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Gothic Fiction as Exemplified by Jane Eyre

The Victorian Era which brought about a revival in Gothic expression can be characterized by its many internal contradictions. A time of intellectual, artistic and political progress, 19th century England was still very much committed to traditional values. Such values existed in direct contrast to the evolutions which were taking place within families, communities and the mind’s of progressive individuals. Author Charlotte Bronte may well be considered such an individual, provoking a great deal of discourse on the topics of gender and social equality during a historical era where such considerations were quite revolutionary.

Indeed, as in her classic literary exploration of these subjects, Jane Eyre, Bronte endeavors to convey the practicality of her sociological perspective as well as the inherent cruelty of any manner of social exclusion. By creating a character that is always the ‘other,’ whether it be amid the rich, the poor or even with the man she loves, Bronte renders Jane Eyre as an archetypal figure of the Gothic context and a sort of class-warrior by default. In her most formative experiences, the protagonist is presented as notably different than those who surrounded her, a core identifying trait of the gothic milieu.

Accordingly, Jane Eyre “is seen by some feminist critics as prime examples of Female Gothic, exploring woman’s entrapment within domestic space and subjection to patriarchal authority and the transgressive and dangerous attempts to subvert and escape such restriction. ” (Wikipedia, 1) Both by virtue of her inbuilt tendency toward nonconformist behavior–a product of her refined moral code–and the resultant habit of many around her to attempt to marginalize her, Jane becomes a champion of the irrelevance of class distinctions and gender inequality.

Orphaned by her modestly financed parents, Jane is raised in the house of her wealthy aunt and uncle. Her adopted parents enforce disdain amongst their biological children for their cousin, demanding that her lower social-class and her notably less formal demeanor be acknowledged through a separate standard of treatment. Her cousin articulates the conscious execution of exclusion, reminding Jane that “You have no business to take our books: you are a dependent, mama says; … you ought to beg, and not live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mama’s expense.

(Bronte, 11). Jane’s developing distaste for the world of money is not a spontaneous dogmatism but a freethinking response to the clear malice which is at the base of such economic elitism. “Jane’s relative isolation from given relationships results in a proud autonomy of spirit, one which in some ways implicitly questions the class-structure. ” (Bloom, 41) The Gothic genre is distinguished by figures that are cast thusly, heroic in the face of the ostracism drawn by their unique qualities.

This is not to imply, however, that she is afforded a greater latitude of sympathy from the poorer classes with whom her cousins associate her. We find that, consistent with the challenge of Gothic heroism, she must suffer as the theoretical ‘madwoman’ with no true context of social comfort. There is an ambiguity to her upbringing, raised as she is in abject distinction within the walls of a wealthy home. When she arrives at the Mason School and finds herself surrounded by the poor, she is still ostracized. It is not her specific social status so much as her separation from their’s which makes her the object of scorn.

“Not only do the inhabitants treat her as an outsider because she is one but also because she does not fit into any recognizable category. She begs food but is not a beggar. She looks like a lady but has no money. When she offers to trade belongings for food, they rebuff her. When she seeks employment, they answer her evasively” (Peters, 58) Here is the archetypal image of the Gothic heroine, whom the reader recognizes to possess some clarity and insight but whom the other characters perceive as isolated and socially problematic.

This is the misfit quality that distinguishes a gothic protagonist and likewise paints the lives of other characters with Gothic darkness. In Rochester, whom we will address with greater scrutiny here below, the novel is given the fitting Byronic hero, driven by romantic impulses and a good heart but tragically detained to the hoary Gothic villain in matrimony to Bertha. The so-called ‘madwomen in the attic,’ her channeling of the horrors of the human condition bespeak the Gothic tradition of interspersed romance and disgrace.

Likewise, in Rochester’s compelling admission to the fact of his wife’s existence and insanity, he illuminates the key themes of setting and disposition, telling that “I daresay you have many a time inclined your ear to gossip about the mysterious lunatic kept there under watch and ward. Some have whispered to you that she is my bastard half-sister: some, my cast-off mistress. I now inform you that she is my wife. ” (Bronte, 279) In addition to capturing the tragic complex which detained Rochester from Jane, we are introduced to the measure of insanity and her residency in the huge, frightening and cavernous Thornfield Hall.

