integral to the novel. She uses the setting to further the reader’s appreciation of Jane’s inner feelings, physically expressing, complimenting, and intensifying her emotions. The autobiographical first person narrative style of Jane speaking directly to the reader means that all descriptions are from Jane’s perspective, and her emotional state influences the language she employs and her use of metaphor and simile.
We must remember that she is actually recounting events from ten years hence; her time at Gateshead and Lowood are an adult’s recollection of events. The chronological attribute of ‘Bildungsroman’ novelistic style as employed by Bronti??, allows Jane’s personal and emotional development to be regarded in conjunction with her surroundings at five key stages in the novel: Gateshead Hall, Lowood School, Thornfield, Moor House and Ferndean. These five key settings represent different stages in Jane’s development: as a child, girlhood, adolescence, maturity and fulfilment.
Different environments at progressive stages in the novel are contrasted or offered as alternatives to prior settings, her escape or flight from one place to another is analogous to her search for identity, for somewhere she can feel and be herself. Each environment places Jane as an ‘outsider’. They all show a commonality and a progression: she is trapped in one way or another all the way through the novel until her release at the end. Jane Eyre was written and set at a time when women’s position in society was a subservient one.
It was not acceptable for a middle-class woman to earn her own living; she was expected to marry. Governess was therefore an awkward position to hold, as she was considered neither a servant (because of her class), nor a proper young lady. Jane is an advocate for her sex, growing up in a society that doesn’t value her skills. The different environments in turn imprison and constrict her, but eventually enable her to grow and endure. There is a real feeling of ‘no going back’ echoing progressive socio-political thought.
In fact, Jane only goes back twice in the novel – from Thornfield to Gateshead, to visit Mrs Reed and from Moor House to Thornfield, when she searches for Rochester. Key themes in the novel are closely linked to and represented through environment, and the different settings become quite inseparable from their association with key characters. Jane’s feelings of personal isolation can be closely related to her surroundings; she is alone at Gateshead and Thornfield, albeit surrounded by society. At Lowood, Brocklehurst attempts to ostracise her and she loses her first real friend, Helen Burns.
Ironically, the setting at Marsh End is geographically isolated and more evocative of the loneliness associated with St. John’s chosen life of self-denial, but Jane finds solace there, at least for a while. Finally, Ferndean is equally set apart from society and the world, hidden away, just as Rochester has removed himself from the world’s view. The theme of religion is dealt with quite negatively throughout the novel, and is one with which Jane finds herself involved at each of the locations. Lowood School is described as an institution, where she is subject to the religious oppression of Brocklehurst.
In comparison, Thornfield is a centre of extravagance, her entrance to the world of society and meetings, where she meets Rochester, a man who wants to reform morality for his own convenience. Of course, at Moor House, she must resist the unstoppable religious self-sacrifice of St. John Rivers. Each setting is dominated by a different tone. At Gateshead the tone is passionate, superstitious and wild, reflecting the narrative focus on Jane as a child – irrational and rebellious. The impact of the house is oppressive; it is not Jane’s home.
The opening scene is one of isolation in the midst of a busy familial setting, where Jane is partitioned by a curtain, a reoccurring theme in the novel. The Gothic is especially predominant is Bronti??’s description of the red room. The crypt, or cell-like environment foretells Jane’s future experiences. There are allusions of anger, inflammation and passion, of Bertha’s imprisonment and of the fire at Thornfield. At Lowood the tone is cold, hard and restrained. At this point in the novel, Jane is introduced to the reality of the world; the constraints placed upon women by men in society and also to death.
With all it’s rules, Lowood is oppressive on a larger scale, but still a release from Mrs Reed and a chance for Jane to develop. However, all is not to be as Jane hopes, the porridge, which looked so good but was inedible, is symbolic of Lowood being far from the happiest years of Jane’s life. Miss Temple’s room, and Jane’s rock in the stream alone provided safe haven. Through Lowood, Bronti?? highlighted issues of child abuse, and the failings of the period scholastic system. Bronti?? makes harsh social criticism, as Lowood is investigated and the old regime dismissed.
