Wednesday, June 9, 2010
NATURE VERSUS CIVILIZATION
Civilized society in Jane Eyre is the place in which women are not free to express their feelings and experience their desires without risking being declared mad. And yet Nature dictates, so Bronte ¨ seems to say, that women will have the same feelings, dreams, and needs for activity that men have. To underscore this point, the novel associates images of nature with ideas and events that place Jane beyond the bounds of acceptable feminine behavior. Images of nature in general and the moon in particular occur on several occasions when Jane experiences more emotion than a respectable Victorian woman should. The first association of moonlight with Jane’s excesses of emotion occurs when she is locked in the red room at Gateshead. There, as she becomes more and more frightened of the possibility that her uncle’s ghost will visit, she sees, or imagines seeing, a streak of light move across the wall. “Was it, I asked myself, a ray from the moon penetrating some aperture in the blind? No; moonlight was still, and this stirred: while I gazed, it glided up to the ceiling and quivered over my head” (13). Jane never finds out precisely what caused the light, but her association of it with the natural light of the moon introduces the idea of using images of nature to indicate feelings that are more in tune with nature than with societal expectations. Another image of moonlight follows Jane’s emotional speech about her need for more excitement and activity than her life has thus far provided. After she comes down from the roof, she goes for a walk under “the rising moon; pale yet as a cloud, but brightening momentarily” (132). While walking under this moon, she hears the beat of horse’s hooves and sees, suddenly coming into view, a large dog followed by a horse and rider. In this moment of passionate otherworldliness, she meets Mr. Rochester, her future husband, for the first time. It is not moonlight, but thunder and lightning that accompany Jane’s excess of emotion when Mr. Rochester proposes marriage. Her joy is as overwhelming as the storm itself, but the storm is also destructive: lightning strikes the large horse-chestnut tree, causing it to split in two. Mr. Rochester’s proposal is likewise destructive. He asks Jane to marry him because of his passion for her, but he knows that he cannot be truly married to her in the eyes of the church or the law. The divided tree represents his divided loyalties, “blasted” by the violence of his passion. When Jane leaves Thornfield, with no friend to go to and no job to support her needs, she decides that Nature, “the universal Mother,” is now her only friend (394). She sees Nature as “benign and good” and believes that she will protect her in her time of need (394). This “mother,” she believes, “would lodge me without money and without price” (394). She sleeps that night in the bosom of her mother, Nature, trusting her more than she has ever been able to trust mankind to take care of her. In the light of day, however, Jane realizes that Nature cannot and will not provide for all her needs. She must find a way to survive that acknowledges the civilized world of humanity as well as Nature. Thus, Jane goes back into society to look for a means of supporting herself. The final image of moonlight associated with extremes of emotion for Jane comes when, having almost given in to St. John’s demands to marry him, she hears Rochester’s voice calling to her, seemingly from across a mysterious void. Her feelings intensely affected, she notices that “the room was full of moonlight” (513). Moonlight, associated in folk traditions with the emotional depths of the soul, here suggests an almost supernatural connection with Jane’s deepest feelings for Rochester. Such depth of feeling was not something that a proper Victorian lady could admit to. In fact, having such depth of feeling was considered to be a sin against propriety for such a lady. Much of the criticism directed at the novel when it was first published was directed at Jane’s feeling and expressing such depth of emotion. Charlotte Bronte ¨ , in trying to create a strong female character who feels “just as men feel,” creates a novel that was considered downright dangerous by some readers, but with which multitudes of Victorian women could identify and approve (130).