The concept of the asylum is tantamount to a picture of Gothic isolation in distinctly dark setting. This is a physical distance and isolation which parallels the social isolation felt by Jane. Throughout the novel, Jane serves more than the simple purpose of decrying the excesses and the cold distance of the wealthy. Instead, as demonstrated by the cruelty of the poor and the resentment of servants who view Jane as failing to work for her share of even modest survival needs, Bronte has crafted a novel which aims its critique at the existence of social classes altogether.

An unusually egalitarian work for its time, the novel’s protagonist borders on the advocacy of socialism at times even as she is forced to live a life of some severely independent impetus. In this way, we find that among the causes for the revival of Gothic inclinations in literature by such Victorian authors was the urgency felt by figures such as Bronte to voice this protest. Likewise, we find that the romantic tendencies in Gothic fiction also win out.

With her affection for Rochester, Jane finds both inclusive comfort in a loving relationship and a fair share of tension from the social pressures surrounding it. Rochester’s elevated social class sparks a circumstance that seems inescapably critical of Victorian Era economic structures. At least, this is evident by Jane’s mixed feelings for the man. The relationship between Jane’s affection for the rich man and her sharply defined sense of ethical rightness bring about a conflict which Bronte encapsulates in the recurrent theme of prostitution.

“Many readers may read the novel Jane Eyre and believe that Bronte is following the moral values of the Victorian time period, by creating a character that is susceptible to the trade of prostitution but perseveres with her moral integrity to receive all that is justly hers, while degrading the immoral choices of dress and conduct of her counterparts which lead to their fall. ” (Zablocki, 2) Certainly, when she is at her lowest points, Jane still has the dignity to find fault with elaborate finery of Victorian whores.

In a later scene where Rochester attempts to dress her in fancy clothing, the protagonist reveals her personal association between the soulless marketing of flesh and the Victorian aristocratic emphasis on aesthetics and material rather than on social justice: “With anxiety I watched his eye rove over the gray stores: he fixed on a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin. I told him in a new series of whispers, that he might as well buy me a gold gown and a silver bonnet at once: I should certainly never venture to wear his choice.

With infinite difficulty, for he was as stubborn as a stone, I persuaded him to make an exchange in favour of a sober black and a pearl-gray silk. (Bronte, 266) Jane’s apprehension at being draped with Rochester’s extravagant gifts illustrates a distance which she feels even from a man with whom she is unrepentantly in love. The novel’s ultimate conclusion that social classes are merely distinctions used to preserve an imbalance of economic power is implicated in the emotional relationships which both pass and fail throughout Jane’s life.

Interestingly, this novel suggests as much about the author’s dilemma as it does about society’s at large. Above all, this is the marker of a true Gothic work. In denouement, Jane inherits her wealthy caretakers’ money, which she shares with her more gracious kin. After this occurs, she returns to Rochester and the two are married. In this resolution, there is the romantic suggestion that Jane’s ethical disregard for social class divisions is rewarded by her acquisition of wealth. Under that circumstance, it is difficult to conclude that the novel entirely rejects Victorian values, with Bronte being somewhat beholden to the luxuries thereof.

But by using Jane’s emotional distance from all of those with whom she interacts as a way to reflect class divisions, the novel is quite effective at demonstrating the social ills which can be their inevitable outcome. For its time and place, this registers as a murmuring of protest at least. Though not a revolutionary by nature, Jane’s social status is symptomatic of the gradual but important changes that were beginning to enter her world and which were thusly detailed in the Gothic works of the 19th century.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. (1987). Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. New York; Chelsea House. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed.Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996. Harris, R. (1998). Elements of the Gothic Novel. Virtual Salt. Online at http://www. virtualsalt. com/gothic. htm Peters, John G. (1996). Inside and outside ‘Jane Eyre’ and Marginalization through Labeling. Studies in the Novel. 28(1), 57-73. Wikipedia. (2008). Gothic Fiction-Victorian Gothic. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc. Online at http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Gothic_fiction#Victorian_Gothic Zablocki, Christie. (2003). The Fallen Social Class: Portrayals of Prostitution in Jane Eyre. University of Maryland. Online at <http://www. umd. umich. edu/casl/hum/eng/classes/434/charweb/zablocki2. htm>

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