Likewise, the religious principles propounded by Brocklehurst and embodied by Lowood are shown to be a mockery, when Brocklehurst’s family visit in all their finery. Thornfield is closely associated with Rochester and the Romantic and Gothic genres. The tone is personal and symbolic, and the narrative veers between being rapid and restrained as Jane is torn between her passion and self-control. Thornfield represents Rochester in terms of its hidden secret and eventual destruction. There were happy times for Jane there though, for example, Rochester’s proposal in the orchard.
This itself is an Edenic setting, but we know what happened in the Garden of Eden – original sin – and the overtone is ominous as the storm breaks. Ultimately, it is not just Bertha’s cell that is her prison – it is the whole house. Rochester’s secret has pervaded every corner. The house becomes a shrine to the Gothic, in it’s corridors, upper floors, ramparts and forbidden places. Much of the action happens at night, when the house is in shadow and every sound is amplified by Jane’s imagination, indeed the house and grounds at Thornfield provide Jane with many bad omens.
The episode with the candle prophesising the fire, the ghostly vision of Bertha with the veil and the emphatic image of the split Chestnut tree. When whole, Rochester proposes under it and it provides shelter, then the lightening storm splits it, symbolic of the rift between Jane and Rochester. At Moor House Jane finds sanctuary, but the tone once again becomes stifling and oppressive. She is finally ‘free’ and among equals, but not yet whole. She owes her saviours and is controlled by St. John. In one scene at Moor House we see Bronti??’s clever combining of Realism and the Gothic, in St. John’s psychological manipulation of Jane and Rochester’s disembodied voice.
The difference between Moor House and Thornfield is also representative of the differences between St. John and Rochester: meagre self-denial Vs extravagant indulgence. As an educational setting, it is contrasted sharply with Lowood. Jane enjoys learning German, ‘Hindostanee’ and other subjects. Likewise, at the Morton schoolhouse cottage Jane finds not freedom and self-reliance but what is instead a kind of stifling imprisonment of her senses.
A drastic change from the grandeur of Thornfield, the simplicity of her surroundings allows her mind to wander, and she makes the mistake of doodling her real name, which St. John seizes upon. At the end, Moor House is to be lost too, but it is here that Jane is first empowered to have a direct influence on her surroundings, and it is she alone that saves it. Ferndean Manor House, in its natural setting, is desolate, hidden and overgrown, with nothing to distinguish the house from the trees. A thoroughly sad, but real setting, built of iron and granite, no flowerbeds, just hard and inaccessible, like its owner.
Everywhere is gloomy and in twilight, just as Rochester is unable to see the light. But Jane takes him out from the gloom, into the fresh air of a new day. These scenes are reminiscent of the orchard at Thornfield. They sit on a tree stump (the shattered Chestnut) and Rochester finally proposes to Jane for a second time. Ferndean is a setting where Jane genuinely feels at home, in large part due to the presence of a reformed Rochester. She now owes Rochester nothing; in fact her depends on her.
She has all she wants, independence and equality, Rochester’s respect as well has his love and her moral sense is satisfied. As a result of this we can see a pattern, from Gateshead and Thornfield to Lowood and Moor House, the novel swings from the irrational to the rational. This reflects the internal divisions in Jane’s character, until she finally finds fulfilment at Ferndean. It is important to acknowledge the way in which Bronti?? uses descriptions of setting not only to create atmosphere, but also to advance the novelistic genres of realism and the Gothic.
As Heilman puts it, ‘the grim… forest surrounding Ferndean is more than a harrowing stage-set when it is also felt as a symbol of Rochester’s closed in life’ (Heilman, Charlotte Bronti??’s ‘New Gothic’ Regan 2001 p. 213). Bronti?? does much to further the Realism genre in her descriptions of ‘houses, rooms and furniture’ (Lewes; da Sousa, Realisms p. 97). Bronti?? does not allow Jane Eyre’s Romantic/Gothic style to colour her descriptions though; she is concerned with social issues and does not allow the genres of Romance and the Gothic impinge overly.