Jane Eyre Critical Review
Jane Eyre Burns With Fire
Jane Eyre is the story of a governess who falls in love with the master of Thornfield Hall. Charlotte Bronte’s story is filled with symbolism, though none so powerful or prevalent as fire. In Jane Eyre fire represents passion, anger and sexual attraction.
One of the most memorable scenes in the book is when Jane Eyre finds that Mr. Rochester’s bedclothes have been set on fire with Mr. Rochester still in the bed. Jane is quick to extinguish the flames and wake Edward Rochester.
The symbolism in this scene is rampant. Although the fire is originally blamed on a servant named Grace Poole, Jane and readers later learn the true firestarter is Bertha Mason, Edward Rochester’s Wife.
According to Rochester, his marriage to Bertha did not come about after long conversations and courting. He married Bertha without knowing much about her because of his sexual attraction to her. Upon marriage though Rochester states that:
Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste (771).
In other words, she cheated on him numerous times and everyone knew it. Her cheating, her passion for sex, supposedly increased the speed of her descent into madness. Bertha was passionate but locked in a society that demanded her passions be hidden, repressed or reserved solely to be shared with her husband. She is the equivalent of fire, because at one point what Rochester felt for her set his bed on fire. She was later locked away as a madwoman, but her intensity or power are never questioned.
When Jane faces the prospect of marriage to missionary St. John, she gets a sense of what Bertha Mason had potentially experienced:
But as his wife — at his side always, always restrained, and always checked — forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital — this would be unendurable (1032).
In that way, Jane may become like Bertha Mason, locked up because her passions cannot be released. However, it is unlikely Jane thought that deeply into it.
So when Bertha Mason sets fire to Rochester’s bed she could easily be objecting to Rochester’s attraction to Jane, making it clear she is still around, and foreshadows Rochester’s possible future—burning in hell for the sake of passion. It also foreshadows the anger Jane and Edward both feel, when it is revealed that Rochester is already married, though their anger is for very different reasons. In a way she also transfers her nature to Jane in the few minutes it takes Jane to extinguish the real flames and the metaphorical ones between Bertha and Rochester. As she extinguishes those flames, she kindles new, metaphorical flames between herself and Rochester.
The second fire scene is when Bertha catches Thornfield Hall on fire. As Jane is told by a former butler that worked for Edward Rochester’s father, Bertha “made her way to the chamber that had been the governess’s–(she was like as if she knew somehow how matters had gone on, and had a spite at her)–and she kindled the bed there; (1084)”
The fire destroys Thornfield Hall. Bertha commits suicide by jumping off the roof. Mr. Rochester lost his sight and one hand in the fire, but he lives.
This fire, like the last, is full of symbolism. This fire is a symbol of how sex ruined a home. Should Rochester not have married Bertha, he could have married Jane. If Jane hadn’t found out about Bertha, she wouldn’t have left and ripped their hearts asunder. The fire leaves the house and the lives who lived in it, a ruin, much like the passion shared between Bertha and Edward and Edward and Jane did. It’s a symbol of Jane’s abandonment of Rochester, their broken relationship and the passion that continues to burn even after Jane leaves.
Fire is a symbol of passion, anger and sexual attraction in Jane Eyre. The passion and the anger felt between three people trapped in a painful love triangle that has become a classic novel. Charlotte Bronte uses the symbolism of fire to tell a great story about a governess who falls in love with the master of Thornfield Hall.